Sister Kay, the champion of Jonestown

Sister Kay talks to Tower about her her life and her work in Jonestown

Jacob Strier

Sister Kay talks to Tower about her her life and her work in Jonestown

Alexandra Bentzien, Features Editor

Education after primary school is not mandatory.  Most of the adults are illiterate.  Women work as domestic help for practically no pay and men earn seventy dollars a week driving tractors in the fields.  This is Jonestown, Mississippi in 1978.   

The year marked Sister Kay’s first visit to the town.  At the time, Sister Kay was working in an inner city school in Seattle, Washington as both a teacher and a principal before accepting an opportunity to teach at a Catholic high school in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a town twelve miles away from Jonestown.  During her visit, she was struck by the number of children roaming the streets, not attending school and the town’s “rugged” physical condition.  

Though Sister Kay returned to work in the Spokane area of Washington from 1978 to 1984, her memory of Jonestown compelled her to return with fellow sisters . “I said to myself, ‘The people here have been discouraged and deprived.  We’re Sisters of the Holy Name, and if we can help these people in any way, we should.’”

What started out as a trip to meet the families of two of her homeroom students ended up as a lifelong pursuit.

In 1989, after realizing there was no outlet to help and mentor the children of the Jonestown, Sister Kay established a house to hold education programs for students in grades 6-12.  Since its founding, around 50 children every day have attended a program and participated in activities such as gardening, boys and girls volunteer groups, softball, piano lessons, after-school tutoring, and even theater productions.   

At first, the effects of poverty in so many families was difficult, but Sister Kay was continuously inspired by girls she works with, many of whom have overcome an adverse home situation in pursuit of an education.  Sister Kay can recount the names and stories of the many girls and boys she has worked with, and stays closely connected with those who return to volunteer at Jonestown.

“It’s not enough to educate, but to help people, to come back, and to help what’s coming,” Sister Kay said.  The promise to help not only a present generation but the ones to follow as well motivated Sister Kay herself to return to Jonestown many years ago, and is the same philosophy which has kept her there ever since.  She helps both boys and girls who return to volunteer with her to find scholarships in order pursue a college education.  She keeps in touch with all of the fifty-sixty scholarship recipients, twelve of whom have been able to complete a masters or doctorate degree.  

Jonestown, 2017: Education is now mandatory, and a nearby casino established in 1995 employs a large percentage of the town at a set wage.  Still only a quarter of the children in Jonestown graduate high school.  Though Sister Kay recognizes her contribution to the community’s progress, she is committed to bettering the community in any way she can: “I plan to stay and work in Jonestown until I can’t work or talk anymore.”