Rosie’s Place empowers women to help each other in Franklin Field

Catherine Louis, right, served meals to volunteers who help organize Rosie’s Place outreach efforts in the Franklin Field Housing Development. Caleb Nelson photoCatherine Louis, right, served meals to volunteers who help organize Rosie’s Place outreach efforts in the Franklin Field Housing Development. Caleb Nelson photo

Founded as a sanctuary for poor and homeless women in 1974, Rosie’s Place has expanded its outreach efforts into Dorchester’s Franklin Field housing development. The program, a partnership with the Boston Housing Authority (BHA), hopes to reach an underserved community in one of the city’s largest public housing communities where one-quarter of the residents make less than $5,000 a year.

Two Rosie’s Place employees now share office space at 145 Ames St., where they coordinate services and host workshops on financial literacy and job training.

Catherine Louis, the program’s manager, is aided by growing core of women who volunteer to help each other through hard times in Franklin Field. Along with fellow Rosie’s Place employee Roxanne Marshall, who speaks Spanish, Louis helps residents plug into resources, find cash for back rent and T passes and, sometimes, just by listening.

“A lot of people here are in need of jobs, job training, and job etiquette,” said Louis, who speaks French and Haitian Creole.

The Reporter visited the Franklin Field Elderly Community Center last month as Louis and her volunteer helpers gathered over a chicken dinner to celebrate their accomplishments to date.

“They just volunteered their time. I didn’t have to ask,” Louis said of the 15 women who were on hand for the dinner. “They’re doing it to support their neighbors, and I find that awesome.”

The volunteers, Louis said, help by spreading the word and setting up community get-togethers. They distributed 100 turkeys the day before Thanksgiving and every two weeks some of them help distribute groceries from the food pantry at the original Rosie’s Place on 889 Huntington Ave. to 35 of their neighbors in need.

Sandra Rivera, a disabled mother of six who lives in Franklin Field with her two youngest kids, 11 and 16, is one of her key helpers. She moved into a Franklin Field apartment right around the time that the new Rosie’s Place branch opened in 2014.

“It’s a good organization for people out here that are willing to use it,” said Rivera, who moved to Boston from Puerto Rico at age 4. “Helping them put their fliers out to keep you occupied, doing something for depression. Them being in this development is a lot of help.”

Rivera said she can always find support at Rosie’s Place, even in her most intense moments of stress, like when her son was nearly shot while parking his car outside of their apartment.

“I come here and I talk to them about my situation, and I get advice,” she said. “They direct me the right way. It’s helpful. You just come in, ‘Hey do you help with this?’ They’ll refer you places, if they can’t help you.”

“I come here to relax, and take it easy,” she added. “They’re like therapists here too.”

Louis said that the number of people who are getting assistance from Rosie’s Place has grown steadily since the satellite office opened in 2014.

“Today I saw two people,” she said. “There are days it’s a little quiet, but there are days we’ll get maybe three, four, five people.”

The space is cozy with a welcoming atmosphere, and chairs set up in a row along hallway. At one end of the hall a small kitchen is packed with boxes of dried goods—rice, beans and macaroni—for people who show up at the office needing food.

The entry is at the back of the building, where a pink plastic “Rosie’s Place” sign hangs from the railing of a handicap ramp. It leads into a large room with an oval table in the center and a white board on the wall for classes, which meet weekly.

They hold classes in English and Spanish, and each one revolves around a different topic like health or finances. Right now they are wrapping up a six-week series with Casa Myrna focused on helping women to create a “Personal Economic Plan.”

“It’s about economic planning, but at the same time they talk about abuse,” Louis said. “Sometimes whoever is doing the abusing controls the funding, and so that’s what they work on.”

The idea is to help battered women find paths out of domestic violence situations, and to empower them. Contracting with Operation ABLE, Rosie’s Place brought a job counselor to Franklin Field.

Last fall the job councilor started meeting with women in the housing development on Mondays and Tuesdays. Since then he’s placed three people and completed ten intakes. He coaches the women who come into Rosie’s place on resume writing, helps them to submit their applications online, and conducts practice interviews.

Louis creates a newsletter with a monthly calendar to tell the seniors and other residents about what’s going on in the neighborhood, and a resource guide about what’s available in greater Boston, pointing out supermarkets, and where women can go to register their children for school and after school programming.

Much of the work is focused on helping women pay back rent. The goal is to keep women housed, but the Rosie’s Place team also spends a lot of time building community.

“A lot of [the women] aren’t mobile enough to walk down here, so we go and do advocacy at their apartment,” she said. “They may need groceries, so we’ll bring groceries, and just anything that they need. We’ll get a story of what their issue is and help where their money can’t reach.”

The original Rosie’s Place continues to grow out of an unassuming brick church converted into a bustling community center in the South End. It was the first women’s shelter in United States and now advocates at the main office meet with about 1,100 women each month.

Sue Marsh, the executive director of Rosie’s Place, keeps the original sign hanging on the wall of office: “Welcome to Rosie’s Place!” It reads in capital pink letters, and lists dinner times, bed availability policies, and asks that alcohol and weapons be checked.

“They will be returned when you leave,” the sign says.

“The only thing that’s changed is we don’t return the weapons anymore,” Marsh said.

She started working at Rosie’s Place in 1998 and continues to expand the programing in the spirit of the shelter’s original mission.Most guests need concrete help, like getting a Charlie card, or an ID, or a bed, or help paying back rent. Rosie’s Place is funded entirely by private donations, which gives them a lot of flexibility.

“We will often serve women that other places in town can’t or won’t,” Marsh said. “So we have some guests that are pretty tough to work with, but because we have a very low threshold, we’re able to engage and have a relationship with them.”

A few years ago, the organization’s board noted that many poor and homeless women in Boston who could use their services were simply not getting to the building on Harrison Avenue. So they decided to expand beyond their threshold. They started by sending a housing search worker to Woods Mullin, the city shelter, to the women’s jail, and to Parker West, a program run by the Department of Mental Health.

Over the past two years Rosie’s Place has established two collaboratives, one based in public schools—The Holmes, The Shaw, and The Blackstone—and the other in Franklin Field.

Bill McGonagle, head of the BHA, suggested the location, which has been described as a “desert” in terms of city services. Louis, who started working at Rosie’s Place in 2007, took charge of creating the Franklin Field satellite. She hired a part time legal services person to provide help around family law issues, a part time job councilor to help people with job search, and then she hired an outreach worker to help her with event planning and advocacy.

“One of the first things Catherine did when she started a few years ago was to map out what services there were, and while some areas of the city are very rich in services, that area is not,” said Marsh. “Catherine has a great personality for that project. She’s laid back. She’s approachable. She’s kind, and that ended up being what setting up something new in a new community really needed. She really is that perfect match for that project.”