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‘It’s a beautiful thing to see’

Lotus helps struggling women find hope

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
Ashley Vaala, executive director of the Lotus Community Project, stands in the former St. John’s Lutheran Church. The church was converted into a homeless shelter for women and children. It opened in January 2019.

A single woman juggling a low-wage job and a family can be one financial emergency away from crisis.

And that crisis could leave her without a home.

When that happens, the Lotus Community Project is a place that can help, according to its executive director, Ashley Vaala.

Lotus is a homeless shelter for women and children located along 170th Street in rural Webster County.

“A lot of what we see is single women, some of them mothers, maybe education is a factor, they are working low-wage jobs and it’s just not cutting it,” said Vaala, who was once homeless. “Something really small can snowball for them and before you know it, they are facing eviction and homelessness.”

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
The shelter in the former St. John’s Lutheran Church can accommodate about 25 people at a time. In the case of overflow, there are beds such as the one pictured. Ashley Vaala, executive director of the Lotus Community Project, stands near it.

In Bethany Erb’s case, it was a separation from her significant other that caused her to be without a home.

Erb, of Laurens, called Vaala in the early morning hours on July 5.

“I needed to get away,” Erb said. “Lotus was a place I could be in a safe zone.”

That same morning, Erb and her infant child came to Lotus, which has been housed in the former St. John’s Lutheran Church since January.

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

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
A steady supply of food is key for a homeless shelter like the Lotus Community Project.

Through Lotus, Erb got help applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and was put in touch with other needed services.

She received job training and volunteered in the community.

“We tried to help her get on her feet,” Vaala said. “We helped her get housing, all while she had a six-month-old baby. That’s not easy to do.”

It hasn’t been seamless.

Erb said she’s struggled to hold down a job as she fights a lengthy custody battle.

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
The Lotus Community Project gained possession of a 5-bedroom house next to the former St. John’s Lutheran Church in September. Renovations are underway to make the Webster County house a viable option for guests of Lotus. Ashley Vaala, executive director of Lotus, estimates about $10,000 still needs to be invested in the structure before it is ready to be occupied.

But she’s been living independently in her own apartment for three months.

Vaala said some women might stay at Lotus for a couple of days, while others may be there for six months.

Some women are leaving toxic relationships. Some have lost a job.

“We see a lot of young moms,” Vaala said. “They struggle with day care. Women losing their jobs from day care. Sometimes they might have a good job and it goes past typical day care hours. That is a big thing. So then we have to try to find them the appropriate programming or day care. Sometimes AFES (Athletics for Education and Success, which offers after school programs) is the answer.”

Other Lotus guests are trying to transition from prison back into society.

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
A 5-bedroom house east of Fort Dodge could one day be home to guests of the Lotus Community Project, a homeless shelter for women and children.

When Alyssa Sweeney, of Fort Dodge, was released from prison in August, she wasn’t sure where she would end up.

“I had nowhere to go,” Sweeney said.

The Fort Dodge Residential Correctional Facility, also called the halfway house, doesn’t accept women.

While waiting for her release, Sweeney was told about Lotus.

So she contacted Vaala and was accepted into the program.

Lotus has some restrictions: It is a drug-free facility, it does not accept sex offenders, and women fleeing from domestic violence are referred to the Domestic/Sexual Assault Outreach Center.

Being at Lotus has allowed Sweeney to figure out her next moves.

“I am doing really well,” said Sweeney, who spent nine months in prison. “I work at the Apple Orchard, I have saved up enough money to get my license and I just got a car.”

Her job at the Apple Orchard is seasonal.

“I am looking for employment when I am done there,” Sweeney said. “I am just continuing to save as much money as possible for when I am able to leave here.”

Lotus has served nearly 150 people in 2019. Eighty women and more than 60 children have been in the shelter, according to Vaala.

Many women have found work at the Prestage Foods of Iowa pork plant south of Eagle Grove, which is about a 13 minute drive from Lotus.

“A lot of our women become employed at Prestage,” Vaala said.

She estimates between 15 and 20 women work at Prestage, a 700,000-square-foot plant that opened last spring.

“They are very successful when they are employed at Prestage,” Vaala said. “In two weeks pay, they can buy a decent little car. A lot of our women who work there, leave here and don’t need any assistance.”

Vaala, who was appointed by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds to sit on the Iowa Council on Homelessness, is pleased to see those opportunities for the women she serves.

“I think that’s really the goal,” Vaala said. “It’s a beautiful thing when you see them get out on their own and they are happy. It can be stressful when you are used to those safety net programs and now they are doing it on their own. You can see the anxiety, but also how proud they are. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”

Vaala spends up to 80 hours a week at the shelter.

She might pay a bill or work with clients on their goals. Other times she is taking phone calls for incoming guests.

When she’s not at the shelter, she speaks at schools, church and service groups.

Four other people work at the shelter.

During the month of December, Vaala has been trying to spread some Christmas cheer.

On Monday, a men’s Bible study group from Badger Lutheran Church came by the shelter to share gifts and a meal.

“The pastor gave a small sermon on the meaning of Christmas,” Vaala said. “I feel like there’s a lot of hardships. Even though Lotus is a nice place, the people are still going through a hard time. They may not get everything they want for Christmas, but we try to make sure they get some of those things and that the spirit of Christmas is brought to them.”

The house next door

The Lotus Community Project took possession of a five-bedroom house next to its shelter in September.

Vaala estimates about a $10,000 investment is needed before the house can be open to guests.

It needs a new furnace, carpet, and some appliances, among other things.

Vaala hopes the house can open by the summer.

“In this past year, we had just under $150,000 of renovations to open the shelter (church),” Vaala said. “And I’d say we still owe about $15,000. We have maintained an operating budget. It costs us an average of $12,000 a month to operate shelter and that’s a very conservative budget.”

Lotus is a A 501(c)(3) organization. It serves a six-county area: Webster, Hamilton, Humboldt, Wright, Calhoun and Pocahontas.

Vaala has been grateful for the community support Lotus has received.

The Fort Dodge Study Club, for example, has raised about $50,000 for Lotus in the past two years.

Valero Renewables of Fort Dodge has contributed $33,500 to Lotus.

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