Written by Karen Mahoney, Special to your Catholic HeraldThursday, 14 February 2013 09:46
Gail Grenier Sweet was once a liberal Catholic and staunch defender of a woman’s right to an abortion.
After some education by a couple of her neighbors, Sweet learned the truth of the horrors of abortion, and now considers it “murder.”
“My neighbors were really nice, they just encouraged me to look into what abortion actually was,” she explained. “So I did, and what I discovered horrified me and immediately caused me to become pro-life.”
The grim reality of abortion set into motion Sweet’s burning desire to become a pro-life advocate, and after some contemplation and prayer, decided the best way she could help single pregnant women was to help them not to feel so isolated, and offer them the courage to make the right choice.
HOPE Network aids single moms
After more contemplation and prayer, Sweet founded the HOPE (Holistic-opportunities-parenting-education) Network, a 501(c) (3) charitable organization, in 1982. The network is a self-support system for single mothers and single pregnant women living in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee counties The network offers programs designed to help mothers gain a sense of community, enhance their parenting skills, and develop self-reliance.
“I wanted this to be a network because it is more important to me to invest in the community and less in bricks and mortar,” she said. “My parish, Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Menomonee Falls, has been kind to provide an office for the organization from the beginning. We have outreach programs through different locations through the community, from synagogues, to churches to various community rooms.”
Word spread quickly about new resource
In the beginning, Sweet enlisted friends from Feminists for Life, a group she belonged to after her pro-life conversion, to help her market the organization.
“We were concerned with how to get the word out to the community and promote the HOPE Network,” she said. “What we didn’t realize was that it is the easiest thing in the world to let people know you want to help. Word spreads quickly and we had many calls. There was no trouble at all.”
One of the earliest promoters in directing young mothers to the HOPE Network was the late, “Mrs. Griggs,” the local advice columnist from the Milwaukee Journal’s Green Sheet.
“Sometimes a young woman would write a letter to Mrs. Griggs (Ione Quinby Griggs) and she would put the letter in the paper and tell them to try HOPE Network,” said Sweet. “It has never been hard to find people who needed help, but it has often been hard to find the money to help them.”
With thousands of members on their mailing list, HOPE Network publishes a 20-plus page quarterly newsletter that contains free and inexpensive resources for parenting education, community agencies, want ads and family activities.
“We offer a free crib program after the mothers take our safe sleep class,” said Sweet, adding. “We offer scholarships for college or other post-high school education, clothing banks, trips to Brewers games, and more. We do all this with a budget of under $100,000 per year.”
Initiative shows support for Catholic teaching
According to Good Shepherd parish director, Deacon Sandy Sites, Sweet has had a major impact on the faith community of the parish and the community at large.
“Gail has accomplished so much by establishing this model support service of HOPE Network,” said Deacon Sites. “With all the debate between pro-choice and pro-life factions, Gail and HOPE Network stay out of the political arena and get to the heart of the matter. They provide support for single pregnant women during their pregnancy and programs for their family after delivery.
“The result? Hope! Gail and HOPE Network impact respect for life, and in doing so support the Catholic teaching of the consistent life ethic, which states that all life is sacred from conception to natural death. The fact that Gail is a parishioner of Good Shepherd, and that some of the services have been located at our parish location, allows our parishioners an up-close opportunity to be educated about, and exposed to, the need for support for single moms and their new children. It is a positive in an all-too-often negative debate,” he said.
‘Dog Woman’ touched her heart
Married 40 years to her husband, Michael, Sweet, 62, is mother of three children and grandmother to four. She recently stepped down from her position as executive director to assist her daughter with planning her wedding and to promote two books she has published.
One of the books, “Dog Woman,” stemmed from a story she covered for the Menomonee Falls News in 1990 about a woman whose story touched her heart.
“I worked as a journalist for the Menomonee Falls News from 1977 through 1997, and you know, there is always that story that you just can’t forget when you are a journalist,” Sweet explained. “This was that story for me. It touched my heart so much that I wrote a screenplay for Hollywood, and when I didn’t hear anything, decided I would write a book about her.”
“Dog Woman” is a fictionalized account of a true story involving a woman who was a dog hoarder in Menomonee Falls. Because Sweet wanted the story to be suitable for children, she softened the story to include an 11-year-old Cajun American boy who befriended the woman.
“The original Dog Woman lived a difficult life, and the end was tragic, but she was a child of God and deserved respect and love,” explained Sweet. “She always meant well and loved her dogs. I took this, the gem of the story, and built the book around her.”
Book’s proceeds to benefit HOPE Network
Part of the proceeds from her book, available on Amazon, will benefit the HOPE Network, where Sweet will continue to volunteer. Current executive director, Pauline Beck, recently nominated Sweet for the Waukesha Volunteer Center
“Volunteer of the Year Award,” and believes that the charismatic woman draws support wherever she goes.
“I volunteered with HOPE Network after I met her in 1983, and have greatly enjoyed being involved with her and the organization ever since,” said Beck. “I think she has the same effect on some students in her writing class – some have been faithfully signing up for her classes for the past 10 or 15 years.”
For 20 years, Sweet has taught creative writing at Waukesha Technical College, teaching four classes at a time. Semi-retiring, she continues to teach, but has limited her schedule to one class per semester.
“The students inspire me so much,” she said. “In fact, it was their encouragement that helped me write “Dog Woman” and my adult novel, “Don’t Worry Baby,” she said. “Both of my books contain tenets of my Catholic faith, but I try not to be preachy or to exclude those of other faiths from reading them. I guess I could say that I am not necessarily a Catholic writer, but a writer who is Catholic.”
Puts faith into action
While her accomplishments with HOPE Network, her years as a journalist, teacher and writer are many, Beck believes Sweet’s strong faith and unlimited generosity make the difference.
“She takes soup once a week to Nancy, an ailing Menomonee Falls resident with untreatable cancer who had been a regular Hope Network volunteer,” she said. “Gail helped Nancy through her depression by bringing her a light box for her winter blues, and sharing lunch and conversation every week. She drove her to the volunteer luncheon at HOPE’s office in November. Even though Nancy’s been too ill to volunteer, the other volunteers enjoyed seeing her. Bringing Nancy to the luncheon had a side benefit – Gail felt it was important that all our volunteers see that we care about them, and don’t just ‘use’ them as unpaid workers.”
According to Beck, Sweet’s volunteer work made a significant impact on HOPE Network by using her leadership, contacts and organizational skills to head the annual fundraiser that generated 17 percent of HOPE’s budget.
“She used her smile, creative ideas, and caring ways to inspire Hope’s other volunteers, staff, board and donors,” said Beck. “She also volunteered as a secretary of the HOPE Network board and represented HOPE at speaking engagements and other outreach events. She writes a column, four times a year in the HOPE Network resource newspaper. She’s been interviewing people and writing inspiring stories for many years as a HOPE columnist, reaching 13,000 Network News readers.”
In addition to her volunteer work for HOPE Network, Sweet is a personal prayer leader following Mass at Good Shepherd Parish, and makes weekly visits to a nursing home and donates blood.
“She has given about eight gallons so far, donating her sought-after Type O negative blood every eight weeks,” said Beck. “Gail also helped run the silent auction for another non-profit in October, Grandmothers Beyond Borders.”
Charismatic personality inspire others
Sweet’s impact on HOPE Network and the community flows through her personal blog, “Gail Grenier Here” where she often promotes blood donation and other causes.
“She has a charismatic personality, and many people who attended our fundraiser or donated, did so because of their love and respect for Gail,” said Beck. “Gail once told the director of HOPE Network, ‘I like to donate real stuff, that is, my blood, and my time for the HOPE fundraiser. Then I can see real results.”
After the wedding, Sweet hopes to accompany her daughter and son-in-law to Argentina where they plan to teach English as a Second Language.
“I believe in listening to the Holy Spirit and depending on him to lead me, but I would like to go down there for a couple of months and connect with a sister parish and do volunteer work for a time,” she said. “My daughter and I went to
Louisiana after Hurricane Rita and Katrina and worked in the day and danced at night. I believe in having fun while volunteering. After all, I don’t think Jesus walked around with a big frown on his face.”
Gail Grenier Sweet gives HOPE to single mothers
Written by Karen Mahoney, Special to your Catholic HeraldThursday, 14 February 2013 09:46