How St. Mary’s Center and Amazon came together to fight against family homelessness

There was plenty of opportunity to give to the St. Mary’s Center pledge campaign at the Amazon-sponsored Fall Fun Festival last year. Photo credit: Amazon.

The story began in October 2017 when St. Mary ‘s Center on Jones Hill received an email from Amazon requesting a meeting. “I sensed that it was something pretty incredible,” Deidre Houtmeyers, the center’s president and CEO, told the Reporter last week. “We were speechless; we were tearful. It was just an amazing experience that they sought us out based on our reputation and the great work St. Mary’s had done in the past.”

At the meeting, Amazon set a challenge for St. Mary’s: You raise $1 million as you continue your good work and we will match that with a $1 million grant. An Amazon spokeswoman, Allison Flicker, told the Reporter last week that the company’s pledge was in recognition of how St. Mary’s had for the last 25 years “partnered with and empowered women and children living in poverty and experiencing homelessness and trauma.”

The center went right to work on a fundraising campaign, and with substantial boosts from the online retailing conglomerate along the way, met its goal earlier this month. The $2 million, St. Mary’s said, will go toward the $7 million needed to build a Community Resource Center on its Dorchester property that will facilitate the organization’s efforts on homelessness prevention and advance its hopes of offering a “one-stop-shop” for those currently experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless.

“We plan to provide various services for substance-use disorders, mental health, legal assistance, and well as opportunity to debrief around gun violence and whatever topics are affecting the Dorchester community,” said Houtmeyers. “We manage people who are homeless, but what if we could catch them before they got to that point?”

M.T., who stayed at St. Mary’s Center for 8 months between 2011 and 2012, endorses Houtmeyers’s vision and has only words of praise for the organization, which helped her further her education and career. She is still friends with some of the women she met during her time there, and now works in property management and is the vice president of a non-profit organization. The new resource center will “absolutely” help the organization help more families in need, she said in an interview.

The pledge was Amazon’s first in the Boston area. Earlier in 2017, the company had completed a similar donation match with Friendship Place in Washington, DC, and before that had focused its need-focused charity with Mary’s Place in Seattle in 2016.

Susan Keliher, the vice president of development and communications at St. Mary’s Center, described the pledge-fulfilling experience as humbling. “It’s a great validation of our work,” she said.

After Amazon’s commitment was announced in October 2017, the company hosted a Fall Fun Festival at St. Mary’s Center, complete with face painting, food trucks, and games for the families. Winter brought with it similar festivities, when Amazon’s “Treasure Truck” visited the center to hand out gifts and bring games, music, and a photo booth to the center’s campus. In addition, Amazon offered internship and job opportunities to those staying at St. Mary’s Center and, although the pledge has now been met, the two are already working on ways to develop their relationship in the future.

While building a $7 million facility can be quite the daunting task, St, Mary’s is always looking for ways to help the community it serves. With the help of the Berkeley Building Co., the center hopes to complete construction on an indoor recreation room for the kids and families of St. Mary’s Center to enjoy especially in inclement weather, when school is cancelled, by this fall.

As for reaching that $7 million goal? “Boston is rich with people that care, people that can help, want to help, and do help,” says Houtmeyers. “We have our work cut out for us, but we have no doubt that this will be a successful, multi-year campaign.”

To donate to St. Mary’s Center and learn more about volunteer opportunities, visit www.stmaryscenterma.org. Alternatively, you can go to smile.amazon.com and select it as your favorite charity when you check out. Amazon will donate a portion of the proceeds to St. Mary’s Center.