Frances Duffy, of Chestnut Hill, prepares to make muffins for the homeless in Center City. Recently, she also walked in a 5K Walk and Run Against Hunger to help raise funds to combat hunger. According to Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, 1 in 7 people in Philadelphia struggle to afford the food that they need to survive. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

Frances Duffy, of Chestnut Hill, prepares to make muffins for the homeless in Center City. Recently, she also walked in a 5K Walk and Run Against Hunger to help raise funds to combat hunger. According to Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, 1 in 7 people in Philadelphia struggle to afford the food that they need to survive. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

by Frances Duffy with Sue Ann Rybak

If my life had gone according to plan, I would probably be retiring at the end of this school year after a long and fulfilling career as a teacher. Instead, I am starting a project that hopefully will help women who have been chronically homeless with their transition into permanent housing.

Many people might consider the turn my life took as tragic but I never believed that, and now I hope I can demonstrate that it was just an alternative path to a life of purpose.

I was 36 years old and happily married with two adorable daughters when tragedy struck in 1984. The day started out like any other. I got the kids ready for school. I dropped off Alison, my five year old, at preschool and sent Megan, 7, off to walk to school with her friends.

Then, I went to work at Roxborough High School. Later that day, I got a call at work that Alison was sick. After taking her to the doctor, I returned home and was discussing window treatments for an odd casement window when half-way through the sentence I couldn’t talk anymore. I sounded drunk. I could hear it but couldn’t straighten my voice out. My husband kept asking me “what was wrong?” but I could only give him a garbled answer.

He told me to cut it out. I was scaring him. When he noticed my face was drooping, he ran to call an ambulance. By the time the ambulance arrived, I was unconscious which lasted several weeks. At the time, the doctors told my husband they didn’t know if I would live.

I had suffered a stroke that permanently paralyzed the right side of my body and disrupted important cognitive functions. Thankfully, my speech was unaffected. When I was released from therapy, I had a severe limp and I could not use my right hand.

I used to joke that my right side had become a teenager. It didn’t matter how nice I talked to it. It still wouldn’t listen to me.

Although I could no longer teach, I started tutoring and started a support group for young stroke victims and tried to counsel them. I became active in my church and enjoyed spending time with my children. Life was good again.

But, then at the age of 53, tragedy struck again in the form of another stroke. The stroke paralyzed my cranial muscle which meant that I was unable to close my eye, to make a sound, kiss or eat. I could only growl. I sounded like Chew Baka from Star Wars.

But, I could still think and began communicating using a dry erase board.

Despite my disability, I was determined to celebrate the life I had. I still could give unconditional love. I knew I could contribute. I began volunteering at the Welcome Center, a place of healing and hospitality founded by the Rev. Violet Cucciniello Little. The Welcome Center began in 2007 as an outreach of the Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion in Center City.

Little, who has been diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease that causes weakness, vision problems and breathing difficulties, was inspired to create the drop-in center after walking into a public transit restroom and discovered two women attempting to wash themselves in the sink. A few minutes later the police arrived and told the women to get out. Little told me in that moment her life was changed forever. Little realized then just how vulnerable she was. She knew then that God was calling her to provide them with a place where they could feel at home.

Once when I was talking to a friend, she asked “how do you carry on when you have lost everything?”

Which got me to thinking when did I lose everything? Was it after the first stroke when I could no longer run or hug my husband, or was it after the second stroke when I could no longer kiss and I found myself alone.

The truth is I still have more than most people. I have my daughters, my friends, my faith in God, my sense of humor and the ability to love unconditionally.

That’s when I decided to start Fran’s Attic for people who were transitioning from the street into a place to call their own. Many of them were relieved just to have shelter. People were often forced to sit or even sleep on the floor of their new apartment.

At the same time, when I became aware of this problem, many of my own friends were becoming “empty nesters” and moving into smaller living quarters. My idea was to turn other people’s bounty into a blessing for another.

I got an enthusiastic response from my downsizing friends, but I quickly realized that having three couches and two dining tables in my apartment couldn’t work for long. So with the help of Rev. Little, founder of the Welcome Center and pastor of the Welcome Church, I wrote a proposal for a small grant to officially launch Fran’s Attic.

Our Mother of Consolation Church, 9 East Chestnut Hill Ave., gave me a $2,000 grant to get started. Fran’s Attic is now an official program of the Welcome Church.

Everyone wins with Fran’s Attic. Those who donate get the joy of sharing what they have with people, who are transitioning into a place of their own. Knowing that each of us has a purpose and that we are all connected is the best antidote to depression and isolation. All of us have something to contribute.

If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation or donate furniture to Fran’s Attic please email franford60@yahoo.com and put the word Fran’s Attic in the subject line.

  • megan

    We love you and all that you do! You are just a total inspiration! keep it up!

  • Lori

    WOW…you go girl! I am inspired and soooo proud of you . I just joined the Chestnut Hill Community Association. when our house sells we are planning to move to Chestnut Hill. We’ll be neighbors again! We’ll also have furniture for you as we too are downsizing…can’t wait . We are excited for our next adventure. Love, Lori

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