The Power of Story
With courage and candor, three reveal deeply personal experiences to help others feel less alone
Trauma, fear and addiction once isolated them, but they refused to be defined by their circumstances and pain. Students of past, present, and future candidly retell their stories of struggle to help others feel less alone.
by Sara Woelfel
When word got out that one student planned to share her family’s story of coming to the U.S. from Mexico for a 2017 feature in Stritch Magazine, the news triggered an unprecedented response. Within hours, seven other students asked to share their stories, too. Even more volunteered in the days that followed.
In the end, the “Daring to be DREAMers” digital series featured numerous impassioned first-person accounts of children brought to the U.S. for a better life. The eagerness and rawness with which these students recounted their stories revealed a glimpse into the immigrant community’s deep-down desire to be better understood and to take ownership of a narrative that so often negatively portrayed their loved ones. The students knew all too well the risks of sharing details of their personal lives, especially since some were undocumented. But they also understood the greater risk of remaining in the shadows, enabling others to own their narrative, choose their adjectives and cast their families in shame. They believed in the power stories have to unite, heal and inspire.
Three people connected to Stritch—students from the past, present and future—likewise entrusted Stritch Magazine to share their personal tales of despair and how they turned them into stories of triumph. Today, each speaks with a joyful, energetic spirit, expressing gratitude and hope despite their difficult days and trying circumstances. They discovered a sense of peace not because life became easier, but because they changed their perspectives and narratives. Their true contentment came not in avoiding suffering, but in finding purpose in their struggles by courageously and vulnerably telling their stories to help others feel less alone.
Stritch Student of Yesterday: Jo Therese Fahres
Feel it in order to heal it
Growing up the youngest of 10 children in a Milwaukee Italian family, Jo Therese (San Felippo) Fahres, ’70, ’92, remembers the repeated ribbing from her family and classmates about her weight. Always known as “the chubby one,” Fahres didn’t realize at the time how damaging this imposed identity had become until she unpacked it years later in a therapist’s office while probing the roots of her lifelong and, by then, life-threatening battle with her weight.
What had seemed to be harmless teasing actually led to a serious food addiction, intensified by her mother’s sudden death when she was a freshman at then-named Cardinal Stritch College in the late 1960s.
“I know now that it isn’t a hunger for food—it is a hunger for myself,” Fahres wrote in her 2009 book, “Thinning with the Angels: A Journey of Adversity to New Life.” “I am seeking to know myself, be myself, and love myself. It is a hunger to know the divine that is within myself. I am only now coming to realize that the emptiness I experience at times…the raw, burning desire to know more…is really my heart and soul reaching out to the power that is above me…the power that surpasses me. I call this higher power GOD.”
While trying to make sense of her 58-year-old mother’s death and also grappling with serious questions of faith and identity, Fahres remembers many hours spent in contemplation and conversation with God in the months and years that followed.
“I would sit on the back 40 on the hill (on the Stritch campus) with my guitar and work out my anger toward God for taking my mom too soon,” Fahres said. “I didn’t have much use for God and I didn’t have much use for the Church. And that’s where I discovered St. Francis of Assisi. I came to understand that Francis wasn’t happy with the Church either during his time. But instead of being angry about it and not doing anything about it, he decided in his own little way to change things by building his own spirituality, so I became extremely interested in Franciscanism.”
Her Franciscan spirit initially led her to the convent before she realized years later that God intended for her to live out her vocation in marriage, in motherhood, and in school and parish ministry.
All these parts of her life brought her great joy and fulfillment, but weren’t enough to erase years of believing other people’s definitions of her or to overcome her addiction.
In the mid-2000s, Fahres found herself in that therapist’s office, discussing the possibility of an extreme surgery to address her morbid obesity. Yet, before the surgery could happen they had to come to terms with the issues that led to her food addiction. The hold it had on her felt crippling mentally, and now began to leave her physically disabled as well. She faced the serious and imminent risk of death.
“She taught me many things about reliving the past: I had to feel it in order to heal it,” Fahres said. “I had to get those images of the ‘chubby kid’ and the ‘sack of potatoes’ out of my head to feel better about my body and better about myself.”
Following the surgery, she lost 120 pounds, down from her peak 400 pounds. Yet, at this point other complications arose, and she battled health threats and months of incapacitation. More discoveries, procedures and agonizing months of recovery finally stabilized her.
As she emerged on the other side of these sufferings, Fahres believed her experiences with addiction, obesity and spiritual wrestling were not meant for her alone. She felt compelled to write a book which required her to revisit those dark times and hard places to share them in a way that might help others going through similar trauma.
“While in therapy, it dawned on me through prayer and reflection that there have to be other people going through the same thing as me,” Fahres said. “I wanted to do what I could to help them feel less isolated and to see the light at the end of the tunnel even though they had to walk through the darkness to get there.”
Her church community, where she ministered for more than 30 years, supported her throughout her journey and benefitted from the openness with which she shared her stories of struggle and faith, including a detailed account of a near-death experience that led to an encounter with God.
“I feel a compulsion to get the word out on all I’ve been through to let others know they are not alone,” Fahres said. “God never gives me a situation that later on I can’t share with someone else. That’s been very powerful in my life.”
After writing her autobiographical book about her addiction and faith journey, she followed that with a self-published book of prayers, “Prayers: No Experience Necessary.” Feeling closer to God through her experiences and ministry, Fahres offered this second book to help others to grow in their relationship with God.
“If we read the scriptures and see how Jesus changed the lives of people, he didn’t do it with magic acts,” she said. “Miracles happened because people he healed were broken and his love for them gave them a sense of dignity that no one else gave them. My experience with Christ is that he gave me a sense of dignity, changed what I thought of myself. I really feel if all of us would take that step in faith and try to share our experiences with others, what a different world this would be.”
To order one of Fahres' books, contact her directly at email@example.com.
Stritch Student of Today: Estrella Luciano
I will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves
Estrella Luciano believes in the power of story not simply because she’s a communications and Spanish double major, but because an Intercultural Communications class project unexpectedly allowed her to enter into sacred conversations with first-generation immigrants and hear testimonies that shook her. She now is committed to continuing those conversations and more widely sharing these stories even though two years have passed since she completed that class project.
“When I took the class, I wrote my research paper, but it was not enough for me,” Luciano said. “I needed to keep finding different articles, different resources, doing my own research, finding my own stories because I didn’t feel that I had wrapped it up. I felt like it was not meant to stay in that class, that there was something there that I knew I needed to continue to get a hold on.”
The project involved interviewing immigrant parents and analyzing the ways they communicate with their children in contrast to the ways their children communicate with their adopted U.S. culture and community. Luciano expects her ongoing research could be key in helping immigrant families like her own develop a greater understanding of generational and cultural communication gaps that dictate relationship dynamics, decision making and connections to the wider world.
When doing her research initially, Luciano approached her own mother for the project and, due to the sensitivity of the topic, those conversations unfolded painstakingly over months. As they talked, Luciano began to discover how much she didn’t know about her own family.
“It was eye opening to start analyzing my family, especially my mom, and to realize how many times she gave up her own sanity, her own mental well-being for mine,” said Luciano, who spent the early part of her life unaware of the family’s undocumented status. “It must have been dreadful for her because she heard stories—they could take her away from us, we could be separated, or we could be deported—and she knew too well what kind of reality we were living.”
Growing up without a firm grasp on her family’s undocumented status, Luciano naively regarded the world as wide open to her. She spent much of her life feeling an undercurrent of secrecy and shame surrounding her family, but she never thought to question the extreme caution and mistrust of authorities that overshadowed her childhood. Then, an 8th grade class trip to New York forced the conversation.
“My parents told me I couldn’t go,” Luciano said. “I stubbornly tried to do activities related to the trip, like fundraisers, to figure out how to convince my mom. Was it money or something else about the trip? That’s when my parents blurted out that I was undocumented, and it was dangerous to fly.”
While Luciano missed out on the 8th grade trip, high school broke open her parents’ protective bubble. Early in her freshman year at Riverside University High School in Milwaukee, she joined student council and later discovered that her role as secretary required her to take a trip to Chicago. Her parents agreed to sit down with the faculty advisor, Mr. Wild, who ended up becoming a champion for Luciano throughout high school. Her mother trusted her teacher enough to allow Luciano to go to Chicago, and the world began to open up to her.
“As I look back, that moment really shaped a lot of how I got to Stritch,” Luciano said. “From then on, minutes after I left for Chicago, I realized all the potential I had. All I wanted to do was suddenly possible. My weaknesses became my strengths. My teacher played an enormous role; he saw a leader in me before I saw it in myself.”
Luciano delighted in gradually expanding her boundaries with her parents’ cautious permission. She began to connect to a wider community of people who advocated for, guided and supported her. Eventually, a core group of trusted advisors led her to Stritch. They helped her navigate the nuances of financial aid, secure a fortuitous residency grant and apply to special programs like the University’s Franciscan Servant Scholars vocation program and the LDRS Initiative (Leadership Development, Reflection and Service) to help acclimate her to University life as a first-generation student.
Throughout her life, Luciano grappled with issues of identity with a keen awareness of how her Mexican heritage made her stand out. In high school, she made a concerted effort to moderate her native accent, actually practicing with books and TV shows to make it less distinct. However, her beloved high school teacher encouraged her to look at her perceived weaknesses and to own them as true strengths. He told her the best way to do that would be to attend a university that recognized those weaknesses as something worth celebrating.
“My parents were the epitome of everything that society considers a weakness: heavy accents, little education, undocumented. They have nothing that appears to be successful according to the measurements of this country,” Luciano said. “So I brought them to all the college visits to give them and the schools a sense of who I truly was.”
Stritch welcomed the family for their visit, providing an interpreter to help answer their questions. When they left, Luciano remembers her mother was smiling and talking excitedly about the University. “Her excitement and comfort with Stritch definitely made a difference when I was choosing a school,” Luciano said.
Emboldened as pieces of her college dream began to fall into place and as she received news of her approval for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), Luciano felt an obligation to get the full value out of her university years from the very beginning. She embraced the responsibility that came with her privilege.
“I was determined to be present in all of these new things that were available to me,” Luciano said. “I felt like a kid in a candy store, with everything up for grabs. It was the first time I felt like I could do everything. I intended to squeeze every cent and every dime that this education was worth.”
Arriving at Stritch a bit unsure of her skills, still figuring out her major and trying to unearth her identity, Luciano discovered a community of students grappling with many of the same issues. She joined organizations that connected her with people of her culture and circumstance who helped her evolve into a student leader and to find the voice to celebrate her life and her story.
As a testimony to how far she has come in her first three years at Stritch, days before the start of her senior year, Luciano received the 2019 Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee Student Leader Award honoring her efforts in helping connect other students with mentors and internships, advocating for the needs of minority students and providing a safe place for undocumented, DACA and international students at Stritch. The award made special note of her research interviews with immigrant parents.
While she isn’t quite sure what work awaits her after her May 2020 graduation, Luciano is sure of one thing: she will do whatever it takes to be a guiding light and staunch advocate for others in similar circumstances, especially her many nieces and nephews. She feels deep gratitude to those whose assistance made her own journey and growth possible, and one day hopes to repay their gift by giving it to others.
“Without all of those different people, I wouldn’t have been able to be where I’m at. Everything that I do and everything I accomplish comes with the responsibility to make sure that somebody else is able to have that same experience. …I want somebody else’s story to have my name in there saying this person helped me get to where I am.”
Stritch Student of Tomorrow: Alex Hart-Upendo
Be the change
In June 2019, Cardinal Stritch University surprised entrepreneur Alex Hart-Upendo with a full-tuition scholarship—for life. At the time of the announcement, he was 12.
“Today was one of the best days of my life,” he said in a Facebook video message after receiving news of his scholarship. “Much greater than meeting any celebrity, going to Disney World or any amusement park.”
This astounding scholarship offer is a response to the promise and pluck of a boy who lived through unimaginable circumstances, including years of homelessness. Testing as gifted and on the autism spectrum, peers bullied and isolated him through the early years of elementary school, leading him to such dark places that he wrote a suicide note at age 7.
And yet, five years later, Hart-Upendo and his family are in the process of creating the Hustle and Heart Academy, a school for training young entrepreneurs. This endeavor is just the latest way Hart-Upendo is finding purpose in life’s journey, following his passion for helping other people by doing what comes most naturally to him—sewing, speaking, writing and teaching.
The turning point for Hart-Upendo came when he decided to take the power of the words “nerd” and “dork” and embrace them. His mother taught him to sew bowties at age 5, so he took to wearing them proudly. By age 9, he took his love of bowties one step further and established his own company, Build-A-Bow, LLC.
“When I started the company, the bullies drifted away,” Hart-Upendo said. “Sometimes they still try to put me down, but I know I’m special in my own way so it no longer bothers me.”
Being such a young entrepreneur gave Hart-Upendo an unexpected platform not only to share the story about his personal hardship, but to change the narrative from one of sadness into one of hope. An energetic boy with poise beyond his years, his natural charisma and passion for his business and the philanthropic causes that benefit from his work gained the attention of national talk show hosts, including Harry Connick Jr. and Ellen DeGeneres, dramatically increasing his public profile and extending the reach of his powerful story.
In spring 2018, more new audiences learned about his story when he joined adult business owners on Stritch-sponsored Project Pitch It, a Wisconsin-based TV show that supports entrepreneurial endeavors like Build-A-Bow. When he won the Stritch Pitch Award, then began what is likely to become his lifelong connection with the University.
Understanding that the spotlight can be fleeting, Hart-Upendo chose to use his platform to further share his life experiences and personal story to help others. Hart-Upendo understands all too well the epidemic of bullying in today’s society, so he wrote “Bullies, Bowties and Brilliant Alex,” a self-published book that addresses the issue of bullying. No longer a source of shame, Hart-Upendo now visits schools and speaks to children about what he experienced and how he took the power away from his bullies and their insults by choosing to be proud of his gifts and skills rather than keeping them hidden. He’s hopeful to write a follow-up book on autism.
Already a star with a fan following, Hart-Upendo never tires of telling his story. In Spring 2019, he courageously agreed to be one of four featured youth in a PBS documentary "Kids in Crisis: You Are Not Alone," which focused on mental health and the real crises experienced by young people in the Milwaukee area. In his daily life, Hart-Upendo also tends faithfully to his social media accounts, which includes followers and friends of all ages from around the world. In addition, he often accepts invitations to speak to groups of adults and students as much as his busy 7th grade schedule will allow. His story of new life and hope brings inspiration wherever he goes.
“Don’t let anyone tell you who you are. Always keep looking and moving forward.”