Kesewin FireThunder could hardly contain her excitement.
"I've found a house!" she said, beaming, one recent afternoon. She settled into a comfy couch in the Mid-Wilshire Craftsman home that has sheltered her and her five children for the last year as she worked to build a new life.
"My kids and I love it here," FireThunder said of Alexandria House, a transitional residence and support services program for formerly homeless women and their children. "But they really want to move into our own place."
And she counts as an extra blessing the fact that the home she'll soon be renting, with the help of a federal Section 8 subsidy, is relatively close to Alexandria House. That will enable her to keep her children in the residence's day-care center while she completes her nursing degree at Los Angeles City College. And she can keep up the friendships she's made.
"It feels like a big family here," FireThunder said. "Everybody supports everybody."
Founded in 1996 by Judy Vaughan, its director and a member of its board, Alexandria House is actually two homes, with welcoming porches and gleaming interior woodwork. They are the only houses remaining on the teeming 400 block of South Alexandria Avenue; the rest were replaced by apartment buildings long ago.
Together, the homes with their nine bedrooms can accommodate about 25 women and children in the process of moving from emergency homeless shelters to permanent residences. They also offer a day-care center, offices and space for neighborhood meetings.
Alexandria House is among a number of Southern California nonprofits featured in the Times Holiday Campaign, part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund. This year, the charity's transitional residence program received $10,000 from the fund.
Behind one of the Mid-Wilshire houses is a large yard and a spot where Vaughan, a member of the religious order Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, plans to build a family recreation center that would serve as a teen center, computer lab, child-care facility and gathering place.
Next door, a former garage does duty as a thrift shop, stocked with donated goods and open for business three days a week, including Saturdays. Those living at Alexandria House are allowed to shop at no cost and residents of the neighborhood of working poor can buy items at bargain prices.
Vaughan especially likes the community feeling the thrift store helps foster at Alexandria House, which she sees as a neighborhood resource as much as a transitional residence program.
"Our goal is to be a community-oriented transitional house and a neighborhood center," said Vaughan, noting that many of Alexandria House's programs -- including its development-based child-care and after-school enrichment and homework assistance -- are open to neighborhood residents.
Alexandria House also has a women's support group, teen programs, English-as-a-second-language classes, referrals and experience in community organizing. There is a marriage and family counselor on staff, and the mandatory savings program helps residents accumulate a financial cushion for the day when they move to their own homes.
Alexandria House also recently partnered with the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency to build a 16-unit, low-income apartment house in the neighborhood.
Only about $5,000 of the organization's $715,000 annual budget comes from government grants; organizers depend on donations and private foundations for the rest. And like most charities during this time of economic recession, Alexandria House is seeing a big increase in need but a drop in giving.
"We go on faith," Vaughan said. "Any donation, large or small, is greatly appreciated" and carefully stretched as far as possible to help women gain the skills and support they need to lead independent lives. "We get about 300 calls for housing a month that we can't respond to. The need is just so great," the director said.
FireThunder said she was "so lucky" that her caseworker at United American Indian Involvement, a nonprofit social service agency in downtown Los Angeles, found her and her children a spot at Alexandria House.
"No other place had any openings," recalled FireThunder, who faced life in emergency shelters after her father moved out of state and she had nowhere to go.
Once she and her children, who range in age from 1 to 8, are settled in their own place, she said she plans to give something back to Alexandria House. The residents take turns cooking the evening meals Mondays through Thursdays, she said, and they appreciate it when volunteers step in to relieve them of that duty, letting them enjoy more time with their children and each other.
"So I am going to come back and cook for them," she said.
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