Sister Joan Foley hopped out of bed before sunrise. It had been two years since she had visited her "baby,'' and she rode the train to the Philadelphia airport Tuesday morning wide-eyed excited.
Meanwhile, in a small converted house on Main Street in New Port Richey, employees and volunteers buzzed over the return of the 80-year-old nun whose uncommon vigor and lifelong service to the poor and needy convinced one longtime admirer she has "a direct line to the BIG ONE.''
"She is a remarkable woman,'' added Barbara Letvin, who has spent months planning Saturday's 20th birthday bash for Connections, the nonprofit organization Sister Joan started in the back office of an abandoned Catholic church. Her mission: help people find jobs and regain their self worth.
Sister Joan has plenty to do these days running the thrift shop for the Medical Mission Sisters at their U.S. headquarters in Philadelphia. But returning for this particular milestone was important.
It's been a tough year as Connections has been flooded with clients, many desperate to hold onto their homes and feed their families during a recession that has produced double-digit unemployment. Counselors and volunteers watched helplessly as the governor whacked their state funding. Their director left for another job.
But as Sister Joan made her way up from the Tampa airport and reveled in the hugs of many admirers at her old digs, she offered every reason to believe the future is rosy. The loss of $100,000 in state funds has forced the agency to be creative, seeking grants from businesses and expanding the size of the bustling thrift shop in the Davis Plaza on U.S. 19 just north of Main Street.
"We train people to be self-sufficient,'' she said, "we need to be the same.''
It also helps to have a 20-year perspective.
Sister Joan had already made her mark as a missionary long before she landed in New Port Richey. She had spent 16 years in Pakistan, teaching medical skills to men in Rawalpindi until they could run the clinic themselves. She had opened a primary care clinic in a poor, rural area of North Carolina. And in 1987, her order assigned her to St. Petersburg and the legendary Sister Margaret Freeman, who founded the Free Clinic and many other social service programs.
Sister Joan witnessed so many clients coming in for free care but worried that they could never become self-sufficient without jobs. She wanted to start a job development arm of the Free Clinic, but Sister Margaret rejected the idea. "They were already taking on so much,'' Sister Joan recalled.
So she started driving an hour to New Port Richey every day to work at the Pasco County Health Department. Meanwhile, she searched for a way to accomplish her goal. "I always felt like God would help me work it out, as long as there was the inspiration.''
She got active at Our Lady Queen of Peace, which had earlier moved out of its original building for a larger, modern church. The old wooden structure, the first Catholic church in west Pasco dating back to 1918, sat vacant on Washington Street. Father Aiden Foynes said she could use its small office to get started.
"It was old, hot, decrepit,'' Sister Joan recalled. "The paint was peeling. But it was a start.''
Some years later, the West Pasco Historical Society would move the old church to Sims Park. Sister Joan, meanwhile, would get a grant from Pasco County to move into the house on Main Street where clients now gather regularly for free job counseling. She secured funds from the United Way and private donations. As you might imagine, it was hard to tell Sister Joan "no.''
In this 20th year, more than 1,000 people have come through the Connections door. They learned computer skills and how to market their strengths on a resume. They got one-on-one counseling, access to fax machines. Some got free clothing at the thrift shop so they could make a better presentation at job interviews.
Most important for the agency, Sheila Krautner came out of retirement in October to run the place. She had worked 16 years with Sister Joan as an employment counselor and remained as a volunteer board member after leaving the staff five years ago. She walked into the job uncertain about funds and worried about Pasco's prolonged economic slump — but full of hope and buoyed by her mentor.
On Tuesday afternoon, Krautner and her husband, George, sat together near the closet he calls an office. George, a retired semiconductor engineer, agreed to handle the agency's budget. "I'm a full-time volunteer,'' he said with a laugh.
At 67, Sheila never thought she'd go back to work. But she knew how much this place means to Sister Joan. "I came back because of my respect for her,'' she said.
Sister Joan, who left Connections in 2008, will head back to Philadelphia after the big party Saturday night. She has a thrift shop to run. As for the next assignment, she's uncertain.
"Everybody wants to die with their boots on,'' she said. "At least I do.''