Days after she signed out early from a 90-day program at a crisis center, Cassy Lusardi found a godsend in a local nonprofit social enterprise that employs single women to refurbish wooden furniture.
Lusardi, 26, of Springfield, Ill., is among seven women on the payroll of Wooden It Be Lovely, a new ministry of the city's Douglas Avenue United Methodist Church that provides financial support and community for single mothers who are in poverty or are healing from drug abuse, or both.
The mother of two girls ages 2 and 6, Lusardi turned to heavy drug use when she was 16. She says she has been to rehab nine times.
The day in March that Lusardi returned home after signing herself out of the crisis center, she talked to her neighbor about Wooden It Be Lovely.
"My next-door neighbor has been a longtime member," said Lusardi, who lives two blocks away from the church. "I like to draw. I draw a lot, and I put some of my pictures on Facebook. She was like, 'Oh, I see that you're really artistic. We've got this new program that we're trying to start at the church just painting furniture.' I was just like, 'What?' "
Lusardi accompanied her neighbor to Douglas Avenue United Methodist a couple of days later, meeting the church's associate pastor, the Rev. Margaret Ann Jessup.
"They explained to me the whole thing. Once they said 'struggling moms and people in recovery mostly,' I was just like, 'Oh, my gosh. This is perfect for me.' The very next day we're filling out my W-2s," Lusardi said.
"It was God who brought me here.... I don't know where I'd be right now if I didn't have here."
Begun in March, Wooden It Be Lovely provides transitional employment at the church. It was the idea of Jessup, with the support of lead pastor the Rev. Julia Melgreen.
At the time, Jessup had in mind the needs of the community in general and a mother of five children in particular.
"One of my roles at the church is to help a lot with the community outreach. When people come into the office, they can't pay a bill, they're down on their luck, and they find churches," Jessup said.
"We've been known to be a very giving missional church. We would give them money to help with their light bills so they wouldn't get their water or lights disconnected. Then a few months later, they're back again.... We really weren't helping the problem."
She said that while churches have always cared for the poor and single mothers, there's been a movement to find different ways to "help with poverty. To think kind of outside the box a little bit."
"We had thought how could we do something to empower them to be more than just the receivers. That one-way charity really doesn't work," Jessup said. "We'd been trying to think of a way to do a social enterprise, something that we could teach people to do to help themselves."
Jessup had that in mind one day as she pondered how to help a neighbor of the church, a mother with five children whose father was in prison. The woman didn't have job skills and rarely left the house.
"I tried to figure out how we could help her, and one day I was sitting on the church steps and to the left of us are like some antique stores, and there was a bunch of old wooden chairs out in the rain. And I just had this thought, 'How could those old chairs help her?' " she said.
Things clicked after Jessup got two of the chairs, took them home and practiced painting them.
"Then I researched the ideas online and then visited a place in Edwardsville [Ill.] that does something similar with volunteers. They gave me a lot of ideas and pointers," Jessup said. "I then talked to the congregation and found people within the congregation that had experience."
Douglas Avenue United Methodist donated starter money for Wooden It Be Lovely, which also got two grants from different United Methodist Church foundations.
The mother of five Jessup was concerned about is now involved.
"It's helped her some. It hasn't helped her totally. It's kind of like transitional employment," Jessup said.
The women employed through Wooden It Be Lovely (called "associates") make $10 an hour, working Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons at the church. They take old furniture, prepare it and do chalk painting (special kind of paint that adheres to wood better and doesn't require sanding and refinishing).
Volunteers can paint with associates during Community Paint Night at 6 p.m. Tuesdays, as well as if someone hosts a Paint with a Purpose party on a Thursday night.
Lusardi said the Community Paint Night is "just amazing."
"Because these people just hear about us and come," she said. "People we don't even know are coming up to me and saying, 'I'm proud of you, Cassy.' It just makes me want to cry every time.
"We have a purpose. We're taking something that's bland or that's broken, this furniture, and bringing it new life. In a sense, to me, that's kind of what we're doing with ourselves."
Wooden It Be Lovely is "a softer place to start" for women with few job skills.
"It's a different kind of work than the secular world because the women, we offer relationships, community, a little more grace about their work hours, and we care for their children," Jessup said. "Some of our employees have worked like at Wal-Mart, and because they've had so many times they were late to work, they get fired. But they are late for work because they're taking the bus, and they're having to take their kids to day care."
Free, on-site day care is provided as needed for women employed through Wooden It Be Lovely while they work.
Lusardi's 2-year-old daughter, Camryn Alyse, mostly uses the day care. She said she "doesn't know where to start" in listing how her employment with Wooden It Be Lovely has helped her.
"It fills you up with so much hope because when you're like out there using drugs, you feel so alone and like nobody's there for you and nobody cares about you," said Lusardi, who has had many previous jobs but wants to go to school to become a counselor for adolescents who abuse drugs. "When I came here, I just met so many people who are just so full of love and compassion."
More than 140 pieces of furniture have been finished since March.
"It's been a wonderful journey," said Beth Sands, the studio manager. "It's grown immensely from the first piece of furniture that we started working on."
Jessup said the goal is to ensure there's a market for what Wooden It Be Lovely creates before it gets too big.
The ministry's success is contingent on community support in the form of free furniture and supplies, volunteers to paint on Tuesday and Thursday nights and buyers of furniture, Jessup said.
Wooden It Be Lovely's first furniture sale will be Saturday at the church. In August, it's hoped that the program will start taking custom orders.
"We hope to have a spot in the church at all times after they finish a piece, and put it on ... social media and say, 'Here is this for $50.' "
"Ideally, if it goes well, we'd like to have storefront, somewhere where they could actually display their furniture. But that would take a big grant. But we're going to dream for that. Who knows?"