TRAVERSE CITY — Necole Flanigan was a 24-year-old nun who gave up everything — car, clothes and job — to join a convent more than three years ago, only to decide last year that she wasn't ready to take her vows.
Flanigan describes herself as "one of the most determined people you'll ever meet." Still, she needed emotional support and help in finding community resources. Her family didn't agree with her decision.
Approaching HelpLink, a Traverse City organization that guides people in need to helping agencies, she was directed to the Family Partnership mentoring program. It's one of the area's first mentoring programs for adults like herself who find themselves homeless, jobless and without family support.
When she got there, she was still wearing her nun's habit. She applied for a mentor and after a screening was assigned to Tom Bousamra, a retired Traverse City teacher who helps the program train mentors and has coordinated the St. Francis Catholic Church pantry program. Normally, the program doesn't assign opposite gender mentors to clients, but did in Necole's case because Bousamra is Catholic and a church deacon.
"What I love about the program is they paired me up with someone of like faith," Flanigan said "Tom helped me spiritually and has the same morals and beliefs I do. He's helped me transition from being homeless,"
Executive director Roberta Lamont said the role of a Family Partnership mentor is dual — to be aware of available resources and options while serving as a support, sounding board and encouraging friend to the client.
"Our job is not to solve problems or fix their lives," she said. "The big piece is the relational match. Poverty can be very isolating. Someone may want to go on to college but be fearful of the unknown. Getting encouragement is a big thing.
"Many mentoring programs serve teens and children. We provide services to the family decision maker."
Flanigan met with her mentor the first time in August 2011. Within a month, the former nun, who suffers from depression, had two jobs and an apartment. She had also started classes at Northwestern Michigan College.
Today, she works part-time at Younkers and has a cleaning job on Saturdays. She will earn her associate's degree next summer and then hopes to enter Grand Valley University's three-year social work program at the University Center. She lives in an affordable housing apartment at the Grand Traverse Commons.
She and Bousamra meet weekly at Higher Grounds to discuss her goals and plans for the future. She wants to become a mentor herself one day.
"I want to make a difference in someone else's life," she said. "I can't tell you how much this program has meant to me. It's been more about building friendship, trust and knowing you have someone who is willing to help you out. Tom was my cheerleader."