2016-07-21 / Front Page

New Doors, New Future for Lucy’s Hearth

By Betsy Sherman Walker


Lucy's Hearth Program Director Jenn Barrera discussing the Hearth's new home. The upgraded facility will have all new electricity and plumbing, is designed to be energy efficient, and, Barrera says, "will cost way less to heat and cool." (Photo by Betsy Sherman Walker) Lucy's Hearth Program Director Jenn Barrera discussing the Hearth's new home. The upgraded facility will have all new electricity and plumbing, is designed to be energy efficient, and, Barrera says, "will cost way less to heat and cool." (Photo by Betsy Sherman Walker) Following Jennifer Barrera around the gutted interior of the former headquarters of Child & Family at 19 Valley Road in Middletown – stripped down to a skeletal shell of two-by-fours, coils of HVAC tubing, and exposed pipes, cables, and wires – one begins to see the new location of Lucy’s Hearth through her eyes.

And through Barrera’s eyes, it already feels like home.

Above the din of hammers, drills, and staple guns, Barrera, program director at the Hearth since 2007, is both tour guide and passionate advocate for the women and children served by the Hearth. Now based on West Main Road in a facility rented from St. Lucy’s Church (but with no affiliation), the Hearth has provided shelter for homeless women and their children in Newport County since it was founded in 1984. The expected move-in date at Valley Road is the end of October.


There will be more room outside for play, parking, and a possible Green Animals "Gardenista" collaboration with the Preservation Society of Newport County. There will be more room outside for play, parking, and a possible Green Animals "Gardenista" collaboration with the Preservation Society of Newport County. She moves from room to room, hands gesturing, sweeping her arms around the Sheetrocked walls, seeing beds, bathrooms, bathtubs, dining tables, desks and couches – even an entire kitchen and a “tween” lounge for the older siblings to gather and watch TV – where none yet exist. She explains in great detail the importance of each room. From the more spacious grounds (2.2 acres worth), better parking, and additional play and learning space, everything about this new facility speaks to the very basic needs and, in Barrera’s eyes, fundamental rights of mothers and children in crisis.

The very normalcy of normalcy, says Barrera, is a healing agent. Everything has been factored in, from when and how the mothers and their children will eat their meals, to how they play, learn, and experience bedtime.

The upgrades and changes are vast and, according to Barrera, long overdue. The current facility on West Main Road has 10 residential units; the Valley Road facility will have 16. Five of those units, including one that follows Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, will be on the first floor. Also on that level will be a designated sleeping room for the staff, as well as a centralized – and modernized – donations function and volunteer check-in area. Also new is a state-of-the-art security system.

More than the walls and the activities they will contain, she sees people and their lives. “Our main goal at the Hearth is to stabilize and familiarize families,” she says. “Not so much in a group environment, but to get them ready to move into an apartment.”

As she walks, Barrera talks about factors she and her staff must address on a daily basis, alien to those who have never known the deep distress of being homeless. Predominant is the Adverse Childhood Experience, known in counselor’s parlance as ACE. “Studies show that for a child in this situation, each ACE stays with that child for at least 30 years,” she says. “There are direct links to the number of ACEs in a child’s life and his or her mental or physical health.”

It takes a bit more of touring, coupled with Barrera’s consistent focus, for it to sink in that every bit of this new facility – every piece of furniture, piece of equipment, appliance, storage area, shelf, button, switch, even decisions on installing bathtubs versus showers, is designed for one thing.

“They need the opportunity,” she says, “to stabilize as a family unit.” Health, safety and mental health are key. “Not just for the moms, but also for the children. It is absolutely not normal,” she explains, “for a kid to go off to kindergarten after having had breakfast with 17 other kids.”

Part of the parenting curriculum involves enhancing family routines. When the layout of the bathrooms was being vetted, the value of bathtubs versus showers came up. Based on the fact that studies have shown that bath time is one of the more influential ingredients of a normal family life, Barrera said, “the tub won out.”

While she is quick to point out that in the planning stages the Hearth received valuable input from the Church Community Housing Corporation and the board at 50 Washington Square, it is obvious that her eyes were everywhere. When asked about who was the main source of input, she said, “It was me.”

The other major planning partner, she adds, was Northeast Collaborative Architects. “They were very patient,” she says. “They worked incredibly hard to understand our unique needs,” and even inserted some input of their own.

Case in point: Based on the fact that children ranging in age from newborn to five years are the largest population at the Hearth, designers included in their plans a specifically designed area for mothers to store their strollers. And with an eye to child safety, they suggested that the bedroom closets not have doors.

“By stabilizing moms,” she says “we are affecting changes that can stabilize their lives.”

The budget for the entire project is $4.4 million. Having secured the $1.9 million in federal, state and municipal public funding that enabled the Hearth to enter into the purchase and sales agreement with Child & Family, ground was broken for the upgrade of the new facility in June of 2015. Having raised more than $1.6 million, they are now 64 percent toward their $2.5 million “Home Is Where the Hearth Is” capital campaign – the first major community fundraising drive in the Hearth’s 30-year history.

“It has been a major team effort,” Barrera says, adding that they are actively working away at it and hopes many people and businesses in the community will take part at this point in time. “We know the last bit of fundraising is going to come [primarily] from the community,” citing the many supporters who “come to our door every day.”

More than once on the tour, Barrera circles back to the empty and unfinished dining room. It is the largest in a suite of rooms with age-appropriate play areas and lounges.

It is also, she says, her “favorite place.” As with the other rooms, you can see that she has time-traveled and is already seeing it as it will be, full of families, having family time eating at individual tables, receiving the best of what Lucy’s Hearth can provide them. It was all a blank space a year ago.

“This new home will help us provide a model for how families can thrive,” she says. “We are continually striving to be excellent for our mommies,” she says.

That is one goal, clearly, that is within their reach.

To learn more about Lucy’s Hearth or to make a contribution or pledge, contact Barrera at jennifer@lucyshearth.org.

Return to top