Books, beds and tea: The Catherine McAuley Center marks 30 years and prepares for major expansion

In addition to tutoring for the U.S. citizenship exam, the adult basic education program offers tutoring in English as a second language, computer skills and basic math, reading and writing. Last year, CMC had a team of 450 tutors working with 480 students. — Zak Neumann / Little Village

For nearly a year, Marimer Stadtmueller has been attending classes at the Catherine McAuley Center (CMC) in Cedar Rapids to improve her English and learn as much as she can about the United States.

Stadtmueller moved to the U.S. from Mexico City with her son and daughter 11 years ago. She lived in Ohio and Kentucky before relocating to eastern Iowa, where she’s resided for seven years.

Currently, Stadtmueller is preparing for her U.S. citizenship exam, which is quickly approaching.

“[A friend from Venezuela] was studying for the citizenship test, so I asked her, ‘What school do you go to learn?’” Stadtmueller said. “She told me to go to CMC. So I came here. I love it — I love the staff and environment here.”

“Right now it’s just practice, practice and practice. I’m nervous. I’m very nervous,” Stadtmueller said about her exam.

This year marks CMC’s 30th year as a resource in the community. The nonprofit’s mission is to provide educational and supportive services that promote stability, skill-building and connection.

As the center looks forward, there’s also a new chapter on the horizon — moving into a building four times their current space’s size. This move, which is expected to happen in August 2020, will allow the center to expand its services and help even more people in the community.

“It’s pretty remarkable that we are at this point in our history and that we’re ready to move to a larger facility,” executive director Paula Land said. “We have continued to grow and to meet the needs throughout our history and that really stands true to Catherine McAuley’s mission and the sisters’ mission.”

Anne Dugger (center), the education program manager at CMC, said the center, “in a very intentional way,” tries to figure out ways that all three of their programs can interact. Dugger has been with the center since July 2015. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

CMC was founded in 1989 by the Sisters of Mercy and is named after Catherine McAuley, who founded the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin, Ireland and dedicated her life to educating women and serving others.

The center started as an organization that provided education to women who were pursuing their GED, explained Kelsey Steines, the center’s development and communications manager. Soon after, CMC staff recognized that many of the women who used the education services also had housing needs, which led to the creation of the center’s transitional housing program.

From there, the center based its programs on what people in the community needed.

Currently, the organization has three main focuses: resettling refugees and immigrants, transitional housing for women and basic education tutoring for adults.

Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.

“We serve very different populations here, and sometimes I think people don’t always see the connection right away,” Steines said. “Women experiencing crisis and healing from trauma, adult learners and immigrants and refugees can seem like very different groups of people, but what ties all our services together is they’ve been developed in response to community needs. We’re an organization that really tries to fill in the gaps in the community and really build connections.”

In its first year, CMC served 15 people. Now, the organization provides services to hundreds of people every year, and it has a growing waitlist. Moving into a larger space will help the center “creatively address” the waiting list, Steines said. CMC is also constantly looking for volunteers.

Part of CMC’s adult basic education program includes tutoring for individuals preparing for their U.S. citizenship exam. Marimer Stadtmueller (right) has been meeting with her tutor for almost a year. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

CMC purchased the former UnityPoint Health–St. Luke Hospital’s Living Center East building, which is less than half a mile from where the center is currently located. The plan is to start renovations in January of 2020 to prepare for the August 2020 move-in goal, Steines said.

“In our 30th year, timing worked out really well that this is also the year we’re announcing our plans to move to a new facility and really be able to start the next chapter of the center,” Steines said. “We’ve got room to grow and so many better opportunities or ways we can serve our clients, as well as just the space to do it.”

CMC’s transitional housing program helps around 40 women a year — 15 at any given time — providing shelter, case management and skill-building opportunities. Women can stay for up to two years.

In the new facility, 22 women at a time will have housing through the program, Steines said.

The adult basic education program provides one-on-one tutoring in English as a second language, U.S. citizenship exam preparation and computer skills. Tutoring is also offered for basic math, reading and writing. Last year, there were 450 tutors working with 480 students.

In the current location, there are few private study spaces, and the main education area can get loud and distracting, Steines said. The new facility will have 32 private or semi-private areas for tutors and their students.

A supply storage room in the current Catherine McAuley Center. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The transitional housing and education programs are based on community needs, not what is happening at the federal level. This isn’t the case, however, for refugee resettlement, which is dependent on how many people can enter the country, according to Anne Dugger, education program manager at CMC.

“Even though resettlement numbers have been trending downwards, just because of the political environment, the word is out within refugee communities that [the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City area] is a safe place,” Dugger said.

Steines estimates that in the last year, CMC has directly resettled around 250 individuals. In January 2017, CMC became an affiliate site of of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

Through the program, CMC provides “intensive support” for incoming families for their first 90 days in the country. This includes housing and connection to education and employment services, among other services.

“Although 90 days is all that’s officially prescribed at the federal level, we understand additional support is needed,” Steines said. “We want to be able to serve those families well, and if that means helping them make those connections beyond 90 days and helping consult with people if they want to find new or better employment after initially been connected, we can do that.”

A local woman receives English language counseling from CMC Education Program Manager Anne Dugger. Monday, Oct. 23, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

In honor of the 30th anniversary, CMC also brought back an old tradition: Catherine’s Comfortable Tea. Named, like the center, after the Sisters of Mercy’s founder, Catherine’s Comfortable Tea was a side business that sold jewelry, mugs and hand-packaged teas. It was discontinued in 2012, but tea remained an important motif for the center; it is the drink of choice during the annual Catherine’s Tea event in the spring. Through the rebooted Comfortable Tea program, people can place orders online for various teas. Sales will end when the current stock of tea runs out.

“[Catherine McAuley] was famously quoted on her deathbed as telling the sisters around her, ‘Be sure you have a comfortable cup of tea for them when I’ve gone,’” Steines said. “So that’s where the tea came from. It really has just become a symbol of hospitality here. Something I think we hope to communicate to everybody that walks through the doors is that they are welcome that they can feel comfortable here.”

As the center prepares for its move next year, its director, Paula Land, emphasized the importance of preserving that accessible environment.

“One of the components that’s very important for us is to maintain a welcoming feel to the space and make sure that people continue to view this as a safe place and a place for learning and a place where they can be welcome,” Land said.

CMC Assistant Education Coordinator Achissa Mushimiyimana (right) tutors a student on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. Mushimiyimana first came to CMC as a student in 2015.

Izabela Zaluska is one of the few in the Little Village office who is an avid tea drinker instead of a coffee consumer. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 274.