“I think my vocation is a result of being with the sisters, seeing how happy they were and their love for children,” says Sister David Ann Niski, executive director of the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters Foundation, Inc. (BFSF).
The Sisters working in her elementary school were young and fun. They spent time with students on the convent’s wraparound porch in the summer, enjoying lemonade and cookies. Niski saw they had a worthwhile vocation and followed in their footsteps.
A New Jersey native, Niski grew up in a middle-class family with father, Albin Niski, a metal factory worker, and mother, Pearl, a luggage company employee. Earning her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Alvernia University and a master’s degree in teaching mathematics from Villanova University, Niski went on to earn another master’s degree in institutional administration from the University of Notre Dame.
Niski taught at an affluent all-girls high school in Greenwich, Connecticut, attended by some of the extended Kennedy family. She became vice principal in charge of discipline, later taking a position as department head at La Reine High School in Maryland. Later she became principal of an elementary school in Wilmington, Delaware.
One of the memorable things was taking 600 children to the Moscow circus in Philadelphia,” she says. “The students were crazy over it, especially seeing the white Bengal tigers.”
Niski moved on to become principal of an elementary school in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. “I loved it because the school was by the ocean,” she says. “I rode my bicycle to the beach in the morning to swim before school.” Her career also included work for the diocese in Rhode Island and for the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters.
In 1997, Niski came to the Virginia Peninsula. Today, she works together with BFSF’s board of directors to promote its mission by financially supporting and promoting its charitable projects as well as works related to the healthcare, education and human service needs of the Virginia Peninsula. “My connection with the nonprofits is multi-dimensional,” she says.
“We provide $1500 for each nonprofit to use for ongoing education, either to pay for a course, conference, webinar, certifications, or membership/license fees, Niski says.
“We also have Set-Aside Funds,” Niski continues. “Two winters ago we gave Denbigh House Set-Aside Funds for an HVAC system that had failed. The funds are for true emergencies.”
BFSF provides money to support 50 area nonprofits’ use of a professional platform called Catchafire for services such as website development, flyer creation and strategic plan/business plan/marketing plan development. BFSF also offers Entrepreneurial Thinking classes together with NetworkPeninsula.
“We try to help nonprofits understand that they are too dependent upon grants, donations and fundraisers,” Niski says. “Entrepreneurial Thinking classes are designed to help nonprofits think about themselves as a small business, how they can generate additional revenue for themselves.”
Niski shares examples of successes: Natasha House in Yorktown created Seed to Table, where they grow vegetables and produce salsa, flavored herb salts, bath salts, and jams to sell to support its mission. Freekind (formerly Virginia Beach Justice Initiative) is working to copyright curriculum to use in jails for women who are victims of human trafficking, which it can sell to other locales for use.
“Sister David Ann is a force for good in the nonprofit community, constantly sharing information and connecting people and organizations in ways that minimize duplication and accelerate our collective ability to improve our communities,” says Lisa Kersey, executive director of Freekind.
BSFS and NetworkPeninsula have hosted two legislative breakfasts to encourage relationships among the nonprofits, federal, state and local legislatures. In November, it will hold an informational session for people interested in Entrepreneurial Thinking classes.
Niski volunteers on the board of the Housing Development Corporation of Hampton Roads, which acquires and provides rental housing to low-income people. She also volunteers for LINK of Hampton Roads’ PORT (People Offering Resources Together) homeless program.
Niski is the recipient of many awards for her service work, including the Newport News Sheriff’s Office 2015 Citizen Service Medal and the 2017 Community Partner Award presented by Literacy for Life. Her family includes two sisters, Jeanette Keenan in Yorktown and Carol Osowski in New Jersey. She lost brother, Bucky, to COVID in 2020.
“I still love to go to the Jersey Shore to swim,” she says. “You have to be a person who is not intimidated by the waves.” She rides her bike and walks for her health. She enjoys listening to books, especially on long distance drives. Her favorites include John Grisham, David Baldacci and James Patterson. “It gives me companionship while driving alone and unlike professional reading, I don’t have to remember everything,” she says with a smile.
TO THE POINT:
Sister David Ann Niski
Bernardine Franciscan Sisters Foundation
Address: 2 Bernardine Dr., Newport News, VA 23602