Success Stories

Conversations with and stories about some of our inspiring residents, board members, volunteers, employees, and properties.

Eric Williams Resident

 
“I feel more independent, more confident, and more hopeful than I have felt in a very long time.”

At the age of twenty-five, Eric Williams enlisted in the U.S. Armed Services. When he was honorably discharged six years later, he had trouble adjusting to civilian life and struggled to secure a job. Back in New York, he worked with his dad at his dad’s garage. But after reconnecting with a high school sweetheart, he moved to the Berkshires to live with her. When their relationship ended, Eric had no work, no home, and no way of securing either. He longed for a home of his own. But mental health and substance abuse issues seemed to be the only constant in his life. 

At the age of twenty-five, Eric Williams enlisted in the U.S. Armed Services. When he was honorably discharged six years later, he had trouble adjusting to civilian life and struggled to secure a job. Back in New York, he worked with his dad at his dad’s garage. But after reconnecting with a high school sweetheart, he moved to the Berkshires to live with her. When their relationship ended, Eric had no work, no home, and no way of securing either. He longed for a home of his own. But mental health and substance abuse issues seemed to be the only constant in his life. 

For twenty years, he lived on friends’ couches, the street, and everywhere in between. His easy-going personality drew people to him. Friends tried to help along the way. But Eric’s challenges were too much for them. 

Statistic: Young black men in the United States are seven times more likely to become homeless than their white or brown counterparts. 

With help from Social Services and The Brien Center, Eric obtained Social Security and Disability. Even this assistance wasn’t enough.

When The Brien Center introduced Eric to Construct, we obtained a mobile voucher for him which is a certificate offered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to individuals deemed chronically homeless. Construct was able to use the voucher for housing in North Adams, with the support of community partners Kathy Keeser and Tabithia Nunn at the Louison House. We also completed the paperwork required by HUD and found a payee to manage Eric’s Social Security money. 

With the help of our generous community partners—the Brien Center, Louison House, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development—Eric has a roof over his head. More than that, he has safety, security and hope, for the first time in many years.

Eric is at home in North Adams, today. 

At a recent visit with Construct staff member, Sandra Sermini-Curtiss, Eric’s face lit up as he gave her a tour. He pointed out every single detail of the surroundings: the laundry room, the spiral staircase, even the sensor lights in the hallway—all before they even got to his front door. 

When Sandra asked, “What’s the best part of your new home?” Eric exclaimed: 

Everything! My life has changed so much. I feel more independent, and confident, and more hopeful than I have felt in a very long time. You are the best. Construct is the best. I can’t thank you enough!”In Sandra’s words: “Eric was bubbling over with joy and, frankly, so was I. I watched his face and heard his glee, as I followed him through every inch of his domain. I saw a man who was so proud and relaxed. And, I was reminded of why I do what I do. It is for individuals like Eric and the fact that hope is home.”

Wanda Houston Board Member

 
"It’s important that all people feel comfortable and able to pursue what our constitution calls for: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

A longtime friend of Construct, Wanda Houston has performed the annual Warm Up the Winter benefit since its inception, as well as the WALK. Now, she’s a board member.

A longtime friend of Construct, Wanda Houston has performed the annual Warm Up the Winter benefit since its inception, as well as the WALK. Now, she’s a board member.

Recently, she experienced housing instability.

“The pipes burst last winter, in the middle of Covid. There was no place for me to go. It was a nightmare. What does a person do when they don’t have options? I’m a person of means, so I was okay. But, still, it wasn’t easy. I had to negotiate with my landlord, and it was complicated. I get it—how people struggle to find sufficient, affordable housing, and how vitally important it is to have a roof over your head.”

On being black in the Berkshires.                                   

I’m aware that I am a black woman, but it’s not an identifier for me. If it’s a problem for other people, that’s not my problem. I’ve never felt any opposition here. Sometimes people are maybe too happy that I’m here. I’m fortunate that I can think this way. I stand on the shoulders of a lot of people who made that possible.

I remember driving through town and first seeing the sign for the home of W.E.B. DuBois. I was like, Wow. A town would even put up that sign…. But then you notice, oh, there’s not a lot of other black people around.

Working with Construct…

It’s important that all people feel comfortable and able to pursue what our constitution calls for: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Everyone should be able to do that. But we can’t do that without affordable housing, and access to proper healthcare and food. I have been blessed. My music has opened doors for me, but it’s only so that I can be in relationship with others. That’s my goal. That’s why I’m here. However I can help…

Forest Springs Featured Property

 
Within the development, there is a feeling of quiet, privacy, community, friendship and respect.

The Forest Springs site is a successful housing development on a beautiful tree-lined road surrounded by the Berkshire Mountains. To meet the critical need for affordable housing in the Berkshires, Construct built Forest Springs for individuals and families struggling to secure stable homes. Priority for the 11 one-to-three bedroom units is given to families transitioning from homelessness and people living with developmental and mental health disabilities. 

316 State Road, Great Barrington, MA

The Forest Springs site is a successful housing development on a beautiful tree-lined road surrounded by the Berkshire Mountains. To meet the critical need for affordable housing in the Berkshires, Construct built Forest Springs for individuals and families struggling to secure stable homes. Priority for the 11 one-to-three bedroom units is given to families transitioning from homelessness and people living with developmental and mental health disabilities. 

  • 5 units are subsidized for households of 30-50% of median income.
  • 6 units are for households of 60% of median income.
  • 2 of the units are ADA accessible and 2 are modified for those with sensory impairment.

Established in 2017, the development includes three building complexes, each with three or four townhouse-style units. All buildings are energy efficient, approaching net zero. A rooftop solar array contributes to energy savings. The site is landscaped with native plants and evergreens. There are shared gardens where residents cultivate food, flowers and friendship. Nearby, a sandbox and swing set provide children with a safe place to play.

Within walking distance to town, Forest Springs is perfectly situated, offering easy access to shopping and amenities. An agreement with the BRTA allows for on-call bus pick-up and drop-off. Surrounding mountain views beckon, and peaceful hiking trails are easily accessible for birding and exploration. There are also walking paths for the disabled.In the words of one resident, “Within the development, there is a feeling of quiet, privacy, community, friendship and respect. Construct had the Berkshire Greenagers put in raised garden beds for us. That was a brilliant idea. It is a place where we gather and exchange gardening tips and shoot the breeze. One of the men was watering his garden today as I did mine and he began talking about his granddaughter and the Riverwalk. He showed me his poblano pepper and gave me one of his many yellow tomatoes. Best of all, he offered me encouragement about my garden. After all, I’m a city/townie girl who has never gardened before.”

Karen Lewis Resident & former Construct employee

 
“The biggest gift that Construct has given me is the gift of community.”

Originally from upstate New York, Karen Lewis moved to the Berkshires to attend Simon’s Rock. She left to finish her graduate degrees elsewhere, and then returned. As a young grad, she found an apartment share and later turned to Construct to learn more about finding permanent housing. From those early conversations, she found a job, a community, and a life’s passion. After working for Construct for nearly twenty years, and through a debilitating illness, Karen Lewis has now secured disability-accommodating housing at Forest Springs, thanks to Construct.

Originally from upstate New York, Karen Lewis moved to the Berkshires to attend Simon’s Rock. She left to finish her graduate degrees elsewhere, and then returned. As a young grad, she found an apartment share and later turned to Construct to learn more about finding permanent housing. From those early conversations, she found a job, a community, and a life’s passion. After working for Construct for nearly twenty years, and through a debilitating illness, Karen Lewis has now secured disability-accommodating housing at Forest Springs, thanks to Construct.

Karen has quite a story. And she’s a writer. So, in her own words: 

I liked the way Construct was a diverse organization that included people with disabilities on staff. My favorite Construct employee was Clara Bell, a woman of color from New Jersey, in her 70’s and 80’s. As the receptionist, she patiently listened to me when I would visit with her in the old Construct building next to Cumberland Farms.  

Before I worked with Construct for pay, I was a volunteer. I coordinated the Walk for the Homeless one year with June Hailer. I was also a community tenant member of the Board of Directors. And I produced some Construct newsletters, since writing is something I do. In fact, I was working for the Artful Mind artzine at the time a friend recommended the Resident Advisor job to me. 

The shelter began at the Mahaiwe Street facility, although most of my experience was in the older building on Main St. In that old, beat-up building Cara expressed to me her vision of a shelter for young men (that was the demographic determined to have the highest need). The Mahaiwe Street building gave her the material in which to make her vision a reality. The building had five beds for men, one fully handicap accessible; two offices to rent out to other Health and Human Services organizations; two offices for Construct; and a computer lab.

Whenever I reflect on all of this, I am in awe of the manner in which Cara, with her quiet yet strong demeanor, made this all happen. And it grew from there. At some point, at least by 2020, a group of high-powered women from the community, women such as Roselle Chartok, got together to raise funds for the women’s shelter. It was another 5-bed facility, separate from the men’s building, yet attached by the porch. That is something I found most uplifting from working at Construct: to see the community come together to make significant changes in peoples’ lives. With the Board of Directors help, we were able to do our jobs, and get a number of people up and out of shelter and back on their feet, in 3-6 months, in most cases.

 As a Resident Advisor, it was my job to keep the residents and the building safe. This was sometimes easier done than at other times. For instance, the house was sober. Because of that, we eventually purchased a breathalyzer. Very occasionally a resident would need to be removed. Overnight, few issues were encountered, however.  

4-11pm shifts were very different. That’s where we built community. That is the biggest gift that Construct has given me – the gift of community. We had family style dinners most evenings, with food donations from a Railroad Street restaurant, and later, from Fairview Hospital. It was my experience on the 2nd shift that encouraged me to go back to school for a Human Services degree. Although I have a Master’s degree in psychology, it is in research, not a clinical degree. So I took courses such as abnormal psychology, and my first courses in sociology, which together with transfer credits, gave me bona fide credentials, the A.S. degree for Case Management. I graduated as valedictorian, with a 4.0 in 2006.

Case management is the nitty gritty work – making sure someone has the resources they need. I helped people set goals. If they did not have assistance, we would help them apply for income and food stamps. When I left Construct, we had an employee who specialized in helping residents find and keep jobs. And, of course, people needed housing to move into. I became adept at helping fill out housing applications. The last pillar was attending to residents’ health. Did they need help abstaining from substances, keeping their counseling appointments (or any appointments) and taking their medications as prescribed? 

This whole adventure for me lasted 18 years, from November 1999 to November 2017. I loved learning from our residents about their lives and seeing them get their proverbial “stuff” together. It was great to see them out in the community, living their lives. There is always hope. I can’t stress enough how Construct has taught me about community. Those who serve on the board and other committees are there, giving back—their own time, not to mention dollars—to make the lives of others better.

From a Mansion Apartment to Forest Springs

During the last year of my employment with Construct, I lived in my dream apartment, on the third floor of an old mansion near Fairview Hospital. It was huge with hardwood floors, a working fireplace, a dishwasher, a dressing room with closets for one’s clothes and a window seat, and a real bathtub in the bathroom! It was even walking distance to Construct. And it was affordable! But, due to a series of debilitating illnesses, I had to give up the third floor mansion apartment. No longer working at Construct, I applied for the lottery and qualified for an apartment at Forest Springs in April, 2018. 

I was off the walker and the oxygen when I moved into Forest Springs, but still using my cane. The dumpster is right next to my apartment, and my car is parked right in front. I still have the walker here, and there is space under the kitchen and bathroom sinks where I can wheel in and then sit on the walker’s seat to do the dishes. I can “age in place” here. That is one of the newest concepts in the field. This is a dream apartment, just in miniature. It is as close to a cottage as I will ever get.

The Forest Springs property has 11 units, spread across three buildings. My building is the smallest with three units: a one-bedroom unit on each end and a 2-bedroom in the middle. The other two buildings have 4 units: a one-bedroom on the end, two two-bedrooms in the middle and one has a 3-bedroom on the end and I think the other has a 4-bedroom on the end. There is a feeling of both quiet and privacy, but also friendship and respect. There are two couples, two special needs families, two people living in DMH units, myself, my neighbors from Africa who have two very young (toddler) children. There is also a large family in the 4-bedroom, whose children come out to play with their scooters after dinner. 

Construct had the Berkshire Greenagers put in raised garden beds for us. That was a brilliant idea. It is a place where we gather and exchange gardening tips and shoot the breeze. One of the men was watering his garden today as I did mine and he began talking about his granddaughter and the Riverwalk. He showed me his Poblano pepper and gave me one of his many yellow tomatoes. Best of all, he offered me encouragement about my garden, which is really appreciated. After all, I am a city/townie girl who has never gardened before this. I reserve my back patio for most of my flowers. That’s where I sit for beauty, looking out on the big old red maple tree. 

There is also a disabled access walking path a quarter mile up the road. The only reason I am still alive, okay, and active, is because I walk.  

Back to Work

I am now working for the Great Barrington Housing Authority. I started doing wellness checks/cold calls on all of their tenants, and then a position for “Resident Services Coordinator” opened up. I am the human face of the authority. Working with the tenants to get them referral to services is the largest, most rewarding part of my job. If there is any way I can make someone’s stay in Public Housing better for them, within my power, that’s what I am there for. And I leave things up to a Higher Power, which I am glad to have in my life.

Laura Jordhal Board Member

 
“It's important to the fabric of any strong society to have a diversity of housing.”

Laura Jordahl has been working to fight homelessness for almost three decades. She first began volunteering back when her church, St. Christopher's—"a very inclusive, social justice-oriented" Protestant church—joined a faith-based coalition in Oak Park, Illinois, to address the issue in a tangible way.

Laura Jordahl has been working to fight homelessness for almost three decades. She first began volunteering back when her church, St. Christopher’s—”a very inclusive, social justice-oriented” Protestant church—joined a faith-based coalition in Oak Park, Illinois, to address the issue in a tangible way.

In 1992, the group of synagogues and churches opened their doors to provide temporary shelter to the homeless seven days a week. The organization is called Housing Forward now, but back then it was called the Western Suburbs PADS—Public Action to Deliver Shelter. Laura was there from the beginning, involved in every aspect, from making beds, to stripping beds, to serving meals, to cleaning the church, to doing intake, coordinated entry and case management. During the transition from housing crisis to housing stability, Laura has met and helped many people, from all walks of life. “Every story is hard and meaningful. And it can happen to any one of us. It’s not an us versus them thing,” she says.

A recent transplant to the Berkshires, Laura is now a Construct volunteer and board member who is part of the newly formed Volunteer Committee. Some of their plans will surely be based on her past experience working with the homeless in Illinois. She started volunteering at Construct’s reception desk and is versed in the “volunteer tool box” — things people can do to help. She’s knows what works needs to be done, how meaningful it is, how emotional, and how transformative it can be. She also knows how social justice issues take root, sink in, and become core beliefs. Two of her three children also work for affordable housing organizations. The third is a mid-wife.

There are 600 people on Construct’s waitlist and Laura has called nearly all of them to check in and see what their status is. When asked if there’s more of a need now for housing, Laura says simply, “There’s always a need.” 

She mentions Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the basic level of which is food, water, warmth, and rest. In a word: Housing. These very basic needs have to be satisfied before one can progress to the next level of needs, which are more psychological in nature (love and self-esteem) and, once met, can point a person in the direction of self-fulfillment.

Laura says, “I feel really strongly about that. If you don’t have shelter and food, it’s very hard to get on with your life. It’s very hard to be who you are supposed to be, whoever that is, because you’re constantly struggling to feed and shelter yourself.” Although she strongly wishes that there were more temporary shelter options in the Berkshires, she believes in the work of Construct and is happy to help. “It’s important to the fabric of any strong society to have a diversity of housing. Affordable housing helps every community.”