One solution to homelessness; shelter opens after a year of community support, work

Messenger file photo by Joe Sutter
Director Ashley Vaala, at left, along with board member Janice Link meet at the Lotus women’s shelter recently, after some of the major work has been completed. Partitions are now in place to create seven cubicles with beds and cribs for women to stay. The space can be reconfigured as needs change.

About a year ago, Ashley Vaala began speaking about her plans to give homeless women and children a place to go for shelter and assistance.

That dream became a reality throughout the year, and the Lotus Community Project’s homeless shelter officially opened on Jan. 21 in the former St. John’s Lutheran Church along 170th Street in rural Webster County.

In a year, the old house of worship was altered to house and feed those in need.

“Isn’t this amazing,” said Vaala. “The transformation has been unbelievable.”

A lot of people have pitched in making this a community project, Vaala said.

Messenger file photo by Joe Sutter
Ashley Vaala, director and founder, points out how every room, separated by partitions in the sanctuary, has its own stained glass window. The interior window shown here was frosted over for privacy before the shelter’s grand opening in mid-January.

The sanctuary has been split up by partitions, creating a number of sleeping spaces for women and their children.

Larger “rooms” hold cribs and kids’ beds along the main bed, while others are configured for singles.

“I love how each room has its own stained glass window,” said Vaala.

Partitions were donated by RoJohn, the Community Health Center and Elderbridge, she said. The shelter hopes to bring in still more cubicles soon.

In front of the church, the pulpit has been replaced with the entrance to the showers and bathrooms. There’s also a single bathroom, so that a woman with an older male child can be welcome at the shelter.

-Messenger photo illustration by Joe Sutter
Lotus Project Director Ashley Vaala looks into one of the cubicles set up for a mother with children at the Lotus women’s shelter, in this image made from mutliple photos. The shelter began taking women in January and held an open house for the public to see all the work that’s been done in the former church.

There are not many places for such families to stay, Vaala said.

The basement holds a dining area, a rudimentary kitchen, a play area and soon will hopefully have a computer area for the women.

“A college tutor from Iowa Central said she would come out and teach computers,” said Lotus board member Janice Link. “She’ll teach them how to submit a resume online, and how to act at a job interview.”

“The women will be able to be here applying for jobs while the kids are playing,” Vaala said.

Link has been involved with the project since the beginning, Vaala said, and has been reliable.

-Messenger file photo by Joe Sutter
Thanks to generous partners, the Lotus shelter has a well-stocked kids’ play area. These wooden cars were made by a man in Humboldt, Ashley Vaala said.

“I can call Jan, and within five minutes it’s, ‘what do you need? I’m on my way,'” Vaala said.

“Every one of the board members have different abilities that mesh together,” Link said. “It’s an important project, and all of us that are involved believe in it. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing.”

It’s also a community project, Vaala said — it’s only succeeded because so many have been willing to pitch in and help.

Fort Dodge Family Credit Union held a fundraiser to raise $1,100, Vaala said, and came down to set up the kids area themselves.

Wooden toy trucks were made for the shelter by a man in Humboldt.

There’s still work to be done. The shelter hopes to get a deep freeze somehow.

“Prairie Lakes Church is going to be getting groups of people together to prepare us a bunch of crock pot meals. Then we’re going to freeze them because we don’t have a stove,” she said.

“To get a stove or oven, we would have to have the hood and the fire suppression system. Brand new, those items are about $10,000 and you didn’t even buy a stove yet. Even after we have that, there are certain rules with kitchens.”

A sizeable garden is planned for next year. Vaala said 4-H students are lined up to help maintain that, and some sponsors are willing to put in the work to get it going.

“One lady who is a master gardener said she would help oversee it,” Link said.

At least one staff member will always be on site. Lotus hired new staff members early this year, including Lacie Klepsteen, a peer support services coordinator. This mental health professional doesn’t just work at the shelter; she can go into homes and help out, Vaala said.

“Lacie and I worked together at Berryhill. We were both peer support,” Vaala said.

New furnaces, air conditioner, and electrical system were installed in the building.

“We raised over $100,000 in a year, which is huge, considering we (weren’t) even open yet. It’s all community support,” Vaala said. “Our renovations have cost about $100,000.”

We have gone with a pretty conservative budget of probably $250,000 per year in operating expenses,” she added. “We had a couple different plans to look at, and we decided to go the very conservative route at first, so it is not too much burden on the community.”

Vaala herself learned to cook meth when she was 15. She said her life growing up around drug addicts led to her ending up homeless for about two years as a young adult. Before experiencing homelessness, Vaala spent time in and out of the juvenile system throughout her teen years.

“There was a lot of reckless behavior,” she said. “I put my life in danger a lot of times.”

While homeless, Vaala would go multiple days without eating. She spent some nights sleeping on front porches.

Much of her time was spent just north of downtown Fort Dodge.

“I was in this underworld where I would go from drug house to drug house,” she said. “I did sell drugs to sustain my habit, but I didn’t have a stable home of my own. Nobody is really a trustworthy person when you’re an addict. You can justify things if you’re an addict that you wouldn’t if you weren’t completely engulfed in that.”

She eventually got sober, but then had to serve four and a half years in prison, leaving her young son behind, because of a conviction for earlier behavior. Prison became a time of healing and reflection for her.

After prison, she lived in Waterloo for a time before coming to Fort Dodge.

She attended Iowa Central Community College and Buena Vista University — Fort Dodge, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in human services.

“It feels good to break the cycle,” she said, “and to be able to kind of heal to be there for my kids like nobody was there for me. My kids won’t have to go through what I went through.”


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