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Solitude at Stella Niagara a welcome respite


Sister Diane Gianadda holds a multimedia artwork created by a participant in the Women's Respite Program. (Charles Lewis/Buffalo News)

By Scott Scanlon – Refresh Editor

Sister Diane Gianadda gets lots of help with the Women’s Respite Program at the Stella Niagara Center of Renewal in Lewiston, a program that’s the subject of this weekend’s “In the field” feature in WNY Refresh.

The program is multifaceted, receives money from individual donors as well as foundations, and has picked up volunteers, friends and well-wishers from across the region in its quarter-century history. It’s mission is to give mostly low-income woman a breather from their lives for a few days near a stretch of quiet Niagara River shoreline.

Gianadda, director of the program, has taken on more responsibility in recent years helping with the administration of her religious order, the Sisters of St. Francis, and has turned to Teresa Maciocha to coordinate the respite program and handle many of the day-to-day demands.

Here’s more on the program that I couldn’t’ fit into the print edition, including a reprise of a couple of questions I asked her for Refresh:

How did the women’s respite program start?

When I was working (as a therapist) with Catholic Charities, my work took me into the homes of some very stressed low-income women. I could see that a lot of needs were not being met. Therapy can only do so much and parenting education can only do so much.

I was working with a mom on the East Side of Buffalo who was cooped up in her home all summer with four children. Dad was in jail for having abused a couple of the kids. She didn’t want the kids to go outside because the neighborhood was so dangerous. I was letting her know I wouldn’t see her for a week because I was going on a vacation. When she responded to me by saying, ‘I wish I could have a vacation,’ I was struck with the lack of fairness and justice in this situation.

While I needed my vacation, she needed it 1,000 times more. There was no way for her to ever get out of that place and get some rest and relaxation. I worked with hundreds of people like that, so when I left Catholic Charities, I had some time and space to think about this. Because the headquarters of my congregation is up at Stella Niagara, I thought this place would be ideal to invite women. We want to share our place with other people, and the people who needed to get away would be served well at a place like that.

Along with activities you do with the program, you also have a simple morning prayer?

I have no idea what kind of religious background these women come from, but I know that most of them come with some sort of connection with either a church or spiritual life, and many of them have commented on God helping to get them through hard times.

Do you have any other programs?

Ten, 12 years ago, one of the women said, ‘We need a program for grandmothers who are raising their grandchildren,’ ... so now we have a weekend every year for grandmothers in the spring. That’s really helpful for women who sometimes feel like they’re alone. They were not planning on raising another family and for some unforeseen circumstances they do not want their grandchildren to go into foster care.

We also started a program for women with cancer, . A weekend program, usually in February or March. That program spans income. ... What really bonds them together is the common experience of having a cancer diagnosis. Some are in treatment, some early diagnosed. Some are post-treatment. It’s safe, it’s clean, it’s quiet. It’s simple. It’s not luxurious.

In November  is our spaghetti dinner fundraiser at St. Leo’s church (in Amherst).

This program is run by grants and donations, so every year we’re writing grants, every year we’re looking for donations. Our donations run from a few thousand dollars to $2. In winter. We also have an alumnae weekend so that women who’ve attended before can come back. And we have women who have attended the program join on the coordinating committee so they can help run our program. Our goal is to have the women take some leadership in the program, so they do a lot of different tasks: Setting it up, driving. One of my best helpers has been helping for 25 years.

Some of them say, ‘This is my place to get away, to refresh, to renew.’"

Another thing we do on weekends is we have Playback Theater, which is wonderful. Playback Theater is an improvisational group, local. They come to our program and invite people to share a story about a significant event in their lives. The woman will tell the story and they’ll act it out. It’s a very powerful way of visually expressing an important event. They range from heart wrenching to humorous. It’s kind of therapeutic.

What are the eligibility guidelines for those looking to participate?

For the summer program for moms, low income between the ages of 25 to 45, not actively abusing drugs or alcohol. This is not a therapy workshop, it’s a vacation. Low-income for the grandmothers, too. For the cancer group, women with low incomes are given priority but we take other women, too. They’re all referred by agencies or doctors.

Talk about the number and types of volunteers.

We have some professional helpers. We do provide a small stipend for them. People who come and do arts and crafts, Reiki, message, reflexology. We’ve had a hairdresser come for our cancer weekend and do haircuts. Volunteers drive the women. We have people who bake us treats. The Buffalo Zonta Club support us financially and with all sorts of treats. We have a clothing boutique for the woman. We have these wonderful volunteers who set it up. It looks like Macy’s when we’re done. We have very nice clothing and the women get a 100 percent discount. They can take whatever they like for themselves and their kids. And that takes work.

And then we have the Sisters at Stella Niagara. Many of them are retired. That’s where we have our health center and retirement house, so for many of the weekends, I pair up one sister with a woman guest and the sister prays for her that weekend, and her family.

We have volunteers to help with our family dinner.

There are a lot of good people who help with something like this.

How is the program funded?

Fundraising is always a challenge. We can provide a weekend vacation with all these experiences, room and board, for under $300. That’s pretty spectacular when you think of the good you can do.

We do get funding from the Susan G. Komen Funding Grant for the Cure, the Mercy Circle of Giving, Buffalo Zonta. They’ve stuck with us for years. The Riefler Fund. They’re among the loyal donors.

What do you see as the greatest challenges women, particularly mothers, face these days?

I don’t know. There’s just so much. With the women in our respite program, a lack of support from partners. Limited resources, whether it’s financial or education or employment. Lack of support from friends. And because of their poverty, trying to navigate what they call ‘the system:’ Pubic assistance, schools. Many of them have children with some kind of learning deficit, so they’ve got to navigate the school system, the health care system, the public assistance system. They’re complex systems and to negotiate these things sometimes requires resources they don’t have. Being poor is very difficult.

To donate, or for more info on the Women’s Respite Program, visit, email or mail a check made out and sent to the program at 1301 Ferry Ave., Niagara Falls,  NY 14301.


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