By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Cathy Lander-Goldberg was a St. Louis photographer in the mid-1990s, teaching at-risk teens and young adults expressive art and writing. She heard many stories and found wisdom in them. She thought it would be helpful if these women could share what they learned along the way with other young people.

From this experience was born the Resilient Souls Project, a powerful traveling photography exhibit, featuring portraits of 21 women, five with Chicago ties. They were photographed by Lander-Goldberg more than two decades ago and again 20 years later. Through personal essays that accompany the photographs, the exhibit originally explored issues like mental and physical health, disability, sexual assault, illness, unhealthy relationships, immigration, adoption, unplanned pregnancy, school challenges, violence and grief.

Two decades later, she revisits these women’s continued journeys, including their trials, triumphs and growth, as they approach mid-life. The exhibit is on display at the Harold Washington Library Center through Oct. 7. It appeared in 1998 at the same venue.

When Lander-Goldberg originally decided to expand the project from her own circle of young people, she came to Chicago and reached out to agencies that represented different cultures, geography and circumstances.

“It was about finding women from all over with different backgrounds to share their story, to give them a voice,” said Lander-Goldberg, who later became a clinical social worker.  None of the women portrayed in the exhibit are her clients.

One woman whose sisters are in Chicago faced a heart transplant and was able to graduate high school at age 18. She died seven years later, Lander-Goldberg learned, so she incorporated her sisters in the updated exhibit.

Originally there were 29 women. Lander-Goldberg lost touch with most of them and used social media and search engines to find them. Some she connected to through their parents’ land lines.

More than 20 years ago, she found Nani Villalobos through the Latino Youth High School in Chicago. She had dropped out of school and had brushes with violence. Her essay described the loss of her parents. In tracing her whereabouts, Lander-Goldberg found out Villalobos finally got her college degree at 38. She credits the Chicago Women’s Tackle Football League for helping turn her life around.

Another woman, Sandy Dukat, was referred from a Chicago rehab center. An amputee, she was a social worker by age 24. She now lives in Denver and is a two-time Paralympics bronze medalist. She recently climbed a volcano in Ecuador with a team of amputees to raise awareness of the need for prosthetic limbs for people with disabilities.

Paula Francisco, reached through the American Indian Center of Chicago, felt isolated and had family problems. She became Miss Indian Chicago and evolved as a youth leader. Today she is an iron worker with a voice strengthened by necessity due to working in a male-dominated environment.

She writes in the current exhibit. “I realize you always have hardships, disappointments and loss, but in there I found happiness. When I read this letter, I realize my hardship … helps me become who I am today, a wife and mother of four. I strive to be better. My family is my life.”

Majana Reis from Bosnia was sent to a concentration camp with her family before being resettled in Chicago. She hung out with the wrong crowd, but gained entry into a private school that turned her life around. Today, she holds a master’s degree in economics and has two children. She writes about her original essay: “Looking back at my 14-year-old self I am in awe of her enthusiasm and her hope. It’s because of her optimism and drive that I feel accomplished today because of this hopeful little teenager. Today I’m a happily married mom living the American Dream.”

The women trusted that Lander-Goldberg could tell their story to help other people. “That’s what made it so special at the time. It was very unusual,” Lander-Goldberg said. “Domestic violence, mental health issues, eating disorders,” Lander-Goldberg said, “people didn’t talk about those things then like they do now.”

The exhibit is designed “to encourage everybody,” Lander-Goldberg said.  “We’re all going to go through obstacles in our life and these people have gotten through it and come out stronger and resilient. Everybody has the ability to build more resilience in their life.”


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