P28POF-sara-kierzek-photoSara Kierzek’s life motto is a sentence once uttered by Blessed Mother Teresa: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

“I kind of think that that’s what I try to accomplish – remembering that we belong to each other,” the 54-year-old explained in an interview with your Catholic Herald.

This past July, Kierzek was named executive director of the Dominican Center for Women Inc., an organization, according to its mission statement, that partners with the Milwaukee community to maintain and enhance a stable, healthy and safe neighborhood of residents who are community-minded and are striving to be meaningfully educated and employed.

Sara Kierzek

Age: 54

Occupation: Executive director of the Dominican Center for Women Inc. 

Favorite movie: “Little Women” (1994 version starring Winona Ryder and Gabriel Byrne)

Book recently read: “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement” by John Lewis

Favorite quote: “If we have no peace, it’s because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” – Mother Teresa

(Submitted photo courtesy Sara Kierzek)

While Kierzek believes that working at the Dominican Center is the place that God has called her to be, it took her a while to reach that destination, she admitted. Kierzek studied at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire in 1974 before spending a year at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark in 1977, where she studied international and European politics.

After receiving a degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, after a brief absence during which she gave birth to twins in 1984, Kierzek accepted a job as a caseworker for U.S. Rep. Jerry Kleczka of the Fourth Congressional district. Working in his governmental office on the north side of Milwaukee, she used her problem-solving skills to bring attention to issues such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, business problems and the environment. She spent 20 years with the congressman, writing many of his speeches and accompanying him to local meetings and events.

When Kleczka retired in 2005, Kierzek wanted a job that allowed her to be more “hands on” with the people she says she was meant to help. Her father was a carpenter and contractor who often allowed her to help him with his home building. With this natural inclination still in her blood, Kierzek was hired by the non-profit organization Habitat for Humanity, a house-building agency.

“I knew that we were helping people, but working for a government agency, the spiritual part of it is lacking, and I felt that that was something that I really needed to get – that part of my life – I needed to get more involved in that part of my life,” she said on why she chose to work for Habitat to Humanity after working in politics. “So, going to Habitat was the first start of that.”

At the time, Habitat for Humanity was building homes on the north side of Milwaukee, and as director of the Milwaukee Habitat office, she become more familiar with those she helped, but not as much as she would have liked.

“… It kind of got to the point where that was a lot of administration work, and I really wanted to work one-on-one and directly with people,” she explained. During that time that she became familiar with the Dominican Center, already well established in the Amani neighborhood, located in an area bordered by 35th Street on the west, 15th Street on the east, Capitol Drive on the north, and North Avenue on the south.

The priorities of the Amani neighborhood are maintaining homes of older adults, improving the physical condition of the neighborhood, reducing crime and increasing perception of safety in the neighborhood, and increasing the sense of ownership among neighborhood homeowners and residents. According to Kierzek, it was the perfect place for Habitat for Humanity to help out.

“We were looking for a new neighborhood, (and) I talked to a couple of the people,” she explained. “They said that ‘Oh, you really need to talk to Sr. Ann at the Dominican Center, because they’re already doing a lot of good work in the Amani neighborhood in Milwaukee. That would possibly be a good neighborhood for you.’”  

Sinsinawa Dominican Sr. Ann Halloran was one of the two religious sisters who founded the first Dominican Center in Minneapolis, and eventually brought her mission to Milwaukee’s inner-city. Kierzek knew Sr. Ann would know where Habitat would be most needed.

“I came over to talk to Sr. Ann, and we hit it off right away,” she said. “There are a lot of empty lots in the Amani neighborhood. So, we started working together. We worked on putting some houses in the neighborhood, and they continued to do rehab work here. Eventually, I think about four years ago, she asked me to be on the Dominican Center for Women board. So, that’s kind of how I got involved.

“I was actually on the search committee because we knew that Sr. Ann was going to be retiring, and then I was talking about what a special place (Dominican Center for Women) is to one of the other board members, and he said ‘Well, why don’t you consider applying for the job?’ After giving it some thought, I resigned from the search committee and handed them my résumé,” she said, laughing at the memory. “The rest, as they say, is history.”  

When Kierzek looks back on her life – and where she is now – she finds it amazing how God led her to the exact place she always wanted to be.

“I think what makes this place very special – there are lots of things – but one of them is we meet people where they are, and for some of the women that have come here, they’ve come really pretty broken,” she said about the people who come to the center. “They’ve come with a history of abuse or drug abuse, or homelessness, every imaginable issue. And some actually come as sort of a last resort, and this place helps them heal, and it helps them get back on track, and I’ve had plenty of women since I’ve started say, ‘This center saved my life. I owe my life to this place.’”

The Dominican Center is a place for women from all walks of life, according to Kierzek, from the young mother finishing her GED and beginning her preparations to start classes at Milwaukee Area Technical College, to the 89- year-old woman with a third grade education, taking literacy classes so she can learn to read her Bible.

“We do classes and things like arts and poetry, the things that can help with that healing process. But then, we also have classes in reading and arithmetic and writing, and last year we had a poetry class where our participants did poetry in a writing class every week. It’s an amazingly loving and nurturing environment. The people come and they are worked with by volunteer tutors, where the tutors are giving of themselves and work one-on-one with people to work with them where they are.”  

Listening to the women who seek safety and shelter from the Dominican Center gives meaning to Kierzek’s life.

“I listen to some of the women’s stories, and I’m amazed at the strength and the courage that it has taken them to get to this place,” she explained. “I leave every day thinking how incredibly fortunate I am that I had loving parents that cared enough to make sure I stayed in school. They (the women) are such amazing survivors; they just give you a unique perspective on the world, and how fortunate we are, and what a struggle it can be for people who are living in poverty.”