Guest blog by Shirley Walker for Centers for Women in Transition
Sister Lee Ann McNally, RSM, deals in tough love. That tough love is the cornerstone for the women she helps through the Center for Women in Transition, where she serves as executive director. It’s a mission she has been on since 2005, and since that time, more than 1,800 women have received services from the center. The center helps women get back on track following incarceration. This success continues every day with classes taught by Sister Lee Ann, Ann Prosper and other volunteers. The classes are held regularly in county jails, at the Little Rock office, at Recovery Centers of Arkansas and at Hawkins prison.
Before establishing the Center for Women in Transition, Sister Lee Ann was the director at Sophia’s Center and focused on spiritual enrichment for attendees. From this experience, she visited women detained in county jails to bring them the spiritual services they could not receive on their own. After beginning several classes, she was invited by Sgt. Robin Ballard to come to the jail more often. Sister Lee Ann accepted the offer, stating, “If we can help these women develop some sort of self-respect, then that’s a reward to me.”
Accepting this new opportunity gave birth to the Center for Women in Transition, or CWIT. From balancing a checkbook to job skills, Sister Lee Ann teaches these women how to get back on their feet and function productively in society. More important than teaching a skill set, though, she provides emotional support and a stabilizing force most of them have not experienced in quite some time, if ever. She teaches classes on anger management, relapse prevention and general life skills. She is a shoulder for them to lean on when they encounter a setback. The expectations that she sets help them accomplish their goals. She gives her clients tough love, and they love her for it. “I’m in their faces when I need to be and they know that,” she says.
Raised in Gulfport, Miss., and the oldest of nine children, Sister Lee Ann was a straight-A student who attended Catholic schools taught by Sisters of Mercy. At 19, after completing her first year of college, she entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1965. She spent much of her career teaching in schools in Louisiana and Arkansas. She says that when she joined the Sisters of Mercy, “We were given a choice to be a teacher or be a nurse—take your pick. I chose teaching.” She earned a degree in history and English from Maryville University in St. Louis and has since earned two master’s degrees—one in secondary education from Loyola University in New Orleans and a second in pastoral studies from Loyola University in Chicago. She says, “I knew from the beginning that being a teacher was what I was called to be.”
CWIT’s annual fundraiser “Amazing Journeys” highlights the journeys the women have taken with Sister Lee Ann’s guidance to transition back to a productive life. The event is the organization’s signature fundraiser. Having grown significantly over the past several years, the event provides a light dinner, entertainment and a live and silent auction. This year’s Amazing Journeys will be held from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16 at Argenta Community Theater in North Little Rock. THV’s Denise Middleton will be the emcee, and the Bflats will provide live music. Tickets are $50 per person and may be purchased by calling the CWIT office at 501.375.5522.