A Recipe for Love!

One committed corporate donor generously provided PIZZA KITS, filled to the brim with ingredients and chef hats so our Shelter families could engage in a COVID-relief fun activity, but this beautiful and simple act of creativity provided so much more.

Our families had something to look forward to and talk about all week. Moms had a time of unburdened freedom to bond with their kids. Pizza participants shared joy and laughter all evening! Each baker experienced a sense of accomplishment and capability. Excellent pizza was enjoyed by all. Beyond that and best of all are the magnificent memories created that will last a lifetime!

Thank you to ALL of our donors for loving our Guests.

Seventh Graders Fight to End Poverty

On a class visit to Lazarus House, seventh graders Gauri Kumar and Joeyanna Hodnett developed a brilliant idea. A way to reuse technology to help the Guests of Lazarus House.

Every year, the Pike School seventh-grade class does a food drive. This year, after the food drive the seventh-grade class took a tour of Lazarus House. “It was pretty amazing to visit Lazarus house,” Kumar said. The seventh-grade class had never gone to visit Lazarus House before this trip. “We were walking through the study area and there were kind of old computers there,” said Kumar.

At Pike School, iPads become mandatory in the sixth grade. “I thought about how much technology has helped with learning, and I wanted to get technology to help other people learn too,” Kumar said.

Kumar thought of her sister’s unused iPad at home. “We thought we could do something [with the iPad] and use it,” Hodnett said. From this thought, Hodnett and Kumar developed the idea of Tech for Hope. Taking unused technology, iPads, laptops, computers, etc. and donating them to Lazarus House.

Tech for Hope began taking donations at Pike School. The tech donors follow links given by Tech for Hope and follow instructions to get their technology as if it were brand new, without any customizations. Then Hodnett and Kumar deliver the donated technology to Lazarus House for their Guests.

“Technology opens so many doors for people. You can do a job application and many other things,” Hodnett said. “Technology has opened doors for us. We want to give others the access to open those doors as well,” said Kumar.

Tech for Hope began receiving donations right before the coronavirus pandemic. Due to restrictions, Kumar and Hodnett have been unable to deliver their technology donations to Lazarus House. “We have a few donations but haven’t been able to give them to Lazarus House yet, due to COVID-19,” Hodnett said.

“We would really like to get more donations; so many people need them,” said Hodnett. “The more [donations] we get, the more we can give.” Hodnett and Kumar plan on continuing Tech for Hope in the future. “We don’t want to stop one day. We want it to keep going as long as we can,” said Hodnett.

If you would like more information or would like to donate to Tech for Hope, contact Tech for Hope Faculty Advisor Julie Ogden at jogden@pikeschool.org or Gauri Kumar at kumar.gauri098@gmail.com

Family Uses Organizational Skills in Pandemic to Help Lazarus House

Logan, 13

Many great things come in small packages. The Reuss family of three who recently began volunteering at Lazarus House is one example. Grady-16, Logan-13 and their mother Jen knew Lazarus House for years but made time this year to get involved with volunteering.

“Serving at Lazarus was something we had always talked about,” Jen Reuss said. “We really wanted to work [volunteering] into our life for a really long time. We investigated a lot of different opportunities. Lazarus House is such a part of this community. It seemed like a nice fit and it works great for us,” Jen said.

The Reuss family works on organizational projects that work well with their busy schedule. Jen noted, “Between sports commitments and school activities, our lives can be quite busy. So, this has been a nice way to work [volunteering] into our lives.” The flexibility of the Reuss family projects helps them to take on more.

Jen, Grady and Logan Reuss began working on managing the database for Lazarus House before COVID-19 restrictions began. They continue to work on managing the database in addition to organizing the kitchen, games center and bookshelves through the summer while following Lazarus House COVID-19 safety protocols . “We’re sprucing up the shelter for when it reopens,” Jen said.

The Reuss family cares!

Service is important to the Reuss Family. “It is great to expose my kids to volunteering, especially in their younger years. Service is vital to community success,” Jen said. The Reuss family has had fun working together in service and even sharing in some laughs.

The family of three enjoys volunteering. “It makes my heart happy with the level of respect Lazarus House has for their guests. They really believe in what they do,” said Jen Reuss. “The staff is so lovely. They are really beautiful people, it makes it nice to volunteer,” Reuss said.

The Reuss family encourages volunteering with Lazarus House. “Everyone can do it,” said Logan Reuss.  “They work with what you have and use your talents with what they need,” Jen continued. “Tell them your interests or what you think you can do. Just reach out. They are happy to work with you.” “The opportunities are extensive because the need is extensive.”

In the future, the Reuss family looks forward to fixing all the organizational needs of Lazarus House and expanding into other ways of serving once COVID-19 restrictions loosen. “We have thought about helping out at the food pantry and baking cakes for birthdays.”

Carmen Vega COVID Journey April/May 2020

Carmen Vega and family fight COVID-19

It was love that brought COVID-19 crashing down on Carmen Vega. It was caring that left her struggling for every breath. It was compassion that left her isolated from her family and frightened that she would not survive.

“This is a very lonely illness,” said Vega, Shelter Coordinator for Lazarus House. “I was so scared. No one wants to be around anyone who has COVID.”

Vega had successfully eluded the disease while caring for Lazarus House Guests at its emergency Shelter, even in the days before masks were readily available. Ironically, it was when the shelter closed as a precaution and its residents moved to a temporary city-run shelter at the DoubleTree Hotel in Andover, that Vega says, “I stumbled.”

While the City of Lawrence was providing lodging and meals at the hotel, driven by caring and responsibility, Vega could not resist the need to connect with those she cares so much for.

“The Guests were at the hotel, but they still needed to hear me say, ‘Everything is going to be OK.’ There were things they needed help with.” Vega brought hope, kindness, guidance, and snacks for the children each visit.

“I walked into a room where one of our Guests was coughing, but she made a really good excuse. She said it was her allergies,” said Vega. “I go back to that day and wonder, ‘Carmen, what were you thinking?’”

Within days she was suffering the initial symptoms of COVID-19, within a week she could not catch her breath.

“I have asthma, so I know what it is like to have breathing issues, but this was something I had never experienced,” Vega said. “There were days upon days when I did not sleep. Because anytime I would go to sleep, I would stop breathing. Every breath had to be intentional. I had to breathe intentionally, and it was easier not to breathe.”

She feared she might not survive.

“I knew a couple of people who had passed away, so I had to block all that stuff, and continue to listen to the voice of God.”

While the prayers left on her voice mail brought hope, a greater despair came when her 10-year-old daughter, Mikeyla-Serenity, developed a fever and other COVID symptoms.

Carmen Vega

Mikeyla-Serenity’s health care providers said there was no cure, nothing they could do.

“When the nurse said that, I said, ‘You don’t say that to a mother’,” Vega said. “I felt my heart just sink. I felt guilty.”

While her daughter recovered quickly, Vega remained alone and isolated from her family who had often expressed reservations and concern about her continuing to take the risk of going to work.

“My husband did not say ‘I told you so,’ he just felt so bad for me,” she said. “They didn’t hold it against me. They know that this work is what I love.”

When we talked Carmen was 25 days into the disease, she had lost 13 pounds and pain remained in her lungs. She worries about reinfection and reliving the “agony when you are trying to breathe.”

Yet the love, caring and compassion that paradoxically brought her COVID-19 will push her to return to Lazarus House again.

“I love the Guests like they’re my kids. Even though some are older than me, I feel like a mother to them,” she said. “We love so hard, and we love what we do. It’s not a job.”

Frontline Workers Brave Risk to Keep Shelter Open

Carmen Vega
Shelter Coordinator Carmen Vega

If gratitude can help calm fear, the frontline workers at the Lazarus House emergency Shelter are rewarded each day for the peril of leaving their homes. In the midst of the pandemic, they are anxiously trying to keep it open for the families and individuals for whom it is their only sanctuary.

“The Guests at the shelter don’t have people they can rely on. A lot of the people don’t have anyone else in the world. Their fear is, ‘If I lose Lazarus House, where will I go?’” said Almarie Silverman, Director of Advocacy, who especially worries about a woman who is nine months pregnant.

Another staff member working to keep it open is Carmen Vega, Shelter Coordinator, who comes in each day feeling her family’s worry she will bring COVID-19 home. She only recently was able to wear a mask.

“We didn’t have masks, so I felt it wasn’t fair if I was wearing a mask and my staff could not,” Vega said.

Vega said the shelter “smells like bleach,” as the staff and shelter Guests thoroughly follow the protocol – taking precautions of social distancing, wearing masks and regularly disinfecting common areas. They all know that does not completely eliminate the risk, but they all hope to stay at the only place they have left.

“It’s scary. I am a woman of faith, so I pray and ask God to cover me,” said Vega. “My family would wish that I wouldn’t come in, but this is my job. This is what I love to do.”

“Our staff really cares about what they do, they are feeling torn between the health concerns they have for themselves and their families, and the sense of calling and duty to care for the Guests in our charge,” said Jeff Hassel, Executive Director of the Merrimack Valley non-profit.

Carmen Vega
Shelter Coordinator Carmen Vega opens a box of donated items ordered by a donor through Amazon.

Guests at the shelter are staying in their rooms when possible, coming down mostly for designated mealtimes to aid in physical distancing, knowing that just one case of COVID-19 could force the staff into quarantine and threaten operations.

“Families with fear about having nowhere to go are willing to do anything to keep us open, and have been sweeping, keeping it clean, keeping us open,” said Silverman.

The staff can no longer pray side-by-side with Guests or  develop the more personal relationships they are accustomed to – it’s difficult from six-feet away.

However, everyone at the shelter is motivated by the children who help answer the question of why they continue to face the danger and come in. “The kids are amazing, they’re grateful, they always say thank you for being here,” said Silverman.

“There is a lot of joy still in the work,” said Hassel. “I spent the day at the shelter and during lunch the kids were singing a children’s song. So, in the crisis, life goes on. Kids still sing, kids still play. Moms still take care of their kids.”