Tuesday October 9, 2012

NORTH WALPOLE, N.H. -- True charity knows no boundaries.

The Greater Falls Warming Shelter has called multiple places home in the four years since its creation, but it always remained anchored to its Vermont roots. It was based on Bellows Falls’ Canal Street and operated out of the basement of Athens Pizza House Inc. for two winters.

But when issues prevented the shelter from using the basement a third consecutive year, it resorted to three apartments in a single building in Gageville last year.

The charity has now hopped across the river in New Hampshire and set up shop in a red building at 23 Church St. It may not be the ideal location but its board of directors thinks it will suffice for the upcoming winter.

"It’s small but it is adequate," said Louise Luring, chairwoman of the board. "We’ll be operating pretty much the way we always have."

Luring said the shelter will hopefully open on Thursday, Nov. 1, but it might be as late as Thursday, Nov. 15.

The board of directors decided in the spring not to appeal a decision of its local zoning board regarding a facility to the environmental court. Luring said the board of directors was looking for a permanent permit to operate in the basement of Athens Pizza House Inc. but withdrew its appeal after not receiving satisfactory support from the restaurant’s owner, Rich Senerchia.


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Senerchia told the Reformer in April he has known Luring for a long time and does everything he can to assist his neighbors, whether it means donating to school functions or renting out his basement at minimal cost that barely covers the expenses.

Some board members said there were complaints from some of Athens Pizza’s neighbors about the sort of people staying in the basement.

"I’m here to help the community. ... That’s what Athens Pizza does," Senerchia said in a telephone interview during a busy Friday dinner. "I don’t pick sides. I’m not on either side of the fence."

The Warming Shelter had received a temporary permit for the Athens Pizza basement last year and was attempting to get a permanent one to avoid having to renew it every year. But the Rockingham Planning Commission & Zoning Board of Adjustment was deadlocked, 3-3, in a vote to give the shelter permission. One person, Luring said, recused from voting.

Luring said in a telephone interview the board had started the appeal process before deciding to withdraw it.

The shelter served eight people in the private apartments last year, as that was all the location could accommodate. Luring said the charity will now be able to take care of up to 10 individuals in the new spot. There will be a pair of two-volunteer shifts -- from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. and from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m.

There is an open house scheduled from 4 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 25, so people can see the space, meet the staff, ask questions and learn about shelter policy.

The shelter plans to hold two training sessions for volunteers as it prepares to open its door for the cold weather. The first session is slated for 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 18, while the other is set to begin at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 28. Both are scheduled for the shelter. Volunteers can attend either session.

Board member Ann DiBernardo said the building -- owned by Aurelius DiBernardo, a relative or hers, and Leo Howell -- has previously been a church, a tae kwondo studio and a delicatessen known as Two Friends Deli, which was co-owned by her sister-in-law. She said she has learned the church used 1,000 gallons of heating oil per winter and predicts the shelter will use about 500.

"I don’t think it will be too much," she said after a board of directors meeting in September. "No. 1, it’s not going to be a cold winter from what I’m hearing."

She said she heard on CNN that October and December should be far above average in warmth.

Howell said he, his wife Barbara Howell and Aurelius DiBernardo have owned the building, which was most recently a small grocery store, for at least 10 years. He said they purchased the building because it became available. He said the shelter signed the lease two or three weeks ago.

"There is obviously a great need for it because the situations in Bellows Falls didn’t work out very well," he said.

Howell preferred not to disclose the amount of rent the shelter is paying, but said it is not much. He said the shelter will use the building for eight months.

Luring said it was essential to find a place equipped with a sprinkler system.

Now comes the time for fundraising, as the shelter is run entirely on donations and grants. A list of 15 or 20 businesses was drafted at a weekly meeting in September and the board plans to send each of them a letter asking for contributions.

"The reason we started it is because Melinda Bussino got in touch with people and said, ‘We can longer take people from Bellows Falls (at the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center) and there are currently eight to 10,’" DiBernardo said. "So we had to do something that year. So we did that without some of the stringent fire codes because it was an emergency."

Sitting at a table of fellow board members, DiBernardo recalled a fundraising technique used by the Our Place Drop-In Center, just over the river in Bellows Falls, years ago. She said she received a letter around the holiday season. When she picked it up, she said, there were small, loose pieces of matter inside the envelope. They turned out to be five kernels of flint corn, also known as Indian corn, and a poem.

The method really stuck with DiBernardo and though it is unclear if the shelter will use it, other board members acknowledged the creativity behind it.

The shelter is also looking to hire a shelter site manager and the opening was recently posted on Craigslist.

Barbara O’Brien, one of the North Walpole village commissioners, said permission was granted because the building -- owned by Aurelius DiBernardo and Leo Howell -- was available. She said the village, however, put into place some stipulations for the shelter, like having to adhere to the New Hampshire State Fire Code.

She said the shelter has so far complied with all rules and regulations.

"We’ll deal with any problems as they arise," she said.

Though she doesn’t know of any homeless people in her town, O’Brien said the shelter provides a great service for the community. She did voice one concern about the safety of the clients, as the majority will likely also be frequents of the Our Place Drop-In Center.

Lisa Pitcher, a shelter board member and executive director of Our Place, said there is a possibility Connecticut River Transit will be able to transport people from the drop-in center to the shelter in the evenings. There was a bus last year to bring people from Our Place to the Gageville apartments.

Pitcher said she joined the board when she took the executive director position because she decided to follow in the steps of her predecessor.

"Things seem to be going well," she said in regards to the shelter opening this year. "I don’t see any barriers at this point."

She added that the phone system was installed last week.

Unlike like previous locations, the stoves at the shelter cannot be used, Luring said. All food will have to be brought in.

A company called DiBernardo Electric, Fire and Security, owned by a relative of Ann DiBernardo, is willing to install a Napco FB128 Com/Fire alarm with dialer, two 120-volt with battery back smoke detectors, a fixed 135 deg heat detector and two RM-45 lines to low voltage relays for $1,700. The company will also install all wirings, electrical boxes, smoke and heat detectors.

A covered dish supper to benefit the warming shelter will be served at Christ’s Church on Main Street on Saturday, Oct. 13, at 6 p.m. The dinner will feature all kinds of casseroles as well as macaroni and cheese, baked beans, pastas, and chicken casserole accompanied by a green salad and gingerbread with whipped cream.

Tickets for the dinner are $10 for adults and $5 for children.

The shelter can be reached at its Facebook page or at bfwarmingshelter@yahoo.com.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.