Tuesday, November 6, 2018

In Honor of a Doughboy's Service

PVT Howard Emanuel Stickles,
Simsbury, CT native and WWI Veteran

A few years before he died in 1988 at age 98, my grandfather shared some his World War I memories with his nursing home friends. While scarce on details, what he did share remained strong in his mind. Howard Emanuel Stickles, a Simsbury, Connecticut native, served in France with the U.S. Army's 76th Infantry Division 303rd Machine Gun Battalion. Because he shared the reluctance most veterans have of telling stories of their war service, it remains unclear to most of my family what our beloved "Grandpa" actually experienced, but it is eminently clear that he served his country faithfully with honor and pride, and that is what truly matters.

In the Service of the Nation

Grandpa's recounting of his service with the 76th Division began after completion of his basic training at Camp Devens, Massachusetts in 1917 when he and his fellow doughboys boarded a train in Thompsonville, CT destined for Montreal. From there, he recalled, they climbed aboard an English transport bound for Cardiff, Wales, before steaming on to South Hampton. While briefly in Cardiff he wrote his first letter home telling his parents "It makes your heart ache to see how the people over here are suffering in this war." And that's just what he witnessed in Great Britain before he entered the war in France (The war's impact on Great Britain alone left nearly one million soldiers dead with over two million more wounded, many crippled for life, and created an economic panic that easily could have pushed the country into bankruptcy).

Soon after arriving in South Hampton Grandpa said his division embarked for France, "crossing the the English Channel at night, arriving in  LeHarve." From there "we were transported by train, 40 in each boxcar" first to "Langres and then to St. Montigny and onto Metz ... While there, some of my company were in a very large battle outside of Metz," he recalled, not revealing the many more memories that I'm sure remained unspoken.

With a towel over his left shoulder, Grandpa posed with his unit in France
as they looked forward to returning to the USA in 1918

Grandpa's Dog Tags and Medals

Yet what I do know is that Grandpa returned from France with the deep pride of a veteran who served his country well fighting for liberty and justice. His commitment and pride grew even stronger when his son Jim, a highly decorated Army combat medic and first wave Omaha beach survivor, returned home from World War II. As for me personally, I remember with much fondness the luncheon he treated me to in Hartford at the elegant but long gone Hotel Sonesta Rib Room a few days before I departed for Navy basic training, and I'll never forget his welcome home handshake and hug when I returned home from my Vietnam service. As a faithful member of Simsbury's American Legion Post 84 Grandpa participated in every Memorial Day parade he was able, whether marching in stride with fellow veterans, riding with old timers in a fancy convertible, or simply watching from a lawn chair as the parade marched along Simsbury's Hopmeadow Street.

Howard Stickles with cane in hand and hand over heart
honoring his country and veterans circa 1980s

Howard Emanuel "Grandpa" Stickles was a kind and gentle man, always understanding and unpretentious. He was a dear and generous friend to all who knew him. Grandpa went to war as a young man, and returned living to be an old timer who never forgot the commitment, service and sacrifice he, his comrades in arms, and following generations of veterans gave to make the world a safer place. On this Veterans Day, November 11, 2018, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, I honor his service, and treasure my memories of him and the love he gave to all.

Howard Stickles front and center on point at the
Get Together Dinner of the 303rd Machine Gun Battalion
at the Hotel Bond in Hartford, CT on October 28, 1950

Old friends Howard Stickles, Florence Laughlin and George Kennedy
outside Simsbury's Eno Memorial Hall on Memorial Day circa 1980s

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos are from my family's collection

Monday, October 29, 2018

A Perfect Match

Georges Annan Kingsley with one of his art works displayed at an Asylum Hill art show.

On Saturday, October 20, 2018, Georges Annan Kingsley awoke to a new life. Georges received his long awaited kidney transplant the night before. A perfect match, his new kidney worked immediately. This perfect match was on top of another successful transplant just twenty-three days earlier. On September 27, 2018, the United States welcomed Georges as a new citizen. It's a blessing for Georges and his family. It's a blessing for the greater Hartford community. It's a perfect match.

Georges at his citizenship ceremony on September 27, 2018 in New Haven

Georges' citizen celebration party  hosted by the Asylum Hill Welcoming Committee 

All who know Georges love him, his wife Asse Marthe Ntchohou, and his son, Joe-William.  A well respected resident of Hartford's Asylum Hill Neighborhood, Georges is a community leader. He's an accomplished artist (he has a painting on display in the White House), a teacher, and a radio host, as well as an Asylum Hill community organizer championing the acceptance and well being of refugees and immigrants. Despite being tethered to exhausting dialysis sessions three times a week prior to his transplant, Georges' prolific production of paintings and sculptures ensured his works were always on display at local art shows. Most recently he had a two-week exhibition at Connecticut's Legislative Office Building. Incredibly he found even more strength to organize cultural celebrations, sponsor clothing drives, teach art classes, and promote job skills training for new arrivals in his welcoming Hartford neighborhood.

Georges hosting this Good Times show which airs
Saturdays on Ghana Beats Radio from 12:00-2:00 p.m.

George is a transplant who has taken root in Hartford successfully. His compelling stories about escaping from political persecution in Côte d'Ivoire and his quest for a kidney transplant are well documented. I've covered a bit of them in my blog posts: My Friend Needs a Kidney Transplant, and Listen to the Heartbeat of Africa in Hartford about Ghana Beats Radio, the on-line radio station he and his business partner, John Ackeifi, launched to serve the sub-Sahara African diaspora living in greater Hartford. But those posts only tell a small bit of his story.

To learn more about Georges I've compiled a series of links to stories that present a more complete appreciation of this talented and compassionate man who was a model citizen long before he actually became one. His perseverance and optimism embody Connecticut's motto Qui transtulit sustinet: "He who transplanted sustains."

Links to articles, videos, and a podcast about Georges Annan Kingsley:

Political Refugee Showing Art Work at Passages Gallery

New Voices of Asylum Hill

New England Public Radio Words in Transit (podcast)

My Friend Needs a Kidney Transplant

Listen to the Heartbeat of Africa in Hartford

The National Arts Program

Nine Neighborhood Murals Chosen for Hartford Paint the City

Ivory Coast Artist at Hartford Public Library

Voices of Wisdom: Newcomer Stories

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr.; the photo of Georges with the judge was submitted by the Georges Annan Kingsley family.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Habitat Homeowners Help Others Help Themselves

Janice and Kerry Foster with a KJ Foster Scholarship Fund recipient

Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity is celebrating the start of its 30th year anniversary. It began with a kickoff party on October 19, 2018 at the Hartford Marriott Downtown. I interviewed Habitat homeowners Janice and Kerry Foster for the event. Here is their story.  

Raised in Hartford’s Stowe Village housing project, Janice and Kerry Foster lived first-hand the challenges facing their families, friends, and neighbors striving for better lives and looking for a way out of poverty housing. Throughout their school years they were close friends, eventually marrying  and raising a wonderfully close-knit family. Though they lived through some tough times and a searing family tragedy, they became pillars of their Hartford neighborhood, always championing better lives for anyone in need.

As a nineteen-year old seeking his path in life, Kerry seized the opportunity to join the Hartford Fire Department (HFD), and a rewarding, three-decade public service career ensued. Racing to the rescue became a way of life for Kerry. As a member of HFD's Tactical Unit 1 (Tac-1) Heavy Rescue, Kerry fully embraced his career of running toward emergencies. He proudly boasts that TAC-1 is “one of the busiest emergency rescue units in the country.”

While Kerry was pursuing his HFD career, Janice was employed as a medical office assistant and living in substandard Northeast Neighborhood apartments, the only housing her limited income could afford. When she gave birth to her first child, her building’s infestation of mice and roaches became too much to bear. As a caring single mother struggling to make ends meet, it was a call to action. While searching for better housing, Janice heard about Hartford Habitat for Humanity. With a quick inquiry about the process to become a homeowner, Janice thought that Habitat could be the answer to her prayers. It was. 

When her application was accepted, Janice began her sweat equity as soon as she could under the firm but gentle guidance of former Habitat Family Services Director Steve Zwerling, and the one-on-one coaching of Ruth Puff, her Family Services partner, both of whom the Fosters regard as family. It’s been more than twenty years since Janice moved into her Habitat home. A couple of years after settling in, she and Kerry married, dedicating their lives to each other and their family. Though his successful firefighting career enabled them to live almost anywhere, Kerry emphasized that he and Janice are “anchored to the Northeast Neighborhood forever. We will never leave our 52 Clark Street home,” a home where they raised four children, and welcome visits from their four grandchildren.

Janice and Kerry Foster's Habitat Home

It was a neighborhood they loved - a neighborhood where they could channel their love of Hartford by extending their generous helping hands to ensure their neighbors in need are sheltered, clothed, educated, and fed; they are always cooking for families and big community functions often using the two barbecue smokers in their backyard. Habitat’s mission played a large part in “opening our eyes even wider to the needs of others,” said Kerry.  Yet it all could have ended when they lost their son Kerry Jr., known as KJ, to a senseless random drive-by shooting on Memorial Day in 2006. 

KJ was a bright, popular eighth grader simply playing in his yard when he tragically died. A visiting friend was wounded and survived. Through the strength of their faith, and to honor of the memory of their beloved son, KJ’s passing became another call to action for Janice and Kerry to give even more of their time and treasure to the community. In memory of KJ they established the KJ Foster Scholarship Fund, and then they poured even more of their personal savings into setting up another scholarship, the Janice and Kerry Foster, Sr. Scholarship Fund, both of which are managed by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. Also in memory of KJ, the Fosters sponsor a Waverly Park Little League team, and during Hartford's annual Safe Night Out event a 3-on-3 basketball tournament at the Boys and Girls Club.

“Losing our son made us stronger. We’re proud to be role models and help make things happen. People need to take charge of their lives, and we’re glad to help them. You don’t always need money to do good, most of the time you just need to dedicate the time,” said Kerry.

As Janice so wonderfully believes, "If you give, give from the heart -- and it's the little things that count. You have to start somewhere. It's a wonderful thing to give back. I wouldn't live my life any other way."

Kerry B. Foster Jr.  3 on 3 Basketball Tournament Shirt

By running to the rescue of others and giving back to the community, Janice and Kerry paved the way for neighbors to follow their lead and work together to make their community safer, quieter and a healthier place to call home. Kerry believes in Habitat for Humanity. “It’s a great place. It offers a lot, but you have to go get it. Take the initiative. They’ll help you help yourself.”

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos courtesy of Janice and Kerry Foster, Rich Wright Productions, and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.
Highlighted Links are to videos and Janice Foster's quotation on the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving website.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

For Robin Roy Life is All About Helping Out.

Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity is celebrating the start of its 30th year anniversary. It began with a kickoff party on October 19, 2018 at the Hartford Marriott Downtown. I interviewed Habitat homeowner Robin Roy for the celebration. Here is her story. 

The first night in my new home was surreal,” Robin Roy remembered vividly. It was July 1, 2000. Her two boys were in their rooms, and Robin had a moment to collect her wits and reflect. With the whirlwind of her house dedication and house warming parties over, it was a quiet moment sitting in her living room when she finally realized, “This house is my house. It’s really mine. I thought I’d never own a home, never.”

In 1999, Robin was raising her two sons on her own in a small two-bedroom apartment on Manchester’s Birch Street. Her daughter was a young adult already out on her own. That’s when Robin’s rent notice arrived. Her landlord was raising her rent, which would stress her slim budget even further. But she had hope. She recently received her income tax refund. She thought that perhaps the refund coupled with some other grant could finally open the door to homeownership. She called the Connecticut 2-1-1 Help Line for guidance on possible opportunities to pursue, but after following up she found every door locked shut despite a “pretty good credit rating,” and a regular income working in the Alstom Power company cafeteria. It simply wasn’t enough to obtain a mortgage. Then a chance comment by the 2-1-1 counselor led to another way – perhaps she should try Hartford Habitat for Humanity.

“What’s Habitat for Humanity?” she thought. When she first heard about Habitat, Robin was a skeptic. Her initial reaction was, “Is this organization for real?” But she committed to checking it out at an Applicant Information Meeting, and it was there she listened to former Family Services Director Steve Zwerling explain Habitat’s homeownership program. She learned that Habitat was planning to build three houses in Manchester, including one already under construction on Wells Street.

Habitat Homeowner Robin Roy

Though she took an application, Robin wasn’t fully convinced that Habitat was “for real;” that is until she visited the Wells Street site and saw first-hand “all these guys building away as a team.” She was so inspired that she wanted to “pick up a hammer right then an there” just like she was taught growing up helping out in her father’s auto repair garage.

Robin quickly completed the Habitat application and letter of interest. Where the application asked which of three towns Habitat currently would be building did she prefer, she listed “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester” to emphasize that Manchester was definitely where she wanted to stay. While she knew that if accepted Habitat made no promises as to where she might be offered an opportunity to buy a house, Robin committed to proving she was serious. She volunteered immediately to help build the next Habitat home already under construction on Bissell Street. It was winter, snowy and cold. It paid off.

Robin was working in the cafeteria when she got “the call.” Habitat had accepted her application. Her new home would be built on Manchester’s Foster Street. Taken completely by surprise, Robin, with her eyes welling up in tears, joyfully shouted out the good news right in front of her customers, who then followed up with cheers all around. Many cards and best wishes soon followed propelling her forward.

Robin had never done carpentry, but, undeterred, she pitched in every weekend she could to help build her new home. “I cut the rails on my porch”, she said proudly as she showed off her still sturdy handiwork. “I wouldn’t have gotten a home without Habitat,” she added with the satisfaction of knowing her sweat equity helped build it. She tells everyone Habitat has always been there for her. One winter, a few years after moving in, she discovered icicles were forming in her attic. She asked Bud Moyer, a long time and beloved Habitat Saint who had worked on her house, to take a look. He determined it was because moisture wasn’t venting properly. Without a second thought, Bud voluntarily fixed the problem by installing additional soffit vents. 

Robin Roy's Habitat House

Robin is a big believer in Habitat, and she’ll try to help anyway she can. For Robin, “Life is all about helping out.” Having a safe, affordable home stabilized her family life. It gave her time focus on raising her family, as well as herself. She eventually earned her GED, and now works for Companions & Homemakers serving people in need. It’s a natural fit and a job she loves.  In two years her mortgage will be paid off, and then she can truly say, “This house is my house. It’s really mine."

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

A Blossoming Partnership Grows Beautifully

Monrovia team ready to plant at the West Granby Habitat for Humanity house.

On a cool November 3, 2016 morning, a tractor trailer, emblazoned with the Monrovia logo, arrived promptly at 9:00 a.m. It was loaded with fresh, locally grown stock from its Granby, CT nursery ready for planting at the new Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity home in West Granby, CT. With tools in hand, a skilled Monrovia team led by Mark Hixson and Jess McCue descended on the site to dig, plant, mulch and water an expertly selected variety of plants, shrubberies, and trees in an artfully designed plan; the  perfect finishing touch to the home being readied for its new owners. With the plantings completed by noon, the seeds for a perennial partnership had been sown.

The Habitat-Monrovia partnership germinated when Mark, Monrovia's East Coast Inside Sales Coach, contacted me after reading about our Granby build on a flyer that I posted widely throughout town. Mark said Monrovia would be keen on donating plants to the local endeavor. It would even include Monrovia's design team's expertise led by Jess. The results speak for themselves. Since the Granby home, Monrovia has helped beautify twelve more Hartford Habitat homes, the latest being in 2018 on East Hartford's Bliss Street and Moore Avenue this past June.

Headquartered in Azusa, California, Monrovia Plant Company is a national nursery whose trademark is Grow Beautifully®. "Since 1926, Monrovia has been the nation’s leading premium consumer plant brand, led by a passion for growing the healthiest plants to enhance the beauty of American landscapes." Monrovia has four growing operations: California, Georgia, Oregon and Connecticut covering the four corners of the United States.

Habitat for Humanity has always emphasized the need for its homes to compliment the architectural styles and needs of the neighborhoods and communities in which it builds. House designs are adapted to ensure they support a city's long-term vision and plan of development. One aspect of that design is best described as "curb appeal," which not only considers what the house looks like, but also how it sits on its property and the landscape around it. For Hartford Habitat, Monrovia's willingness to partner is proving strategic. It's an essential element for elevating the profile of what affordable housing really is, and what it can do for a community. Not only does Hartford Habitat build new homes to create home ownership opportunities, it also rehabilitates homes in disrepair. This is especially critical as Habitat looks to work with the City of Hartford's Blight Remediation Team to eliminate blight and return properties to productive use. It's all part of Hartford Habitat's commitment to Habitat for Humanity International's Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative.

The following series of photographs and captions are representative of Monrovia's commitment to Habitat and the greater Hartford community. As Habitat Executive Director Karraine Moody explains, "It's a blessing to have Monrovia on board as a generous partner dedicated to improving the lives of others by sharing the natural beauty of the world that grows around us."

Monrovia's first endeavor in West Granby village was also Hartford Habitat's first rural build; a build much welcomed by Granby townspeople.

Team Monrovia busy planting a pine barrier along West Granby Road,
along with a Birch tree and Lilacs bordering the driveway entrance.

Planting Hydrangeas, Hostas, Day Lilies, and
Carex along the foundation and front walk.

Mark Hixson explains to homeowners Jaime and Ralph Wyman the plant varieties
Monrovia provided, as well as instructions on how best to care for them. 

Next it was on to Main Street in Hartford on June 14, 2017, site of three single family Habitat homes nearing completion, where Monrovia teamed up with Hartford's Capital City YouthBuild to plant shrubberies, perennials, and ornamental trees around each home. 

Monrovia's tractor trailer arriving with plants for
three Habitat homes at 2636, 2644, and 2650 Main Street in Hartford

Moving plants into place takes some muscle.

Karraine Moody (left), Habitat Executive Director, and
Tracy Thomas, Habitat Family Services Director, set
plants in place along the front porch.

Jess McCue and Hartford YouthBuild leader Frank Mangiagli
were thrilled with the results of the collaboration.
Two YouthBuild team members were still
all smiles after a hot day's work.

On October 19 2017, Monrovia arrived on Hartford's South Marshall Street to landscape the three soon to be completed duplexes. 

Monrovia, with the assistance of Eversource volunteers, landscaped the
South Marshall Street duplexes in half a day!

The results are spectacular!

The curb appeal of Habitat's three new duplexes at
161/163, 171/173 and 181/183 South Marshall Street was
greatly enhanced by Monrovia's landscaping

Most recently, Monrovia landscaped new homes at 66 Bliss Street and 9 Moore Avenue in East Hartford. Again, the results are excellent! As Construction Director Kris McKelvie noted, "People have been slowing down as they drive by to compliment the gorgeous gardens." And later this summer, Monrovia plans to plant similar gardens at the new Habitat homes under construction at 35 and 37 Armistice Street in New Britain.

66 Bliss Street, East Hartford.
The garden is thriving as the lawn begins to sprout.

As of the end of 2018, Monrovia's team will have assisted on fifteen Habitat homes since November 2016, which includes the specialty walkway entrance plantings at a rehabilitated home on Hartford's Roosevelt Street. Monrovia's generosity is making a visible difference in the lives of Habitat families, and the neighborhoods where they live. By working together Habitat and Monrovia have grown a blossoming partnership.  Long may it bloom!

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

"For the beauty of the earth, For the beauty of the skies"

Mountain Brook as it passes through Wilhelm Farm.
Photo: Peter Dinella

"For the beauty of the earth, For the beauty of the skies"

by Ann Wilhelm

Wilhelm Farm is typical of many small hill farms throughout New England. The 46 acre parcel of land encompasses a variety of landscapes, including open fields, forest, a woodland stream, and other wetland areas. Little of the land is level, and much of it is unsuitable for cultivating crops. Mountain Brook is a woodland stream that bisects the property.

Wilhelm Farm barns and pasture in early fall.
Photo: Peter Dinella

My husband and I bought the North Granby, Connecticut farm from my parents in 2003. I spent many happy hours as a child playing in the woods and splashing in Mountain Brook, with siblings, cousins, or friends. The brook actually flows from south to north, running into the East Branch of Salmon Brook near the North Granby Post Office. The land rises steeply on the west side of the brook, marking the first uplift of the Berkshire Mountains. The brook is fed by many intermittent streams that run down the mountainside in wet seasons and heavy rain events. In the spring, one can find Skunk Cabbage, Trillium, Trout Lily, Wood Anemones, and many other woodland flowers along its banks. Songbirds, woodpeckers, brook trout, frogs, turtles, salamanders, and even an occasional otter have been seen in the brook or the wetlands that surround it. The banks and sandbars are pocked with the tracks of woodland creatures who come there to drink. I frequently hike to the brook at dusk. The tranquility of this spot restores in me a sense of calm and peace after a day spent behind a desk and then a long commute home.

Mountain Brook with its vivid mossy green banks and sparkling clear water.
Photo: Peter Dinella

A beautiful fall triptych of colorful trees on Wilhelm Farm.
Photo: Michael Bentley

On such a walk on an evening last summer, I found the stream running with cloudy, discolored water. There had been several powerful thunderstorms in recent days, so the brook was full, but the water was so turbid that the stream bed was not even visible. The mossy banks which are normally a vivid green, were coated in a layer of reddish-brown silt. This place that always sparkled and vibrated with life looked frightfully dull and dead.

Mountain Brook in distress dulled by silt and sediment.
Photo: Ann Wilhelm

Concerned that the brook was in distress, I immediately called the local Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission. Already alerted by someone far downstream from our farm who also had noticed the alarming discoloration of normally pristine Salmon Brook, the commission had traced the silt to its upstream source -- a recently cleared wooded slope with inadequately built sedimentation ponds.  The offending landowner promptly engaged remediation experts to stabilize the slope and to shore-up the sedimentation ponds. Additionally, significant deposits of sediment in the affected wetlands were carefully removed to mitigate damage to this sensitive habitat using special equipment and manual labor. 

Though relieved that corrective actions were underway, I worried that the damage had been done and I would never again see the brook as it had been. A consulting hydrologist and soil scientist retained by the upstream property owner came to our farm to evaluate the impact on downstream neighbors. Though the water was running clearer than it had several weeks earlier, the stream bed and banks still were coated by a layer of fine, red silt. The slightest disturbance of the stream bed caused the water to cloud. Deeper pools of water remained opaque, with the fine silt particles held in suspension. The expert explained that unlike the situation at the source, these downstream deposits of silt were not enough to warrant human intervention. Attempts to remove the sediment would likely cause more harm than benefit. He said heavy rains and the high waters of spring would wash the silt out of Mountain Brook. These particles would travel through larger and larger waterways until they were eventually deposited as sediment in Long Island Sound. The best course of action was to do nothing; to give the situation time and let nature take its course. He was right! I watched the brook through the late fall and winter and have been delighted to see Mountain Brook returned to a pristine state.

Winter snow and spring rains returned Mountain Brook to it pristine state.
Photo: Ann Wilhelm

Nature’s ability to heal from trauma reminds me of how miraculous our natural world is. The restoration of this one, small jewel gives me hope for the future. Although our environment's natural resiliency struggles to survive in our human wake, it is not too late to reverse the harms we have inflicted on the planet. Spring is the season of rebirth, renewal, and new beginnings. Let's all do our part. We must commit to keeping our environment clean and livable. When added together even small, individual actions, such as buying local food, picking up litter, or planting a tree make a collective, positive impact. "For the beauty of the earth, For the beauty of the skies..." -- let's sing it; let's do it! 

Happy Earth Day!

Ann Wilhelm is a Research Analyst in the University of Connecticut’s Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness. As part-time farmers and advocates for small-scale agricultural systems, Ann and her husband, Bill Bentley, are implementing several agroforestry systems on their North Granby, CT farm.

Follow Ann on social media: www.wilhelmfarm.com; Instagram: wilhelm_farm; Facebook: Wilhelm Farm

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Fresh Starts Begin with Grace

One of Fresh Start's original furniture offerings, a hand painted garden bench.

As I walked in with Pastor Rick Kremer to tour Asylum Hill's unique non-profit furniture making business, Waseem was feeding a board into a planer, Ron was putting the finishing touches on a cabinet, and two volunteers were crafting tables and lamps. It's a typical busy morning scene on Fresh Start Pallet Products LLC's shop floor. Discarded pallets and distressed furniture are recycled into "attractive, sturdy, and affordable furnishings for home and garden." Fresh Start's mission is to offer meaningful jobs and job training, along with essential life skills to people -- typically unemployed, often homeless, sometimes with severe health or addiction issues -- seeking a way back to reclaim their dignity and self-esteem, all toward becoming productive members of society. Reclamation and renewal are what Fresh Start is all about.

Waseem working at the planer.

Ron putting the finishing touches on a cabinet.

In the Beginning ...

Launched three years ago as a mission-based enterprise, the idea for Fresh Start germinated when artist and community outreach organizer Louisa Barton-Duguay thought that the idle, but fertile, lawn of Hartford's Grace Lutheran Church would be a comforting place for people, especially the neighborhood's homeless seeking a respite from the street, to sit and chat, or simply relax in a moment of quiet solitude. Louisa, Grace's artist-in-residence, thought a garden with simple benches should be the first "seeds" planted. Her vision sparked a spiritual call to action. Lee Whittemore, a retired Hartford Master carpenter, heard it and took the next step with Louisa. At her request, Lee volunteered to build the benches.

Together, as they surveyed the proposed garden location, Louisa and Lee spotted a pile of discarded pallets piled near a recently renovated apartment building across the street. Whittemore quickly rescued them from a fate destined for the the landfill. It was free lumber. As he began constructing basic benches and chairs with the salvaged pieces, more surprises were in the offing.

Whittemore's work attracted the attention of homeless men who had come to Grace for its weekly Friday Gatherings, a free dinner with all the trimmings. They asked if they could help. Instantly, Whittemore had eager assistants. As it came to life, Grace's new garden, with its colorful pallet furniture, drew broad community praise encouraging others to support the effort.

Recently called to Grace's ministry at that point, and moved by the neighborhood's "stories of hungry people with little hope, and many lost dreams," Pastor Rick often wondered about how it came to be that Louisa's wonderful idea, a pile of discarded pallets, and Lee's talents all converged at the right moment to initiate a program destined to become a new church mission. Divine inspiration? Pastor Rick believes so, which led him to ask Louisa and Lee a simple question, "Did you ever think about creating a business?" Without skipping a beat, conversations about starting a business began in earnest. That's when David Eberly, a pianist of note, unknowingly took the baton to orchestrate the next steps.

A Musician Plays the Next Verse 

After overhearing conversations concerning the church's financial challenges, Eberly, blind from birth, called Pastor Rick suggesting they meet with Phil Rockwell and Pete Mobilia, two retirees formerly involved in development and public relations at Asylum Hill's St. Francis Hospital. He thought they might have ideas that could help get Grace on a more stable financial footing.

Eberly spoke with Rockwell and Mobilia, and they set a meeting at Hamilton Heights, the senior living facility Eberly and Mobilia call home. In the meeting Pastor Rick outlined several issues affecting church finances, which generated several comments, but nothing revelatory. However, as a last minute thought when wrapping up his talk, Pastor Rick mentioned the church's latest idea for a neighborhood mission: "building furniture out of used shipping pallets, and in that way inviting people to a new start, a second chance." Another moment of divine inspiration struck. The idea instantly captured the imagination of Rockwell and Mobilia. Taking root strong and deep, the idea ultimately blossomed into what it is today, Fresh Start Pallet Products LLC, a social enterprise with a mission to provide "employment and training opportunities for economically disadvantaged area residents."

Fully on board, Rockwell and Mobilia recommended marketing and public relations ideas to advance the cause. They also knew other people who would leap at the chance to help. The small group soon grew larger. Many volunteers stepped forward to lend a hand. From the very beginning they reached for help from other organizations serving the same population. Discussions with neighboring organizations such as St. Francis Hospital, Chrysalis Center, and Catholic Family Services were encouraging. With enthusiasm running high, a small working team quickly gelled. Its first order of business was funding -- securing enough money to launch the enterprise on a path to succeed. A fundraiser proved just the ticket.

In June 2015 the pallet project team sponsored a night of music hosted by Hamilton Heights. It featured The Great American Songbook with Eberly on the keyboard accompanied by the vocals of Bob Lally, a project advocate and partner at Federman, Lally & Remis LLC. Nearly 100 people attended the concert, which also exhibited recently completed pallet furniture products. Netting more than $23,000, it raised enough money to get the business underway in earnest, and it attracted more advocates from which a vital network of relationships grew. Helping hands quickly multiplied, and a diverse and talented team -- a working committee -- was built that could turn an idea into reality.

With the engine to drive the business firmly in gear, the team worked full speed ahead on the details. It took the necessary steps to establish Fresh Start Pallet Products as a recognized non-profit business with a formal business plan. With Fresh Start's official legal standing assured, the team proceeded to make sure that accounting, insurance, payroll and personnel processes were securely in place.

Fresh Start Opens for Business

Under tents in Grace's backyard, Fresh Start officially opened its "doors" for business in 2015, as a social justice mission focused on changing lives and providing second chances; befitting its motto, Building Furniture -- Rebuilding Lives. "For years, Grace Lutheran has sponsored missions of mercy through its year round Friday night public dinners, and its Janet's Closet clothing shop, both serving people in need," Pastor Rick told me. "Now we have a business focused on justice with a mission that helps people in need who want an opportunity to change their lives."

Soon the furniture offerings evolved from benches and chairs, to a variety of products including tables, planters, window boxes, shelves, and stools.  As sales revenue and donations increased, and winter loomed, the need for more manufacturing space grew. Nearby Trinity Episcopal Church offered its basement where operations continued to grow. What was meant to last for a winter, carried on for two years as Fresh Start added equipment, and engaged in a comprehensive process learning about hiring, personnel selection, productivity, quality, and marketing. As the business continued to grow, it soon became evident a larger, more functional and permanent location would be needed.

Right on cue, committee volunteers found a solution in Asylum Hill with room to house more trainees, as well as its core of dedicated volunteers. Fresh Start had an ideal spot to change more lives. It could focus unrestrained on conducting additional technical training, manufacturing more efficiently, improving its quality, expanding its offerings, and, most important of all, hiring more people in need of a fresh start.

A custom bench ready for final finishing.

Fresh Start's fan-backed chair.

The quality of Fresh Start's furniture has improved significantly under the direction of operations manager Ron Bell (a former trainee and now full time employee) and his team of trainee-employees and volunteers. Its products are becoming hot commodities. Thanks to Mike McGarry's support, Fresh Start's full line of products was featured at February's Connecticut Flower and Garden Show at the Connecticut Convention Center. McGarry, an Asylum Hill Neighborhood advocate and head of Hartford Blooms, the city's annual flower garden tour, was enthusiastic to assist.

In its new location, Fresh Start continued to develop new and amazing products. Along with its benches and chairs, it has built in vogue "steampunk" lamps, display racks for two Salvation Army thrift stores, and creatively modified used furniture acquired from Hartford Habitat's ReStore  -- all of these have contributed to building an inventory of unique and functional home furnishings. As Pastor Rick told me, "Our furniture design has advanced to skilled artisan quality. We call it 'Fresh Start Version 2.0.'" As a prime example, he had me sit in a wooden chair built with the seat contour of a Mercedes. It was so comfortable I felt like driving it home right from the showroom.

The "Mercedes" chair.

Table in Pastor Rick's study.

A handcrafted display table.

A custom "steampunk" lamp.

Awaiting front drawer facades, an old bureau has been transformed 
into a fully functioning potting bench plumbed for water.

A small harvest table ready for delivery.

Progress to Date and Looking to the Future

During the past three years, Fresh Start has offered a second chance to fourteen people, three of whom were hired as full time employees, and has generated revenue approaching $100,000. However, much more is required to grow and sustain the real business -- the business of changing lives; of saving lives. Through improved public relations and marketing, Fresh Start is taking steps to strengthen its bottom line. It's in the final stages of becoming an independent non-profit. As a stand-alone 501(c)(3), Fresh Start's opportunities to raise much needed funding are expected to grow dramatically. Increasing individual and corporate donations, along with obtaining access to more grant funds, are essential to ensuring the healthy cash flow required to grow the business. It would enable Fresh Start to hire more trainees, as well as upgrade tools and equipment -- tools and equipment essential to ensure its trainees obtain the market-ready skills necessary to re-enter the workforce.

Fresh Start welcomes all who want to support the program. Interested parties seeking more information about Fresh Start's business, either to purchase furniture, volunteer, or donate money, tools, or equipment, are encouraged to write to Grace Lutheran Church, 46 Woodland Street, Hartford, CT 06105, or call the church office at (860) 527-7792, or contact Fresh Start Board Chair Pastor Rick Kremer at rickkremer@aol.com.

Tour Fresh Start on Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Of special note, on June 13, Fresh Start will host an open house as the last stop on Hartford Blooms' Asylum Hill neighborhood tour. The Asylum Hill tour is part of Hartford Blooms Garden Tours' annual nine-day, June 9-17, bus and walking tour of Hartford neighborhoods.  The open house will feature music, food and flowers befitting the tour's theme: "Jazz, Arts & Flowers." It will be an excellent opportunity to see Fresh Start's operations first hand. Event details, registration and ticket information can be obtained on Hartford Blooms website: http://hartfordblooms.gdn; or by calling its office at (860) 296-6128.

It's spring. It's a time of renewal.

Fresh starts renew lives.

Fresh starts begin with grace.

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr. and Fresh Start Pallet Products LLC 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Life Saving Diversions at St. Elizabeth House

St. Elizabeth House, 118 Main Street, Hartford, CT,
home of Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation's Diversion Center.

Waiting for the door to open, people are lined up as many as forty deep on a typical weekday morning at St. Elizabeth House's main entrance. They are our neighbors in crisis hoping for support once inside. In imminent danger of being swallowed into the downward cycle of homelessness, they are seeking a life saving diversion from living on the street. This is their reality. And it's just a small glimpse of their daily reality that I saw on my recent visit to St. Elizabeth's. I was there to learn first-hand about Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation's innovative program to divert people away from becoming homeless.

Twenty months ago on July 5, 2016, Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation (Mercy) welcomed its first clients to its newly created Diversion Center at St. Elizabeth House on Main Street in Hartford. Faced with diminishing federal and state financial support for Mercy's long-established transitional housing programs, Executive Director Dave Martineau, now retired, and current ED Judith Gough led a nine month multi-organization collaboration to develop an aggressive "up front" program designed to immediately divert people away from homelessness --- people who are on the brink of having to survive minute to minute alone with no place to go. "This program enhances Mercy's ability to prevent a person from becoming homeless before their situation spins into a full-blown, life threatening crisis," Executive Director Gough told me.

Throughout its thirty-five year old mission of providing housing assistance and supportive services to persons who are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless, Mercy has prided itself as being on the forefront of creating workable community solutions. Simple and direct, the Diversion Center's goal is to find its clients safe, stable housing rapidly. The Center's reach is wide. It provides services in what's organized as the Greater Hartford Coordinated Area Network, which, in addition to Hartford and its surrounding towns, includes Enfield, Manchester, East Hartford, Ellington, and Tolland.

"Nearly thirty percent of people in this situation [of being homeless] can be diverted from this tragic outcome with minimal mediation," according to Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness workshops. "Often the solution can be overcome with little or no money to reverse the events leading to homelessness," saving Hartford and Connecticut thousands of dollars.

According to Stephanie Corbin, Mercy's Shelter Diversion Coordinator, the diversion process is best described as highly responsive "front door triage." It provides personalized solutions with accompanying emotional support aimed at mitigating the problems leading to a client's crisis. It's all accomplished at the Center in centralized coordination with several Hartford based agencies serving the homeless, including Journey Home, the Salvation Army, Community Health Resources, and the City of Hartford. Corbin emphasized that the key to successful client outcomes is case manager creativity.  The solution for each client must address the direct question, "What do we need to do right now to keep you out of the shelter system?"

Stephanie Corbin (L), Shelter Diversion Coordinator, conducts a case
conferencing session with case managers (L-R) Jackie Florez, Shefia Ibrahim,
and Latoya Smith to review recommendations for each client.

To counsel people in crisis quickly and directly, a collaborative team of case managers from Mercy, the Salvation Army, and Community Health Resources staff the Center every week. People seeking the Center's support first call the 211 Infoline, which initially assesses the caller's need for services, and then, as deemed appropriate, schedules an appointment for them to see a Center case manager within 24 to 48 hours. Appointments are scheduled Monday through Friday beginning at 9:00 AM.

A sampling of client-specific crisis resolutions include:
  • Arranging a family intervention allowing a teenager to seek redemption and return home after being kicked out for unacceptable behavior.
  • Working with a family facing eviction because of an unresolved rent dispute with their landlord. 
  • Working with a family being evicted for violating a rental agreement by housing non-family members.
  • Assisting a client with short-term financial assistance needed to keep them in good stead with their landlord while they recover from a medical setback.  
  • Providing a client with bus or train fare enabling them to reunite and live with family residing in another state.

In addition to crisis resolution assistance, Diversion Center clients may also see a nurse or physician's assistant in the center's medical suite staffed by Charter Oak Health Center, or find respite in St. Elizabeth House's Friendship Center with a healthy meal, or hot shower.

St. Elizabeth's Friendship Center serves a hot lunch prepared on site. 

Opened just twenty months ago, Mercy's Diversion Center is still in its formative stage, yet its results to date are encouraging. In fiscal year 2017, 2,577 individuals were seen by a case manager. During that period 456 were diverted from homelessness, sixty-two of whom were between the ages of 18-24, and 124 required limited financial assistance that helped them avoid homelessness. Further, 1,244 people, whose cases were not readily resolvable, were referred directly to city shelters, and the remaining group were either referred to other area programs, or were deemed ineligible for assistance.

According to Executive Director Gough current demand for the Center's diversion service is showing an increase over last fiscal year. With one full year of experience, and a second well underway, the Diversion Center has charted a path for other agencies serving the homeless to follow, and to improve upon collectively. It's a path the Connecticut Department of Housing strongly endorses. It's a path leading to life saving diversions, or perhaps one could say "Mercy-ful Diversions."

This post was reprinted in the Mercy Housing and Shelter Spring 2018 Newsletter, and in Journey Home Connecticut's Journey Home News Spring 2018.

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr.

For the Record: I am currently a member of Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation's Board of Trustees. Further, I served as an analyst in developing "Hartford's Plan to End Chronic Homelessness by 2015"; and I represented Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity in the development of a subsequent implementation plan called "Journey Home -- The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness in the Capitol Region"