As we have started our new blog series called “Kingdom Vision,” I wanted to share some stories about the impact that the gift of time and talents has on those we serve. There are always needs, and simple acts of service can go so far. Enjoy this blog written by our Development Director, Lisa Reinschmidt
Meet Grandma Frances
If you have lived in and around South Billings or been at Orchard Elementary in the past 19 years, its likely you’ve met a tiny woman loved by many. Grandma Frances, Ms. Frances, Nana, and Pancha are just a few of the nicknames she answers to. She has been a constant in this neighborhood she proudly calls home.
Guadalupe “Frances” Gonzales, one of five children, has raised and loved a total of 15 children and grandchildren. September 14, 2001 will forever be burned into her memory – it was the day her daughter was murdered. Spurred into action, this single mom took in six grandchildren overnight. At the time, she was living in a one-bedroom apartment. She soon found an eviction notice on her door – too many people in the household. Panicked, she called Patti Webster at the Housing Authority, only to discover there was an outstanding debt of $1,400 preventing her from finding affordable housing big enough for this family of seven. She wondered where in the world was she going to find this kind of money? She was told to go see Father Paul at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish for help.
Hope in Desperate Times
Through provision that only God could orchestrate, as Father Paul quietly and compassionately listened to her story, he reached into a drawer and pulled out a checkbook. She thought, “anything helps, I’ll find the money somehow.” She looked at the check and hope found its way back into her world! Father Paul’s check was for the entire amount! She was astonished as Father Paul and his parish gave her a glimpse of hope in the midst of tragedy!
The Power of Community
With the check in hand, she went back to Patti who helped her find housing. Just south of Riverside Junior High, she found a home and a place to raise her six grandchildren on Monroe Street. Other people stepped in as well. Judy McKinnley and her church family from Faith Chapel not only gathered enough furniture to fully furnish the entire home, but made sure the kids had a memorable Christmas!
The South Side ‘hood
“Tell me about the hood when you first moved in Ms. Frances,” I asked her. She started to laugh – I mean belly laugh! Their first weekend welcomed them with a drive-by shooting and her screaming out “Everyone hit the ground!” This was followed by out of control parties, fights, jumps, walk-by shootings (who knew?), constant cop cars and chaos. “Back in the day, I would never have recommended anyone move into this neighborhood!” After a while she was sick of it. She decided to start fighting back – quite literally! This tiny 5’2” powerhouse would jump into the fray and tear apart guys who were fighting and tell them this was HER neighborhood, she lived here with her grandchildren, and she was NOT going to put up with their nonsense! They needed to take it somewhere else – and they did! She was determined to put down roots and she wasn’t going to let others steal that from her. “I think they all thought I was a bit crazy and I think that helped,” she said with a grin on her face.
I asked her how she feels about her neighborhood now. “I know everyone on the block, I know their kids, I never shut my door until 10pm – I am safe here,” she replied. What changed? “Families moved in and the riffraff moved out!” Her grandkids grew up playing kickball in the street along with baseball and dodgeball. They had epic block water fights; they all looked out for one another. It was good.
It’s Hard – But Good
But it was not without challenges. Her family struggles include drug addiction, stabbings, and grandkids dropping out of school. Yet, in the middle of all of that was her faith. As story after story of hardship tumbled out of her, I asked her how she persevered. “Prayer. I prayed all of the time. I have always felt the hand of God on my shoulder and I am so grateful.” She told me, “I asked neighbors to pray with me and for my family; I reached out to the community and they prayed. It was prayer that got me through the hard times. I never stopped believing that God would do what He promised to do.” When I asked her about answered prayers, she smiled as tears started to well up around her eyes. Then, a smile emerged as she talked about how all but one of her grandkids have found their way out of addiction and into health. How her youngest grandson is working on his HiSet while maintaining a full-time job! How she is blessed to cherish and love on great grandchildren now – something she never thought she would be able to do. It’s a good life.
Loving God & Loving Others
We talked about joy and contentment. “Ah, joy. Joy is when I get to get up out of bed and go to Orchard and love on all those little kids,” she said. She smiled and told me stories about a little boy who lost his tooth on the playground and couldn’t find it. They searched in the dirt for as long as they could with no luck. The little guy was beside himself because the tooth fairy wouldn’t be able to find him. Turns out the “Orchard” tooth fairy did indeed find him and gave him four quarters with a little note saying how proud of him she was. He never knew it was Ms. Frances. To say she loves the kids she works with would be an understatement. She prays for them, hugs them, and would do anything for them. It’s in their smiles that she finds her joy. It’s the relationships she has developed, the kids she stays in contact with, and the God she loves that rounds her out. This resilient, iconic force turns 70 this summer and is looking forward to working at Orchard as long as they will let her. Fifteen years and counting.
So, how do you sum up a gal like this? I’m not sure I can. She is fearless, sassy, possesses a kind of stick-to-it-ness that most can’t even dream of, and has been through the most difficult of times. She is full of grit, loves her family passionately, and is proud of her heritage. She will stay in this neighborhood as long as she can. She is home.
I have known Frances since I started working with CLDI in 2013. Every time I get to visit with her and see that delightful smile is a sweet time. She blesses me and reminds me that it really can be that simple: love God, love others. I’ll keep trying.