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Homeless Norwalkers Give Thanks for Hope

NORWALK, Conn. – Joseph Ray stood in a cold drizzle Tuesday cleaning up a yard, thankful for a chance to give back. German Caballero was thankful, too, and so was everyone else raking leaves on a hill, where they could see a pond down below.

The men sleep at the Open Door Shelter. During the day, they are clients of Hope Works, getting paid for the work they do and attending classes aimed at improving their chances in the future.

"It gives us a chance to put our feet back into society," Ray said, adding that he and his classmates are learning to be responsible. The men and women are in the second class of Hope Works, a job and life-skills training program run through the shelter.

"I've got a lot of things to be thankful for this year," said Michael Baboval, who needs to be careful with his belongings, lest they get stolen. His laptop disappeared so "most of my life is on a flash drive now." But he is thankful that Norwalk's libraries are open into the evening four days a week, and he can use the computers there.

Baboval has been homeless for 10 years. "It's provided me with income," he said of Hope Works, "and a possible a brighter future."

Raking leaves is new for Hope Works. Baboval said Trisha Haynes, career counselor for Hope Works, asked clients for ideas. They suggested shoveling snow and raking leaves, and "one job has turned into half a dozen now."

Customers have been in Darien, New Canaan and Westport, as well as Norwalk, Haynes said. Hope Works does an assessment of the property and then cleans it up within 48 hours.

Haynes said the crew recently cleaned up the back yard of an elderly and disabled woman who hadn't touched the property in years because she couldn't get up the hill.

It was charity work. "That was a big job, we could have made about $300 for that," said Bill Okwuosa, director of the shelter. "We need charity as well, but of course, for a disabled woman, it was well worth it."

Caballero liked that, the feeling of "coming out and helping someone who might not be able to do it themselves, someone old or someone who can't do it, that needed my help." He'll get to do it again next week, as the crew cleans up for a 101-year-old resident of Westport, again for charity. "We couldn't resist that," Haynes said.

Hope Works is a beneficiary, too. Sherry Gipson, former owner of Curves of Westport, just donated more than $15,000 worth of exercise machines to make a gym in the Hope Works facility, the old Norwalk Community Health building on Water Street. Gipson and Dorothy Robertshaw of Westport's IDS Textiles/Westport Design Studio also decorated the gym and other rooms.

Hope Works sells donated clothing for low-income people at its facility. A Dress For Achievement closet for Hope Works clients offers professional clothing for free. Haynes teaches clients how to dress for job interviews and meetings.

Okwuosa said two clients have jobs already, four are taking G.E.D. classes and two are studying at Norwalk Community College after work. Financial literacy classes will begin at Hope Works after the New Year, sponsored by First County Bank.

Angela Butler, a client cleaning up the back yard Tuesday, said she was thankful for Hope Works. The money she was making would help her save to become a certified nurse's aide. She has been in the shelter with her 3-year-old son for three months.

Tina Akoma said she no longer sleeps at the shelter but is still a member of Hope Works, raking leaves and enjoying the camaraderie. She was thankful that the others have a job as well. "Afterward they will have something they are known for. ... They are living there and they have some money to be planning where they are going."

She was thankful for the change. "I used to wonder how some of them would ever be able to make it out of there. One of them was drunk always. I have seen a big change. It's something, I think it is helping them."

For more information on the leaf-raking services, call Trisha Haynes at 203-852-7116.

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