Why I do what I do?

Working for the Center for Restorative Justice Works (CRJW) is a lot different than your average 9-5er.  First of all, the organization is run largely by nuns.  I know what you are thinking, boring…However, these nuns are not your plain Jane quietly reflective women in habits.  They are crazy just like me. (No offense ladies).  When I first met my nun (yes, I have a personal nun) Sr. Suzanne 6 years ago, she was the most ‘unnun’ nun I had ever met.  She was loud, fashionable and incredibly funny.  She is the type of person that you would want at a party because she is always having fun.  The other nuns are much like her as well.  Sr. Claire is in her 70’s, but she has the energy of someone in their 20’s.  Sr. Theresa is pretty much the mayor of SLO and the list goes on…When I decided to leave the Catholic faith to become Episcopalian, my grandma wasn’t too happy. However, now we joke around because I have become more Catholic than ever just by the nature of my work.   I have also had ‘Catholic-offs’, competitions to prove who is more Catholic, with some of my friends.  I always win in the category “Number of Nuns Listed in Your Cell Phone.” If you scroll under “S”, I have at least 10 Sisters that you have to go through.  I even gave Kimberly a run for her money ;p.
Our office is funny at times, but we also have a great sense of community.  Every Wednesday, we take turns cooking lunch for the office and we have reflections.  About 2 months ago, Eric, my colleague, led us in an interesting discussion.  He prompted the question, “Why do you do what you do?”  He prefaced it by saying that, “With the talent in this office, we could all be doing a lot of different things and probably making a lot more money; however, why did you choose this world?”
As everyone went around the circle, I really began to think.  My obvious answer would be the experience with my dad.  However, even without this experience, I would probably be doing something in the nonprofit world to help others.  And then it hit me…
For those of you who don’t know, I am from Pittsburgh, PA.  In my city, we work hard, party hard and watch our Stillers on Sundays.  Pittsburgh is an interesting place because much like most of the East Coast, there are neighborhoods of ethnic enclaves.  When I meet someone from Pittsburgh, I can almost immediately tell their nationality just by where they grew up.  I grew up on the west side in the city of McKees Rocks, which is largely inhabited by Italians.  McKees Rocks is not only a city, but it is a town.  This is where my dad’s restaurant was located.  McKees Rocks the town was an old mill town that collapsed a long time ago.  Now when you walk the streets, you see a lot of hard working people trying to make it and a lot of poverty.  By way of my dad’s restaurant, I spent a lot of time here as a child.  My mom always joked around saying the Primadonna was my dad’s third child.  She was right.  However, this “sibling” thought me more about life and people than I had ever thought possible.
During my reflection, I told the stories of four people: Gordy, Coacheze, Chuckie and Meg*.  Gordy used to come into my dad’s bar almost every day.  He was an older gentleman with a big stature and a hardy laugh.  He always ordered the same beer and sat in the same seat.  When I was little, I was incredibly shy and I was always scared of Gordy.  My sister loved him and used to sit on his lap when he came to the bar.  Gordy was at my dad’s place every day of the year drinking, except for the holidays.  The Primadonna was always closed and our family would come down for our get together.  I remember on Christmas one year, I saw Gordy alone walking out of the bar across the street from the Primadonna.  After we wished him a Merry Christmas, I asked my dad why Gordy was alone at the bar on Christmas.  My dad said that drinking was the only thing he had.  That really stuck with me.
I love hearing my dad’s stories about the old days of the Primadonna.  He was open all hours of the night and was as much a bouncer as a bartender.  It was during one of these nights that he met Coacheze.  My dad was new to the Rocks and in trying to get his sea legs, he would sometimes tick some people off.  One night after he broke up a fight and threw a guy out, the guy in anger said, “I’ll be back and I’m bringing Coacheze with me.”  Now, Coacheze was known around town as one of the craziest, most dangerous guys out there.  He stood well over 6′ and was solid muscle.  His complexion was so dark that at night, you could only see the whites of his eyes.  He had a long rap sheet, but the cops were afraid of him so they stayed away.  When Coacheze came into the restaurant, my dad expected to be in some major trouble; however, he stood his ground and was respectful.  He told Coacheze that he was welcome, but his friend was not because he was fighting.  He then offered him a free drink.  Luckily, for my dad, Coacheze took the offer and the rest was history.  As my dad got to know Coacheze, he learned that he lived out of his car and my dad spent several years feeding him out the back door of the restaurant.  
Chuckie was another regular customer that I really loved.  He came to the Primadonna when I used to work there.  He was a Vietnam vet, whose cynical ways became endearing.  He was a small, quiet guy who always had a little smile.  Life had not dealt Chuckie the right cards; he fought for our country and never felt truly appreciated from it.  He, like Gordy, didn’t really have any family.  He considered the Primadonna his home.  It was particularly hard when Chuckie became diagnosed with cancer largely due to Agent Orange.  Even though he fought for our country, the government didn’t not consider him disabled enough and decided to not grant him health care.  We watched Chuckie die before our eyes.
McKees Rocks is no Beverly Hills; however, there is one part of McKees Rocks that even the locals look down upon and that is an area called The Bottoms.  The Bottoms, quite appropriately titled are located under the McKees Rocks Bridge.  The housing is cheap and the crime rate is high.  This is where Meg* lived.  Meg* worked for my dad for years.  She was not only a wonderful worker, but a kind soul.  Meg* lived in a 2 bedroom apartment in The Bottoms with her 10 children.  She and her husband slept on the floor.  Meg* was the popular girl in school who got pregnant.  She later married and she has been struggling to put food on the table ever since.  Having worked alongside Meg* for a long time, there is only one situation where she is not her best and that is when alcohol is involved.  After a shift, Meg* would drink her dinner.  My dad used to have to drive her home on several occasions.  A long time ago, being incredibly naive, I asked my dad, “Why don’t you just get rid of Meg*?”  My dad turned to me and said, “Maria, we have a responsibility in this life to help others that no one else would like to help.  To do things for people that no one else would want to do.  To give a chance to someone who no one else would want to give.”  And that is why I do what I do.

* Names have been changed.


  1. princesa_kimberly

    Maria you are the most Catholic Episcopalian I know!!! But..can you name the seven sacraments without looking?? 😉

  2. MLM

    How touching Maria! I really enjoyed reading about the people that your dad helped at his restaurant. 🙂

  3. Maria Costanzo Palmer

    Love you girls! Kimberly are you insighting another Catholic off? I will go nun for nun with you ;p.


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