Patty Beattie Age: 51 Occupation: crisis center director
The heavy punching bag swung wildly up into the basement rafters, shattering two long fluorescent light bulbs.
Punching bags aren’t supposed to move like that. Good, hard body blows from prizefighters make them twist and turn, and slowly swing back like a pendulum of a grandfather clock.
So on her first day at work, when Sister Patty Beattie saw a woman punch with enough rage to knock out the light at the Women’s Drop In Center, she knew precisely what she was getting into.
“I was like, ‘Whoa,”’ said Beattie, holding her palms up in the universal signal to calm down. The woman’s anger passed and she eventually settled down.
Beattie, a 51-year-old Dominican nun, has run the center for women in crisis with calm and poise ever since that first day in August 1996.
She had just finished a year’s sabbatical, and picked the center as a place where she could help people the most.
She says she never had an epiphany about serving troubled women, though many who have taken up her line of work have done so because of a calling. For Beattie, it was just a way to get back into the ministerial side of her calling as a nun, rather than some of the administrative tasks on the leadership council of Tacoma Dominican nuns.
Before her eight years of working in community outreach for the leadership team in Tacoma, Beattie spent 18 years teaching in Catholic elementary schools throughout the state.
Coming to the center was a stark transition. The portable walls have heard a lot of painful stories here. A bronze sculpture of a woman in anguish on a crucifix is a conspicuous reminder of them.
But Beattie strives to make it an effervescent place without too many religious overtones. The rooms are decorated with colored stencil drawings, a 5-foot-high avocado plant, a pair of chirping parakeets, and a historical poster of “Women Who Dared.”
The clientele includes women who are depressed, women who are battling drugs, unemployment, domestic violence and other problems.
The center runs on the efforts of two outreach managers, a pair of GED coordinators, a pair of nuns, and 30 to 40 volunteers. They spread the word on the streets that they can help. Grants from the federal Housing and Urban Development department, city and county agencies, nonprofit agencies and private donors keep it going.
When the women walk in, Beattie’s presence is authoritative, yet understanding. She’s not judgmental and doesn’t quote Scripture. She can show toughness by quieting a disorderly woman simply with a cold stare.
Mary Bukowski, who sought help by attending meetings, was homeless for a time in the summer of 1996. She credits Beattie with helping her find an apartment and a job. Bukowski, now a volunteer, runs the center’s library of mostly paperback books.
“We’ve all been there, or been down at some point,” Bukowski said. “She’s very upbeat, puts a smile on at all times, and it helps, even though I’m sure she feels like crying sometimes.”
As bitter as the stories can get, Beattie’s ability to stay positive rubs off on the women. So do her listening skills.
Everyone listens a little differently, but Beattie rejects the habit of hearing without really listening.
Those who wind up at the Women’s Drop In Center have seen the hearing-but-notreally-listening look. It’s the one where the person looks ahead, nods a lot,and chimes in with an occasional “uh huh” or “yeah,” just to keep the conversation going.
Beattie has a simple way with women who have gone through that to bring them out of their apathy and isolation.
She offers them a cup of coffee and a seat on one of the center’s spongy donated couches.
She makes eye contact, smiles a lot and says she’s glad they’re there. If they want to talk, she’ll zero in with her blue-gray eyes and absorb every word. Sometimes she’ll describe a mistake she’s made. There is no lecturing.
It doesn’t always work. But when it does, the cocoon of hurt unravels before her eyes.
“A lot of times people come in here and they stare at the floor,” Beattie said. “They’ll come in the door and sit down in one of the chairs. The next time they might move a little further in, and talk to the birds. Then they might come in and sit at the kitchen table.
“You can see it in their body. They walk in here with their shoulders slumped,” Beattie said. “And then, after a while, some day they walk in with their head up.”
That’s the rewarding part of her job. As long as she feels she makes that kind of impact, she’ll stick with the center, which might be three to five years, she said.
So far, the success has been dramatic. Between 400 and 600 women walk through the door at 218 S. Howard every month, where - thanks to Beattie’s vision and pursuit of government grants and donations - they can work on new computers, take a shower, work out or talk.
She’s also helped boost spirits through practical meetings on budgeting, job searches and getting general equivalency degrees. Other sessions have also been added about depression, personal fitness, body image issues and - for the occasional feel-good time - singalongs.
Beattie’s Catholic faith helps her deal with the women, but she emphasizes that the message coming from the center isn’t specific to any religion.
When she’s not at the center, Beattie hands out Eucharist at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, reads murder mysteries, cares for a pet poodle Zelo, golfs and fishes for trout.
Being in the outdoors, away from distractions, is where she gets a chance to pray and think introspectively.
Almost nobody sees her sweat, but Beattie admits she’s not bulletproof. Taking time to think on a quiet lake is one way to get rid of the stress.
“I just like being in the outdoors, being with nature, I don’t really care if I catch anything,” Beattie said.
Maria Wallander, an administrative assistant, said women respect Beattie because she’s not above doing the occasional sweeping, answering the phone or cleaning off the kitchen table.
Beyond that, keeping a simple, modest everyday routine is one way she copes.
“She just goes with the flow, even when it’s just crisis after crisis,” said Theresa Schinzel, an outreach case manager at the center. “I keep expecting her to all of sudden pull her hair out, but she never does.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
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