“While she’s been in this program, Audrey has been able to accomplish a lot,” said Velazquez. “This is low-income housing, so financially her and her family have benefited from the low rent, and the case management services. This is not your typical housing program where you just pay your rent. They have to be involved with case management.

“She has had a lot of support over the years from different case managers, to help her get her (Social Security income), to help her get into several different programs like literacy services,” she added.

While Velazquez admits that Fraylon still has a lot to do when it comes to getting back on her feet, she has come a long way from where she had started, the same as other people seeking assistance had before her.

Ministry works with poor, marginalized

According to the SET Ministry Web site, the organization was born as a program of the Wheaton Franciscan System in March 1985. It was a response to a mandate from a general chapter of the Wheaton Franciscan Sisters for its corporations to more actively execute a “preferential option for the poor.”

Laurie Laehn, CEO of SET Ministry for nearly two years, said the decision was made to implement the proposal in Milwaukee.

“The sisters identified a need for a citywide social service agency, and what I really mean by that as distinct from a community center or an after-school program, or a school itself, which is essentially serving one single neighborhood. So, they wanted to try to address the needs of people on a citywide scale,” she said.

They realized that many families living within the Milwaukee area were inclined to experience more violence, and often used the emergency room for their primary medical care.

“This was when crack babies were really kind of at their peak, or maybe growing toward their peak, and so there was a lot of concern on the part of the sisters – who for the most part are nurses – and a lot of community nurses and parish nurses,” Laehn explained. “A lot of concern on the part of the sisters that families living in poverty needed more support than what they were getting in the community.”

Ministry is model of collaboration

As proposed, SET Ministry was to be a demonstration model of collaboration that could be replicated elsewhere with the belief that collaboration would result in greater effectiveness than individual efforts. The ministry was to be with and among the poor and marginalized, according to its mission statement.

“They reached out to other communities of priests and nuns who (were) operating in the Milwaukee area, and invited them to form a collaboration,” Laehn explained, adding that 17 accepted.

“So, 18 religious orders essentially govern SET Ministry, and then they each appoint a representative so those priests and nuns can kind of form a super board of directors, if you will, and they oversee the mission and values of SET, and they actually elect the board of directors, which includes a lot of people from the community.”

Through 25 years of service, much remains the same

Laehn said that while SET Ministry has grown greatly during its 25 years of community service, not much else has changed, and she considers that a good thing.

“When it first began, it was primarily the program we call ‘Family Empowerment,’ which was providing family support to families living in poverty, and that was done in the home, it was a home-based visiting program,” she said.

Caseworkers make regular home visits in order to build trusting relationships with each family member, as is the case with Fraylon. Through these visits, caseworkers encourage families to set realistic goals in the areas of housing, health, education and employment.

According to SET Ministry’s 2009 annual report, 80 percent of the families served through the “Family Empowerment” program improved or maintained parenting skills in the areas of health care, school participation and quality family time.

“Over the years SET has grown from one office to 20 offices now, and most of those are located inside public housing developments. So, we have a strategic partnership with the Housing Authority of the city of Milwaukee, and also with the Milwaukee County Department on Aging,” Laehn explained.

In addition to public housing, Set Ministry has a number of offices in non-public schools and also employs the home visiting approach which allows them to deliver service “where people live,” she explained.

SET Ministry has a number of programs to help those living in poverty, such as Family Empowerment, Children with Special Health Care Needs, and Project Restore, which serve formerly homeless residents living in apartment units by assigning staff members to help them acquire the services to move toward greater health and financial stability.

Founder reflects on program’s rewards

While running SET Ministry has been a huge undertaking, Mary Naber, founder and first CEO of the organization, knows firsthand the rewards received from the people they help. She became involved with SET Ministry to serve others. Later, watching individuals and families move from despair to hope, to achievement of self-goals and seeing them break down societal barriers, was more than enough reasons to keep working for them.

“There were stories often written by observers,” she responded through e-mail. “We asked ourselves, how do the stories we’ve heard match with the real stories? I thought then, and still think, how can anyone look into the faces of the poor and disadvantaged, of any age, and not be touched, called to serve … to enter into their lives, finding ways to be of assistance and support … with gentleness, understanding and a non-judgmental attitude?”

Naber knows their work has to be more than just financial assistance.

“They face so much more than poverty. Our lives are changed as we listen to their dreams for themselves and for their families. We felt the need to help them develop plans to move steadily, and with dignity, toward independence and the achievement of those dreams,” she added.

“Some of the best years of my life”

Sister of St. Agnes Lucina Halbur became the director of professional services for SET Ministry in 1986, and remained in that position until 1994. She dealt mainly with overseeing clinics for elderly people, and the mental health services and the prevention of emotional problems and behavior in children – and understood the importance of SET Ministry to the community.

“We really grew a lot through those years,” Sr. Lucina said. “We had other programs that came and went as we saw. And you know, we also had a philosophy not to duplicate services. If somebody else was doing it, and doing it well, why split the funding for it? Why not help be supportive of their roles?”

“They were probably some of the best years of my life,” Sr. Lucina added, reflecting on her time with SET. “I really felt I was serving people who were very much in need, and that of our staff made a difference in their lives. It wasn’t totally successful all the time; people make poor decisions for themselves. By and large, we were able to help a lot of people. It was like a Gospel, kind of. Though we were very ecumenical and interfaith – the people on our staff and, of course, the people we served, many had faith and many had none – but through all of that, people had a sense of mission. We were there for others.”