We begin every new session at Caroline Center with a reading of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey.” It’s the ending of the poem, this last stanza, I think, that really gets to people.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.
Without fail, these final lines bring tears of recognition and acceptance from the young women who, in enrolling at Caroline Center, have made the courageous and difficult choice of stepping “deeper into the world . . . determined to save the only life” they can possibly save.
And, so it begins – a thorough and arduous 15-week educational and career skills training program at Caroline Center for just 60 highly capable women – women who have made it past the information sessions and interviews and are among the most committed to pursuing work as healthcare professionals. It’s good to know that their journey will be guided by a cadre of experienced and caring teachers. And, it’s especially good to know that among this small, diverse group of instructors is Ignatian volunteer Tom Tiffany.
If my math is correct, Tom is currently shepherding his 30th (give or take a few) Caroline Center class on the road to new careers and lives. A former IRS official in Washington – “I had another life for 34 years,” he says, Tom was someone that the School Sisters of Notre Dame believed “might know something about money.” Since money and managing finances “seemed to be a barrier to success for many Caroline Center graduates,” Tom decided to devote his time to coaching and empowering our trainees and alumnae by teaching them essential financial literacy skills.
Tom’s initial service commitment was to teach at Caroline Center two days a week for just 10 months. This year will be year 13 for Tom. So, I guess you could say that there was something about this special place that struck his fancy. “I would have to say that I was moved, called, or directed to be where I am. I don’t think I made all the decisions myself,” he says, espousing the essential Ignatian philosophy that marries service and reflection.
While the outcomes of Tom’s teaching may be nothing short of life-changing for our alumnae, he is unflinchingly modest – “It’s really basic work that I do” – and, he’s absolutely egalitarian – “When I’m teaching or coaching, I like to talk about ‘us’ and ‘we.’ ” He goes on to say, “Life isn’t perfect. We all learn along the way. I learn something new from the women in each class. I say to each class, ‘Let’s just begin where we are. Whatever financial difficulties we have had and whatever financial mistakes we may have made in the past, we have the power to change – beginning today. Our credit histories are not fixed; they are dynamic. That means that they can and will change.”
Over the years, Caroline Center trainees have requested all different kinds of help from Tom – from getting a better understanding of their current financial picture to planning well for their and their family’s future. “We talk about everything from why it’s important to make a list before you go grocery shopping to why you should set up a 401(k) plan with your new employer to how to begin saving money for the house you many want to buy down the line. And, unfortunately, some of our trainees have come to Caroline Center’s tuition-free career skills training program after incurring large debts for other fee-charging, proprietary programs. So, there are trainees who also are concerned about managing their student loans while meeting and balancing the many other expenses of day-to-day living.”
In the holistic approach that Caroline Center takes in educating women and preparing them well for life and new careers, Tom Tiffany’s piece of the pie is large. With more than 60% of each Caroline Center class working directly with Tom on improving their financial knowledge and understanding, we hope that many more Caroline Center alumnae will be able to lead stronger, more fiscally informed lives and live as well-informed citizens.
“There’s no doubt that women and under-served women, in particular, are exploited and treated poorly by society. At Caroline Center we really pay attention to the individual person. We are interested enough to ask each woman, ‘Where are you trying to go? Where do you see yourself in the next few years?’ And, then, we do everything we can possibly do to help make her educational and career goals and dreams attainable.”
So, how exactly did a 10-month, two-day a week volunteer commitment turn into more than a dozen years at Caroline Center for Tom Tiffany? “Well,” he says, “I see it the way a tree grows when we are not watching – it just happens. It has just grown to be an anchor in my life.”