Wellspring House keeps community spirit alive: Gloucester, MA

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Wed, 7 Apr 1999 22:46:06 -0700 (PDT)

FWD  Boston Globe - April 5, 1999  page E01

     A Wellspring of caring

     Gloucester program keeps community spirit alive

     By Alison Bass, Globe Staff

GLOUCESTER, MA - Over a hearty noonday meal, Nancy Schwoyer strikes up a
conversation with Jennifer Morin, one of the young mothers living in her
home. Eight days before, Morin, newly arrived at Wellspring House with her
16-month-old daughter, had been downcast and withdrawn, as the lunchtime
conversation among staff, volunteers, and guests swirled around her.

But today, the 19-year-old is smiling and voluble as she tells Schwoyer how
she managed to arrange child care so she could go back to school.

Schwoyer is not surprised at the change in Morin. She has, after all, seen
many transformations in her 18 years as cofounder of Wellspring House, an
inclusive Gloucester enterprise designed to lift people out of poverty.

''Having lived with 350 families or more over the years, I see these women
as having incredible strength,'' says Schwoyer, who lives and works at
Wellspring. ''Did you know that Jennifer has a 3.8 grade point average in
college? And to get to North Shore Community College, she has to take a
train to the Salem/Peabody line, drop her daughter off at day care, and
then take a bus to the Lynn campus.

'These women,'' Schwoyer adds, ''are my inspiration.''

And she, the women say, is theirs.

Schwoyer, a 61-year-old former nun, is executive director of an innovative
$1 million program that provides housing, education, parental support, job
training, counseling, and business opportunities to more than 300 families
a year in the Gloucester area. Wellspring also supports Cape Ann
Sustainable Communities, a regional effort to safeguard drinking water and
the environment in the four communities that make up Cape Ann.

>From the moment she wakes up and starts the old wood stove downstairs,
Schwoyer spends each day in a whirlwind of teaching, raising money, and
meetings, many meetings, with local and regional policy makers.

But she always seems to find time to chat with women like Morin and
Caroline Headley, who are remaking their lives under Well-spring's broad
umbrella. Headley, 21, has been staying at Wellspring for three months, and
says she and her two children, Shaquilla, 6, and C.J., 2, are quite
comfortable there.

''It's so beautiful and peaceful here,'' says Headley, who was evicted from
her apartment a year ago and is expecting her third child in mid-April.
''This is the best shelter I've ever seen.''

At lunch, Shaquilla is feeling a tad shy because the principal of the
elementary school she attends just down the road is sitting across the long
wooden table from her, eating lunch with his wife, a Wellspring staff

''I like my principal,'' she confides to a visitor. ''And I like you,'' the
principal, Jim Gutstadt  rejoins, eliciting a gleeful giggle from C.J., who
waves at Guststadt and promptly knocks over his milk.  Schwoyer, who has
just walked into the room, laughs and provides a napkin to clean up the

Cleaning up after her young guests, however, is only one part of Schwoyer's
daily itinerary. That morning, she taught her weekly class in women's
history to about eight students, many of them formerly homeless, all of
them mothers, ranging in age from 25 to 55.

Near the end of that class, Schwoyer brought   up the idea of having a
dinner party, during which each student makes a presentation about a woman
in history, for the final class project. Kayla Pena, 25, a formerly
homeless mother of two young children who is taking one of Wellspring's
educational programs for 12 college credits, says she'll spotlight Mary
Cassatt, the 19th-century Impressionist artist.

''I've started reading up on Mary Cassatt, and the picture she did of the
mother washing her child's feet is one of my favorites,'' says Pena, a
slight, thoughtful woman who grew up in the Dominican Republic. ''We didn't
have hot water where I lived, and I remember my mother washing our feet in
a little tub. That picture depicts so beautifully the simple, everyday
things that mothers do.''

Later, as Schwoyer drives through Gloucester, she explains how the class
project is linked with other programs at Wellspring, including Cape Ann
Sustainable Communities, housed in an industrial park a few miles away.

''There is such a correlation between what we are doing with women who are
on the outside because they're poor, and bringing citizens together to plan
for the future,'' says Schwoyer, as she rounds a bend in her beat-up '91
Toyota Camry. ''We are trying to bring everyone to the table; that's what
Wellspring is all about.''

Schwoyer had that fantasy back in 1981 when she and six other people bought
a neglected 17th-century farmhouse that overlooked the Little River in

''I was having dreams of houses that were more human in scale and less
institutional than a big church parish or a school,'' says Schwoyer, who
was then a member of an educational Catholic religious order and teaching
at an area school. ''I wanted something that would allow us to integrate a
love for the earth with the whole notion of hospitality, of opening our
house to others.''

As Wellspring House grew, eventually making room for up to seven small
homeless families,  Schwoyer and her partners realized that temporary
housing was not the solution - <i> affordable </i>housing was, along with
education, good jobs, child care, and family support. And that is where
Wellspring has directed its energies and resources since 1990.

Today, Wellspring has a staff of 25 and a volunteer corps of more than 200
who help carry out its mission. The sweep of its programs is discernible
across the Gloucester area.

''They have contributed a tremendous amount to our community and done it in
a way that brings people together to work on solutions,'' says Christine
Rasmussen, a Gloucester city councilor. ''Nancy and Rosemarie [Houghton,
another founder] are phenomenal people, and I don't know how they and their
staff keep it all together. I think it's because this isn't a job to them,
it's a way of life.''

One of Wellspring's most valuable creations, Rasmussen says, is the
nonprofit Cape Ann Community Trust, a recent spinoff that has rehabbed 55
apartment units into condominiums that can be purchased by low-income
families through federal loans. Then there is Working Capital, which
provides support, training, and lending opportunites to more than 60 small
businesses in the area, ranging from Web page design and catering companies
to legal, health, and business services.

There are also family support groups, counseling for troubled children and
adolescents, help with job training and internships, and two educational
programs that provide college credits or training for the General
Equivalency Diplomas.

''What we're trying to do is help women upgrade their skills and get better
jobs, but also instill in them a love of lifelong learning,'' says
Schwoyer, her hands cutting through the air for emphasis. ''It's crazy to
put people into minimum-wage jobs because they're just going to fall out of

After years of fighting against poverty, Schwoyer is still passionate about
her mission.  But doesn't she ever need to get away, take some time for
just herself?  ''Absolutely,'' Schwoyer says. ''I absolutely have to take
time for myself. I have a wonderful escape house in Yorkshire where I go
for long vacations.  And I go to the movies and I swim.''

The fact that Schwoyer and Houghton, the other founding member who still
lives at Wellspring, have time for lives outside their work might come as a
surprise to some of the program's volunteers.

''They do such miracles here, and they're so selfless,'' says Barbara
Simpson, a Gloucester resident who has volunteered at Wellspring for the
past 15 years. On a recent weekday, Simpson was part of a party of 10 women
who were busy sorting and attaching labels to Wellspring's quarterly

''I've never seen such selflessness,'' Simpson adds.


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