December 18, 2006 12:00 PM

Nancy Schwoyer, 69, and Rosemary Luling Haughton, 79

Gloucester, Mass.

Twenty-five years ago, Schwoyer and Haughton, along with several friends, bought a 17th-century farmhouse to offer temporary shelter to those in need. The result? A homeless refuge like no other.


As Kayla Pena, eight months pregnant and on the run from a troubled marriage, drove up to Wellspring House in 1997, she pictured a place with “a lot of families in one room with bunk beds,” she says. Then she walked into Wellspring and smelled the wood-burning stove. “I said, ‘Where, actually, is the shelter?’ And Nancy said, ‘Oh, it’s right here.’ I said, ‘I’m going to live here?'” With its stone fireplace, mahogany floors and organic garden, Wellspring House hosts seven families at a time; most stay an average of six months before finding their own home.


Residents are referred to as “guests,” and staff members join them for meals. Schwoyer, a former nun who is Wellspring’s executive director, plans the weekly menu, shops for food and sleeps in a room across the hall from her guests. “You hear babies crying in the middle of the night,” she says. Haughton, who has 10 grown children in her native Great Britain, tends the garden. “We put flowers in the house every day,” she says. “It lifts people’s hearts.”


Dinner is at 6:15, children get tucked in at 8 p.m., TV is off-limits during the day—and residents must spend 20 hours a week looking for their own housing. Says Noelle Corneau, 23, who moved to Wellspring with her 19-month-old son Trevon five months ago and expects to finish training as a medical assistant in January: “Before, Trevon didn’t have a bedtime; he went to sleep when he got tired. Now he’s on a schedule. I have time for myself, and he wakes up in a good mood.” The sense of security and order works for the adults too: Pena, 33, recalls the night at the end of her first month at Wellspring House when she woke shaking, worried that her estranged husband had somehow found her. She called out for Haughton. “Rosemary went and checked all the doors and windows,” Pena recalls. “Then she sat on my bed and read to me. It was things like that. It made a difference.”


When Carol Brien, 48, came to Wellspring with her two children in 2000 after a fire had destroyed their Salem, Mass., apartment, “I didn’t want anyone to know,” she says. “I felt my foundation had been pulled out.” After nine months at Wellspring, with Schwoyer and Haughton’s help, Brien found a subsidized apartment and, later, a house built by Habitat for Humanity. “I was treated as an equal and with respect,” says Brien, who is juggling three jobs while studying social work at Simmons College in Boston. “This is a lifting-off place.”


In its 25 years, Wellspring, funded with $1.5 million a year in private donations, has helped some 600 families out of homelessness. Now a handful of former residents donate small sums of money. By Wellspring’s own estimate, 90 percent of former residents stay out of homeless shelters for the long haul. “They bring their babies,” says Haughton of those who come back to visit. “People say, ‘Can I come home and see you?’ It’s the place their lives began to change.”

No one agrees more than Pena, who now works as a Spanish teacher and rents an apartment in Gloucester. Every February—around the birthday of her daughter Jacynda, now 9—she brings the Wellspring founders a thank-you card. “When I was having my daughter, I had nothing,” Pena says. “They made me believe in myself.”

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