SISTER EILEEN McNERNEY
Sr. Eileen McNerney, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, founded Taller San Jose Hope Builders in 1995. In 1992, she invited three other nuns to move with her to a gang-ridden neighborhood in Santa Ana, where gun shots and drug sales were commonplace. One hot summer evening, Sister Eileen listened helplessly as a piercing cry rang through the open windows of her busy street; it was the agonizing wail of a mother who had just lost her second son to gang violence.
Each young person, no matter what his or her history, is precious in God’s sight and yet many of them are scared, stuck or broken.
This moment marked a turning point for Sister Eileen in her resolve to develop a program that could move young people from violence to productivity. By bringing together sponsors representing local government, churches, corporations, foundations, and private individuals, Sister Eileen opened an educational and job-training center in downtown Santa Ana for high-risk youth ages 18 – 28. She named the center Taller San Jose—St. Joseph’s Workshop—after St. Joseph, the patron saint of workers.
Sister Eileen is innately interested in young people and she wants to know what isn’t working for them and why. From the beginning, Sister Eileen identified poverty itself as the biggest barrier to advancement, and became an expert in creating programs that specifically address these barriers. In 2006, she received the James Irvine Foundation’s Leadership Award for her innovative and effective solutions in addressing significant issues in the state of California.
A talented painter, writer, and public speaker, Sister Eileen has also focused on giving a voice to a forgotten population. See Me. Hear Me. is a compilation of poetry written by Hope Builders students that was born out of Sister Eileen’s persistent efforts to help students capture their lives through words. Her belief is that writing is a tool that will help students climb from despair to hope and claim victory over the chronic, crushing poverty that threatens to overwhelm them. Sister Eileen authored her own book, A Story of Suffering and Hope: Lessons from Latino Youth (Paulist Press, 2005), which chronicles her dogged determination to find what it takes to walk wounded young people out of poverty.
“Each young person, no matter what his or her history, is precious in God’s sight,” says Sister Eileen, “and yet many of them are scared, stuck or broken. It saddens me to walk down the street and see a bird with a broken wing. I can’t always fix the bird, but I do believe that with God’s help, the young people who walk through Taller San Jose’s door, can one day fly.”
Sister Eileen served as Hope Builders’ Executive Director for 13 years. She is currently the Assistant General Superior of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange and serves on Hope Builders’ board of directors.