Sisters helping the homeless together

With many nonprofits understaffed, sisters Janet and Judy Fireman are using both their Giving Accounts and their time to amplify their impact: making healthy meals from scratch for homeless women.

In their fourth week of social distancing during the COVID-19 crisis, sisters Janet and Judy Fireman chopped 25 pounds of potatoes in the kitchen of Sister Jose Women’s Center, a Tucson shelter for women experiencing homelessness

Just as they’ve done for years, the sisters were cooking healthy dinners for the center’s 36 overnight residents—but sequestered in the kitchen now instead of serving the dinners themselves.

“We didn’t hesitate for a second when pandemic status was announced,” said Judy, 77. “I turned to Janet and said, ‘Do you have any reservations about volunteering?’ and she said, ‘Absolutely not … Let’s go.’”

Fireman sisters in front of Sister Jose Women's Center

Judy and Janet Fireman at Sister Jose Women’s Center in Tucson.

Fireman sisters cooking in the shelter kitchen

“We cook for these women the way we cook for our family,” Judy said. 

Since the pandemic hit the United States in March 2020, many nonprofits have found themselves with fewer volunteers as at-risk individuals make the tough choice to stay home. And with many nonprofits shuttered or understaffed, women experiencing homelessness are more vulnerable than ever. The Fireman sisters are using both their Giving Accounts and their time to amplify their impact at Sister Jose Women’s Center.

Even for seasoned volunteers like Janet and Judy, hearing about the pandemic’s effects on the women at the center is wrenching.

“Last week, we overheard a conversation between two women planning to return to the street. One was explaining how to sleep in a tree to keep yourself safe,” Judy said. “She was giving very specific instructions on how to avoid falling out and how to hang your belongings among the branches to avoid theft.

“I was reminded of the continuous presence of violence in these women’s lives,” she said. “I’ve never imagined such a conversation in my life. Nor do I, as a volunteer, have anything to contribute to it except appreciation of these women’s flexibility and ingenuity and bravery.”

“Where do the women sleep?"

Fireman sister's mural

In 2009, retired nurse Jean Fedigan founded Sister Jose Women’s Center in a tiny converted bungalow after she discovered there was no women’s shelter in Tucson. Demand for the center’s limited capacity was so high that women sat in line for hours to use the shower and the single washing machine. Some slept in the relative safety of the fenced-in front yard at night.

After several years of struggle in the little house, the center saved enough in donations to move to a new, larger facility. In 2019, its first year in the new building, Sister Jose received more than 26,000 visits from women in need. Fedigan expects that number to be significantly higher during 2020.

“They are our mothers, our sisters, our daughters,” Fedigan said. ”Life is sometimes unfair; our goal here is to stand with these women, to let them know that they are not forgotten.”

It’s more than just a hot meal and a place to sleep—the facility offers showers, washing machines and an air-conditioned escape from the vicious heat of Arizona summers. It provides a connection point where homeless women can chat, form relationships and be introduced to community resources. And it’s a supply depot where they can get necessities like toothpaste, soap and shampoo—and, starting in March 2020, cloth masks.

Comic books, museums and living with your sister

Judy and Janet younget

Left: Janet Fireman as a history curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Right: Judy Fireman as an editor at Marvel Comics.

Janet and Judy as little girls

The Fireman sisters as children growing up in Arizona

Growing up in Arizona, the Fireman sisters were close—and, with their red hair and matching smiles, hard to tell apart. Even their parents often mixed them up.

“To this day, many people have trouble distinguishing between us, and that’s fine,” Janet said. “We’re accustomed to answering to either name.

From the Marvel Comics headquarters in New York City to the history curator’s office at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the Fireman sisters developed remarkably different careers a continent apart. In New York, Judy worked as an editor for both Marvel and DC Comics. She created coffee-table books as an independent editor, and pioneered digital curriculum design for emerging online graduate programs. In California, Janet worked as a history curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and served 13 years as the editor of scholarly journal California History.

After a lifetime apart, Janet and Judy decided to retire together to Tucson, making community service and philanthropic giving a priority.

“I’ve chosen to give consistently to places where I could see the results, where I could see that the work being done was good work,” Judy said. “Having a charitable fund allowed me to be more directed and organized about my giving—it’s easy as pie.”

The challenges—and rewards—of volunteering

As soon as Janet and Judy heard about Sister Jose, they knew they wanted to get involved.

“We give Sister Jose money through our Fidelity Charitable Giving Accounts, and we give our time, our skills as cooks, and—more importantly—as chatty ladies, happy to help these people who need our help,” Judy said.

“We just want to be open and helpful in any way we can,” Janet added.

Though they are both lifelong volunteers, working directly with people experiencing homelessness was new to Janet.

“I didn’t want to say the wrong thing,” Janet said. “I didn’t want to misstep.”

Fireman sisters mural

"We can communicate fairly easily once we stop worrying about our differences." Judy said

Such concerns are common among new volunteers.

“I’ve learned that it’s easy to interact with anyone once you just engage and talk to them, but that’s a big hurdle for a lot of people,” Janet said.

Volunteering can come with complex emotions: The joy of connection and the warmth of helping can initially be tempered by contrasting feelings of awkwardness, fear and even mutual embarrassment. For new recruits, it can be overwhelming.

“I’ve learned that volunteering in a shelter can be a shaming experience on both sides—they are ashamed to be in need, and I can feel ashamed that I am not in need,” Judy said. “I learned that one of the best ways to help is to normalize our relationship, so we’re speaking to each other one-to-one. We can communicate fairly easily once we stop worrying about our differences. Given different circumstances, after all, I could be homeless, too.”

Pandemic brings more needs than ever

Change is everywhere at Sister Jose since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Thirty-six women chose to shelter in place in the building’s living quarters. That meant that no one else could come inside, so Fedigan stood at the door each day in mask and gloves, greeting women still living on the street. Sandwiches, sports drinks, water bottles, cloth masks—on a typical day, Sister Jose was serving necessities to more than 100 women through walk-up service.

If there is no safe haven available, the safest option for homeless women is to stay on the move, often walking many miles in a day. With the safety of Sister Jose restricted to those sheltering in place, requests for walking shoes skyrocketed.

 Janet and Judy ransacked their own closets and joined other volunteers in putting the word out to family and friends, finding dozens of shoes for women who needed them.

Community members like the Fireman sisters are critical to fulfilling the Sister Jose mission, Fedigan said.

“Needs don’t go away just because a virus is out there—they multiply,” she said. “We are a country that has things, and we should be able to help one another . . . whether that’s food or clothing or just compassion.

“To have people like Janet and Judy keep showing up is affirmation to me of who we are as an organization, and who we are as a people. For me, it’s a miracle.”

Fireman sisters mural

This testimonial and the statements and opinions expressed in this article are based on interviews with Janet and Judith Fireman, who each provided permission to use her name (and the name of her firm). This testimonial statement is not indicative of future programs and/or services and may not be representative of the experience of all donors.

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