It was the Friday Morning of spring break when I found myself being guided around a neighborhood in Queens by a nun with a thick New York accent. Sister Tessa is the leader of the nonprofit Hour Children, with a focus to help incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and their families. The passion that she has for her work is evident even in the few hours we spend wandering around her neighborhood. We stop to talk with a woman, a mother who was released from prison years ago. She is understandably shy, having been introduced to a large group of strangers from across the country, but Sister lovingly encourages her to tell us about herself and the role that she plays at Hour Children’s daycare facility. We wish the woman the best and continue on. As we walk away, Sister Tessa tells us about the woman’s journey at Hour Children with motherly affection. We have similar encounters with many others on our walk, including staff members, children, and after school tutors. Sister Tessa’s intentionality and the genuine care that she exhibits toward every individual she comes into contact with is something that I will remember for a long time.
My name is Carson Schneider, and I am a junior Biology major. I am a fan of all forms of basketball, running by the river, and re-watching How I Met Your Mother on Netflix. My Gonzaga experience, like many others, is one that has taken me places I never would have expected. This is a place where you can really get your feet wet. The University has programs, connections, and partners all over the world that are open to students with drive enough to pursue them. In the Spring of 2014 I became involved in the Opus Prize Foundation. Each year Opus partners with a different Catholic university, which happens to be Gonzaga this year. An annual one million dollar prize is awarded to an unsung humanitarian, tackling one of the world’s foremost social justice issues, by the Opus Prize Foundation. Two annual $100,000 prizes are also awarded. In April two other students, myself and a professor flew to New York to assist in the vetting of Sister Tessa as one of the finalists for the 2014 Opus prize.
A common theme that I heard on our visit to Hour Children was that the organization is one that allows the women to be able to pick themselves up. I didn’t truly understand the implications of that statement until our group phone call with Janine Geske. Janine is a retired Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who is now on the board for the Opus Prize Foundation. We talked about the people she had met and their stories, and shared how she admired the strength and courage of those she has served. Janine expressed that had she been in those situations, she doubts that she would have been able to escape the cycle. The real power of Hour Children is that it gives women a chance to change their lives, who otherwise might be “left in the cycle.” The desire to turn things around is the necessary first step for an incarcerated woman, but Hour Children is an organization that provides the community and structure necessary to do so; Janine’s story is enough for me to understand how powerful that is.
This is the kind of thing that Gonzaga students get to learn from and share about on campus. It is moments like walking around in Queens with Sister Tessa that bring my Gonzaga experience full circle. We as a University profess to be men and women for and with others- part of the Opus Prize vetting trip for me was redefining what that means. In college we are supposed to ask the tough insightful questions. On the New York trip we observed and participated in doing just that. At its core, college is about learning, and at Gonzaga you’ll be presented with many opportunities to do that in places you wouldn’t expect.
Editor’s note: Gonzaga hosts this year’s Opus finalists on campus October 14-16, 2014, with the Opus Prize Awards Ceremony on April 16 at 7pm at the Fox Theatre in downtown Spokane. Free tickets will be available to students through the Crosby Information Desk in October. Find out more about Gonzaga’s collaboration with the Opus Prize Foundation this year at www.gonzaga.edu/opusprize.