Jean Fedigan opened a shelter in a small house for women experiencing homelessness, believing it would be sufficient to aid the crisis in 2009. As the guest numbers increased, she was surprised.
“We see few on the street, but there are many, many more that remain hidden, abused, frightened and hungry,” Fedigan said. “That to me is unconscionable, we should not let any of it happen to anyone.”
Fedigan is the founder of the Sister José Women’s Center and has spent 14 years maintaining it for women throughout the city. At 75 years old, she said it’s time to pass the torch and step into a new role as chief mission officer, allowing her to be more present within the center. Previous chief operating officer Nicola Hartmann will be the nonprofit’s second chief executive officer.
Hartmann has worked for The Sister José Women’s Center for a year and a half and understood the importance of continuing Fedigan’s mission. This year alone, the nonprofit has seen a 42% increase in the women it serves, many displaced through eviction and rising rent. It’s a number Hartmann noted with a mix of pride and devastation; more people served at the center means more underserved by the community.
“Homeless women are hidden on our streets, and we get to know them because we see them,” Hartmann said. “I wanted to be part of how we could continue to serve them, to honor Jean’s legacy but to keep taking the organization to the next level.”
Fedigan’s new position will connect her more closely with the center’s guests and the community. The position will be part-time and allow Fedigan to connect with organizations and agencies for broader outreach.
In her time as CEO, Fedigan grew the women’s center to a staff of 30 and expanded their offerings to 42 overnight guests and up to 70 during the day. She spread her message of kindness and understanding, especially to those on the margins of society. Hartmann intends to continue this work and dedication while growing the center and its services.
“She’s very good with business and a woman of integrity and faith, and she has the heart,” Fedigan noted. “You cannot work with a population that needs so much without the heart to do it. She relies on that heart to allow herself to reach out and understand, to touch and work with the women.”
Hartman plans to add 15 beds to the center, along with spaces to include more services to guests. She noted nights when they had to turn people away because the women’s center could not house them and how hard it was in the winter.
As their numbers continue to increase, the two leaders understand the center will need to grow with it. Hartmann stated her predecessor’s legacy is always at the front of her mind during any major decisions. If the women’s center cannot provide compassion and care to all of its guests, its work is incomplete.
“What Jean created was the center of love, and none of this would be here without her tenacity and determination,” Hartmann said. “Every woman who comes in is treated with dignity and respect. Whenever I think about the growth and things we have to do, I keep that in mind.”
Named in honor of Sister José Hobday, the center was created by Fedigan to carry on the Franciscan nun’s dedication to help the poor and vulnerable. In 14 years and counting, she has helped thousands of displaced women in the greater Tucson area.
“I have an absolute belief that community makes a difference in how we help one another,” Fedigan said. “Until we stand with these people, with these women, and listen to them, then we will always have homelessness.”