Mission Moment: Jessie’s House

Jessie’s House Gives Mother and Son a Place to Live—and Hope for the Future

Shannon Cavanaugh loved horses since she was a little girl. As an adult worked on horse farms. “I want to work with animals again,” she said. “They are usually a lot more understanding than people.”

Shannon grew up in South Hadley, then lived in Connecticut and in New York, but she returned to western Mass to escape domestic violence. “The father of my son was mentally abusive and always put me down,” Shannon recalled. “He hit me when I had Shawn in my belly, so I came back to this area and stayed with a friend. I was doing the best I could, but eventually things didn’t go well.”

With no family she could turn to, Shannon arrived with Shawn at a shelter in Holyoke. A staff member there discovered an open slot at Jessie’s House in Amherst.

“Jessie’s House is the cornerstone of CHD’s homeless services,” said Theresa Nicholson, Director of Jessie’s House. “When it opened in 1983, it was one of the first family shelters in Massachusetts. Today Jessie’s House serves and guides families struggling with homelessness by providing a safe place to call home while staff assists them in developing the skills needed to establish sustainable self-sufficiency. When families are able to move to permanent housing, the staff at Jessie’s House continues to provide outreach services to help families stay on the path to success.”

“We’ve been here for a year, which is longer than I thought,” Shannon admitted. “Fortunately, Shawn loves his school and he’s made a few friends. Parents go to the bus stop in the morning and sometimes the mothers talk. I met a lady from down the street who has been very nice to us. She’s given us rides home and even gave Shawn presents at Christmas.”

As Shannon works through possible solutions for housing and employment, CHD staff connects her with local resources. “Danielle Hartnet from CHD comes to see the families who live here every week,” Shannon said. “She meets privately with me and has been helping me with dental appointments and my mental health therapy. My therapist is someone I can talk to and trust. It helps me cope with my anxiety. We also go to Not Bread Alone to get a meal at least a couple times a week.” (Not Bread Alone, another program of CHD, provides freshly cooked meals to anyone who is hungry, three days a week, at First Congregational Church in Amherst. Coincidentally, it’s next door to Jessie’s House.)

CHD staff helps with job search, too. Shannon has been to horse farms in the area, but is still looking for a job opening. “I’d like to work in the barns, cleaning and caring for horses,” she explained. “I also can help at horse shows. I’ve been a groom for hunter/jumpers so I know how to make a horse feel relaxed and have a good appearance for the rider.”

Shannon knows how important education is for her future, and earlier this year she graduated from Holyoke Community College. Now she is applying to UMass Amherst, where she hopes to be accepted into the Horse Management program. “I took biology and veterinary medical terminology at HCC and I think I’d like to get into equine massage or physical therapy.”

How does Shannon feel about her experience with homelessness? “It makes you glad for what you have.  I’ve been here longer than I thought and it’s been really hard at times. I’ve learned that everybody’s background is different and people come from different areas and have their own life experiences. You shouldn’t judge. There are people who help to make things hopeful and show how you can make things better for yourself. The people from CHD connect you with resources, but then you have to go do the work yourself. I’ve gotten some things done. By fall hopefully Shawn will be back school, I’ll be taking classes at UMass for my bachelors, I’ll be at a job working with horses, and we’ll be living in an apartment. I still have a lot to do, but that’s the plan.”


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