What began as an effort to provide shoes to people in need has turned into part of a web of services for people who are homeless or living in poverty.
Dorothy Werst of Acton and her late husband Len started the Boston Share Network (BSN) in 2004. More than a decade later, it has evolved into a coalition of volunteers, shelters and agencies collaborating to evaluate and respond to the immediate needs of the homeless and poor by sharing resources and information among homeless shelters in the Boston area. Through its three main programs, BSN supports struggling individuals with housing, obtaining identification and transportation.
“We just feel we have learned so much and it has been such a blessing to us,” said Werst, whose husband died July 3, 2013.
The Wersts, natives of Pennsylvania, moved to Acton in 1962, where they raised their three sons. In 1970, Dorothy began teaching music at R.J. Grey Junior High School, where she worked for more than 12 years, and was also the director of music at St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church in Acton.
“We’ve very spiritual people and we really try to make a difference to help people,” she said.
The Wersts mission was inspired locally. In 2003, they found out about an Acton man who had a shoebox ministry. That Christmas, the couple helped with the ministry, filling shoeboxes with gloves, mittens, hats and scarves, then gift-wrapping the boxes before giving them out to homeless people in Boston. After that, they decided to gather shoes for the homeless.
“That’s how it started. When we decided on a name, BSN, the few of us that were together, they insisted it not only get things for the shelters, but we try to get the shelters working together because they hadn’t done that. That was not my original vision. It turned out to be the vision,” said Werst, who remembers BSN’s first official drive, which was to collect coats in the winter. “At first I was just going to get shoes for the homeless. It is amazing how it has evolved. It took a number of years to get the shelters working together, but now we work with nine shelters and we have such good relationships.”
Today, BSN offers financial assistance to those moving into permanent housing through its household moving assistance fund. It gives financial aid to those trying to acquire a Massachusetts-issued ID card through its “You Are Somebody” ID program.
The group seeks to fulfill the needs of Boston Rescue Mission, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, New England Center for Homeless Veterans, Rosie’s Place, St. Francis House, Starlight Ministries, Women’s Lunch Place, the Young Adult Resource Network of the Home for Little Wanderers and Youth on Fire.
“Rosie’s Place is redoing their shower rooms, so the women can’t go there to take showers for like six weeks. So other people said, ‘You can send them over to our shelter at such and such a time,’ so that’s the kind of sharing we have,” said Werst, noting the shelters share their donations and financial aid.
The household moving assistance fund began after BSN learned people who received their own housing were often sleeping on the floor because they had no furniture. BSN assists with moving costs for a person to visit a furniture bank, such as Acton’s Household Goods, where items in need are selected.
“South Acton Congregational Church is one of our supporters, and they’ve been giving us money at the end of each year for four years now. Acton Center Congregational has been giving us things from the thrift shop,” said Werst.
The ID fund was created when BSN volunteers discovered many people could not afford the $25 fee for a Massachusetts identification, which is required to get a job, sign a lease and cash a check. Werst said a significant portion of those who have been released from prison leave without identification, and she has been working with state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, since 2012 to change that. Over the last two years, Eldridge has advocated for the Department of Corrections, which oversees the state’s prisons, and the Registry of Motor Vehicles to work together to provide IDs to prisoners upon release.
“In my opinion, that’s a very inefficient system that actually encourages recidivism. If you’re not providing the tools for an ex-prisoner to find a job or get a better education, there’s a likelihood they’ll re-offend,” said Eldridge. “BSN is a special and unique nonprofit getting homeless individuals to a place where they’re more independent and join society, and that’s important for their social well-being and dignity, but it’s also something that helps the whole state because you’re saving money and you’re improving public safety.”
The BSN transportation fund assists with transportation costs for those with a new job, doctor’s appointment or family visit. In addition to these funds, BSN has offered items such as flash drives, ear buds, toiletries, clothing, shoes, CD players for art therapy, yarn and art supplies.
Werst said BSN has handed out more than 2,000 money orders to homeless shelters. On average, the volunteer-based nonprofit gives more than $60,000 in monetary donations annually to homeless shelters, not including tangible donations. BSN, with more than a dozen regular volunteers, has been struggling to meet its $100,000 target for this year.
“We just decided we’re just going to focus on the three funds. We will have drives, but we just can’t afford to buy all the other things. We can’t be everything to everyone, but we try to do what we can,” said Werst. “If anybody’s interested in working with us, we could always use more help.”
For information, to donate or to volunteer, visit bostonsharenetwork.com. Checks can be made out to Boston Share Network, 435 Central St., Acton, MA 01720, Attn. Dorothy Werst.