In 1967, Pat and Jim Parks were like any other young couple, trying to juggle their careers and their family, which at that point included four small children.
That year, Pat’s sister, a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, traveled to Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, to help a Jesuit priest found a center for the “shoeshine boys” of the city – young men from poverty-stricken families who took to the streets to earn money.
“She started telling me all about it in her letters, and about these suffering kids,” remembered Pat. “And I had little kids who were in a very different situation – a much more blessed situation. It got to me. I decided I needed to help them. I just needed to figure out how.”
Pat’s sister, Mary Miguel Conway – called “Madre Miguel,” first by the young boys to whom she became a mother figure and eventually by everyone else, including her family – would help to found the Working Boys Center (WBC) in Quito, along with Jesuit Fr. John Halligan. Coming upon the half-century mark, the center has helped to lift more than 6,000 Ecuadorian families out of financial desperation by providing outreach, education, medical services, meal programs and job training.
And the stateside fundraising arm for the WBC has grown from a self-described “ma-and-pa charity” operated out of the Parkses’ home in Elm Grove to become the Center for Working Families, a bona fide force in the non-profit world that each year mobilizes hundreds of volunteers, young and old, to travel to the WBC on mission trips.
The Parks family – which today includes Jim and Pat, members of St. Mary Parish, Elm Grove, as well as their 10 children and 33 grandchildren – are preparing for a weekend of celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of the WBC (which dates its origins to 1964).
“We’re both 100 percent Irish by heritage, but we call ourselves Irish-Ecuadorian,” said Pat. “That truly is our other country.”
The family business
In 1967, Pat was working as a Milwaukee Public Schools math teacher; she and Jim, an attorney, already had four children under the age of 6. But she had grown up in a home where self-sacrifice was highly emphasized. Her mother, Kathryn Conway, was devoted to numerous charitable causes, chief among them the plight of the residents of South Dakota’s Indian reservations.
“She believed that, no matter what organization it was – your church, your school, your community – it was your duty, as a person who had all you needed to survive, to share what you had with others,” said Pat.
Determined to drum up financial support for Fr. Halligan’s and Madre Miguel’s efforts with the shoeshine boys of Quito, Pat began by asking the mother of one of her students to host a fundraising event.
“I didn’t know anything about fundraising. You’re lying in bed thinking about it, and the Holy Spirit just puts some crazy idea into your head, and you think there must be a reason,” she remembered.
Eventually, Pat – with the full support and assistance of her husband – began throwing her own parties to raise money.
“Our kids were tiny when we started, but if they could walk or talk, they were helping,” she said.
Her daughter, Patricia Jessup, a member of St. Dominic Parish, Brookfield, now the executive director of the Center for Working Families, remembers those early fundraisers with fondness.
“My mom and dad were great at throwing parties, so everybody wanted to come,” she said. “We kids would go around and fill people’s beers for them and make sure they were taken care of.”
The growing Parks family also worked tirelessly to distribute literature and increase awareness about the mission, including the annual “Shoeshine Special” newsletters in their Christmas cards.
“Down in the basement in our house in Milwaukee, on top of our washer and dryer, we silk-screened, one at a time, about 5,000 Christmas cards,” said Jessup. “We’d take them upstairs to our family room, living room, wherever you could find a spot, in rows, so our entire house was covered with these wet Christmas cards … it took a month or two.”
Jim Parks would then engineer the mass-mailing of the Christmas cards and newsletters. In those early days of the charity, Jim nicknamed himself “the chauffeur and go-fer.”
“The poor guy – he’s trying to earn a living for his family, and I had him running around trying to get supplies and researching this and that for me, and when he got home from his (day) job, he joined me at my volunteer job,” said Pat. “He was my 24-hour-a-day confidant and counselor. I ran everything past him.”
Though they might not have realized it at the time, the Parks kids became the first volunteers – and public relations department – for Family Unity International, the original name of the Center for Working Families.
“The funny thing is, we thought it was normal,” said Jessup. “That’s all we ever knew. My mom and dad, they were always saying, ‘You have to tell your friends, you have to tell your friends (about the center).’ And we would.”
“It really started to be a major volunteer program through our kids and their friends,” said Pat.
A blended family
Family Unity International was founded by Pat in 1981, when she quit her job to devote herself to charity work full-time.
By now she had visited Quito several times, and her family had grown considerably: she and Jim adopted a teenager, Martha, in 1970. They would later adopt two young sisters, Fabiola and Queta, who joined Jessup and her siblings Michael, Jim, Patrick, Peter, Halligan (named for Fr. John Halligan) and Tom.
All the children are involved in the Center for Working Families on some level; in addition to Jessup’s role as executive director, Jim is the board president and Tom is the board treasurer.
When Martha was adopted, Pat encouraged the reluctant teenager to keep in touch with her Spanish-speaking roots, even though she was eager to fit in with her new American surroundings. Now a Spanish teacher at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, Martha leads her students on mission trips to the WBC every other year.
“When I arrive in the country, I tell my students, ‘OK, we are in a Spanish country. I no longer speak English. You will speak Spanish as much as you possibly can,’” Martha said. “The students are hesitant for the first couple of days, but then they’re surrounded by the children … and the kids don’t care if you make mistakes. So once they see that, they can dive in … and learn about what it is, really, to be of service.”
Marquette University High School also hosts an annual trip to the WBC, called Somos Amigos. Jim Parks, Pat and Jim’s second-eldest son, participated in the first Somos Amigos trip in the early 1980s.
He said that the visit was an enlightening experience for him, even after he had spent his childhood in connection with the center.
“You never truly grasp what it’s like in a Third World country until you go visit it. You can touch it, you can smell it,” he said. “That was what was most powerful.”
Jim returned to Quito in 1985 for a year-long mission following his graduation from Marquette University. Now married with children and the executive vice president and principal at Berghammer Construction, Jim leads an annual “minga” (house-building trip) to Quito, and brought his wife and kids on a visit to the center in 2004. One of his sons has also participated in the Somos Amigos trip at Marquette.
“I want them to give back, too, and to learn the importance of that,” he said of his children. “I think we benefitted from being exposed to a different culture at a young age. None of us ever had fears of different things. You learn that people are people.”
Though the Parks family may still be at the forefront, volunteership has expanded dramatically over the past several decades. Pat Parks semi-retired from Family Unity International in 2010 and handed over directorship to Jane Pruhs, who, Jessup said, helped to “formalize” operations, which had previously been operated out of the Parks family home. The organization changed its name to the Center for Working Families (C4WF) in January of 2014.
Pruhs stepped down in 2012, and Jessup subsequently took over as executive director. She estimates that the C4WF works with 400-500 volunteers annually — both on year-long and short-term mission trips.
“So many of our volunteers, when they return to the Milwaukee area, give service to the Hispanic community,” said Pat, who cites volunteers’ involvement in organizations like La Casa de Esperanza, Nativity Jesuit Middle School, Notre Dame Middle School and the Milwaukee Spanish Immersion School, where the Parkses’ daughter Halligan previously taught.
“They don’t stop giving service when they come home,” she said.
The organization also has a strong support system throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and beyond – they are officially twinned with Lumen Christi Parish in Mequon and St. Mary’s Visitation in Elm Grove, where many of the Parks family are parish members. Pat also calls the Archdiocesan World Mission Ministries office “a total support system.”
The world’s biggest family reunion
A celebration is being planned for the weekend of Aug. 8-10 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Working Boys’ Center. Jessup estimates that close to 500 current and former volunteers from all over the United States and Europe will attend the events, held mainly on the Marquette University campus.
Rodolfo Chin, the brother of the Parkses’ daughters Queta and Fabiola (blood sisters adopted in 1985 at ages 7 and 11, respectively) is traveling from Ecuador with his wife, Maria, to join in the festivities. Queta said the WBC changed Chin’s life – and the lives of the rest of her birth family – so much so that Chin and his wife are now co-directors of the WBC.
“I don’t think there are any words to describe what the center has done for my family,” she said. “It got them out of poverty, certainly. It’s a self-help program, but it also instills in people the values of how God would like us to live our lives.”
Queta returns to Ecuador every year to visit her birth family.
“I would say my family here has the same values as my family down in Ecuador,” she said. “It’s a good blend.”
She most recently visited the WBC on a mission trip with Jessup in early 2014, and brought several of her friends as volunteers.
Billed as “the world’s biggest family reunion,” the anniversary celebrations are shaping up to be just that for the Parkses, for whom the volunteer base of the WBC is – both literally and figuratively – family. The festivities will emphasize the importance of the laity to the mission of the WBC, and will especially honor the work of Judy Conway, Pat’s sister, who has been involved with the WBC for decades.
Looking back on a half-century of service that has come to involve not only her children but her grandchildren as well, Pat Parks is proud – and relieved.
“I was afraid, from listening to me talking about this 24 hours a day and always helping with projects … but they all ended up loving this country and this work,” she said. “Our kids just embraced this work totally.”