A coffee klatsch atmosphere and the opportunity to master new skills have proved a workable combination for a Juneau women's support group.
Homeless women, or those at a personal or medical crossroads, have found the benefits of companionship, a healthy lunch, crafts and light exercise at Life Ring. The nonprofit group celebrates its third anniversary in January.
Two years ago, Life Ring gave Bonnie Turner of Douglas a new lease on life. "For me, Life Ring was a life ring," said Turner, who suffers from depression and fibromyalgia, a chronic condition characterized by fatigue and pain.
"I hadn't lived in Juneau very long and didn't know people," Turner, 54, said. "I was kind of down, so it was an effort to go the first time. But I learned to bead some simple earrings. I discovered that I liked it, jumped in with both feet and now do what I'm told is 'very nice beadwork' - which I have been selling.
"Going on a regular basis got me out of the house, socializing with other people, and gave me a life," she said. "It meant a lot to me."
Kathee Hays, a 16-year resident of Juneau, founded Life Ring while searching for something of value to do with her retirement. A chance encounter with a woman sitting by herself after Mass galvanized her into action.
"When I asked her how she was doing, she couldn't answer the question," Hays said. "She looked away and after a long pause asked me a question in return. She was homeless and very afraid because she had not been in this situation before and found the streets of Juneau unsafe. She was concerned about her health and had no support network. She didn't ask me for anything; she just talked and I listened."
Hays talked to dozens of local service agencies about community needs. The result was Life Ring, which debuted Jan. 4, 1999, in the Mary Joyce Room of the Cathedral of the Nativity. She describes it as a program for "low-income and homeless women, women wanting to join the work force who needed something positive to do with their day."
Hays said, "It started out slowly, but within a couple of months, we were feeding 22 women."
Clients typically are suffering from isolation, low self-esteem or medical problems.
"Many have had the door of society slammed in their face again and again, either because of poor education or an abusive home situation," she said.
The women range from teen-agers to those in their 80s. Activities offered include problem-solving, networking, field trips, cooking lessons, resume-writing, hair cuts and sign language. Hays estimates the group has helped 150 women.
Odette Foster, a quilter since 1988, has been teaching the group quilting for 14 months.
"We got people acquainted with enough basic skills that they could start making quilts and table runners," Foster said. "When family members were given full quilts, that was very satisfying. Seeing the pride of the women as they learn to make things and take joy in it is a pleasure for me. The lines blur between instructor and student, and it's very friendly."
Alberta, who asked the Empire to use only her first name, began attending two years ago when she was having medical problems. She took to quilting: "I just got into it, although I never thought I would do any sewing. I love it!"
Women stitch fabric Christmas ornaments, create beaded "cages" for tree ornaments or beaded bags, Alberta said.
"You can do whatever you want," she said. "Life Ring is a place of gathering. It's somewhere to go when there is nowhere to go."
Life Ring meets from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. every Tuesday in the basement of the cathedral, at the corner of Fifth and Gold streets. Call 586-1513 for details. Donations of fabric, sewing machines, birthday cakes, passes to events and cash are welcome.
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