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The war against poverty is a long and difficult battle, but one Lawrence nonprofit is rolling up its sleeves and fighting the good fight-and winning. By Kiley Jacques

With a background in communications, marketing, graphic design, and photography, Kathie Clark-public relations/communications officer at Lawrence’s Lazarus House Ministries-works tirelessly on behalf of the community’s less fortunate members. Interviewing clients and writing about their stories, developing newsletter and e-letter designs and content, generating publicity, photographing events, updating social media posts, and educating potential clients, as well as the community at large, about Lazarus House’s mission are just some of the duties Clark may perform in a given week.

At the root of the organization is an undertaking to “help heads of households and individuals living in poverty regain their dignity and become self-sufficient members of our community.” “Dignity” is a word heard often around the Lazarus House, and approximately 40 staff members and over 100 volunteers spend a good portion of their time promoting its attainability.

All Lazarus House Ministries services and programs aim to instill hope in their clients, as well as provide basic needs and tools for laying the foundation for success. Its advocates help fight penury and helplessness so their clients can focus on more than survival-so they can imagine a future in which they are fed, clothed, and safe. As Clark puts it, “The adrenaline of being homeless is decreased when the worry of food and shelter is lifted.” But that isn’t the end point, she explains. “It’s not time to stop and relax…[it’s] time to focus on moving out of poverty. The goal is to permanently break the cycle of poverty.”

Under the umbrella organization Lazarus House Ministries, Inc., an army of people provides services in hopes of making that break. The agency’s ministrations include an emergency shelter (called “the last line of defense and the first ray of hope”), a community center with soup kitchen, food pantry, three thrift stores, and three transitional housing complexes. In addition, English as a Second Language (ESL), SPARKL.E. Cleaning Services, and culinary training programs comprise the educational piece of the mission.

Monique Gosselin, a 22-year-old staff member at the Holly Street emergency shelter and a Lawrence native, attended nearby Central Catholic High School. While there, she received academic credit for time spent working with shelter clients. Having recently graduated from Merrimack College, Gosselin is now pursing a master’s degree and has settled into the Lazarus House as an excellent place to earn a little extra money. She speaks very fondly of her experience there, saying, “It’s a family environment; it’s like going to see my friends.” She also takes her responsibilities very seriously and explains that clients cannot be there unless they follow strict rules, and she is there to help enforce them. She believes “structure” is important for the house to best serve everyone.

The truth is, house rules completely govern clients’ daily lives. Tenants are required to relinquish 90 percent of their income upon admittance; only 10 percent is available to use freely, with the idea being that when they’re ready to leave, money will be accessible for a successful transition. Gosselin says the checking in of cell phones at the office is another condition (for reasons of safety, privacy, and respect for others). Cleaning rooms and common spaces, exiting and returning according to set hours, and keeping personal property tidy are all part of the greater plan to instill dignity and self-respect. Additionally, kids must do their homework and adults must “have a plan in place and actively be pursuing it,” says Clark.

Like most rules, those at the shelter are instituted for a reason. “This is not a hangout,” explains Clark. Gosselin nods in full agreement; she supports the Lazarus House’s philosophy, which is succinctly stated by Clark when she tells clients, “We positively and greatly want to help you, but you have to help yourself. We want you to leave as your own biggest advocate.” Gosselin adds, “They must be proactive[ly] trying to better their lives.” It is the collaboration of staff members like these that allows people to do just that.

Once clients have put out the fires that accompany crisis, many move on to transitional housing facilities, like Lazarus House’s Capernaum Place. Here, families and individuals continue to build upon their plans for a brighter future in a relatively stable environment. It is not easy to find a place to call home in the meticulously maintained complex; there is a one- to two-year waiting list, and the 20 one- and two-bedroom apartments are only available to those who can demonstrate a clean record of paying bills. Additionally, applicants must meet regularly with two on-site social workers who check in with tenants to be sure they are working on their plans to move to more permanent housing, which they must do in two years’ time.

The housing complex is completely self-contained and offers spacious units, laundry facilities, an outdoor garden and play area, and a communal meeting place where women gather monthly to discuss their struggles and their triumphs.

In fact, at the end of each of these meetings, they are asked to share a “mini-success.” This little ritual is part of the ongoing effort to build self-esteem and help the women recognize that they are succeeding. By writing a few things down and posting them to the wall, they are made to see just how far they’ve come. The result is a room papered with tiny stories from the women of Lawrence. One such story reads: “I am my own person again. I am a mom. I can be confident. I am happy.” This makes Kathie Clark smile. “It’s important that they keep aware of the positives in life,” she says, “to see that [each of them is] a wonderful, valuable, unique human being.”

Another of Lazarus House’s transitional housing sites is Corpus Christi-an impressively renovated eight- bedroom Victorian house for individuals living with HIV/ AIDS. As diagnosis of the disease was once virtually a death sentence, the house’s original aim was to offer HIV/ AIDS-positive clients a place to “die with dignity” by providing them with comfortable accommodations and support during their terminal illness. Today, with the advent of life-saving treatments and long-term medical care, the goal has changed-the focus now is to help people “get and stay healthy” while living fulfilling lives. Bethany House does the same for families with one or more members living with HIV/AIDS.

Yet another of the organization’s programs is St. Martha’s Food Pantry. The 2.5-year-old facility is the direct result of a fundraising effort that pushed for an enclosed space in which clients can “shop with dignity.” Prior to its opening, people were made to wait outside in all types of inclement weather-on view for anyone to see-a situation many found shameful. Now serving 750 families (2,000 individuals) per week, clients are given four days of supplemental food. The few bags of dry goods they receive are not meant to be a main food supply, but very often, they are. “We make sure what is given to the first person is also available to the last,” says Clark, once again demonstrating the relentless effort to give every one of Lazarus House’s visitors equal access to the means for getting out of poverty.

At a time when many food pantries are closing their doors or reducing their hours, St. Martha’s has yet to take such measures-thanks to the determination of Ken Campbell, who has been running the pantry for the last five years. Campbell’s days are spent trying to put food on the shelves. “We are conscious of the food we provide,” he says. “Lawrence has the highest obesity rate in the state, and with that comes high rates of diabetes.” He goes on to explain that it is also the poorest city in the state, and poverty restricts access to healthy food. It is expensive to eat nutritional foods, but Campbell does his best to find fresh produce and protein-rich items.

“There are really two things we do here,” says Campbell. “We provide food and we try hard to provide a positive experience. Our greeters and volunteers are awesome. It’s a social environment for people in similar [situations] to gather.”

Campbell doesn’t hesitate, however, to share the other side of what goes on inside St. Martha’s Food Pantry. He describes how stressful it is to try to feed the poor and the hungry when supplies are in high demand and running short. But he keeps at it; he says he doesn’t let his temper get the best of him, and he makes use of the Lazarus House chapel now and then-“to catch my breath, even if it’s just for 15 minutes.” Glancing around the bare shelves just hours before the doors are due to open, he says with worry in his voice, “It’s week-to- week. We do what we can, and that’s all we can do.”

Clark is quick to share how impressed she is by Campbell’s weekly accomplishment; somehow, he manages to fill these shelves again and again, even when it seems he won’t be able to manage it. He knows there will always be a line of people waiting, and it’s his job to let them in and send them away with food in their hands. So he does.

Clothing-in addition to shelter, food, and dignity-is another of the provisions supplied by Lazarus House Ministries. The Good Shepherd building, which also houses a community center and soup kitchen, as well as the St. Martin of Tours and St. Frances & St. Claire thrift shops-all offer affordable items and additional places for the clients to socialize, learn about the organization’s many services, and become part of the Lazarus family. Once again, the idea at play in all three stores is to provide clients opportunities to shop with dignity. It is in the thrift shops that people are able to find clean clothes suited for all kinds of occasions-like that hard-won job interview, or the passing of a loved one, or just seasonally appropriate attire. Everything is always priced according to an individual’s ability to pay or else given freely, explains Clark. She feels there is something about making a purchase with one’s own money that helps foster self-esteem, which is why a shirt may cost 50 cents for someone with 50 cents, but doesn’t cost anything for the customer without means.

The segment of Lazarus House’s mission that seems to most excite Clark is the educational aspect. In addition to learning some of life’s basics, like “financial wellness,” good nutrition, and parenting skills, clients who work with advocates beyond the crisis point have access to job training opportunities. English as a Second Language (ESL) classes are vital for the primarily Hispanic demographic. The SPARKL.E. Cleaning Services and culinary training programs are described by Clark as “area[s] where you can really see the hope; the other programs deal strictly with survival.” It’s here that the staff sees things change. “They come in beaten and overwhelmed, and they leave with dignity and self-confidence, knowing that they have a skill and they are ready to face the world,” says Clark, smiling.

The first six weeks of the culinary program are spent training in Lazarus’s kitchen facilities, followed by three months working as paid interns in professional settings. Local participants in this program are many, and include the Andover Country Club (whose head chef, Elaine Chirichiello, helped build the program), Salvatore’s Pizzeria, the Irish Cottage, China Blossom, and Cakes by Erin. Joe Faro, owner of Tuscan Kitchen in Salem, NH, has supported the organization’s mission for over 15 years. Faro serves on the Lazarus House board and continues to help develop the program.

Clark sums things up by saying, “As long as [people] are hungry or cold or seeking shelter, they can’t think about getting out of poverty because they are locked into survival mode. We provide all of these services; when [clients] don’t have to think about survival, then we say, ‘OK, now you need the education…'” With this simple mission as its goal, Lazarus House Ministries makes ambitious plans. On the table is a $5 million capital campaign to bring existing facilities up to code and strengthen established programs. Additionally, they are looking to build another transitional housing facility, expand “social enterprise” programs to include more/different types of training and education, and develop a stabilization fund in case of emergencies (like empty food pantry shelves).

Recognizing the organization as a highly valuable institution where people not only survive, but learn, grow, and move out of poverty, advocates like Clark, Gosselin, and Campbell should be commended. Clark describes the place where she devotes so much of her time as “a spiritually based, nondenominational organization that adheres to the Gospel stating: ‘If you come to my door in need, I will feed you; I will clothe you; I will shelter you.'” It may be said that the people at the heart of Lazarus House Ministries take it one step further: I will give you the tools for change.