Casa San Jose is a locus of hope, love

Sister Vanderneck stands in front of a picture of St. Joseph, for whom the organization is named. Photo by Claire Murray.

Sister Vanderneck stands in front of a picture of St. Joseph, for whom the organization is named. Photo by Claire Murray.

By: Claire Murray

Diana Morales and her five-year-old daughter, Suye, left El Salvador in May 2015.

“They murdered her brother in their home. That was the turning point,” Flor de Maria translates, referring to the record-breaking gang violence that roils the small country and contributed to over 4,000 homicides in the past year.

Diana asked strangers for a ride out of El Salvador, into Guatemala and eventually into Mexico where the pair boarded a cramped train. After four months of travel, the train crossed into Arizona.

Immigration authorities arrested Diana and Suye, but fortunately allowed them temporary refuge at the Pio Decimo Center in Tucson, Arizona, a convent run by Sister Betty Adams. Sister Betty knew of an organization that could help them – an organization in Brookline.

One final trip on a Greyhound bus brought Diana and Suye to the conclusion of their journey. They soon met Sister Janice Vanderneck who brought them to the dimly-lit basement of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church at the intersection of Glenarm Avenue and 933 Brookline Blvd. Inside is Casa San Jose, a nonprofit organization that helps Pittsburgh’s Latin American community.

On a recent Wednesday, Diana sits in Casa San Jose. Children’s toys fill the room along with a microwave, and Latin American flags hang from the ceiling. Flor de Maria, a volunteer at the organization, translates Diana’s words.

Recounting the dramatic story does not bother Diana. She talks freely and pokes at her white Asics, brand new, but too tight around the ankles. She is safe now thanks to Sister Janice and Casa San Jose.

On this particular day, nuns, clients, volunteers, paid employees and visitors bustle around the hallways. Everyone talks at once, and a flurry of Spanish and English crosses the air.

Amidst the chaos, one voice sets the tone. Sister Janice Vanderneck started Casa San Jose to provide social services to Pittsburgh’s Latin Americans after working with the growing population for ten years.

“In 2012, the Sisters of St. Joseph said to me, ‘There’s still a need for services to Latino people. You have this passion in your heart. Let’s set up an office and call it what?’ Well I said ‘Casa San Jose.’ The house of St. Joseph,” Vanderneck explains.

Silhouetted cutouts of St. Joseph cover the main office’s bulletin board. Sister Janice pulls a tattered page of Spanish quotes off of the wall that describe St. Joseph as “a refugee without a country.”

“When he woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord told him to do. In other words, he believed in his dreams. We always tell our clients that. Have confidence, have hope, believe in your dreams. Our people can get very discouraged,” Sister Janice explains.

Diana is no stranger to discouragement. She personally dreams of one day opening a Salvadoran restaurant in Pittsburgh. However, Diana knows she is just beginning another difficult journey.

The hardest part of adapting to American culture?

Diana laughs.  “Ingles,” she says, no translation needed.

Diana, like other immigrants, must learn to speak, understand and read English before progressing with her American life. Without English, Diana cannot work. She can hardly take public transportation. She cannot talk to her doctor, her daughter’s teacher or the lawyer who is helping her apply for citizenship.

“You can’t make a person learn English, as much as they desire it. They have to be literate and educated in their own language before they can learn another … One of our big goals is to provide translation for people who are new to the country,” explains Sister Janice.

Although the organization’s volunteers and employees are bilingual, clients face rejection and discrimination outside the walls of Casa San Jose.

Liz volunteers at Casa San Jose every Thursday. She provides translation for clients at their appointments around the city. Liz prefers to remain anonymous due to harsh animosity she receives for her work at Casa San Jose.

“I went to dinner with certain people from my church — Christian, wonderful people. I told them about volunteering at the organization and one said, ‘There are no immigrants here. There are no refugees in Pittsburgh. There are illegal people that sneak their way in here.’ It made me so sad… They are the most humble, hardworking people I’ve met.”

Liz attends large gatherings where refugees, like Diana, recount their journeys to America. The emotional stories inspire Liz to continue working with Latinos despite harsh comments from others.

Sister Janice is motivated by something else – the children.

“It’s very hopeful to work with them, getting kids enrolled in college, getting the Pittsburgh Promise Scholarship, when they do well in school, get good grades. It’s very encouraging,” she says.

In addition to translation services, Casa San Jose runs several programs that target youth and adolescent. Sister Janice works with a group of teens that meets once a week.

“The whole point of that is to show them the importance of studying, of getting a high school degree and going on to a university possibly,” Sister Janice explains. Youth also use this gathering as a chance to interact with bilingual students and maintain their Latino heritage.

Jeimy Sanchez-Ruiz, the organization’s AmeriCorps worker, runs an after-school program at Beechwood Elementary School, which has a 20 percent Latino population. The program teaches English to kindergarten and firstgrade ESL learners.

“My first activity is to have them write their name and learn the letters of their name in English. One little step can make a big difference,” Jeimy says.

Children often pick up a second language faster than their parents. Diana jokes that Suye will soon be teaching her English.

Suye attends kindergarten everyday at the convent in Beaver Falls where she and her mother live. The convent is, of course, also run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. The Sisters will house the pair until Diana learns enough English to work a steady job. In the meantime, Diana cleans the convent daily and visits the St. Mark’s basement several times each week.

Diana enjoys the company of the organization’s workers and the other immigrants. She walks down the halls showing pictures of her daughter’s smiling face to anyone who will look.

“She says if it wasn’t for Casa San Jose and Sister Janice, she doesn’t know where she’d be right now,” Flor translates.

Diana exudes a genuine excitement for her new life in America. She explains that Sister Janice frequently gives her money to call her mother in El Salvador, and last week, her doctor gave her $20 to buy her daughter’s lunch. Despite her tumultuous past, Diana radiates gratitude.

“She says she’s happy. She’s very happy that she ended up over here because most people don’t have this blessing.”