MONROE, CT — Jockey Hollow Middle School seventh graders donated wrapped Christmas gifts to Prospect House, a homeless shelter in Bridgeport, to let its residents know people care about them during the holidays.
The presents were on the stage of the school auditorium when the class gathered there last Friday. Mary Ellen Daley, a team leader for the seventh grade, arranged a visit from Jennifer Kolakowski, her best friend since the fourth grade.
Kolakowski is the CEO of Recovery Network of Programs, which oversees Prospect House. She came to Jockey Hollow to accept the gifts and tell children about the shelter.
Daley noted how excited students were to receive the gift of time off without homework and for presents over the weekend.
“Here in the auditorium today, I think ‘gift’ is taking on a whole different meaning,” Daley said. “When I look behind me, these are not gifts for you. We’re not talking about receiving gifts. We’re talking about the opportunity to give gifts — the opportunity to give, and boy did you come up big when you were given that opportunity and it’s much appreciated.”
“You have given gifts to people less fortunate than you,” she added, noting that every resident will get at least one present.
“You’re the only school that donates to Prospect House every year,” Kolakowski said. “This is a way of volunteering and contributing in such an incredibly meaningful way.”
A warm place to stay
Kolakowski showed the seventh graders a video about Prospect House, which is in a four-story building at 392 Prospect St. in Bridgeport. The emergency shelter houses women on the first floor and men on the second, while the rest of the building is used for other programs.
Most rooms have four or five beds and there is a total of 42 beds in the facility, which also has a laundry room with industrial washers and dryers.
In the video, Cheryl Bell, who oversees Recovery Network’s homeless services, gave a tour of Prospect House, showing the day room where guests eat their meals and the kitchen, which is licensed by the city of Bridgeport.
“We have food service staff who prepare meals for our clients every day,” Bell said. “Let me tell you somethin’, the food is good!”
Bell said people are in need because not everyone has a home, a place to sleep, food to eat or family and friends to help them out.
“We provide those things for people who need it most,” she said. “Here they have a warm, safe place to sleep. They can take a shower. They can eat food. It is so important to be kind, because anyone can go through hard times.”
Kolakowski said Prospect House has case managers and other staff. Residents meet individually with staff members to determine the services they need.
“They often need help going back to school or getting a job,” Kolakowski said. “Sometimes they need clothing. Many times they need food. We’ll provide job training skills.”
The goal is to help every resident gain the independence to move out and live on their own or with someone else. Kolakowski said Prospect House tries to provide housing for a maximum of 90 days, though the time goes by fast.
“We don’t want people to move out too quickly to the point where they’re not successful,” she said. “It’s not a hard and fast rule that people have to move out in 90 days, because we want to make sure they’re safe and successful when they move out.”
After a short presentation about Prospect House, Kolakowski led a question and answer period.
Among the questions were how homeless people find the shelter. Kolakowski said it is through referrals from hospitals and other agencies and word of mouth.
She said Prospect House is the only single adult shelter in Bridgeport that is not faith-based.
A student asked what happens if someone who has children comes to the shelter. Kolakowski said Prospect House will try to connect them with a shelter for families.
Several students were also concerned over people’s pets, but Kolakowski said Prospect House is unable to accommodate pets or service animals.
“It’s tough because of congregate living,” she said. “Another provider takes in people’s pets for a limited time. It’s tough to have to give up your pet.”
She was asked if any of the guests have criminal backgrounds. While some do, Kolakowski said they are not turned away, adding there are seldom any problems with violence. But those who make conditions unsafe for others can never come back to the shelter.
“In the cold freezing weather like today we have an overflow shelter,” Kolakowski said of another resource. “We work with other shelters in Bridgeport to make sure nobody has to be outside when it is entirely unsafe.”
Kolakowski said Prospect House opened 40 years ago, becoming the only homeless shelter in Bridgeport at the time. She said tent cities showed the scope of the problem, so people saw the need for transitional and permanent housing.
She said the shelter’s primary funding comes from the Connecticut Department of Housing, which also provides funding for Recovery Network’s other programs.
Kolakowski said her first job out of college was as an outreach worker for Prospect House, working with a team, talking to people living in encampments under bridges and on the streets, while trying to earn their trust and get them to the shelter where it is safe and warm.
“When I got out of college all of the jobs I was drawn to involved social work,” Kolakowski said. “I’m a clinical social worker. I just have a love and a passion for trying to create solutions around what we think are social issues and social justice issues.”
A student asked if there are opportunities to volunteer at Prospect House. Kolakowski said there are with tasks such as helping staff to make meals, dropping off cookies, and helping out at a pop up clothing boutique.
“The majority of the people who come in don’t have a lot of belongings,” she said. “We try to get them clothing, nice things to wear if they’re applying for a job, and a care package of basic necessities for those who move out.”
Kolakowski said this could include things most of us take for granted, such as sheets, a blanket and a pillow, pots and pans and a starter kit for food.
She was impressed with Jockey Hollow’s students during her visit.
“I think these kids are amazing,” Kolakowski said. “I feel just an enormous amount of gratitude to the school, its teachers and the students.”
Jockey Hollow Principal Julia Strong said winter service projects are taking place at her school’s main campus and STEM Academy, which is housed in a wing at Masuk High School.
“We are delighted with all the hard work and generosity of our students and families this holiday season,” she said. “In addition to working hard and doing their very best, our students have put so much effort into several service projects benefitting our community. It is heartwarming to witness our students’ concern for others at such a busy time. We are very proud of them!”
Among the projects, sixth graders collected children’s cozy items like mittens and fleeces to benefit the clients of the Blessed Sacrament Food Pantry in Bridgeport under the direction of Coordinator Gretchen Conte.
Parents could select an item to wrap and give to their children from themselves.
Seventh graders worked to benefit adults experiencing homelessness who are staying at the Prospect House shelter in Bridgeport. “We gathered so many warm socks and outerwear that every resident will receive something,” said Team Leader Mary Ellen Daley, who coordinated the effort.
Tech Ed teacher Mike Demchak led a construction project, in which students created old fashioned wooden toys like wagons and little cars to donate to Toys for Tots. The toys were completed with personalized tags from “the Elves”.
Student Council led by Team Leader Jackie DelVecchio collected over 2,000 items for the Monroe Food Pantry. “Even our custodians pitched in to help bring the food over,” Strong said.
“We are aware that the food pantry needs donations all year round,” DelVecchio said.
Student Activists Club members created holiday decorations for St. Vincent’s Cancer Center. School Counselors Amanda Kirk and Romina Bourdoulous brought students there on a field trip and one patient receiving treatment said their presence was “so wonderful!”
Kirk was a student at Chalk Hill School when the Student Activist Club began. She said club members make holiday decorations for St. Vincent’s Cancer Center every year and posts positive messages on bulletin boards at their school.
They plan to play bingo with patrons of the Newtown Senior Center on St. Patrick’s Day.
“Every year we host a campus clean up for Earth Day,” Kirk said. “We stay busy throughout the year.”
She said the 50 club members are nearly double of the usual membership.
“I love seeing the kids work together with kids from other grades to spread positivity to the Jockey Hollow and Monroe community,” Kirk said.
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