Breaking the cycle: Lawrence woman and Catholic Charities honored for their work toward peace and justice

Sara Taliaferro, left, was selected as the Lawrence Coalition for Peace and Justice's winner of the Tom and Anne Moore Peace and Justice Awards. Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas was selected as this year’s organization winner. Pictured, from right, are representatives Nickie Daneke, Jacob Schooler, Holly Hulburt and Karen Lewis.

When she answered her phone and heard that she had won an award recognizing her work in the community, Sara Taliaferro said she hung up.

Then came the tears.

“My initial reaction was embarrassment because I thought there has to be a list of hundreds of people who are doing amazing things in this community. I still believe that’s true,” she said. “Now I have to double down and be that person who deserves to be lifted up in this way.”

Each year, the Lawrence Coalition for Peace and Justice recognizes one person and one organization whose work best exemplifies peace and justice within the community, said Christine Smith, a representative of the coalition. The coalition accepts and sifts through nominations before selecting the annual winners of the Tom and Anne Moore Peace and Justice Awards.

Sara Taliaferro

This year, Taliaferro received a record four individual nominations, Smith said. Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas was selected as this year’s organization winner. The group was nominated last year as well, she said.

In their own ways, both Taliaferro and the Catholic Charities work hard to extend a hand to those in need of help, Smith said. Taliaferro was integral in helping the Lawrence Community Shelter find its new location, and she has brought countless numbers of community organizations together to seek out affordable housing and provide much-needed social services to the less fortunate in Lawrence.

Among other things, the Catholic Charities work on an ongoing basis to cover basic needs — food, clothing, rent assistance, transportation, medicine and more — to people in Douglas County, Smith said.

Nickie Daneke, director of stabilization for the charity, said that more recently the group has also started to help people get out from under high-interest payday loans.

Catholic Charities is among the recipients of one of this year's Peace and Justice Awards. Pictured are representatives Nickie Daneke, from right, Jacob Schooler, Holly Hulburt and Karen Lewis.

And it’s not just Douglas County the charity serves, Daneke said. The group’s reach extends to more than 20 counties in Kansas.

The Catholic Charities’ few employees and volunteers are “givers” by nature, Daneke said. To see their faces light up when their award was announced was a success in and of itself.

Everyone in the charity contributes to the mission, from the receptionist to the food pantry volunteers, Daneke said. Often, the people they help return to tell them how much their lives have changed for the better.

“We treat people with dignity and respect,” Daneke said. “There’s no judgment. It’s warm and welcoming.”

Taliaferro said a nonjudgmental attitude is crucial to her work as well. Though her credentials are extensive — they also include environmental work with Plymouth Congregational Church — she insists some of her most important work is done simply by communicating and persisting.

“My real skills are showing up and showing up again and asking questions,” she said. “Assuming a neutral or positive intent in the people I’m talking to and trying to allow people to have honest, visceral conversations with each other without feeling blamed.”

Everything she does is connected, Taliaferro said. Homelessness, substance abuse, mental illness, abuse and more. Everything has an impact.

By that line of thinking, breaking the cycle and attacking one issue — whether it’s recycling, affordable housing or mental illness — can push people in the right direction, Taliaferro said.

Not long ago, Taliaferro said she was personally thanked by a local teacher whose middle school student was recently placed into more stable housing with the student’s family.

“She said the transformation of that child, just within the last month, since getting in a home, is almost like it’s two different people,” Taliaferro said. “The way the child is getting along with peers, the way they’re performing academically, the way they feel about themselves, their overall health, interaction with teachers. It’s like somebody waved a magic wand.”

Too often, critics will say the less fortunate simply need to pull themselves up by their boot straps, Taliaferro said. But it’s important to acknowledge the very real, systemic challenges that often block the road to a stable life.

Breaking the cycle is the first step, Taliaferro said. From there, people can move forward, hopefully avoiding the pitfalls of the past.

Daneke agreed with Taliaferro, noting the work they do is most effective when they partner with other community organizations.

“It’s absolutely a team effort,” she said.

Groups like Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, the Lawrence Community Shelter and the Willow Domestic Violence Center all play an important part in the community, Daneke said.

These services, and many others, do their part in “putting a little more justice in the economic problems we face in this county,” she said.

Both Taliaferro and the Catholic Charities will be presented with their awards today at the May Day Peace Gala, which is hosted by the Lawrence Coalition for Peace and Justice.

The gala will be held at 7 p.m. at Centennial Park’s western shelter, 600 Rockledge Road. The event, with refreshments, is free and open to the public.