NORWAY — Shortly after 19-year-old Marcus Bennett spent his weekend paying it forward by splitting wood for a local man who needed help heating his house, he hit a patch of black ice on Center Minot Hill Road in Minot, was struck by an SUV and later died at the hospital.

This was Dec. 7, 2014, and the Marine was about to ship out to begin the rest of his life. His mother, April Barker, vowed to not let her son’s good deeds die with him and pledged to spend the rest of her life paying it forward in honor of Marcus.

“Instead of taking time off [from her job in Lewiston] and getting my bearings like I should have, I buried myself in work,” Barker said from inside her office at the Norway Homeless Shelter, though she didn’t work there at the time of his death. “Eventually I thought about it: My son died paying it forward; I need to do the same.”

Barker is doing just that through her work at the nonprofit women and children’s homeless shelter run by Rumford Group Homes by revamping its program and working with community members, local businesses and other organizations to bolster the program she said is successful with a low return rate.

Her most recent endeavor is partnering with Daddy O’s Restaurant in Oxford, which is hosting a free community dinner – where donations are encouraged – and the funds raised will go to restocking the shelter’s supplies. The dinner will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. today, Thursday, March 23, at Daddy O’s at 1570 Main St., in the Oxford Plaza.

Accountability

Barker originally began working – and taking a major pay cut – at the Norway Homeless Shelter in August 2015. Things were not running smoothly, according to Barker, and she had to take a three-month break in Florida before she was ready to get to work in Norway.

“When I first came into the shelter, it was just a mess. It was very chaotic,” she said, adding the program and its rules were not being enforced.

She noted that she had previously done children and family casework, but not homeless casework.

“I literally taught myself everything I know today,” said Barker, who is one of the case managers at the shelter. “When I become passionate about something, I can’t stop. I have to keep learning, I have to keep reading.”

And part of that passion is surrounding herself with other like-minded professionals like Debbie Laverdiere, who is the shelter’s family support worker, and Gayle Sharpe, the shelter’s child caseworker. All three women have continued their own education to make sure they’re up to date with resources available to help their shelter guests.

“The shelter doesn’t just ‘fill the beds.’ … We’re going to take every resource available to you here, but we’re not going to work harder than you,” Barker said, adding this includes breaking down barriers to help make individuals as independently functioning in society as possible.

“The difference between the way the program ran before and the way it’s running now … is we really hold people accountable,” she added. “They have to show us they’re saving 70 percent of their disposable income a month, they have to show us they’re searching for jobs, … they have to show us they’re working 30 hours a week on housing.”

Laverdiere concurred and said shelter guests need to also work on their goals to get out of homelessness.

“They have to follow the rules, they have curfews, they have chores,” she said.

She is the one who checks to make sure their rooms are clean and chores are complete by 10 a.m. Curfew is at 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and by 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. No men are allowed in the shelter nor are guests. No drugs, alcohol or weapons can be brought into the shelter.

Shelter guests aren’t allowed to purchase new cellphones either.

“If you can afford a phone, you can afford a hotel room,” Barker said, noting this would cause immediate eviction from the shelter.

Three written warnings and a shelter guest is evicted. Barker noted the tough love is needed so other shelter guests can be successful.

“It’s keeping them on top of their stuff,” Barker continued. “I don’t want to hear your excuses, because of my own personal story, I have been there,” she said about conversations she’s had with shelter guests. “I’ve been homeless on the streets on New York. I’ve been raped. I’ve been beaten. I’ve been in domestic violence. I’ve been in the military. I’ve been a widow. I’ve been married. I’ve been divorced. That makes me more skilled to help you.”

Services

Despite all the rules – which need to be enforced to run a smooth shelter – Barker and her crew do everything in their power to make sure their shelter guests are set up for success.

“Most people who come here quit [school] their eighth-grade year,” she said, noting these women come from all walks of life, including divorcees, widows, those fleeing domestic, sexual or emotional abuse and single mothers.

“The stigma associated is they’re all drug users, alcoholics, prostitutes,” Barker added, noting that’s not the case. “To be honest with you, maybe one in the whole house has a drug problem or had a drug problem.”

In addition to linking shelter guests with health care, dental and mental health services, the staff helps them in a plethora of other areas. This includes finishing their education by getting a GED, high school diploma, certified in a trade or taking college classes. They assist with other social and recreational services, helping find subsidized daycare, and employment and housing searches, whether the latter is subsidized or assisted living.

There are classes at the shelter, some of which the women have to attend. Classes include budgeting, sewing, nutrition – how to make a meal out of nothing – along with parenting classes, courtesy of Community Concepts.

They also help the children who live there. Sharpe said many of the kids she works with have individual education plans because of some form of learning disability or another.

“The rate for recidivism for this shelter is very small because we correct it the first time around. We address all the barriers,” Barker said. “You always get your system abusers. … It’s about coming up with creative programs that are going to communicate with General Assistance, communicate with the Norway P.D., communicate with law enforcement and say, ‘Hey, just a heads-up – this person was evicted from the shelter because they couldn’t follow the rules.’”

She said those evicted from the shelter are blocked from getting General Assistance and the eviction and communication stops them from wasting additional tax dollars on programs they were offered for free through the shelter.

“We have way too many knocking on our doors. We’re not trying to teach learned helplessness [or] dependency,” she added.

As of Tuesday, March 21, there were 16 people living at the Norway shelter.

To make sure the shelter guests don’t return to the shelter, the staff works with those released for 90 days to ensure they have access to all the services they need and other resources, such as furniture donated by others in the community from estate sales and abandoned houses.

Pay it forward

Given her own background, Barker suffers from anxiety and depression like many of her shelter guests. It helps her relate to them and encourage them to believe that they can be successful in life, living independently. But when she has her own doubts and doesn’t want to get out of bed, she turns to Marcus’ urn that is on her night stand.

“I look over and I hear, ‘Madre,’” she says about Marcus’ nickname for her. “’Alright Marcus, I am getting up.’”

She remembers that Marcus refused money from the man he chopped wood for and told the man to pay it forward.

“I do a pay it forward in honor of Marcus Bennett,” she said. “We need more people like that in this community.”

And for the rest of her life, she promised to make sure her son’s legacy lives on.

“He would definitely be proud,” Barker smiled, as she looked up at Marcus whose photo is framed in a wooden sunflower above her desk looking down at his madre.

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