Sister Nadine Buchanan
On a scorching Friday in June, Sister Nadine Buchanan paid a visit to a man named Tony who was living on the porch of an abandoned house on Columbus’ West Side. Tony has a seizure disorder, she explained, and every few days she brings him adult diapers, wet wipes and a new freezer pack for the cooler where he keeps his food.
As soon as Buchanan pulled up to the curb in front of Tony’s makeshift residence, a woman jumped out of a car across the street and ran over. Skinny and jittery, she shifted her weight nervously from foot to foot as Buchanan rolled down the window and handed her a bulging reusable grocery bag.
“I love you,” said the nun as the woman scurried away with her bag, which contained sandwiches, cold water, juice, snacks, feminine supplies, socks, shampoo and other essentials.
“I love you too, honey!” the woman called back over her shoulder.
It wasn’t an unusual occurrence for Buchanan, who is out every week in her gray Toyota sedan, driving the streets of Franklinton and looking for people to help. “The ladies”—her name for the women who walk the streets there, selling sex, usually to pay for drugs or a place to sleep—sometimes spot her before she sees them. They know her car. They know her face. They know her kindness.
Nine years ago, Buchanan, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Peace, was looking for a new ministry. Recently retired from a career as a teacher and hospital chaplain, she was finally getting back on her feet after a decade marred by seven back surgeries. Buchanan began volunteering at CATCH Court (Changing Actions to Change Habits), a specialized docket for women who have pleaded guilty to soliciting and want to access drug treatment and other assistance to turn their lives around. She also helped at Doma (now Freedom a la Cart), a catering company that provides training and work for former prostitutes. There, she met April Thacker, a case manager who is herself a former addict and prostitute.
Buchanan joined Thacker in delivering holiday meals to women who were still on the streets, and found herself drawn to do more. Eventually, Buchanan began visiting Franklinton on her own, looking for ways to help those stuck in a life of addiction, exploitation and selling sex. “I just can’t stand to see their pain,” she says. “I love them.”
Two or three times a week, she packs up her car with lunches and useful items and heads to Sullivant Avenue. The blighted neighborhood that she has adopted, dotted with boarded-up houses, is an eight-minute drive and a world away from the peaceful, pastoral motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of Peace where she lives, just off Sunbury Road near Ohio Dominican University. Sometimes, after a visit, she says, “I feel like I’ve been to hell and back.”
“Honey, can I give you a lunch?” she calls, rolling down her window and slowing alongside any woman walking alone who looks like she’s got nowhere to go.
Sometimes, the women get into her car to talk. They share their stories, which often include opiate addiction and physical abuse at the hands of pimps, drug dealers and clients—as well as histories of childhood abuse and neglect. “There’s a lot of shame and a lot of guilt,” she says. “They think they’re not worth anything.”
“They’re hungry for hope, hungry for anybody that says, ‘You’re good! You are good.’”
Buchanan’s hope is not only to feed these women physically and emotionally, but to befriend them so that one day, during an encounter, a woman will say to her, “help me get out of here.”
It takes time, but it happens. She often drives women who ask for help to shelters and treatment centers, or, when they are sick or injured, to the hospital. She once bought a woman a plane ticket to return home to Florida, and drove her to the airport.
Who inspires you?: “My women survivors.”
What keeps you engaged?: “The need, the pain and the suffering. I try to relieve it and bring hope and trust to the ladies.”
What challenges have you overcome? “Going out into the unknown of what’s happening on the streets, because I never know what I’m going to be walking into, and the discouragement I sometimes feel—like when I hear that one of the women has died of an overdose.”
Columbus Police detective Aaron Dennis of the Central Ohio Task Force on Human Trafficking says Buchanan plays a critical role in his unit’s fight against sex trafficking because of the trust she has gained among the women. His task force wants to help them, but they often don’t trust the police. “When they say, ‘Today’s the day I’m going to get out of this,’ how else would they do it? Flag down a cruiser?
“Imagine if we didn’t have her out there,” he says.
Buchanan grew up in Zanesville, the daughter of a steel mill worker. When she was in the fifth grade, her father had a heart attack and stroke and could no longer work. As soon as she was old enough, Nadine began working to help her family, first as a babysitter and then by taking in laundry and ironing.
“I would go down to the eighth ward looking for work,” she says, “and I can remember men trying to get me in their car.” It was a tough childhood, she says, but “I wouldn’t change it for anything because it tenderized my heart to what these people go through.”
It’s that tender heart that makes her so effective, says Keturah DeChristopher, a coordinator at the CATCH Court. “She’s very approachable and very joyful. She has that light. I think that’s important for people that are often very scared and mistrusting of others.”
Buchanan is also there to help when women want to make a change following an arrest. She is the first person the CATCH court calls to meet a woman joining the program at the jail and drive her to a residential treatment center.
Judge Paul Herbert, who founded the court in 2009, calls her an “MVP.” He describes how she picked up one client in Cleveland and took her to a treatment center in Waverly, an hour south of Columbus.
“It was an all-day event. Putting the miles on her car, putting the gas in, and then loving on somebody in an amazing way,” he says. “That’s just one representative story. Everything we need, that’s what we ask her to do.”
Buchanan also looks for other ways to help. People often give her contributions, and what she doesn’t spend for meals and supplies she pours into related projects. She recently secured a $4,000 grant to help with renovations at a Franklinton respite house for women living on the streets. She recruited staff from Mt. Carmel Hospital to host a medical day for the women, with free pregnancy and STD tests and other help. And earlier this summer, she hosted a sleepover party at Ohio Dominican (which was founded by the Dominican sisters) for 19 women in various stages of recovery from “the life.” Thacker, now eight years sober and independent, says she wishes she’d met Buchanan when she was turning tricks for dope money.
“I always tell Sister I wish she had been there to pick me up,” says Thacker. “Just to be in her presence, I get this wonderful feeling of peace.”