By Melanie Petrucci, Contributing Writer
Northborough – Divine intervention sometimes places people in the right situations at the right time. Such was the case with Julie Stanwood in November 2011. Stanwood, a veteran volunteer for many social service organizations, was central Massachusetts’ coordinator for Birthday Wishes, an organization that provides birthday parties for homeless children in shelters throughout Massachusetts. Stanwood was helping out at a Thanksgiving dinner distribution in Northborough sponsored by The Helping Hands Association, when a volunteer working with the homeless at the Econolodge came in to inquire if there was extra food that she could take back to the motel. Stanwood discovered there were 19 homeless families living at the Econolodge in Northborough and didn’t have any food for Thanksgiving.
Stanwood went to the Econolodge, met with one of the families and knew right away that she wanted to get involved. Stanwood and a volunteer worked together and Friends of Families in Transition (FIT) was soon born. With the assistance of Helping Hands colleague Tess Murphy, the trio pulled together a Christmas party for these families and it blossomed from there. Recently, FIT received its official 501(c)3 status as a nonprofit organization from the IRS.
“Once you meet these families, you see the need,” Stanwood said. “There is nothing good about living in the motel. These aren’t people that want to live off the system and there is no benefit of living in one room with all your kids and all of your stress.”
Once a family becomes homeless, they have little control over their situation. They can work toward getting employment and housing, but initially they are placed where a spot is available and that could be anywhere in the state. Massachusetts is a Right to Shelter state, meaning homeless families are placed in motels when the 2,000 rooms in the state’s family emergency shelter system reach capacity. The program has been around since the 1980s.
FIT helps provide some of the basic needs such as transportation and child care, and helps navigate the waters and fill in the gaps that Department of Children and Families doesn’t provide. They arrange for emergency meals and even summer camp at the YMCA Buroughs Branch for the children. Stanwood also works with Laurie Pardee, MSN, RN, and nurse/health leader for Northborough/Southborough Schools, who integrates children, once they arrive, into the school system and makes sure that their specific needs are met.
FIT has hosted forums on homeless issues and engaged in advocacy at the state level, and she is very thankful for the support from State Senator James Eldridge. Sadly, the problem hasn’t gone away and the need is still there. In the past two years, FIT has helped over 300 homeless families, and is currently is serving 26 families in Northborough, as well as six families in Marlborough and 99 in Leominster. Stanwood also provides consultation for the towns of Lexington and Westwood. Meanwhile, she is a busy mom raising six children ranging in age from her 2-year-old foster daughter to 18.
Last year, neighboring Shrewsbury went through a similar situation. According to Terry Cassidy, executive director of Shrewsbury Youth and Family Services, Stanwood provided valuable help and guidance.
“Julie was a tremendous resource,” Cassidy said. “She had been helping the homeless families in Northborough for months. Julie attended many of the Shrewsbury Task Force meetings and provided guidance. We were grateful that Julie was willing to share her experience and knowledge.”
According to Stanwood, Northborough has embraced the families.
“The Northborough Food Pantry, businesses, the schools and the churches – this community needs to know how great they are in embracing these people,” Stanwood said. “Together we have provided food, clothing, baby supplies, social activities, school supplies and, most importantly a friend to homeless children and their families. FIT is truly thankful.”
As the Holidays approach, FIT is in need of donations of cash, gift cards and toys so that all the children served have a happy holiday.
“We hope to provide each child with joyful holiday memories during an unsettling time in their lives,” Stanwood said. “Our goal is to create some normalcy around the holiday season, some happiness and a feeling that each one of the children is important and cared for.”