The 'groundbreaking' filled a pot for planting daisies, a symbol of hope.
ADAMS, Mass. — The imposing Victorian on Old Columbia Street isn't just any house — it's been a place of rebirth for thousands of struggling and homeless area residents.
"You are not just in any yard, looking at just any house. This is my birthplace, in my opinion," said Brandi Doran.
Doran told the dozens of community members, volunteers, supporters and elected officials on Wednesday morning that Louison House had been the place where she learned to deal with her agorophobia.
"Thanks to all the efforts of the most amazing group of staff that I've ever known, I, literally, within less than a nine-month period, have turned from a shell of a woman to the woman who can confidently stand here before you and proudly support something that I truly believe," she said.
Doran said she came across an opportunity to continue to support something she believed in and has been volunteering at homeless shelter for the past 2 1/2 years. It was so important to her, she was married in the yard last year.
"I have no intentions of going anywhere. Because just like this house, we've been around for a while," she said. "We're just getting started."
Wednesday was a day for starting anew as Louison House held a ceremonial groundbreaking to celebrate the restoration of the building exactly three years to the day a fire forced it to close. Those who had a hand in aiding in the restoration to this point took turns using golden shovels to plop rich soil into a large pot that was then planted with daisies.
Nearly a dozen speakers gathered on the house's expansive porch and the audience clustered under a large tent or under the large shady trees that line the property.
Kathy Keeser, who took over as executive director exactly two days before the fire, steered the nonprofit shelter through the chaos and helped transplant it for the past few years at Flood House in North Adams.
"Louison House is here because of all of you," she said. "It's true. This is our community. We did this where we are today. Now we plant our flower, which is hope and daisies are one of the things of hope so that's why we got a pot and that's why we got the flower."
Keeser is hoping the building will be ready by fall. Once completed, the shelter will have a total of 27 units of rental housing — 22 transitional and five supportive apartments — in its three buildings with the ability to serve families with children, single men and women, and a fully accessible apartment on the ground floor of Louison House.
Geary Construction is the contractor and Berkshire Housing Development Corp. is the development agency and there's $1.7 million in state funding for Louison and some work at Flood House.
There still appears to be a way to go. The three-story house has new windows and ramps but there was obviously a lot of work left to do inside and its condition wasn't conducive to tours. But it's a far cry from the fragile state the organization was in when the fire occurred.
"At that point, the federal government — and I'm not going to be political here — but it was seven months behind in providing our funding for our program," Michael Goodwin, chairman of the board at the time, said. "That means our bills weren't being paid, our staff were risk of not being paid. And fire aside, we were wondering if were going to be able to stay open."
Local businesses, churches and organizations pitched in with more than $60,000 in donations to tide the nonprofit over. The stability of the Louison House was at a critical point.
"After the fire in the summer 2016, the Northern Berkshire community came forward support our program," he said. "To say we're overwhelmed is an understatement as folks came forward in our time need and to help us out."
That influx of small donations and community support allowed the shelter to pay bills, keep the doors open and the lights on and help transition residents.
"But more importantly, it's seeded an emergency fund for us," Goodwin said. "So that now today and tomorrow, we have a rainy day fund that the program's never had before. So that was amazing. We will always be grateful for that."
Brandi Doran explains what Louison House means to her.
Lionel Romain, director of housing for Central & Western Massachusetts for the state's Community Economic Development Assistance Corp., said the agency was able to put together the construction financing for the shelter.
"We're encouraged ... I'm looking forward to coming back and seeing this, really seeing the final product," Romain said. "It's so great. I get paid to do this type of work. And really, it's just encouraging and I'm more than happy to work with this organization."
There was a lengthy list of organizations, foundations and community members thanked during the hourlong event including Berkshire Bank, Adams Community Bank, MountainOne, Greylock Federal Credit Union, Williams College and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Community Chest of Williamstown, and Susan Gold, Fred and Susan Puddester, Bill and Cindy Simon and James and Joan Hunter.
Also speaking were current Louison House board Chairwoman Julie MacDonald, Adams Selectmen Chairwoman Christine Hoyt, North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard, state Rep. John Barrett III, A.J. Enchill of state Sen. Adam Hinds' office who brought a citation from the Senate, Spencer Moser of MCLA and Williams President Maud Mendel.
"Robert Frost said that home is a place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in," said Mendel. "But from listening today, it's really clear that Louison goes one better.
"When you have to go there, they want to take you in, they love taking you in, they not only shelter and feed you, they embrace you in community and guide you on your next steps, which we heard so movingly from two of our speakers. When I say they do this for you, I could just as well say they do it for us since life circumstance can lead any of us vulnerable."
An example of that is John Drummond, a former Louison resident who like Doran is now a member of the organization's advisory board. He said Louison was there when he fell last year from the "top of the world." He had an addiction relapse and lost his house and his fiancee and had nowhere to go. He entered Louison House just over a year ago and over his two-month stay found support and made connections at the new Beacon Recovery Center in North Adams.
"I'm going to become a recovery coach in Pittsfield starting in July, and then I'll become a recovery coach at the Beacon," he said. "I owe it all because my stay at the Louison House taught me humility. And I'm just glad Louison House was there and for anyone, any resident that's there now, it's not the end of the world. It's just a little roadblock in your life in part of your life. But eventually, you will get out."
Louison House has been providing transitional housing since its founding in 1990, spearheaded by the late Theresa Louison. City Councilor Jason LaForest recalled how as a 12-year-old in 1988 he had joined community leaders trying to bring attention to the local homeless problem by spending a night under the walkway at the Berkshire Bank Plaza.
"I was captivated by the warm compassion of Theresa Louison's dream and by her community activism and leadership around our friends and neighbors facing housing insecurity and homelessness," he said. "We remain eternally dedicated to Teresa Louison and for her lifelong compassion."
LaForest introduced three of Louison's daughters — Susan Nolan, Pat Rossi and Donna Michalski — who took their turn filling the pot.
Adams Selectmen Joseph Nowak slipped into the line of speakers before heading off to turn the focus on the people who make Louison House a success.
"I'd like to just quickly say thanks for all the help from all the dignitaries, all the businesses and all the individuals that helped make this a reality," he said. "But the real heroes here are the people that work at the Louison House. The selectman, the state representatives and all the people that do the paperwork, make this happen. But the people in the Louison House are doing God's work, and that is helping those most in need. So thank you very much and best of luck."
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Thursday's menu consisted of some standard pub fare, chicken parmigiana, burgers, nachos. And some not so standard, tempura-fried vegetables, charcuterie, and limoncello mascarpone cake.
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