Home for those without

Recovery: Farm provides haven for the rural homeless and for others in need. Those in need find a haven at farm

February 22, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

EARLEVILLE -- Past Hack's Point General Store, past the cornfields shrouded in snow, past the shiny new homes in "exclusive estates," the homeless come home to Clairvaux Farm.

Some catch a ride. Some are dropped off. Some find their way back to nearby Elkton after just a short time. And some never leave.

They come to this Cecil County farm from as far as Baltimore and Easton -- each about 50 miles to the south -- to a place that looks more like the embodiment of the American dream than a symbol of its loss.

The farm has a brightly painted school bus stop, festooned with the handprints of children. It has a big friendly dog named Jake roaming 20 acres, and a fenced-in sheep and goat. It has a yellow farmhouse, a spruced-up family dormitory from which parents can watch their children climb on playground equipment and laze on a tire swing.

But this isn't heaven. For the 35 people who can call Clairvaux home at any one time, it's the best alternative to the hidden world of rural homelessness, where the displaced hop from family to family, or live under bridges or deep in the trees.

Run by a nonprofit organization called Meeting Ground, Clairvaux advertises itself not as a shelter, but as a community where everyone, homeless person or volunteer, has the same rights and responsibilities.

"The farm is what you make it," says Jerry Graybill, an off-and-on resident for the past six years. "Three-quarters of what you do here, you do yourself."

Cooking, eating and growing herbs side by side, the people are as different from each other as Graybill, 65, a wizened veteran of the place who is here because of health problems, and Rebecca Munch, 28, a mother of two who arrived on Christmas Eve and is stunned to find herself in need.

After the first month, those who have income -- from a pension or a job -- are asked to contribute up to $100 a month in rent and to pay a portion of expenses for food. Everyone who is able-bodied is expected to work around the farm. Drinking is forbidden. Residents are instructed to answer the phone with a simple "Hello," in case neighbors don't want anyone to know where they are.

At one end of the farm lies the grave of Precious, a much-loved mutt who wandered here a few years ago and died this past Christmas Day.

She is buried next to the cremated remains of Mel Woolsey, a resident who adopted her in his last months of life.

"It's more of a sanctuary," Munch says, sketching a bucolic farm scene during Clairvaux's weekly art class.

"When I was a kid, my school bus used to come by here and believe me, I never thought I'd be here," she says. "But I came to a good place. Thank God for me."

Preacher had a vision

Carl Mazza, a Presbyterian minister, started Meeting Ground in 1981 with his wife, Marsha.

As a boy, Mazza was shuttled from home to home, and the experience had pointed the way to a life's work.

Moving to Cecil County from Massachusetts, he noticed a story in the local newspaper about people who lacked shelter.

It seemed like a sign that he was in the right place.

First, the Mazzas bought an old Victorian in Elkton with room for 15 women and children and named it the Wayfarers' House. The next year, an old farm off Cherry Grove Road went on the market. With a loan from New Castle Presbytery, which has been repaid, the Mazzas pounced. They called it Clairvaux for St. Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the spiritual ancestors of St. Francis of Assisi, champion of the poor. And because it seemed to live up to its meaning in English -- "bright valley."

Together, the two shelters formed a nonprofit organization, Meeting Ground. Next month, it will expand to a seven-bedroom Elkton duplex, designed for longer-term living.

In the northeast corner of Maryland, the shelters are among the few refuges for the homeless for miles. Emergency housing is scarce on the Upper Eastern Shore. To the west, Harford County has limited emergency housing.

Cecil County has one other 16-bed shelter for men, and a domestic violence shelter.

"Cecil County's ability to deliver services to homeless people would be seriously diminished without" Meeting Ground, says Margaret Diem, human services coordinator for the Cecil County Department of Social Services.

Over the years, the farm's setting and community philosophy have attracted a number of college volunteer "work" groups, who fill Clairvaux with activity every spring and summer. Eleven of the farm's 12 buildings have been built by homeless people and volunteers.

Leo Aman, Roman Catholic chaplain for the campus ministry for Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y., first went to Clairvaux six years ago. It was by chance. The work group of students Aman was leading was supposed to go to a college work farm in West Virginia, but applied too late.

That was in 1995, and the Nazareth College group has returned to Clairvaux every year since -- painting buildings, putting up steps and fences, making tables for the dining room.

Everyone helps

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