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Alliance Adds 'Heart' to Caring

Shelters provide safety net for homeless.

A barn-red building on Limestone School Road has wide-open doors and a tough, warm and loving shelter monitor ready to welcome those without a place to live.

Gracie Major has 30 to 89 days to help a maximum of six women become stable enough to live on their own. She comes from a tough life, too, so she can begin to understand as women with broken hearts, broken lives and the hope to begin again sit down and talk to her.

"They have lots of questions. They cry. They get hysterical," Major said, adding that on her part, she has to be a counselor, a mother, "a nice person" and a monitor. She listens to them when no one else will. "These are kind of desperate, homeless ladies. … They pour their hearts out to me."

MAJOR’S FATHER died when she was four years old. She spent her youth shuttling between her mother’s home and foster homes in Buffalo, New York. During her adolescent years, she realized she had the ability to minister to other girls experiencing personal conflicts. She found passion in wanting to help people overcome the anger, frustration and hopelessness in their lives.

In 1998, Major joined Good Shepherd Alliance (GSA), Inc. after she retired from Safeway Stores. She worked and volunteered in both the GSA Thrift Store in Sterling and the family shelters in Leesburg, which now are operated by Volunteers of America through a contract with the county. A year ago, she began receiving a part-time salary for her work as a monitor at first the family shelters, then at the women’s shelter.

"This is sort of my calling. … I came out of foster homes. I have a tough side, but I have compassion," said Major, who is 67. "Some of [the women] will come in and try to take over. I use the toughness as a last resource. Otherwise, I don’t use that tactic."

"It's a tough world. Gracie's got to be tough," said Mark Gunderman, vice-chairman of the nine-member GSA board. "They're coming to us at a stressful time. Their infrastructure fell apart. They fell through the safety net and end up at our door. They have 89 days to put their lives back together and to empower themselves to get back in the mainstream."

"Most of them have no one. It’s just us," Major said. "When you are so lonely and desperate, that’s a priceless thing to find someone who is caring … who will listen to their needs."

Major listens to the residents "with all of her heart," she said. "We’re not a business. We’re from the heart here. We pour our hearts into these people."

GSA IS A NON-PROFIT Christian organization that provides walk-in emergency housing, food, clothing, transportation and counseling for Loudoun County and out-of county homeless residents in home-style quarters, which are homes converted into shelters. The organization opened the women’s shelter in February on its 10-acre Hebron site, which is near Lucketts, after discontinuing operations of the three family shelters the month prior. GSA, which began in 1983, reduced from serving more than 50 people at the family shelters and a men’s shelter to six women at Hebron and 12 men at the men’s shelter, which is on Ryan Road near Ashburn.

GSA purchased the Hebron site in 1998 and for several years has operated two transitional housing units at two separate homes on the property. The renters provide maintenance and landscaping work in exchange for paying lower rents.

"Our organization has the resources to manage 20 people a night more effectively," Gunderman said. "We now can concentrate on case management. We can provide quality case management for the lower number of cases."

Major monitors the woman’s shelter and oversees its day-to-day operations, while Adrianne Miller handles case management and the organization’s grant writing. Shelter monitor Robert "Bob" Beech provides both the monitoring and case management at the men’s shelter. Charlotte Lewis is the overall shelter director and provides community outreach.

AS SHELTER monitors, Miller and Beech guide the residents in finding employment, securing permanent housing, learning about financial management and becoming self-sufficient, along with connecting them to county and business community services. Residents can concentrate on achieving stability, since food is provided through donated groceries and clothing is available at a reduced cost or for free at the Thrift Store in Sterling.

"In the case management area, we should be excellent," said Joyce "Joy" Trickett, chair of the GSA board. "When we’re down to a smaller size, it gives Gracie more time [with] the residents."

Major spends most of the day taking the residents to their appointments and to where they need to go. At the house, she keeps peace and settles any conflicts that might arise among the residents through counseling and conflict resolution. "I try to keep it stable and secure and peaceful," she said.

The residents are required to follow a strict set of rules, including a 10 p.m. curfew, to be employed or look for employment and to place a percentage of their income in an escrow savings account maintained by GSA.

"We work very hard as fast as we can," Major said. "It’s such a short time to turn someone around."

A resident staying at the women’s shelter described her experience there as a "healing process." "The management assists individuals with the achievement of the healing process that includes counseling and the activities one needs to get ahead," said the woman, who could not give her name for reasons of safety. "They work with you as an individual. They know you had a life before. … They have an atmosphere that really provides the care that one needs. They’re caregivers and nurturers here at Good Shepherd."

THE WOMEN'S SHELTER is at the end of a dirt road tucked among miles of woods and underbrush. "It gives the client a chance to pull themselves together in a place where there is peace and harmony," Trickett said. "It’s a really serene place. We feed them and nurture them and no matter who you are we invite you in. … We’re there for anyone."

GSA plans to rehabilitate and add to the women’s shelter with the help of an Ashburn church, adding space for two more women. The project is tentatively scheduled for late summer or early fall.

Eventually, GSA may locate its shelter facilities to the Hebron site, add facilities for homeless families and open a training center for the residents there, along with holding large events, such as concerts for youth and festivals. The training center may include a computer area and training for the trades.

"This will be where our future perhaps may be," Gunderman said.