Sister Jean Ann Meyer
One element of the Directional Statement for the Sisters of the Presentation is that we will “foster partnerships.”
Sister Jean Ann Meyer knows a lot about “partnerships.” She has been fostering them most of her life. In her current position as director of the after-school and summer EXCEL learning programs in Okolona, Mississippi, she depends on partnerships to sustain her ministry.
EXCEL is a non-profit, separately-incorporated organization founded by Liz Brown, CSJ, a St. Joseph of Carondelet Sister from St. Louis, Missouri, and Nancy Shreck, OSF, a Franciscan Sister from Dubuque, Iowa, in cooperation with local citizens of Okolona. While the activities of EXCEL began in response to a voiced concern for assistance in the education of children, EXCEL now has many programs which serve the community.
Okolona is a town of about 2,800 people, very few of whom are Catholic. There has never been a resident priest, so parishioners gather for a Sunday Word and Communion Service. The “parish” consists of seven families. Presently there is only one Catholic student in the public school of approximately 500 students.
Life for Sister Jean Ann began in Waukon, Iowa, where she was the first-born of 10 children of Ferris and Mary Lou Meyer, so she first learned “partnering” very early. In Sister Jean Ann’s youth the family moved to West Union, Iowa, where she attended Holy Name elementary school and the public high school. After receiving her bachelor’s degree from the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, she spent nine years in a public school in Western Iowa, variously teaching grades two through four. Her sisters wanted her closer to home, so she returned to the place of her birth to teach for a year at St. Patrick School in Waukon.
Late in the fall of that year, Sister Mary Karen Jasper, principal at St. Patrick, stopped at Jean Ann’s door one day to ask, “Have you ever thought about being a Sister?” Upon Jean Ann’s hesitant response, Sister Karen said, “Well, think about it.” And she walked away, leaving Jean Ann with a challenge which she took so seriously that in December she attended a “Come and See” weekend at the Sisters of the Presentation. She entered the community the next August (1982).
While she was in the novitiate, Sister Jean Ann taught at Resurrection School in Dubuque. Subsequently she taught at St. Dorothy School in Chicago, Illinois, and in Key West, Bankston, and Peosta, all in Iowa.
During the late 1980s, the Presentation community was asking itself three questions: “What would Nano Nagle be doing today?” and “What would Mother Vincent be doing today?” and “What should we be doing today?” A comment from another sister prompted Sister Jean Ann to think, “There may be some place that needs someone (not me exactly, but someone). And there would be many others to teach here in rural Iowa. Maybe there is some other place that needs me more.” So she started looking.
In 1993 a member of the Leadership Team suggested that Sister Jean Ann might like to help in the summer school program in Okolona, which interested Sister Jean Ann enough to accept. At the end of the summer, a possible position in EXCEL opened. In the following August (1994) the community approved her acceptance of this position. After about six years at EXCEL, Sister became the director of the after-school program. That position requires that she “put it all together” to see how to help each child. This program involves two hour-and-a-half sessions, beginning at 3:00 p.m., for students in grades one to eight. Two hour-long sessions for older students begin at 6:15 p.m. Weekly Sister Jean Ann confers with the children’s classroom teachers to see what each student needs, what their assignments are and what foundational skills need work. Regularly tutors talk with the parents or guardians to inform them of what has been accomplished during the sessions.
What started as summer learning opportunities for children has now grown to EXCEL, Inc., serving 10,000 people a year. EXCEL services include after-school and summer learning programs, ABE/GED instruction, job preparation programs, senior citizen socialization and wellness programs, and computer lab access. In addition, EXCEL hosts a wellness clinic for children, the county meal site program and the Tenn Tom Moving Youth Forward C.N.A. program. The resale store and the coffee shop are fundraising efforts. There is also collaboration with the Salvation Army Mission, Okolona Food Pantry and Narcotics Anonymous. EXCEL is often called upon for assistance with utility bills, food and furnishings after fires or disasters and crisis counseling. The outreach is multifaceted and interwoven.
Over the years various groups have come to Okolona to lend their time and talent. Parishioners from St. Edward Parish in Waterloo, Iowa, and St. Dennis Parish in Madison, Wisconsin, have often come to help. But every year for 20 years a group from Resurrection Parish in Dubuque has been spending time in Okolona, maintaining a contact with the former teacher in their school.
Ellen Patch, also a former Resurrection teacher and now the parish pastoral associate, has organized the group for many of those years. The Resurrection volunteers bring items for the re-sale store, funded by donations from parishioners, and Ellen borrows computers from the school to broaden the skills of students in the EXCEL program. The “partners,” members of several groups, and individuals near and far, have helped with remodeling or fixing up the buildings, doing yard work, painting and offering help wherever it is needed. But most important are the relationships which are built through this volunteer process.
Sister Jean Ann has now been with EXCEL for 20 years. When asked to explain her longevity, she replies, “I love the children and the families. Parents and grandparents want so much for their children, and they put energy into acquiring that. I am happy and honored to be a part of that, and my hope is that I can make a difference.” She continues, “I have grown and changed, and that is humbling, too. It is an honor to be able to be so closely associated with other people. We try to help the college students who volunteer to see the opportunities, and have them take that home so that they can realize what is happening in their own locations.”
“We always try to listen to people to see what is happening in their lives. We are always listening and walking with individuals‚” adds Sister Jean Ann. “EXCEL’s mission is to further education, promote community building, encourage community service and to foster healthy lives. We do this because we are most certainly all in this together.”
Anyone who knows Sister Jean Ann knows that she is by nature a gentle and caring person, one who would truly live that “listening and walking with.” And that explains her successful and long partnership with other people so many miles from home.
Left photo: Sister Jean Ann Meyer visits with her students before they begin computer classes.
Right photo: Sister Jean Ann Meyer visits with a parishioner and former student.