WILKES-BARRE – In the shadow of a rusting water tower in a neighborhood where modest clapboard homes butt up against hulking former factories, Jahaira Zavala recounted how the cot-filled Ruth's Place transformed her life when she found herself homeless.
They helped me find a job, they helped me get an apartment, the 28-year-old New Jersey native said. I came back to volunteer. I do want to go back to school, get a degree in psychology, and help the girls here.
Where would she be without the shelter? That's a question I never want to ask myself, and I don't want anyone else here to ask themselves.
Zavala was one of several clients turned volunteers to join in a press conference Friday marking the shelter's 10th anniversary. Center Director Kristen Topolski and board Chairman Bill Bolan rattled off thanks to all the shelter's supporters and partners, discussed celebration plans for the coming year and offered a brief history of what Bolan billed as the only 24-hour emergency shelter exclusively for women in Luzerne County.
Founded in 2003 as a night-only winter shelter, Ruth's place settled into the First United Methodist Church on River Street. It became a full-time shelter in 2007, only to see the church close in 2008. The shelter was transformed into Ruth's Place House of Hope, Inc., and moved into a former refrigeration business on N. Pennsylvania Ave., a place of rebirth in a neighborhood of repurposed manufacturing plants.
The shelter keeps 21 beds permanently, with four more cots available for emergency sheltering, Bolan said. About $90,000 was spent to expand the showers, install a kitchen and add other features that help make the shelter a full-service facility that has reduced average stay from more than a month a few years ago to 16.1 days.
Along with Zavala, Nancy Kempa and Carletta Walker attested to the shelter's value.
I'd be out on the street, Kempa, 38, said in recounting how Ruth's Place helped her twice, in 2008 when she lost her Plymouth home and again recently when her new home was condemned.
They made me feel like I wasn't alone, Walker, 49, said of the time she lost her house and her job in one day – the job because she had to take time off to look for housing for her family of five.
Topolski said that while the shelter does get some women with drug and alcohol issues, most clients are not what you expect, losing their homes because of reasons out of their hands: A landlord fails to pay a mortgage and the building is repossessed, an employer closes a business or the only job available is a late shift with no transportation to and from work.
Bolan said 96 percent of clients find a safe place to live after leaving, and he credited strong support from other social service agencies, churches, businesses and the community.
Because of the anniversary, the shelter's big annual fundraiser – A mile in her shoes homeless awareness walk – will be expanded this year to include crafts, food, face painting and other activities after the walk, which begins Nov. 4 at 1 p.m. on Public Square and traces the path many women must take to obtain services that help them return to self-sufficiency, Topolski said.
The shelter also plans an April dinner for supporters, volunteers and graduates, and other events for volunteers and graduates during the year.
While the shelter has been able to survive and grow for a decade, Topolski said help and donations are always welcome. Anyone interested in helping can visit the website at ruthsplace.com, or call 822-6817.
We never turn down a set of helping hands, Topolski said.