The Tennessee Register, the Diocese of Nashville’s biweekly newspaper, highlighted Aquinas College’s Room in the Inn outreach programs in their most recent issue.
Aquinas outreach program promotes self-esteem, creativity
by Ned Andrew Solomon, Tennessee Register
January 3, 2014
Rachel Leach, Director of Community & Alumni Relations
Every Tuesday and Thursday for the past two years, Rachel Leach has visited the Room in the Inn’s Campus for Human Development in downtown Nashville. Leach, Aquinas College’s director of community and alumni relations, teaches a class exclusively for women, InHERent Worth, and an art therapy class to men and women called Hope Anchors. Both serve to teach its “students” – men and women who make Nashville’s streets their home – that they have value as human beings.
“Aquinas is a Catholic Christian school, and we take pride in the excellence of an education permeated with faith,” said Leach. “To strengthen our mission, we looked to broaden our Christ like efforts outside the college, and begin service-based outreach in our community.”
This initiative might not have happened at all, if not for a personal crisis in Leach’s life. A few months pregnant with her second child, Leach’s marriage was dissolving. Devastated, Leach turned to the Aquinas chaplain, Father John O’Neill, for guidance. He told her to take time to praise God.
“So I looked at my life,” Leach recalled. “I had a wonderful job at Aquinas. I had a master’s degree. I have a wonderful family, and, most importantly, I have an incredible faith. And those were things I had to praise God for. Without those things, I couldn’t have gotten through that time.”
A believer that “God works in funny ways sometimes,” Leach began to see this watershed moment as an opportunity. She found herself wondering about people who didn’t have the blessings that she was so grateful for. “Called by God,” Leach approached Room in the Inn to see how she and Aquinas might help. Although the Campus benefits from the support of numerous volunteers, it is rare to have a person, or an institution like Aquinas, offer to present its services on a consistent basis, especially in its education department.
Leach began with the InHERent Worth class, a Christian-based life choice counseling program for vulnerable women who are looking to cultivate a new lifestyle, while recovering from homelessness, abuse or chemical dependence.
“The main purpose is to teach them the way God loves them, that they are the image of God, and how important they are,” explained Leach.
The program has proven its own “worth” two years in with a steady roster of new and returning students and Leach likes to point to a particular success story. When one woman started coming to the class she refused to make eye contact or speak with Leach or her peers, choosing instead to sit in the corner, isolated. “Now she’s social, talks to the other women, tells them the story of how she’s changed and how she knows her worth,” Leach said. “It was really a beautiful transformation.”
The second class, Hope Anchors, allows participants to explore art while developing their self-esteem.
“The purpose is to teach them the art of escape,” said Leach. “Many of them used to escape through drugs and alcohol. This teaches them to escape through creativity.”
Leach is frequently accompanied by an art teacher, Susan van Riper, who has taught at O’More College of Design and Watkins College of Art, Design and Film. The teachers augment the hands-on activities with a talk, frequently about a famous artist who had a tormented past, or overcame a personal tragedy.
A recent class, with special guest Sister Elizabeth Anne, O.P., on the faculty of the masters in Education program at Aquinas, featured the story of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
“He actually painted that when he was in a mental institution,” said Leach. “It leads to an understanding that people can create beautiful things and make an impact and have struggles.”
The two Aquinas classes don’t utilize a formal sign-up sheet, so Leach never knows exactly who’ll be showing up each day. But, because of the friendship and trust she’s built with this community, a typical lesson might have more than 50 attendees. That can get costly when considering the art supplies and materials used in Hope Anchors, but Leach, or perhaps God, has figured that out too.
Leach’s friends and co-workers at Aquinas support this mission by making donations of paint brushes, paints and canvases. Christine Ashbury, an Aquinas College employee, regularly contributes books, clothing and bath and body products, and also hauls in bags of donations that she’s persuaded her friends to give.
“I’ll frequently walk in to my office at Aquinas to find a bag of goodies that are anonymously donated and left on my desk,” said Leach. “This class has really been the gift that keeps giving, and has inspired so many people to give and to think of others before themselves.”
There’s no question that this program has been a gift to Leach too, who feels like, through her relationship with the Campus and her students, she has experienced her own “beautiful transformation.”
“I never knew the capacity to love that I had, or the compassion that I could have,” Leach said. “I feel like my capacity as a human being, and my quality of life has changed. My faith and the way I take communion has changed. It’s fulfilled my life spiritually in a way that I never knew was possible.”
If anyone would like volunteer their time or talents or donate art supplies or other items, please contact Leach at firstname.lastname@example.org.