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About 50 single mothers gathered Saturday in the peaceful serenity of the Stella Niagara Education Park, overlooking the scenic shores of the lower Niagara River, the place where many turned their hectic lives around.

The women came to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Women's Respite Program, a "vacation retreat" effort dedicated to providing relief from the rigors of everyday life for overstressed, low-income women who might not otherwise find it.

The program was started by Sister Diane Gianadda, OSF, a social worker in Buffalo's inner city who all too often encountered single moms with resources too limited to allow for anything more than a few minutes away from the kids.

"They never had the opportunity to get away, to take some time for themselves," Sr. Gianadda said. "They were under a lot of stress in trying to raise their families alone and with limited resources."

Candidates are referred to Sr. Gianadda by community agencies such as Head Start, Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army and Family and Children's Services. Sr. Gianadda, in turn, offers a brief respite.

"I did the program in the summer of 1995," said Tonawanda resident Kathleen Stauffer. Then 32, in ill health and with a rambunctious 5-year-old, Ms. Stauffer was in desperate need of a break.

"I was a single mom, the (father) was not paying child support and my health was real bad," she explained. "I was stressed out. I needed a vacation really bad."

She gladly accepted Sr. Gianadda's offer of a four-day, three-night retreat at Stella's Center for Renewal.

"I was a little hesitant at first," she recalled. "Things like that just don't come around. It sounded too good to be true.

"I was like, at a dead end, at a standstill. I went there and it gave me the boost I needed. Now I am a Girl Scout leader and I want to become more involved with kids."

By mixing with women in similar situations, Ms. Stauffer got to see that "I wasn't so bad. All these other women were in the same predicament. It made me feel I was not the only one out there. It was really nice just to get away from the same old same-old."

Sr. Gianadda's program offers "the opportunity to have fun and relax," she said. Participants can swim at the center's indoor pool, do arts and crafts, attend a performance at Artpark, ride the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls, even get a massage and a cosmetic makeover.

"Most importantly, they have an opportunity to get some rest, away from the children for a while, and meet some other women in the same boat," Sr. Gianadda said.

"As far as I know, it's the only program of its kind in the area," she said. "There are a lot of summer camps for kids, but not for moms."

Participants need only provide their own child care -- and Sr. Gianadda gives them Tops gift certificates with which to pay the sitters.

The sister estimates that the program -- offered twice yearly for about 25 women per session -- costs about $250 per person.

"It's been run for 10 years entirely on grants and donations," she said. "It is run by the good will of other people."

Grants and donations come from the likes of the Maria Love Fund, the Bissonette Foundation, the Joy Foundation, the Campaign for Human Development, Zonta, the Ladies of Charity, the Sisters of St. Francis and the Episcopal Churches of Niagara County.

Sometimes, single moms can feel "there is no outlet out there," Ms. Stauffer said.

"They go to the program and it gives you that. It's wonderful. You just relax -- you don't have to worry about anything. You don't even have to do the dishes. You get to be a kid again, and the sisters are like your mother.

"I can't praise (Sr. Gianadda) enough. It is a big turnaround for a lot of people."

The program offers "such a departure" for the women, said Vickie Suitor, warden at St. John's Episcopal Church in Youngstown. "Many are single mothers from depressed areas, and she made the program just so they can get out of those conditions" for a short time.

"Some women just read, some go off by themselves. It's not really spiritual, it's just a wonderful opportunity."

To donate to the Respite Program, or to refer a needy single mother, call the Francis Center at 282-3783.

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