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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.