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Sharon Reilly Helps Homeless Women Maintain Their Dignity

The director of the Women's Lunch Place not only makes sure more than 150 homeless women a day are fed and taken care of, but just oversaw a major renovation that brought dignity and respect to the day shelter.

The words 'I have enough' will always ring strongly in the ears of Sharon Reilly, executive director of the Women's Lunch Place, on Newbury Street near the Public Garden.

She was visiting Stella, a regular at the day shelter, who had been placed in a rehab facility after living on the streets for 25 years. When asked if she needed anything, 'I have enough' was Stella's response.

It was a wakeup call for Reilly, who had recently lost her husband to cancer.

"It was life transforming for me," Reilly said. "She was satisfied with the little she had, because it's about relationships ... Walking to the train station, I reflected on everything that's happened in my life, and everything I have in my life. And I started to let go." 

When her husband died in 2008 she considered moving back to her home state of Mississippi, but the women kept her strong, and in Boston.

"Because the women here are so resilient, the lens they gave me to look at even death with was profound," she said. "No matter how bad you think something is in your life, you walk into the shelter and multiply it by 150."

That's roughly the number of women who receive services through the Women's Lunch Place every year. Reilly not only manages the serving of more than 50,000 a meals a year, but launched an eight-month campaign to raise nearly $3 million for major renovations that were completed in September.

She joined the Women's Lunch Place as executive director in 2007, when the organization was looking to grow its donor base, increase fundraising efforts, and raise the profile of the day shelter. She received a bachelors in English from Rust College by her hometown, and a masters in Journalism from the University of Mississippi. She met her Springfield-born husband and moved to Boston in 2003.

"We're getting to a place where we can do program evaluation," Reilly said.

The new digs have brought a level of unprecedented dignity to many of the women.

"When they walk in, they don't feel like homeless women," said Donna "Diamond" O'Connell, who has been going to the shelter for years. "It's making them feel like someone cares."

Located in the basement of the Church of the Covenant on Arlington Street, the renovation includes more natural light, more basics like washing machines dryers, computers, and simple but important changes - like adding a welcome center and a medical suite where women can talk about their health in private instead of in the middle of the dining room.

While meals provide the foundation of the Women's Lunch Place, it's really about building a community that often lead to deep friendships, Reilly said. The women enter feeling hungry, in need of a shower or clean clothes, and tired from sleeping on the street the night before. They leave having eaten breakfast or lunch - with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, yogurt and milk. They leave having showered and done laundry, taken a nap, and perhaps participated in a yoga or art class, or used the resource center to apply for a job or prepare for an interview.

"Food is important to us," Reilly said when she was recognized by Hood Milk's "Make a Difference, Taste a Difference" program in May. “Women come for that, and use the other services."

In today's economy, Reilly said she's also seen more "working poor" professionals - teachers and artists, doctors and lawyers - who will come in for lunch and go back to their jobs, or use the free services to offset other costs, like housing.

"These are people who were living very productive lives, and something happened and their lives started to unravel," Reilly said.

Growing up on a farm, she's no stranger to pushing to get ahead.

"My parents were share croppers," Reilly said. "My relationship with the land has really been influenced by that negative political system."

In fourth or fifth grade, she refused to be taken out of school to pick cotton and molasses, or tend to the hogs and chickens. 

"It was during that time period I decided I wanted to do something different with my life," she said. "I wanted to stay in school, so I started hiding so my father couldn't find me."

She also began playing the trumpet and focused on her studies, and finished high school with both a music and academic college scholarship.

Her three grown children are spread across Mississippi, Colorado and Tennessee, and when her husband passed she considered moving away.

"When he died I thought, 'do I stay here?'" she said. "And it's been my work at the Women's Lunch Place that's kept me here."

The women there have given her strength, and renewed perspective on life.

"Because the women here are so resilient, the lens they gave me to look at even death with was profound," she said. "No matter how bad you think something is in your life, you walk into the shelter and multiply it by 150."

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