A Warm Experience
What started out as a soup kitchen and emergency shelter in the heart of Westerly nearly three decades ago has evolved into a comprehensive non-profit social service organization that this year will serve more than 2,300 people. The WARM Center has expanded to serve not only those in Westerly, but surrounding communities in Rhode Island and nearby Connecticut. This week Jim Hummel sits down with the organization’s executive director and two people who say the center saved their lives - literally.
Click here for more information about the WARM Center.
It is the food, of course, that has drawn tens of thousands of people here over the past three decades. That, and a bed, for those who had nowhere else to go.
In 1987 Westerly Area Rest Meals - or WARM - began as a volunteer effort by a coalition of area churches. It has evolved into so much more, and this year will serve 2,300 people - primarily in Westerly, but also surrounding communities in Rhode Island and nearby Connecticut.
Russ Partridge: ``As I call it, a comprehensive social service agency.’’
WARM’s executive director Russ Partridge has overseen a dramatic transformation of this organization since his arrived here in 2008, including the construction of this brand new building three years ago, as well as some expansion and revitalization of existing programs.
The new building includes a spacious and well-equipped kitchen, with storage areas adjacent to it.
Russ: ``We had a vision of a facility where people could come and be treated by using our values: of compassion, hope and dignity and with accountability in the time that they’re here.’’
It looked a lot different even a decade ago: the administrative offices were housed in a bakery building and the shelter in what used to be a bar back in the day. WARM started out as a soup kitchen and an emergency shelter.
This year the center will serve 35,000 meals - lunch and dinner seven days a week, and on any given night will house 80 people across the area:
13 men and 6 women in the shelter on Spruce Street.
6 apartments in the new building next door for residents with disabilities
And 13 offsite apartments, primarily for homeless families.
Russ: ``As we’ve grown people have begun to look at the WARM Center, it’s now called the WARM Center, it’s always been the WARM shelter, but we changed the name, simply because I think it begins to change people’s perspective. The community now looks at WARM and goes: This is a really valuable asset to the community.’’
Like many social service agencies WARM is catering as much to the working poor as it is to the homeless.
Russ: ``And that’s one of the reasons we run the types of programs that we do. It’s really meant to help people to meet their budget, or to supplement their budget. If I can come to the WARM Center with my partner or with my children and be able to get a meal, it’s something that I can now use those financial resources to pay my utilities or pay my rent.
Russ had spent 10 years moving up the ladder at Crossroads in Providence, but eight years ago was ready for a change. He was willing to take on a case manager’s position at WARM that would mean a huge pay cut, but the board saw the possibility early on for a transition of leadership.
Rev. Jean Barry, who in 1990 became WARM’s first executive director, worked with, then handed over the reins to Russ in 2012, justas construction on the building that ultimately would bear her name was getting under way. Neighbors who once objected to having a shelter in their midst now look favorably at a state-of-the-art facility that stands out on Spruce Street.
Russ: ``Most people walk in and go `Oh my God, this is a homeless shelter?’ But that in itself builds somebody’s hope when they’re walking into some place that really reflects how we feel about the population and the clientele that we serve.’’
Tarni Maggs: ``I never knew WARM was here. Ever.’’
Tarni Maggs grew up in the Ashaway section of neighboring Hopkinton, then later Westerly. When her children were grown she returned to an alcohol and drug habit she’d had before she became a mom.
Tarni: ``I lost my apartment just up the road and I made a call and they said, `We can come get you right now.’ And I was like: Oh my God.’’
She doesn’t mince words: the WARM Center, Tarni says, saved her life - literally.
Tarni: ``Had I not come here I would have still used because I was couch surfing. All my friends were active users. So no matter how much I tried, and I had tried in the past to stop. I couldn’t do it by myself. I was provided the opportunity to go to as many meetings as I wanted. And I applied what I learned at those meetings. And life just started changing one day at a time. Little baby steps, ended up being huge steps. Eight years ago I wouldn’t ever dreamed my life would be like this.’’
Tarni now works as a treatment assistant at AdCare in North Kingstown and is constantly talking up the WARM Center.
Tarni: ``Some people have nowhere to go, especially women; it’s really, really hard for a woman to get sober. And I’ll talk to these people sometimes and I’ll say `You you, need to call WARM. And you can tell them Tarni said to call.’”
Joe Glennon: ``I’ve always had a problem with drinking…’’
Nearly a decade ago Joe Glennon was in a car accident that aggravated some old injuries. He also lost his job and his apartment all within a short period of time.
Joe: ``And I just pretty much gave up on life and I lived in my car for about two years and drank every single day, that’s all I did.’’
Joe came to WARM because he knew he could get two good meals a day. And - he met Russ Partridge, who asked some tough questions.
Joe: ```When are you going to stop this nonsense, when are you going to stop living like this?’ Really I thought there was no way out. I thought I was stuck that way. Until one day I got sick and tired of being sick and tired. I came in an said to him `I can’t do it anymore, I can’t live like this anymore.’”
Joe has turned his life around and gone back to college. And he credits the center for helping to make it happen.
Joe: ``They don’t just give you direction and say now go. They give you direction and they stay with you. And they say `what are you doing here, what are you doing there, try this venue and try that venue and that’s what I got from them.’’
Tarni: ``Today I have a bank account, I have an apartment that I pay for. I have a car that’s registered and insured. And I got a legal license today.’’
Jim Hummel: ``Basic stuff that a lot of people take for granted, but you realize how special this is when you get it.’’
Tarni: ``I do. And I live within my means.’’
Joe has been sober for six and a half years - and last summer he joined the WARM Center’s board of directors.
Hummel: ``What do you tell people in this community about the significance that this place had has in the community.’’
Joe: ``They don’t realize all the other things that go on: the community outreach, they don’t realize that we go out and we talk to people who are living out in the woods, who are living in abandoned quarries, who are hiding away from the general public. People basically don’t want to see the homeless, you know? They don’t want to see the dirty underside of their community.;;
Hummel: ``Where would you be had this center not been there for you back in 2009?’’
Joe: ``Dead. In a hospital someplace. Not knowing my own name.m….lost, unknown. It wouldn’t have been nice.’’
Russ says the community has been tremendously supportive - like these volunteers making some of the more than 4,000 bag lunches that will go to kids in area summer camps over the course of the season.
Russ: ``In coming here I was - and continue to be - blown away by the generosity that exists in the community, not only financially but also in the volunteers and the support that the organization gets.’’
And many businesses have chipped in too. For example this Subway in Westerly and a pizza shop over the line in Pawcatuck, Connecticut donate meals every week.
Then there are the donations to the center’s Attire for Hire room.
Russ: ``The community, I should say, provides good used clothing for folks who are not only here in shelter, but also living out in the community. It’s a place where if you’re going for a job interview you can come and get a suit, you can come get a dress shirt, a dress. When people become homeless they lose everything, so to be able to come to some place that will help you to be able to be, and feel very positive in going in for a job interview. It’s a great resource.’’
Tarni: ``If you really want it, you can get it here. This place has so many opportunities to get better. So many resources here. To help you.’’
Joe: ``I have a new life today and I want to go forward with it. Kind of reborn at the age of 50. And I always look at it that way. Born again, and I don’t mean that in a religious way or anything else. I was literally born again at the age of 50 and everything is new to me now. I know where I was and I don’t want to go back to that place.’’
Russ: ``We see a lot of sadness. We see people who have experienced a lot of trauma. But on the other side we get to see some of our successes - the fact we have come to this beautiful property and built a facility that really represents our feeling toward our clientele.’’
Russ says it’s been a great partnership with the community and public officials in Westerly and the surrounding towns.
Russ: ``The nice thing we’ve been able to do is educate folks about poverty and about homelessness and I think they recognize that if WARM and other social service agencies in this area were not here they would have a serious problem with poverty.’’
In Westerly, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight