The residents at Villa St. Maurice in the Lower 9th Ward consider each other family.
It isn’t unusual for those who drive to take fellow residents to the doctor or grocery or send a card if someone is ill or celebrating a birthday. That’s just what they do out of care and concern.
“I’ve found that Villa St. Maurice really has a sense of community,” Christopher Homes’ property director Malicia Burns Gamble said. “They get along, are close-knit and help each other.”
Since Christopher Homes of the Archdiocese of New Orleans reopened Villa St. Maurice for independent seniors in September 2016 – 11 years after Hurricane Katrina – residents have made it a comfortable place to live.
Meeting the needs
Resident Gussie Celestine, who moved in when it reopened in 2016, brought with her the passion for helping others and opened a thrift store on-site for residents and visitors. It is located on a third floor in the former computer room that was relocated elsewhere.
“A lot of us here didn’t have a lot and would have to go to the thrift store, but that was inconvenient,” Celestine said. “Now, you can go upstairs instead of out of the building.”
The thrift store is open Tuesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m-2 p.m. It’s stocked with casual and dressy clothing for men and women, shoes, socks, toiletries, soap, body lotion, candles, jewelry, handbags, blankets, books, knick-knacks, utensils, small appliances, dishes and new boxes for jewelry or mail, all contributed by residents or friends and family.
Celestine said she divided the store so things are easy to find. One one side of the room there is women’s clothing in sizes 6-12; on the other sizes 14-28. Men’s clothing, including suits and dressy shoes, is situated on the back wall.
“And if you need not only shoes and a shirt, your tie is here also,” Celestine said.
Celestine, with the help of resident Sherine Stelly, works hard to make the thrift store work for residents.
“I came in October ready to work,” Stelly, a former teacher and substitute, said. “I didn’t think I would be doing all that I am doing, but I am willing to do whatever to make others happy.”
Celestine, a former nurse assistant, says everyone pitches in to make residents whole. She washes all donated clothes and irons them, if necessary.
“I’m up here just about every day,” Celestine said. “I don’t want you to come in and say, ‘I already saw this on Friday.’ You are looking at something different on Tuesday.”
Can’t beat the prices!
The prices of the items sold are attractive to everyone as well, ranging mostly from $1 to $5. She even has a jar of candy for the taking.
“They love the place and the clothes and the price of the clothes,” she said. “Everyone can come here and go out with something. It’s affordable for everyone.”
Celestine says she gets requests for needed items, and she will barter with a friend who has a thrift store to get what she needs or even exchange what doesn’t sell for new items to make merchandise fresh. She also puts out requests to her list of donors.
Before moving in, Celestine said she used to hang clothes on racks outside of her home and give them to the needy. She brought the racks with her to Villa St. Maurice.
“I’ve always had a love for this. I like dressing people, so the thrift store was a logical extension of that.
“We all want to find a way to give back to the people who give to us and to be able to help ourselves also,” Celestine said. “We all want to help the people that need to be helped. Some of us have a surplus and we give all the time. Some of us don’t have anything.”
She gets pleasure from giving.
“There’s a joy from seeing people happy,” she said, mentioning how she recently gave a decorative bowl to someone who was in need.
Other Christopher Homes’ properties such as Wynhoven and St. Martin Manor also have thrift stores run by residents. Proceeds from the gift shop go to a residents’ activity fund for holiday parties, Burns Gamble said.
Prepare meals for others
The caring spirit at Villa St. Maurice can also be seen in the dining hall kitchen. That’s where a half-dozen residents – who dubbed themselves “One Man and the Golden Girls” – can be found several days a week offering a free meal to other residents.
“Whatever we have, we make a meal out of it,” said resident Patricia Tillman, a retired RTA bus drive who organizes the feeding ministry.
Once or twice a week, Tillman pools food from her ministry volunteers and plans a meal from whatever they have on hand to donate and then coordinates who cooks what in their apartment kitchen. They said they are cognizant of dietary restrictions of some residents who may have diabetes and/or heart conditions and don’t use a lot of salt or sugar in food.
“We try to cook things that can stretch (to feed a lot of people) so everyone can eat,” Tillman said.
Their repertoire has included red beans and rice, baked chicken, meatballs and spaghetti, gumbo and stewed turkey. Fried fish and fried chicken, the specialty of resident Bennett Morehead, are probably the most popular, the cooks said.
“And ghetto lasagna,” said Morehead, who also is known to regularly prep food for cooking.
“It depends on what we have,” volunteer Betty Red said, “or what Miss Pat thinks the people want.”
They are so close – even though some didn’t know each other until the fall of 2016 when they moved in, that they can joke with the other about their cooking talents.
“We don’t allow Elaine to cook,” joked Tillman as other chimed in, “but she eats the most!”
“But, she’s willing to get in the kitchen and help,” Burns Gamble said. She also mentioned how the ministry decorates seasonally.
Tillman estimated they feed approximately 60 of the 77 residents at Villa St. Maurice every time they cook.
Volunteers will also bring meals to those who don’t come down.
“And, if we don’t see them in a couple of days,we go check in on them,” resident Cecile La France said.
“I love living here,” Jones said. “It’s nice people who check up on you.”
“A lot of times, people don’t have family to look after them. We look after them. We are family here,” Tillman said.
“Anything that will put a smile on their face, we do it,” resident Mary Jones, who is known as the baker of the group, said.
The cooking ministry members and Celestine laud Christopher Homes and the staff at Villa St. Maurice for letting them feed and clothe the multitudes.
“They give us the freedom and the opportunity to do this,” Tillman said.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.