Women of Grace Grow Together in Florida

USF Women of Grace: (Front L/R) Emma Lopez-Ponnada, Emily Donaire, Meredith Hines. (Back L/R) Angie Phewklieng, Janet Carina, Melissa Jones, Sandrine Urias. Maria Gonzalez is on computer via Skype with Isabelle Liberatore, Women of Grace Director of Administration & Development, holding laptop.

Women of all ages, and from as far away as Colombia, participated in a Full of Grace study at the University of South Florida (USF) where they embarked on an incredible journey of healing, hope, and new horizons.

Thanks to the efforts of facilitator Emily Toaboada Donaire and Father Justin Paskert, Campus Minister at USF, the study, which ran from Feb. 5 to April 9, drew eight women, including one woman who “Skyped” into the class from her home in Colombia.

Emily, age 40, had been volunteering at a women’s group at the Catholic Student Center at USF for several years and always wanted to bring the study to the students. With Father Paskert’s help, she finally had the chance and said it was a success from the very start.

“The women were open, receptive and enthusiastic from the first meeting to the last,” Emily said. “The desire to grow in holiness was definitely there.”

One of the participants, Sandrine Urias, 25, had only been living in Florida for six months when she decided to join the class. A doctorate candidate for physical therapy, the move from Los Angeles had been difficult for her.

(L/R) Emily Donaire, Sandrine Urias,
Fr. Justin Paskert, Emma Lopez-Ponnada, and Melissa Jones.

“I had never lived so far away from my family, the people who are my biggest supporters in my Catholic faith,” she said. “It is for this reason that I longed for a deeper connection with my peers in the Church who could offer me strength in this journey of Faith. Little did I know that the Holy Spirit had such amazing plans for me and it was no mistake that I came across this heavenly flyer!”

She found everything she was looking for in the group. “Women of Grace has provided me with humble, genuine, authentic, loving, intelligent, and faithful women who, through the course of 2-3 months, have inspired me to live against the norms of this world we live in today. The program has taught me that we, as Women of Grace, who look to the Blessed Virgin Mary as our prime example, have the responsibility, the power, and the privilege to light up the darkness in our world today through our gentle femininity given to us by God.”

One of her brightest moments in the study came at the very first meeting when she learned about the gift of femininity and how this gift from God is totally unified with our body and soul. “Our femininity cannot be separated from our body or soul! What a beautiful thing to have learned and it only took me 25 years to discover! It is through my femininity that I am able to produce life both spiritually and physically and have the power to unlock faith and beauty in this world that otherwise would remain hidden.”

She now feels empowered to go out into the world and “live radically with my Catholic feminine spirit in order to produce life for those around me!”

Emma Lopez-Ponnada, 31, a brand new mother of little Estelle Aishwarya, 4 mos., is in her final year of a doctorate program for environmental engineering and says the study filled her with courage.

“The Women of Grace®study helped me have more courage as a woman,” she said. “I learned about being a spiritual mother and felt I needed to take better care of my family spiritually and speak up more.”

Being from Guatemala, where the man is the leader of the house, when her father wasn’t going to confession regularly, no one else in the family was either.

Thanks to the Women of Grace® study, “I just felt like I had to speak up and tell them even if it made dad upset or uncomfortable,” Emma said.

She did so – and it worked!

“It was a big miracle,” she said. “My dad hadn’t gone to confession since I got married in November 2016. And if he doesn’t go, no one else goes, so my mom and sister fell away from confession too. So I felt I had to ‘nudge’ my father a few times . . . and they all went back for Divine Mercy Sunday!”

Johnnette’s story also gave her courage. “She lost her son, and then her husband, but she kept going and now she found love again and is getting married! Her story is a testament to have courage in life.”

Any woman who takes the course will feel the same way, she says. “Women of Grace® helps us realize who God made us to be as women in general and I feel like whoever takes the course will be filled with the courage to be the woman God made you to be.”

For Emma, these aren’t just words. This young mother is right now waiting for test results on a breast tumor and says her newfound courage is enabling her to face whatever God wills for her life.

“Always have faith in and trust in God that no matter what happens in life, God is with you and you’ll get through it,” she said and asked for prayers for herself and her family.

For those women who are considering facilitating a group, Emily says prayers is the most important first step.

“Pray much for all those involved with the group and ask others to pray the group as well,” she said. “I was pleasantly surprised that people were very willing to pray for us. A couple people were so generous to give rosaries and books to the participants after hearing about the program.”

She added: “People need to know about this wonderful program!”

Click here to find out more about facilitating this life-changing program in your area!

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