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Building a bridge of love

By MELISSA RIGNEY BAXTER

September 24, 2008

There’s more than 3,000 miles separating Elm Grove from Quito, Ecuador, but Pat Parks has helped bridge that distance many times over during her four decades working with Family Unity International, Inc. Family Unity International is a volunteer-organization that supports The Working Boys Center. Parks is now president of the state-side part of the organization.

She became involved in the group during the early 1970s after her sister, Sister Miguel Conway (called Gadget by family and friends), joined the center as co-director in 1967. "I was 1,000 percent against my sister going," says Parks. "I was angry at her. I told her she had no business taking off like that to work in a foreign country."

Parks says she could never have imagined the impact the Working Boys Center would have on her own life. What began with reading her sister’s letters and a visit to Ecuador, soon blossomed into a labor of love. "Gadgy kept writing me these letters. I couldn’t sleep thinking about it, and I realized I had to do something," Parks says.

The Working Boys Center was founded in 1964 by the Rev. John Halligan and has served more than 5,000 families over the years. The center is a social work of the Jesuits and the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Through job training, work and education, the families of Ecuador are shown a different way to lift themselves out of poverty and create a new future for themselves.

Parks, who at the time was working as a high school math teacher and raising her own family, began a serious fund-raising effort. "We had these parties at our house. We called them "give-ins," sort of a take on the TV show "Laugh In," Parks says. Her kids collected money at the door, and the donations started coming in.

She decided to ask others to host parties too. "Soon, I evolved into approaching foundations and corporations. I was always thinking up new things." Over the years, she’s also planned annual events and speaking opportunities for Halligan when he visited.

Not only did Parks raise money for the organization, she also helped increase awareness and recruit an army of volunteers, both young and old, from the Milwaukee area and around the country.

A petite 71-year old, Parks is more than a dreamy visionary; she’s a worker bee with a no-nonsense approach to getting the job done. Her voluntary work for Family United International is the true mission of her life. She and her husband, Jim, just returned from Ecuador, clearly energized about the Working Boys Center.

Each of the seven Parks’ birth children has contributed in some way to the success of the center, as volunteers, fundraisers or more. "I told my kids a long time ago that we’re like Olympic torch bearers," Parks says. "Someday this concept will spill all over Latin America. The program empowers people to escape poverty by using their God-given talents."

From humble beginnings in the attic of a church in Quito, the Working Boys Center now has 98 teachers, a team of health care professionals, a day care center, vocational and educational training and an entire campus of activity. According to a study conducted by the organization in 2007, 75 percent of graduates have moved beyond poverty to bring hope to their families and their country.

"To see the center where it is today and to see how you can change the world person by person, it’s thrilling," Parks says. "I believe this movement will change the world."

And Parks has certainly done her part to inspire that change

 


This story ran in the September 2008 issue of: