Transitions at Devens Bring Help, Hope

August 6, 2010 : Nashoba Publishing, by M.E. Jones

DEVENS – As executive director of Our Father’s House for 22 years, Barbara Garneau was known as a tireless and effective advocate for homeless families.

When she died of cancer in March, the new Transitions at Devens was under construction.

Today, the 13-unit, 16,000-square-foot emergency shelter for homeless women and their children on Cavite Street is nearly ready for occupancy, said Edmund Starzec, director of Land Entitlements for MassDevelopment, under whose auspices the $2.5 million project was designed and constructed. It replaces temporary quarters in Vicksburg Square.

Friends and family members who attended the June 29 ribbon-cutting ceremony said Garneau would have loved the new building, which speakers called “beautiful,” “spectacular,” and “magnificent.”

Its mission was her life’s work, and this project fulfilled one of her fondest dreams, they said. The lobby is dedicated to her; her photo and biopic hangs on the wall in the foyer.

Our Father’s House, Inc., a private, nonprofit agency founded in Fitchburg in 1983, will operate the new facility. Having established its Transitions program in 1993, the agency assumed management of Transitions at Devens in 2006.

Transitions at Devens will house up to 50 homeless families each year. Each qualified family – referred by the Department of Social Services – can stay for six months while they get the help they need to move on.

Each of the two- and three-bedroom units – one of which is handicap-accessible – is outfitted with new furniture built by inmates in the state Department of Correction work program. There are also new appliances and basic necessities. Furniture for staff offices was donated by Bristol-Meyers Squibb, a pharmaceutical firm and Devens neighbor.

“This will be a welcoming stop for families on the way to permanent housing,” said Judith Nest-Pasierb, executive director of Our Father’s House. Adding to “critical work” the agency does every day, she said the building signifies hope and underscores the agency’s mission, to provide shelter and services while emphasizing individual dignity and self-help.

“This shows they are not forgotten,” she said.

Nest-Pasierb said the Transitions program is about having an individual plan for each family to get into permanent housing.

Pasierb said women can get job training or enroll in a GED program. One success story was about a woman who completed the nursing program at Mount Wachusett Community College, which has a satellite campus at Devens.

“Barriers that seem insurmountable” can be addressed, she said.

In addition to Our Father’s House, the partnership responsible for Transitions at Devens includes MassDevelopment, the state Department of Housing and Community Development and the Montachusett Opportunity Council.

Friends and family members attended the event, including siblings and her parents, Norman and Rita Garneau.

MassDevelopment officials who spoke included Vice President of Devens Operations George Ramirez and President and CEO Robert Culver.

Culver knew Garneau well, as he has come to know the “unique place” that is Devens during seven years on the job.

Culver recalled his first week in charge of Devens, when he got a call that seemed scary at the time. There were units of “unexploded ordnance” (live ammunition, buried during Fort Devens days) that were unearthed while a hotel site was being excavated. Surprises like that would become routine, he said, as the late Sen. Ted Kennedy once told him.

He said he could count on folks who worked for him to handle any business situation, but he worried about what would happen to women and children at the former Sylvia’s Haven. He said that one of the most important things at Devens now is the Transitions program. Now, women and children with “nowhere else to go” will be safely housed in appropriate accommodations.

“This little corner of Cavite Street is a fine example” of the kind of emergency shelter the state needs, he said.

Retired Gardner District Court Judge Patrick Fox, recently elected chairman of the Our Father’s House board of directors, knew Garneau for 25 years. He first met Garneau when she worked at an agency in Worcester. He called the dedication a “bittersweet moment,” with sadness that she could not be there to share it. It represents everything she strove for over a lifetime, he said, calling her “selfless” and “generous.” Her life was a response to the question in scripture, “Who is my neighbor?” he said.

Fox said the Our Father’s House board he’s served on for four years is a mix of professionals, clergy members, retirees, Realtors, a court magistrate, a banker, and Fitchburg State College President Robert Antonucci.

Even speakers who didn’t know Garneau agreed the new building represents “Barbara’s vision, realized.”

Robert Pulster, associate director of the Division of Housing Stabilization, said it sets a “whole new standard,” statewide, that Garneau would appreciate.

The project has provided construction jobs and MassDevelopment is seeking Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification for the new building.

The two-level structure fits the landscape and is conveniently located. There’s a playground nearby. Sidewalks surround it. Children can attend area schools. In addition to the apartments, common areas include an indoor play area, laundry and offices for Our Fathers House staff and Transitions counselors assigned to each family.

After the ribbon-cutting and building tours, people gathered in the conference room for light refreshments, including Norman and Rita Garneau, both 86. Norman Garneau said they could count on Garneau to handle paperwork for them.

Her obituary described a busy, fulfilling life, personally and professionally. Born in Leominster in 1951, she attended St. Bernard’s Central Catholic High School, graduating in 1970 and then graduated summa cum laude from Anna Maria College, where she received undergraduate and graduate degrees in business administration.

A lifelong, active member of St. Celia’s Church in Leominster, where she was a choir soloist, Garneau held several positions in the private sector, worked in Ayer District Court and for Catholic Charities before becoming Executive Director of Our Father’s House. She also belonged to many organizations and co-chaired the North County Detox Task Force.

She died of cancer in March this year, leaving her parents, four sisters, two brothers, nieces and nephews. Two sisters predeceased her.

Asked what she was like, growing up, her father said she liked music, played guitar and sang with a charismatic priest’s Catholic ministry. He added that she was a dutiful, loving daughter.

“She took care of us as we aged,” he said.

© Copyright 2010 Nashoba Publishing.