All photos by Nina Lea Photography
Poverty and homelessness might seem nonexistent on the Main Line, but like any community, it’s there. Poverty doesn’t discriminate based on age, race or gender, and one particular group—women between the ages of 55 and 62—has found itself adversely affected. Exton nonprofit Home of the Sparrow is making strides to rectify that through the opening of its new home, the Catherine Twomey House in Coatesville. To commemorate the five-apartment house, the organization held a ribbon cutting on Sept. 17.
At the ceremony, volunteers and supporters of the program gathered on the sun-dappled lawn to officially open the house, which serves women who fall through the gaps and struggle to find appropriate shelter and support. Among those present were Home of the Sparrow CEO Pat McLennan and house donor Patricia Walsh.
Walsh, who has volunteered at other area nonprofits, began volunteering with Home of the Sparrow three years ago, preparing a dinner every other week. Still, she wanted to make a bigger impact so she and her husband made the decision to donate a house to a worthy cause. “I’ve always wanted to give in a big way,” she says. “I liked what I saw, the mission, and I started to think maybe this is the time I can do more.”
Before major changes could take place, they had to decide whom the house would support and they collectively agreed on the audience. Home of the Sparrow was founded in 1994 with the goal of helping women of all ages, and this year the organization took a major step toward helping women 55 to 62, who have seen an increased need for emergency shelter in Chester County. Since its inception, Home of the Sparrow has helped around 3,000 women and children through its various programing and saw this as the next logical step. “That’s a group that’s falling between the cracks,” says Matrie Johnson, Home of the Sparrow’s director of programs.Conferring with the organization, Walsh made her offer. “They were willing to take this on, and not everyone wants that,” she says. The offer came as a shock to the staff, particularly to McLennan, who has plans to retire in January. In June 2015, Walsh settled and the project began.
“Once you get to a certain age, we think women should have made it. You should have your savings, be married, have children. That’s not the reality anymore,” adds Johnson. “With the last economic downturn, things changed. We’re seeing more and more single women who do not have all those other supports and Chester County is so unique. We really see it here because the cost of living is so high.”
Wanting to encourage independent living, Home of the Sparrow’s board, along with Walsh, decided it was best to have individual apartments. “We started talking about communal living, but everyone grew to understand better that communal living doesn’t really create a self-sufficient future for someone,” says Home of the Sparrow’s development associate Christina Vaganos. “This will really give women independence and help them be able to prepare better for the future.”
Inside, the three-story home is divided into five apartments—two on the first and second floors, and one of the third. The center of the home, where the stairs ascend, has been turned into comfy communal spaces, furnished with oversized chairs or couches. “I wanted to make sure they weren’t isolated. It’s great to have your own apartment, but you don’t want to be confined or feel lost,” says Walsh, who had a distinct vision for the home.
In addition to the interior shared spaces, the front porch was completely redone and now includes rockers and flowers for a welcoming atmosphere that can easily be shared. The communal spaces, from the large front door to interior accent walls, boast a cheery red, which Walsh selected for its welcoming property. The rest of the house has an airy, modern feel and each apartment has its own unique vibe. Some have sleek tile and granite aesthetics, while others have exposed brick walls and ceiling beams for a cozy, rustic feel.
Beyond carefully decorating and bringing the house up to date, Walsh wanted to include extra meaning, which comes in the form of the house’s namesake. The home carries the name of Catherine Twomey, Walsh’s husband’s aunt. Twomey was a World War II nurse who eventually segued into public health. “She was a single woman that people can aspire to. She made her own way in the world,” says Walsh. “She was probably the finest woman I’ve ever known. She spent her life in public service. I thought she was just such a proud, strong caring woman and that she would be a beneficent angel overlooking this project.” Her presence can be felt not just in the comforting home Walsh helped create, but in the sign on the spacious front line, in the etching above the entryway and in the first floor foyer, where her portrait hangs, a reminder to all who enter.“I really wanted it to be homey. I wanted the women to know that there were people that really cared, that it’s not an institution. It was very important to me to aesthetically create the place,” says Walsh, who handpicked paint and furnishings to achieve that atmosphere.
Like its namesake, finding the perfect house was serendipitous. Walsh’s property manager—a Coatesville native—included it in his first search. “It was exactly what I had in mind—it had the front lawn. I was thinking of the house in the country, but this was even better, because [the women] need transportation. It was just everything I thought of.” While the location and structure were perfect, the house, originally built in 1919, was in need of serious repairs that ultimately forced them to do a complete renovation down to the studs. Through hard work and many volunteers, they fully transformed the home.
Coatesville proved the perfect location since it has easy access and transportation. The Catherine Twomey House is situated on Lincoln Highway, the main road running through the heart of Coatesville. Surrounding the house is a cluster of friendly neighborhoods and stores, and public transportation is within walking distance. “Coatesville is very underrated. It’s the only city in Chester County, but it’s a city that is very vibrant and growing, but people don’t know that,” says Johnson.
In the weeks following the ribbon cutting ceremony, tenants will be able to move in. Most are referred to the organization and must undergo an application process, which includes meeting with a member of Home of the Sparrow. Applicants must meet not only the age requirement but must also have a job, even if it’s part time. “This is truly a bridge,” says Johnson, who expects tenants to remain for a while before getting back on their feet. “The wait for affordable housing is easily a year. Most of the time it’s closer to two years,” she adds.
To help with that process, tenants will meet with a social worker on a regular basis to help with life skills, budgeting and learning about what options and benefits are or will be available to them, whether that’s senior housing, finding their own apartment or learning about government benefits. “We’re a support system. We don’t like to look at it as ‘case management.’ We’re partners in your life,” says Johnson.
The house is a significant and meaningful step towards providing housing for an underserved community. On the sunny Saturday afternoon, as Walsh cut the red ribbon strung across the porch, benevolence was evident everywhere. “It will just give me a warm feeling every night to think [the women are] in a space I created that I thought was beautiful,” says Walsh. “Hopefully they feel safe and peaceful. I think peace and beauty are connected. I hope that I’ve done that and finally I will have done something that’s real.”
For the soon to be tenants of the Catherine Twomey House, there is no question that all that work and generosity from Walsh, the volunteers and Home of the Sparrow is unquestionably real.