Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Shelter director traveled from needing to helping

By Cliff Radel
Enquirer staff writer

Darlene Robinson arrived at the Bethany House shelter as a homeless mother of three in 1989. Today she is the director of the house. Darlene sits in the same room she and her children used years ago.
SOUTH FAIRMOUNT - As a rule, homeless people look down. Their world has fallen apart and they're trying to pick up the pieces.

That rule does not apply to Darlene Robinson. The 45-year-old South Fairmount woman looks up. No matter what.

That spirit helped her go from being homeless to being a homeowner. And, it made her one of Bethany House Services' thousands of success stories in the past 20 years.

A leaky roof - which caused her apartment to be condemned - and a shaky marriage - which ended in divorce - turned Robinson into a homeless mother of three in 1989.

Thanks to Bethany House, a social service agency for homeless and disadvantaged women and children, she eventually found a sound roof, a solid second husband - she married T.L. Robinson Sept. 25 - and a new life.

What: Bethany House Services' 20th anniversary gala.
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, downtown.
Cost: $60 per person (includes dinner, program, video presentation, music).
Information: Web site or (513) 921-1131.
But first, Robinson and her children spent five months getting their lives together.

They did that while living in Room 22 of the 100-year-old South Fairmount mansion the agency converted into a 30-person homeless shelter.

Fifteen years later, as Bethany House Services prepares to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its incorporation as a nonprofit organization, Robinson occupies an office just down the hall from Room 22.

She is the shelter's director. Hanging on a wall behind her desk is a freshly minted diploma from the College of Mount Saint Joseph - certifying her bachelor's degree in social work.

Robinson remembers the Sunday in May when she drove her family "in my big red raggedy rust bucket of a car" to the shelter. Her sons, Michael and Tamaur, were 6 and 9. Daughter Vanyah was 10.

As night fell and her children slept, Robinson looked out the window of Room 22. The city's bright lights glowed in the distance. Instead of looking toward downtown, Robinson looked up. "I told myself I must be in a movie," she recalled. "This can't be happening to me."

In a matter of minutes she had gone from having no roof over her head to having a room that her family could call home at no charge. Meals and counseling sessions to get a job, complete her education, find a place to live and save money were also free.

"The staff was absolutely wonderful," Robinson said.

"Nobody said: 'You're homeless.' We didn't need to hear that. We knew we were homeless. We didn't need any reminders. What we needed was help. And we got it so we could be all that we could be."

Robinson's spunk made an immediate and lasting impression on Sister Mary Stanton."There was a confidence underneath how fragile Darlene was," Sister Mary said.

"You could tell the pieces of her life had once been together. We had to help them come together again."

Stanton is Bethany House's executive director and co-founder. She was inspired to create the agency while teaching at Mother of Mercy High School in Westwood.

She read a study "in the early '80s about homeless women and children. Since I came from a very large and loving extended family, the idea that women and children would be out on the street was beyond my imagining."

But not beyond her capacity to get involved. She set up Bethany's first home in Mount Auburn. The agency moved to South Fairmount in 1987.

Today, Bethany House Services is a virtual empire of aid centers. The agency owns three buildings in South Fairmount, as well as a 24-unit apartment complex and five one-family homes. The service conducts a multitude of counseling sessions as well as a training program for nurse and home care aides.

Robinson has charted the agency's progress for a long time and from close range. She started volunteering at Bethany House shortly after the October day she left in 1989. She bought a home next to the shelter in 1992, the year after she went to work there. "I told Sister Mary I would be back," Robinson said.

She kept her word.

Robinson is a hands-on director. Seldom in her office, she can be seen comforting a tearful mom, checking on a malfunctioning security system or frying fish for the shelter's evening meal.

She always participates in the shaking of the keys, a ritual she began. When shelter residents, or "guests" as they are called, make enough progress to move into a home, "they get the keys to the house and then they have to jingle them for the staff," Robinson said.

"It's a sign of success. It tells them they have the key to open the door to the rest of their dreams."

Robinson clearly remembers what it felt like to be homeless. The hopelessness. The fear.

She wants to quell those feelings. She tells residents, "Coming to Bethany House is like going to visit Grandma's. It's a comfortable place. But it is also a place of certain expectations. You don't put your feet on the table. You come in at a decent hour. You help with the chores. You watch your language."

Late at night, when she's working at her desk and the rambling old house is silent, Robinson counts her blessings. But she refuses to dwell on the past.

"I think more about the women who are in the house now," she said.

"Those women are wondering where they are going to be in 15 years."

They are looking out their windows. And they are looking up.


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