By Yadira Betances
---- — LAWRENCE — In 1983, Lazarus House opened a five-bed emergency shelter on Holly Street to meet the need of the city’s homeless population.
Thirty years later, the faith-based organization now has 41 beds and seven cribs, and the ministry has expanded to include a soup kitchen, food pantry, a free medical clinic, homes for individuals living with HIV/AIDS, and programs for job training, ESL and culinary arts.
Executive Director H. Bridget Shaheen said the agency served 285,202 guests in 2012 alone. The number included dishing out 105,877 meals at the soup kitchen, soup van and after-work bagged meals as well as distributing 74,880 bags of grocery 970 holiday meals and emergency food orders; 33,010 guests stayed at the emergency shelter, transitional housing and HIV/AIDS housing.
“Our goal is to help the people God puts at our door. God is not going to let his people down, so he works through the community to help them,” Shaheen. “People want to make a difference. They want to help. You just have to give them an avenue, a channel to help.”
Shaheen became involved with Lazarus House when its co-founder Brother Tom Petite approached her and her husband Paul about the idea. Petite, a member of the Marist religious order had worked with Blessed Mother Teresa in India and she told him if he wanted to help the poor to return to his community.
Petite did just that and with the help of Sister Jeanne Poor started Lazarus House. The need to open the shelter was precipitated by the death of two homeless men in the city. The name Lazarus comes from the biblical figure of the same name in the Gospel of John whom Jesus rose from the dead.
The ministry started with funding donated by members of St. Joseph Melkite Church and volunteers from the Cursillo movement at St. Basil Salvatorian Center in Methuen.
Shaheen, who became executive director in 1996, said during its 30 years, the highlight has been being there for those who need their services.
“We are serving Jesus in the faces of people we see. Each ministry eliminates or lessens people’s pain,” Shaheen said. “It reaffirms my belief this is God’s house and we may not always have what we want, but we have what we need.”
Maribel Davila of Andover came to Lazarus House in 1996 after she lost all of her possessions in a fire on Pearl Street. After staying in a hotel for a week through the Red Cross, Davila stayed at the shelter for six months with her children. After she found housing in Andover, Lazarus House still helped her get furniture for her new apartment.
She is now manager of the Spark*L.E. Cleaning Company, which offers office and industrial cleaning. Trainees get paid for 30 hours per week while honing their English skills.
“This is my way of giving back, especially for what they did for my kids,” said Davila, mother of Jessica Pereyra, Josue Davila and Chantal Rodriguez. “I feel good helping people who like me at one time needed the help. My time here has made me more confident and stronger as a person and a professional.”
Lazarus also has a culinary training class for adults who live at or below the poverty level interested in a career in food service. Area chefs lead hands-on training classes and students are placed in a three-month paid intership to gain experience.
Despite its successes, Lazarus House has also seen its share of misfortunes.
A fire in 1993 destroyed the building which housed the St. Martin de Tours Thrift Shop, one of three shops they run. Then in 1996, the entire basement of the shelter was flooded with 12 feet of water and the waters destroyed 10 tons of food that was stored in the pantry.
The flood also damaged the electrical, heating, air conditioning and phone systems, two hot water heaters, two industrial washers and dryers, a walk-in refrigerator and freezer, a conveyor belt, cleaning, paper and personal care products, and food storage shelving. Also lost was many clothing items that were donated and stored in the basement’s storing area.
“What killed me the most was having to throw food away,” said James Kasouf, who has been part of Lazarus House since 1980 when Petite first started looking for a location. “We never went into anything with fear. We had faith in the Lord and in ourselves. We always trust in the Lord.”
Kalouf, a life time board member, explains Lazarus House’s mission in three simple words: feeding, clothing and shelter.
“It’s so unbelievably simple, you don’t have to explain it. You just do what the Gospel says to do,” he said.
Every week, Ken Campbell and a handful of volunteers see up to 700 families on Wednesday looking for food to supplement their groceries.
“Lazarus House hasn’t grown because a group of people do this or do that. It has grown because of a need in the community,” said Campbell, food coordinator at Lazarus House.
Campbell previously worked in high technology industry as a manager and president. He came to Lazarus House inspired by Petite and other volunteers.
“I always felt the calling to serve the community in a faith-based way and the example of these individuals is just phenomenal,” Campbell said. He was involved in prison ministry before coming to Lazarus House.
In addition to the food pantry and the Good Shepherd Soup Kitchen, Lazarus House hosts a health clinic every other Wednesday, staffed by volunteer physicians from Greater Lawrence Family Health Center, English as a second language classes, tutoring and training for the General Education Diploma.
The faith-based agency also has Capernaum Place, which provides transitional housing for 20 families. The building’s upkeep is maintained from money raised through the Hike for Hope, a 5-mile pledge walk. Last year, 600 walkers raised $190,000.
Last year, Lazarus House kicked off the Campaign for Dignity, its first ever capital campaign with a goal to raise $5 million. Money also comes from social enterprise revenues, in-kind donations, organizations, foundations, events, private donations and profits from the sale at Lazarus House’s three thrift shops.
Micki LeBlanc started as a volunteer helping serve dinner 27 years ago. She is now coordinator of the Lazarus House thrift store.
“If you don’t have faith and come to work here, you will find it. The Gospel comes alive here. This is why Jesus came,” LeBlanc said.
Help Lazarus An ecumenical worship service and reception will be May 16, beginning at 6 p.m. at St. Joseph Melkite Church, Hampshire Street. A reception follows at Central Catholic High School, 300 Hampshire St. Author Kenneth Tingle is donating 25 percent of the purchase of his new book, "Strangeville," to Lazarus House until August 31, 2013.