For almost three decades, Sister Julia Huiskamp has worked with under-privileged children in the housing projects in East St. Louis.
Now, the Belleville Diocese hopes to recognize her efforts by nominating Huiskamp for the Catholic Church Extension Society's prestigious Lumen Christi Award.
The award, which is in its 36th year, recognizes a clergy or lay person who devoted their lives to serving the poor in the most under-resourced dioceses in the U.S.
The award, which in Latin means "Light of Christ," is given annually to a person who demonstrates, through their lives, how the power of faith can transform lives and communities to build faith, inspire hope and ignite change.
In 1986, Huiskamp started Catholic Urban Program's Griffin Center Program, which today serves about 425 children from six public housing developments and offers after-school programs, tutoring, summer camps, computer labs, educational field trips and snacks. The program also works closely with the local school district to help keep students on track. It is free for participants.
"The people have really grown to love her because they see what she does for the program," said Judy Phillips with the Office of Development for the Belleville Diocese. "All children who participate must live in public housing. Most live under the poverty level, in single mother homes, and many are being raised by someone other than their parents. It's just a phenomenal program."
If Huiskamp is selected as the 2013 recipient of the Lumen Christi Award, she would be the third person in the diocese to receive it, Phillips said. Joe Hubbard, now retired as director of Catholic Urban Programs, and Sister Ann Connolly previously received the award.
"If Sister Julia wins, it would be quite a feat to have that happen; it would make us the first diocese to have three winners," she said. "There are a substantial number of dioceses in the U.S., so it would be quite an honor to have three winners."
Online voting will help determine the winner. Huiskamp could not be reached for comment.
Huiskamp started her career as a reporter for the Keokuk (Iowa) Daily Gate newspaper and in 1959 joined the Daughters of Charity order in an effort to have more of an effect on people's lives. She moved to Chicago where she was director of the Marillac House on Chicago's west side, where she worked to improve the lives of children who lived in the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods of that city. In 1985 she was sent to East St. Louis, where she founded the Griffin Center program.
As director of Catholic Urban Programs, the organization that oversees the Griffin Center, Hubbard worked with Huiskamp for more than 20 years. When she first came to East St. Louis, the bishop asked him to take her under his wing as she learned what the children and people in the housing projects needed.
"She's an advocate for the people," Hubbard said. "She works very hard to help change (government and welfare) systems to make life better for the people she serves. She's a great advocate for the people and a great advocate to help people help themselves."
Hubbard described Huiskamp as a "wonderful, caring person."
"She's strong-willed and she doesn't put up with nonsense," he said, "but she's a very kind person. She tries to work through systems to make life better for people so she doesn't tolerate people who want to put up a smokescreen.
"She wants to see the system change and wants people to have a better quality of life by helping people work through the bad things that happen to them."
She spent time in the early years after founding the Griffin Center traveling to Springfield to advocate for the poor and working with politicians for laws that would help their plight.
"She still does that," Hubbard said. "She works with them to be sure public safety is a priority in the housing projects."
Although she founded the Griffin Center, Huiskamp is no longer director of the center but continues to work for the children and their families.
"She and I have hit the same thing," Hubbard said. "We're both in our 70s and the energy level isn't there any more. We still work hard, but it's harder. She is semi-retired, like I am, but she still does a lot to help people."
If Huiskamp is chosen for the award, the Griffin Center and the Belleville Diocese would receive a $50,000 grant to split. Before the grant is given, Catholic Extension will discuss and agree upon the use of the grant with both the recipient and the recipient's diocese.
There are 41 nominees who have been selected for consideration for the award. They can be viewed by visiting the Catholic Extension Facebook page.
Votes for nominees can be cast by visiting the page or visiting bit.ly/138KshE. Voters do not have to have a Facebook account to vote, but only one vote per person is permitted. The number of votes nominees receive is not the only criteria for selecting the winner of the award. A panel of judges will review all the applications and is expected to select finalists this spring.
The Catholic Extension will announce the 2013 Lumen Christi Award recipient this summer, and will follow the announcement with an award presentation in the recipient's home diocese in the fall.
Online voting closes April 5.
To vote for Sister Julia Huiskamp, visit bit.ly/138KshE.
Voting ends April 5. The 2013 Lumen Christi Award recipient will be announced this summer.
Contact reporter Jennifer A. Schaaf at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2667. How to vote