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Urban Mission seeks $2 million for Critical Needs

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This is the first of six stories that will appear over the next several months on the Mission Possible campaign.



By REBECCA MADDEN

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anthony L. Morse is one reason the Watertown Urban Mission is in the midst of a $2 million “Mission Possible” capital campaign.

For more than 40 years, the agency has helped people like the 53-year-old city resident get back on their feet through its Critical Needs program. Now the nonprofit group needs to renovate its 247 Factory St. location and create an endowment to help pay for programs for years to come.

In 2004, the mission moved from its offices on Franklin Street into the former Halley Electric Co. building, and a year later bought it for $350,000. Many sections have deteriorated, including its Critical Needs department, where people go for immediate basic assistance. That section lacks privacy, as passersby can see who is receiving help, and its storage cabinets of emergency supplies are not adjacent to the Critical Needs help desk.

Mr. Morse said he wanted to share his story to help the mission raise more money to support its programs and to bring awareness that tragedy really can turn into triumph.

He said he began smoking marijuana at 8 years old and shot speedballs by the time he was 11. After that, there was no drug of choice: Drugs were his choice, until he spent nearly 10 years in prison after he was caught manufacturing methamphetamine.

He lost his job, house, property and personal possessions. His marriage fell apart.

“I’d lost everything I had,” he said. “Because of my drug use, I made a lot of unworthy decisions, and it led to a lot of trouble. I was ashamed for the embarrassment it brought my family,” he said. “As I was losing things, I got really depressed. What changed was having that much time. I started reading the Bible and going to church. I use that as a guideline now.”

His prison sentence, he said, saved his life because it allowed him to reflect on where his life was then and where it was headed.

When he got out in October, with only a T-shirt, a pair of shorts, a gray mesh bag and a pair of sneakers, he had no money and little hope. Mr. Morse said he expected to fall back into his old ways, although he didn’t want to. His so-called friends, none of whom visited him in prison, were just buddies who used him to get high. It would have been the easy way out, he said, to go back to snorting, shooting and smoking drugs.

Now that he is in recovery, Mr. Morse said, he wondered whether people would “not want to help the addict.”

A friend first referred him to the Northern Regional Center for Independent Living, where he received some assistance. He then was referred to the mission’s Critical Needs program for basic necessities.

Working with Critical Needs coordinator Joanna J. Fassett was “like a blind adventure,” he said.

“It went through my mind of, ‘They’re not going to help me,’” he said. “I was really apprehensive. Her personality relaxed me. I opened up, she listened and, out of the blue, she made things happen.”

Within an hour he went from having nothing to receiving a voucher to get clothes at the mission’s Impossible Dream thrift shop and food from its food pantry. A couple of weeks later, he received a new box spring and mattress set from the program.

Critical Needs also provided Mr. Morse with money for his security deposit for an apartment in the city.

“The willingness to help people in my position is incredible,” he said, regarding Miss Fassett and other mission staff members. “It’s really lifted my spirits like you wouldn’t believe. It’s like someone putting their arms around you and giving you a big hug when you need it.”

He said that made him feel like a human again rather than just a prison number, 12177052, which was what he was called for nearly a decade.

Miss Fassett said the Critical Needs program always seeks to identify new needs in the community and approaches to solving them. She likened the program to an emergency room triage, where many people of different backgrounds come for help in times of need.

The program, which is the first the mission offered when it was established 45 years ago, helps provide clothing, household items, rental assistance, infant needs, transportation vouchers and prescription cost assistance, among other items.

Miss Fassett said there is no typical client as she described them as single fathers or mothers, large families, young mothers, people with full-time jobs, people on disability or someone recently released from incarceration or rehabilitation.

Critical Needs receives no government assistance and is funded by donations from churches, businesses and Jefferson County residents. In 2012, the program represented $144,036, or 10.4 percent, of the mission’s 2012 budget of about $1.5 million. That small pot of money helped serve people more than 12,000 times in Critical Needs.

Contributions to the agency’s capital campaign will ensure the program is around for more years, helping more people, according to Development Director Andrew G. Mangione. Thus far, $1,261,000 of the $2 million goal has been raised.

“The generosity of this community is truly remarkable,” Mr. Mangione said. “Although we have a long way to go, we’re very confident and thankful the community will support this important project.”

Mr. Morse said he’d encourage people to donate because the program changed his life and he would like to see others’ lives changed, too. He’s now in an apartment, has a part-time job and has been clean for 10 years.

To contribute to the campaign, drop cash or a check payable to Watertown Urban Mission with “capital campaign” written in the memo line to the Watertown Urban Mission, 247 Factory St., Watertown, NY 13601. People also may donate online via the mission’s website, www.watertownurbanmission.com.

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