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West Gloucester, MA: Nancy Schwoyer

West Gloucester, MA: Nancy Schwoyer
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Nancy Schwoyer
Wellspring House
West Gloucester, Massachusetts

A chocolate-colored clapboard Garrison has been a landmark in West Gloucester, Massachusetts, for more than 350 years. It has welcomed many travelers and been home to several generations of families descended from freed slaves. So when seven friends bent on creating a communal household bought it in 1981, its walls welcomed them, as did its spirit.

Twenty-five years later, the well-loved and much-changed building, now called Wellspring House, is at the heart of a multifaceted enterprise in humanity and hospitality. “We started out with a vision of social transformation, of giving respite care to people who needed it,” explains executive director Nancy Schwoyer, one of the original group of seven. “Along the way, we listened to what people needed and everything grew from there.”

Early on, the friends opened their home to people in need: a single woman rendered homeless by a fire; a mother and her young son with multiple sclerosis; an itinerant fairground couple. By 1983, the people crossing the threshold and sitting down to dinner were largely single-parent families, driven to homelessness by the rising cost of housing. Wellspring became one of the first family shelters in the state. “But we quickly realized that shelters are dead ends, and so we began investing in solutions,” says Nancy.

The families needed “access to affordable, safe housing and education in order to get jobs that could pay the rent,” says Nancy. Wellspring still provides emergency shelter but has grown to include a dozen or so programs to help guide people through a web of resources so they can lift themselves out of poverty.

“This was our first housing property,” says Nancy, pulling her car alongside an apartment building a few blocks from Gloucester’s waterfront. Its tidy appearance resembles that of Wellspring’s 55 other housing units, the majority of which are incorporated in a community land trust to provide affordable homes for lower-income buyers. This year, Wellspring took its housing vision one step further with the opening of the first 24 units of an expected 124 apartments and condominiums. “Studio condos sell for about $150,000 — a price now unheard of on Cape Ann,” says Nancy.

A few miles away, she stops at the Wellspring Cape Ann Families center. Here, families get help and advice through parenting classes, mentorship, and support groups. Back at Wellspring headquarters, Nancy takes a visitor through the Veronese Community Education Resource Center, which offers classes and scholarships to women struggling to change their lives. A policy arm of the organization, Committee for a Just Society, tracks legislation related to affordable housing and encourages people affected by those laws to build relationships with lawmakers. “To see our women testify on the floor of the statehouse is wonderful,” says Nancy.

Nancy believes Wellspring has had success for several reasons. “We started with a vision, which we’ve continually practiced and revised through reflection. We realized the system was broken, so instead of staying trying to fix it, we created something that worked better.”

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