Hospitality Center fosters connections with community

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Willimantic - posted Tue., Oct. 18, 2011
Christopher Lee Landry works on a sculpture outside the Windham No Freeze Hospitality Center, during the Sheltered Arts event on Oct. 14. Photos by Melanie Savage.
Christopher Lee Landry works on a sculpture outside the Windham No Freeze Hospitality Center, during the Sheltered Arts event on Oct. 14. Photos by Melanie Savage.

Last winter, Julio Roldan was a guest at the Windham No Freeze Hospitality Center (see February 21, 2011 article in the ReminderNews). He was celebrating nine months of sobriety after a lifetime of hardcore drug and alcohol use, and years of living on the streets. Recently, Roldan was again hanging out at the shelter, but this time under much different circumstances. Roldan is no longer a resident of the center; now, he is an employee. Sober for more than a year, Roldan is living in his own apartment and working at the center doing maintenance.

Roldan has lived in a number of different cities, including Hartford and Norwich, and never accomplished such a long period of sobriety before. He credits his success to a supportive Willimantic community, and especially to Hospitality Center Director Leigh Duffy. “Leigh has given me so much support,” said Roldan. “She is one of my people.”

Among Duffy’s ideas since taking over the center in November of 2010 is Sheltered Art, hosted on Oct. 14. The event turned the Hospitality Center into a gallery, with art by former residents and friends of the shelter on display, and music and refreshments offered for the public at large. The event is just one of the many ways that Duffy is attempting to foster a closer connection between the center and the community. “People tend to have certain perceptions about shelters and homelessness,” said Duffy. “We’re trying to counteract some of that. This is a place of hope and love, a place of inspiration. People move on from homeless shelters and do great things.”

Other ways that Duffy is reaching out include appearances where center residents are encouraged to speak about their experiences. A recent event, which offered Eastern and UConn students the opportunity to spend a night at the shelter in exchange for donations, was a big success and will likely be repeated. After their overnight, the students were taken on a walking tour of Willimantic, and center residents helped out with logistics. “It was a really nice way of inviting people in,” said Duffy, “and the students came away being impressed by Willimantic. They were excited about it.”

“They’re people,” said Duffy of shelter guests. “Something went wrong, but they’re people, and we don’t want them to forget that they are part of a community. The worst thing that can happen to people is to become disconnected from the community.”

And in turn, Duffy hopes that the community will see the center as a resource, as well. “After the hurricane, we had people coming in to use the showers,” she said. “We’re a resource for the community. We want to be seen as a community space.”

Duffy intends to make Sheltered Art an annual event. “It’s gonna grow and be bigger,” she said.

Among the artists displaying works on Oct. 14 was Mary Ann Powell. Powell is a frequent volunteer at the shelter and a personal friend of Duffy’s. Knitting quietly at a table, Duffy said she was happy to participate in the Sheltered Art event. “Sometimes people like to hide the fact that there are issues,” she said. "Hopefully this will open people’s eyes, encourage them to give, love, whatever.”

Meanwhile, Roldan offered his insight into some of the works of art hanging in the gallery. At first glance, the pieces he was drawn to appeared dark and depressing. But Roldan’s descriptions revealed that he was drawn not to the darkness, but to the possibility of hope. “Sometimes, with alcohol, you feel trapped,” he said, gesturing toward a photograph depicting a man imprisoned within a cage of sharpened branches. Roldan pointed to the bucolic vista surrounding the imprisoned man. “But now I am running free,” he said.

Watch for a Hospitality Center-sponsored event recognizing homelessness near the time of the winter solstice (mid-December). For more information regarding the Windham No Freeze Hospitality Center, call 860-450-1346.

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