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Sister Carol Weber, OP, left, participates in a round table discussion with President Barack Obama and other community leaders in Flint. Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press
May 6, 2016, Flint, Michigan – After months of helping the people on the North Side of Flint to deal with the crisis of contaminated water, Sister Carol Weber, OP, came away from a May 4, 2016, round table meeting with President Barack Obama with renewed hope for the children she serves. She was one of a group of community members chosen to meet with the President during his visit to Flint.
Sister Carol and Sister Judy Blake, CSJ, co-founders and co-directors of St. Luke’s N.E.W. Life Center, have been working since 2000 with the people of Flint, serving the needs of the people through such programs as employment preparation, a sewing co-op that provides women with a livelihood, and a food pantry.
Since the water crisis has begun, the Center has also become a bottled water distribution center. The Center also now offers a support and nutrition program for pregnant women and the mothers of small children, helping them to prepare nutritious meals to offset the effects of the lead in their children’s systems.
During the meeting with President Obama, Sister Carol said, she shared the concerns of the parents and grandparents of Flint. “First of all, they feel guilty because they were using the contaminated water for two years – making formula with it, cooking with it,” she said. She noted President Obama’s empathy and his words of encouragement: “We can either choose to recognize [the crisis] for what it is or go into despair.”
“I found him extremely understanding, extremely intelligent, genuine, and very, very much in a listening mode,” Sister Carol recalled. He listened to the concerns of each of the community leaders represented at the table – from two college students and a pastor from a neighboring church to a leader from the Hispanic community; and a representative of the plumbers’ union who asked that local people be hired to fix the pipes.
Also attending the meeting was Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who had tested the children of Flint, discovered the high levels of lead in their systems, and made the water crisis known publicly. Dr. Hanna-Attisha had pointed out that the children’s nutrition was already compromised by poverty; the lead in their systems added yet another disadvantage.
Still, Sister Carol found hope in President Obama’s assurance that the children of Flint will be okay. He gave the message that the children “are not going to be totally disabled and they are going to be okay – but we have to intercede” by making sure that the children eat healthy food, according to the recommendations. “I felt that this was the hope that we needed, but somebody in leadership had to say this clearly. I felt really that this was the beginning of change.”
She also spoke of the sense of support that she received from the meeting. “He talked about being behind us, being with us, but he said, ‘I can’t do it. You’re the people in the field who are really working.’ He was offering us not so much financial support but backing us in what we’re trying to do with our clients.”
Sister Carol was also impressed and moved by the many ways that President Obama demonstrated his desire to meet with and support the leaders at the table. He met them in Flint’s poorest neighborhood, in the poorest high school, bypassing the area in the high school library roped off by the Secret Service to greet each community leader with a handshake or hug; sending away the representatives of the press so he could meet privately with the leaders; and staying 15 minutes past the allotted time to continue the discussion.
She was especially moved by his parting words. “When he hugged me and thanked me for what I did in Flint, he said, ‘I want to thank your Order for all they do.’”