Inaugural gala hopes to add luster

By Christine Bordelon

At her desk is a sign, “God is good all the time.”

And, Kenitha Grooms-Williams, executive director at Lantern Light, truly believes it.

On a recent day, a guest who had previously moved from Mississippi needed to verify an address to activate his debit card earned at a good-paying job. Only problem was he was temporarily homeless, and Grooms-Williams had to document his address at Lantern Light in order for him to use the money on the card. She quickly remedied the situation for him.

“I’m not from here,” he said. “I am a country boy, and this (Lantern Light) is a good place.”

Lantern Light, a homeless ministry begun in 2005 at St. Joseph Church on Tulane Avenue in New Orleans by the Presentation Sisters, will host its first gala “Strolling Through New Orleans,” June 8 from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Alexander Room, 3200 Ridgelake Drive in Metairie. A live band with appearances by Chuck Stiebing, singer Sharon Martin and trumpeter/vocalist James Andrews will be featured along with local cuisine and a raffle. General admission is $100.

Proceeds will preserve existing Lantern Light programs such as helping clients acquire birth certificates (which are needed for housing programs, the Office of Motor Vehicles and Veterans programs) and providing art supplies for arts classes and staples (rice, peanut butter, potatoes, eggs) for food distribution, Grooms-Williams said.

Lay board now runs

Though the sisters turned over control of Lantern Light to a lay board in 2015, the mission of the nonprofit continues: “Providing a place of peace, support and encouragement to the working poor and homeless in downtown New Orleans, as they rebuild their lives.”

Grooms-Williams, who advanced from a volunteer social worker in 2009 to executive director armed with a master’s in social work, first discovered Lantern Light as a St. Peter Claver parishioner. Presentation Sisters Vera Butler and Enid Storey had visited her parish to explain their mission to gain the parish’s annual Christmas donation.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this was something I wanted to learn about,’” said Grooms-Williams, who had 10 years’ experience in advertising and marketing. Having been raised service-minded, she quickly volunteered. (She had previously volunteered at the Ozanam Inn and the Brantley Center homeless ministries in New Orleans and the Salvation Army in Texas.) 

More than just lunch

Grooms-Williams said the Lantern Light ministries partner with other local organizations as part of the Rebuild Center, a multi-service recovery center.

The one service that people most associate the Lantern Light Ministry with is its daily lunch and morning snacks.

“People know that if you don’t have anything to eat, you can come here and get a meal,” she said.

That service has realized a huge increase in participants from 80 to 200 snacks each day since 2012 to a total of 39,000 morning snacks in 2017. The lunch program has served more than 51,000 meals.

But, there are several other services important to the homeless that Lantern Light provides. Lantern Light assists in obtaining identification, birth certificates, employment (including its new component the “Black and White” of accepting donations of new or slightly worn dress white shirts and dress black pants for men and women of all sizes), case management, emergency financial assistance, notary services, prescriptions and Medicaid and immigration appointments.

It also serves as a place to receive mail and discover arts and crafts talents (with art instructors Gaylyn Lambert, Becky Brocato and others) and food distributions, including fresh produce from local Rouses and Whole Foods, from Second Harvest Food Bank on Thursdays and Fridays. Food also is delivered to the disabled living at nearby Rosa F. Keller building.

Long-time guest Jimmie Cummings utilizes the food bank, showers and telephones and has asked for housing with handicapped access.

“It’s helped me a lot,” he said. “I come here and get my groceries. They are wonderful. If it wasn’t for them, a lot of us wouldn’t have anything. They feed you, too. I love Miss Williams. They take care of us. I don’t know what I would do without them.” 

“The services they have here for people” is why Catholic volunteer Gertrude Ivory of St. Joseph Church helps out on Thursday. “The spirit of this place, the atmosphere makes you proud to be a part of it,” she said. “It feels so good to help people.”

Former client Percy Winchester now works in the kitchen and was taking a break before the lunch rush. He has used the Rebuild Center for an address to pick up mail, has used the food bank, medical services, taken showers and eaten lunch. He regularly is seen talking to clients to lift their spirits.

“When I first came in 2013, they gave me the motivation to improve my condition,” he said. “They liked my personality and, when a position opened in the kitchen in 2017, they hired me. … I feel good because I am giving back. They helped me out, and now I am helping people who are less fortunate.”

‘STROLLING THROUGH NEW ORLEANS’ GALA

  • Supports Lantern Light, a homeless ministry begun in 2005 at St. Joseph Church, New Orleans.
  • Purchase tickets Monday through Friday from 8 a.m.-2 p.m. at Lantern Light at the Rebuild Center, 1803 Gravier St., New Orleans, or through Eventbrite.com.
  • For more information, call 273-5573 or email Kenitha Grooms-Williams at kagwilliams@lanternlight.org.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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