Sister Elizabeth selected as The Telegraph’s Person of the Year

lfabian@macon.comDecember 28, 2013 

Sister Elizabeth Greim once resisted the life she now relishes.

The little Catholic girl growing up in Boston would pray every night not to receive the calling that has defined her.

“Becoming a sister was not what I wanted to be. I could have lived a nice life, but it wouldn’t be the one I would thrive in,” Greim said earlier this month while working at Daybreak, the homeless center she helped build in Macon.

Her office is next to the front door, but her work is everywhere.

She befriends Macon’s poor, serves its homeless and intercedes for international victims of sex trafficking.

Those efforts and her role in fusing different faiths to shoulder that work has earned her the distinction of The Telegraph’s Person of the Year for 2013.

“You can’t say ‘no’ to Sister,” Daybreak volunteer coordinator Nan Eaton said. “There’s something about her. It’s magical, I guess.”

‘One miracle after another’

Daybreak Assistant Director Patricia Bogatschow describes a “circle of grace” that surrounds the 53-year-old Greim.

“I think that’s why Daybreak is such a success,” she said. “People see that and catch that, then they feel the same thing and they run with it.”

Bogatschow thinks the apostolic Daughter of Charity creates the environment that makes Daybreak such a success.

“There’s just a real honesty and genuineness about her that just sort of resonates and permeates everything she touches,” Bogatschow said.

In less than a year, donations and grants doubled Daybreak’s initial fundraising goal of $175,000 back in 2012.

Greim once described the old, dusty warehouse on Walnut Street as a little cathedral where the blessings pour in.

Now the renovated building with donated tile and bare brick walls is a haven for those who don’t have a roof over their heads.

Lisa Hewell was living along the Ocmulgee River when she moved from Athens to Macon in February. Greim took the time to ask how the woman wound up without a home.

“We’ve got to get you off the river,” she told the 48-year-old who was suffering excruciating back pain.

Greim called a surgeon and arranged for Hewell’s operation.

Determined that Hewell would not be discharged to the river, she collected donations to put the patient up in a motel for three months. Volunteers brought her a hot meal each day during her recovery.

Now Hewell is working in the Daybreak offices but still wears a back brace.

Greim recently took her to a dentist, who will be restoring the gaps in her smile.

“It’s like it’s been one miracle after another one,” Hewell said after moving into her new apartment through River Edge Behavioral Health. “I consider it an honor to come down here and work for her.”

Greim put nearly everybody to work decorating Daybreak during the Christmas party earlier this month. Since many of the participants don’t have their own living rooms, she wanted all to have a chance to spruce up the place.

About 75 people milled around the community room. Some strung popcorn, others wrote Christmas cards and a few played checkers.

Looking out at the gathering, Greim realized how difficult it can be to tell the difference between the workers and those they are serving.

“We’re all here, and right now it doesn’t make any difference to any of us where we come from or how we got here,” she said. “We’re just here to celebrate community.”

She may know some of their secrets and circumstances that got them there, but it does not matter.

“Everybody’s made mistakes. We all have done things that we don’t want anybody to know about,” she said. “Here they can just be themselves and just be the good people their moms and dads wanted them to be in the beginning.”

Compelled, not called

As a child spending the night at Nana’s, young Elizabeth prayed the Stations of the Cross, a Catholic observance that traces Jesus’ steps to crucifixion.

They thought about the suffering of people they knew and prayed for them.

During the day, she and her grandmother would often pack peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to give to anyone they saw in Boston who needed something to eat.

Her grandmother also enjoyed handing out gift cards at the Burger King.

Greim smiles when she talks about her father’s mother, Theresa Greim.

“Everything about her marked who I am,” she said of the devout grandmother who became a physical therapist after her marriage failed. “She made adventurous choices.”

Looking back through those nightly mental walks to Calvary, Greim realizes she learned a lesson about service versus forced servitude.

In the Fifth Station, Simon is called to help Jesus carry the cross. In the Sixth Station, a woman named Veronica steps forward, unsolicited, and wipes Jesus’ face.

“Veronica saw the love of Christ in giving himself to us, so she was compelled to reach out and touch the face of a dying man,” Greim said.

It is Veronica’s compulsion to serve that Greim discovered in the core of her own being.

After high school, college, broken romantic relationships and teaching, she entered the Daughters of Charity at age 36.

About the only thing she didn’t embrace about her schooling was the shoe dress code.

She had to leave behind her beloved brown sandals and don shoes of navy or brown.

Greim, who says she’s an introvert at heart, embraced the cloistered life of prayer and studying. She came to realize her mission was with the people.

As much as little Elizabeth was praying for a different life, Greim now embraces her vocation and its vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

No matter how cold the weather, her bare toes are back where they belong, in her trademark brown Birkenstock sandals.

“I hate wearing shoes,” she said.

With her own struggles to discover God’s plan for her, she strives to make it easier for others to reach their potential.

“It’s really important to help others see who they were intended to be,” Greim said of her work at Daybreak. “I get up excited. I want to live my life every day.”

Although Catholic nuns no longer are required to dress in traditional habits, Greim chooses to wear her coif, a navy veil that covers her hair.

“I felt like that it helped me remember who I was each morning and what I’m here to do,” she said.

She realizes some see the hair covering as a symbol of hope, or a mantle of service.

“This is my way of claiming my vocation, especially in an area that’s non-Catholic,” she said.

It’s also an identifier that helps her bridge diversity.

“She can bring such diverse people together and bring out the best in all of them,” said Macon’s Kay Gerhardt.

Greim often hugs the men and women who visit almost daily.

“She’s happiest when she’s out here, talking to the homeless, the poorest of the poor,” said Gerhardt, now a board member for DePaul USA, the organization that birthed Daybreak. “She has such a beautiful spirit. It just shines through.”

Gerhardt met Greim when sister first came to Macon. The two later worked together at Family Advancement Ministries, where Greim was executive director before coming to Daybreak.

“She can go into a room and read a group of people and know exactly what to say to engage them,” Gerhardt said.

Birth of Daybreak

When Greim first got involved in a Mercer University-borne effort to curtail human sex-trafficking, she visited churches near Family Advancement Ministries locations on High and Orange streets.

Through a call to action over Macon’s plethora of massage parlors, she assembled volunteers from St. Joseph Catholic Church, First Baptist and the Unitarian Universalist congregations for Bless These Hands, a ministry to help women.

After the group put on a successful festival a few years ago, they started exploring building a day center for the downtrodden.

They envisioned a clearing house where those in need can be directed to services that can turn their lives around.

DePaul USA was looking for another program to aid the homeless, and Daybreak was launched. A dozen congregations from nine different faiths now pledge support to keep the center open.

People come to wash clothes, take a shower, call loved ones, check messages from relatives or get a medical examination. They can relax in an easy chair or chat with volunteers and friends.

“It shouldn’t be about the haves and the have-nots,” Greim said while enjoying the festive spirit of the holiday party.

At one of the tables sat Kim Blount, who was coloring a gingerbread house ornament for the Christmas tree.

The 37-year-old Macon woman now has a place of her own, and Greim has been helping her find odds and ends, like pots and pans.

“She’s a real nice person,” Blount said. “She helps you out however she can.”

Cedric Ford said Greim dug into her own pockets to keep him from getting his natural gas cut off.

“Sister Elizabeth had paid the bill, unbeknownst to me,” Ford said. “I was breathless.”

Ford arrived at the party with something special, a donation from his disability check as a way to give back.

“She’s just God-sent, God’s gift to humanity,” Ford said. “She’s a jewel.”

Lisa Hewell might be self-conscious about her soon-to-be-repaired missing teeth, but Daybreak’s executive director has given her plenty to smile about.

“Sister Elizabeth is a person I strive to be more like every day. She’s a joy to be around,” Hewell said. “To see her work and what she does for other people, and her heart that she has, the compassion she has, it drives me to want to do more.”

Greim knows she will one day leave Daybreak when she receives another mission.

She is confident volunteers will carry on. The team logged more than 8,000 volunteer hours in just the first nine months of this year.

“It still flabbergasts me that people just show up to volunteer,” Gerhardt said. “(Sister Elizabeth) just seems to bring out the best in people,” she said. “Some kind of way it makes you want to be a better person yourself.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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