BENTON HARBOR — The new executive director of Emergency Shelter Services of Berrien County says having a reliable group of people behind you is more than half the task of leading an organization.
“I feel like I’ve been brought into a functional amazing team,” Julee Laurent said. “I’m watching this group of people that work so amazingly with each other toward this goal of helping people. I think that’s been the most beautiful and overwhelming thing about this first few weeks here at ESS. They’re all pulling the cart the same way and have been doing it thanklessly for a really long time.”
Laurent, a St. Joseph resident, started last week in the position after four years with United Way of Southwest Michigan.
Emergency Shelter Services (ESS), based in Benton Harbor, is a nonprofit organization that services the homeless and those experiencing housing instability in Berrien County.
Laurent said it was mostly her experience at her business, Think Tank Media, that prepared her for this venture. She would contract with local nonprofits to do their marketing, fundraising or whatever they needed done.
Laurent, who is also the singer-bassist for the Michigan City Vandals and a children’s book author, said she got to work with and know every charity and nonprofit organization in Southwest Michigan.
“I was very lucky I got to get in there and learn the full scope of a lot of these groups,” she said. “I was exposed to a lot of different avenues for fundraising and grant writing and PR and marketing, and that was a very valuable time for me and my clients.”
Herald-Palladium Staff Writer Alexandra Newman sat down with Laurent recently to learn about ESS and what she envisions for the future of the organization.
Why the move to Emergency Shelter Services?
One of my clients at Think Tank Media was Emergency Shelter Services. I had helped them with the marketing and PR and awareness for the resale store, which is now called the ESS Resale Store, which is on Main Street in Benton Harbor.
Back then, it was mind-blowing to me how important the organization is. One-hundred percent of everything that is sold in that store goes to help the homeless population in Berrien County. Shopping there and donating your goods helps the homeless.
When this job became available, being at United Way I heard of it early, I decided to apply. In fact, some of the higher ups at United Way encouraged me to apply. They empowered me as a person and believed that I could do this job.
I also wanted to expand what I do a bit more and use that skillset that I had built back at Think Tank Media that I wasn’t accessing. Being back here at ESS I get to use all of the skills that I’ve built up over the past 20 years in the nonprofit world.
What pushes you to be involved in the nonprofit world?
If you’re going to spend your work life and your professional hours doing something, it’s very important for me to walk away from my desk and know that I did something fulfilling, that I did something important, that I helped impact people.
The homeless population in this area is larger than I knew, but the resources are vast. We have corporations, individuals, churches and service groups who all want to help. So, for me, there is so much positivity and so much that can be done to help the people that are experiencing, or are close to, homelessness.
It’s not just the shelter, we have the resale store, which employs people and also gives items like clothing, pots and pans and furniture to people who finally move off the street into a home.
It’s also “The Connection,” which is very, very important. It’s when anybody can walk into our offices and say, “I need help.” They might be close to getting evicted, they might be on the verge of homelessness, or they might be choosing between their light bill and their food bill for the month. That’s where “The Connection” helps because we are really fortunate to be the recipient of many state and federal grants that help do this work.
We’re able to work with partner agencies to identify who needs help, but also just be there when someone comes into seek help and ask them what they need.
My office is right next to where people come in and I hear their struggles. I feel amazingly fortunate that I have the resources and am employed so that I am not dealing with those things every day. It’s heartbreaking to hear what people are dealing with, but it’s also uplifting knowing that we have the resources to fix it. That I get to be part of that work is phenomenal.
Can you talk a little bit more about what you do here at ESS?
So it’s “The Connection” with people, the ESS Resale Store and the shelter. We also go out to Niles every Wednesday and partner up with Ferry Street Resource Center to hear from people in the south county who are dealing with homelessness and need help.
Between north and south county we had at least 4,500 meetings with people in need last year. Sometimes you’ll meet with someone multiple times, so we served about 1,500 people last year. In one year, 1,500. We’re open five days a week. That’s a lot of need.
That’s not counting all the undocumented homeless. There are a lot of undocumented homeless people here that maybe are couch surfing or living with an aunt or relative or a friend and they’re still considered homeless. They don’t have a place they are calling home.
Each year we try to do a point in time count, but we haven’t even fully identified the scope of homelessness in Berrien County. We’ve identified some of it though and that team I have has been working so hard every day to end homelessness.
That’s the ultimate goal, but do you personally have any goals for your new position?
I really do, but I don’t really want to put them out there yet. When I was interviewed for this job they asked me what my goals were and I gave them some pretty lofty goals and the board of directors was like, “OK. Let’s do it.”
That’s another thing, we have a board of directors that’s in the trenches with us. They are present and I don’t think you could ask for a better board than that. That’s really exciting.
I assume you’re planning to stay for a while?
I never thought I’d leave United Way, because I was really happy there, but just in my heart I knew this would be the place I would go. I’m 51 years old and this will probably be my last job and I’ll work it until I retire.
Is there anything else you’d like to say or make sure that I include that I didn’t ask?
My family was really excited when I decided to make this move. For my husband, Matt, he’s very passionate about helping the homeless and he’s excited about jumping in. My daughter, who’s an eighth grader at Upton, wants to know what she can do. She’s really energized.
My son, who’s a senior at St. Joe High School, also dabbles in filmmaking and he’s like, I can’t wait to make videos for you. He would help me volunteer at the Soup Kitchen and things like that.
Just hearing the first thing they ask me be, “how can I contribute my talents?” “How can I help?” That’s just a good feeling as a mom. We’re going to give other moms that chance.
There are families here and kids here at the shelter. We have a Montessori school on site. Those things I’ve gotten to pass on to my children about caring for others, hard work and empathy, we’re now going to show that to people we serve at this house and the people we serve at “The Connection.”
We’re going to pass that empathy on to them so they can pass that on to their kids and in the grand scope of the world, that’s how the future gets better.
Contact: anewman@TheHP.com, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman