It’s going to take a lot to do my past few days in Newcastle justice in writing. Monday, upon arrival after the train from Sydney, Sister Diana picked me up. As we pass this bright green Mazda, I laughed. Then, I realized we were getting into it.
Sister Diana wasted no time telling me about everything she does, from Penola House to her new business Dominican Forest Ark (which doesn’t even cover half the topics). Our first stop was Penola House, a center for refugees that she and Sister Betty created in Newcastle. Sister Diana had to take part in something when we got there, so I was left with Suryea and Barbara at an English lesson. Barbara is a volunteer at Penola House, and Suryea had come to Australia from Iran a year and a month ago. The Penola House was helping her improve her English. She told us all about her life in Iran and how coming to Australia changed her life. We switched the lesson to her listening about my life, and her English was so good it felt like three old friends having a cup of coffee together. Barbara was actually from Ireland, Suryea from Iran, and myself from the US were all together in Australia. You could feel Suryea becoming emotional when talking about her life in Iran versus the freedom she has here. She really treasured such a simple conversation. She even asked to take a picture on her phone with me before I left, and I of course, did the same.
Over the course of the three days, I learned bits and pieces about Penola House. When Sister Diana moved to Newcastle in 2006, she met some refugees from Liberia who were not treated very well by the Australian government. She wanted to get involved to help because the authorities were doing no good welcoming refugees and helping them find a new life here. She found Sister Betty, who was helping refugees just at her home. A refugee, Sister Diana told me, is defined by the UN as a person who finds life in another country because they would be killed in his/her own. She wasted no time writing letters and challenging the government to build more possibilities for these people. Penola House is a place they can go to feel welcomed and receive any help that they need (it gets its name from Penola, the city where the only canonized Australian-born saint made a decision to teach). Sister Diana and Sister Betty started and run Penola House with the help of many volunteers. Penola House had also been “Secret Millionare-d” – a TV show where a millionaire comes in to “volunteer” and ask if he can be filmed, and afterward reveals himself and gives the organization a big fat check. Sister Diana has also been on ABC television many times talking about Penola House, so the organization has considerable awareness and is continuing to grow. They have raised over $30,000 this year, going toward sending 10 orphans from Africa to live with their grandparents/aunt/uncle here in Newcastle. As Sister Diana and I were sending out thank you letters for donations, she cheerfully said, “Oh, I love saving orphans.” Penola House is not government funded or anything of the sort. She and Sister Betty led the front of making all of that possible.
What’s more is that last week, Penola House had a grand reopening to this new, bigger location in the town over in Newcastle. Therefore, on my second afternoon at Penola, Sister Diana asked me to help with the garden. Little did I know that meant shoveling piles of stones into a wheelbarrow and moving them to the pathway. Here is where I met Robert, a Kenyan man whom Penola House has helped, who was also doing work in the garden. You could tell Robert wasn’t convinced I’d be able to do the job on my own, and was really surprised that I did. He was also surprised to find out I was from New York, and we exchanged stories about our hometowns. It took me a few hours to do the job, and although it probably could have taken him less, I was glad I saved him a few hours of work. I learned at lunch that Robert does a lot of work at Penola House, and because he takes it very seriously, he gets cold to a lot of people. I’d never have guessed. Leaving that day, he told me I was a “strong girl with a strong heart” and asked if I could come back tomorrow to help him paint.
So, I spend the rest of my time on Wednesday before my train doing just that:
We painted that whole pagola, and chatted for a few hours like we have been friends forever. Sister Diana came out, chatted with us, and brought us soup, too. An unlikely bunch, and I love the pictures, but I enjoyed that work so much. (Dad, you taught me well!)
That was not the only things done at Penola:
-An Ethiopian family came in with children who were very cold at night, so Sister Diana took me to the storage space to find some socks and “jumpers” (sweaters) for them. We went to this huge facility where two rooms filled with items that they send to Africa each year. Sending all of this stuff costs about $5000, so they collect donations and do it once a year. The people of the facility are friends of Sister Diana and Sister Betty, and lend the space out to them for free, saving Penola around $25,000 between the last five years.
-We went to a nursing home Wednesday morning and Sister Diana helped set up and say a communion service for the people of the home. We also visited Dominican Sisters there and kept them company.
-Sister Diana had to take one of the refugees to an ultrasound, so I was dropped off at Corpus Christi School with Sister Jenny, a Dominican school nearby from K-Year 6. It was really nice to meet Sister Jenny and have her show me all around the school. The students explained to me all of the green initiatives the area of Newcastle has taken. The students recently planted a garden of orange trees, apple, tomato, parsley, thyme, grapefruit, flowers, you name it and it was there. They told me where to grow things and how to grow them. The school also installed solar panels and waste composts. At 10am each day, the students have ‘dip and sip’ (or something like that), where they can only snack on only fresh fruits/veggies and water. The whole city of Newcastle is really taking a lot of these initiatives. Sister Diana and Sister Betty also have a very impressive garden in their backyard, complete with my two favorites: sweet potato and pumpkin.
I was given a lot of information on this subject, which leads me to my next topic: Dominican Forest Ark. Sister Diana and I contacted ASIC: Australian Securities and Investment Commissions and registered her new business name of Dominican Forest Ark. She explained to me that the carbon balance in the environment is going to become too high because we are burning too much coal, but cutting down too many trees that absorb the carbon. This is going to create global warming and have a major affect on everyone, but especially the Dominican Sisters in the Solomon Islands. These Dominican Sisters are offered much money to have their trees cut down; this money is necessary for them to live, although it is affecting their environmental world. By creating Dominican Forest Ark, she is going to raise money to give to those sisters to live, in exchange for helping them keep the trees that would be chopped down for money. To do this, the Dominican Forest Ark website will have a link to a Carbon Footprint Calculator. Your carbon footprint is how much carbon you use per year in tons. The calculator translates that into dollars, and shows you your carbon offset. If people can donate their carbon offset through this website, the chance of global warming will be decreased and sustaining the Solomon Islands would be more possible. Now, at 6:30 am on Tuesday morning, sister Diana came to the foot of my bed while I was half asleep, to explain some of the new ideas that just came to her for Dominican Forest Ark. You can tell she is very passionate about this new undertaking. The invoice to accept the business name came in before I was leaving, and the bank account will be opened today. She is still working on the details of the business, but I told her any help I can give her (and Ryan and Kaitlin with their off-the-boat pictures from the Solomons), we would.
Tuesday night we went out to eat at “the pub.” I was lucky enough to be staying with Sister Diana and Sister Betty when another sister, Sister Bernadette from the Missionary Sisters of Service, was also staying with them. Sister Bernadette was doing research at the University of Newcastle (which I got to see), to write a book that she has been working on for three months. She was raised by two deaf parents, and told me sign language was her first language. Her book is about the story of how her parents met, and the evolution of sign language and deaf people since then. She actually read me a few chapters of her book and explained the different dialects of sign language to me. It was so interesting. She was so sweet and nice to talk to that it was surprisingly lucky that we happened to stay with the same people at the same time.
Sister Bernadette and I’s last night was on Tuesday, so we took Sister Diana and Sister Betty out to “the pub” to thank them for their hospitality. Sister Jenny from Corpus Christi came to join us as well. There I was having a delicious meal with four sisters and a bottle of Chardonnay, and I had an awesome time. I showed the ladies a picture of my family, and they said I was a testament to how my parents raise me, and that my brother was gorgeous (?). So, family, here’s to you.
If Newcastle taught me anything (including all the random facts I have learned), it’s to face life with an open mind. I’m no philosopher, but I could have gone into that situation and said I’m the youngest person here and I won’t see any of these people again, and I would’ve gotten nothing out of it. It’s all about attitude, and because of that, I come away from Newcastle and can’t help but smile. Spending so much time with Sister Diana taught me so much, and she took the word “Veritas” and translated into a whole new meaning of “truth” for me. Truth that you can’t hide from life and you can’t be scared of anything. If you’re going to do something, you have to give it all you have. I really admire the way she took on life and changed so many people’s. Even by talking to the refugees, you could tell how she and Sister Betty made happiness possible for all of them. Somehow, in Newcastle, learning about refugees, recycling, sign language, starting a business, nursing homes, and going to a pub with sisters, all go together very well.
Also, there is a Dominican newsletter sent to all of the Dominican Order in Australia, and there is a special shout out to PC:
On the other side of the train, I get to see some familiar faces of Ryan and Kaitlin!!! Tomorrow, we will all head off to Cairns!!!