By Dorothy Bliskey
More people who are homeless and hungry will be able to seek shelter and receive nourishing food, thanks, in part, to the efforts of Letty Castillo. As coordinator of Beaver Dam’s New Beginnings Homeless Shelter and the Beaver Dam Community Food Pantry, she has worked with the community to get a second homeless shelter – this one for men — up and running before winter sets in.
Last winter’s death of a homeless man in Beaver Dam prompted Castillo and the Dodge County Community Action Council to open the second shelter.
“We don’t want to see anything like that happen – ever again,” Castillo said. “It was a wake-up call.”
Prior to opening the second shelter this fall, only one homeless shelter existed – and it was for single women and families. Homeless men received vouchers to stay at area hotels. But the plan wasn’t very reliable because stays were only good for just 1-2 days – compared to a stay of up to 30 days at the New Beginnings Shelter.
The newly opened shelter for men is located at 845 Madison Street. For women and families, the shelter is closer to downtown at 407 Beaver Street. Each shelter has a house manager who lives in the home and oversees the household. Many have been accustomed to having no rules and no place to bed down for the night. Here, residents have rules to follow like preparing their own meals, cleaning up after themselves, and keeping curfews set. There are even specific hours they are required to be OUT of the house to job-hunt during the week.
Castillo helps give them structure and purpose – and directs the smooth operation of the shelters. As the Dodge County Coordinator for the Central Wisconsin Community Action Council (CWCAC), she screens individuals who are coming into the shelters and works with getting them back into the workforce and out on their own.
“I connect them with government agencies that can give them temporary help to survive while they job hunt or go back to school. I connect them and others in-need with the food pantry which I also oversee.”
In fact, Castillo and her family members – along with other volunteers — stock the food pantry shelves as donations arrive and handle the dissemination of food on a regular basis.
Her role with the CWCAC began when she was hired as a case manager in 2001. “My main responsibilities then and now have involved getting help for struggling families or individuals in the area of rental assistance, food pantry needs and to help the homeless get back on their feet with job searches, jobs and finding housing.”
Castillo says she enjoys her role with the CWCAC because she loves to help people. “Helping them makes me feel happy,” she said.
She spends countless hours helping people in-need and knows where they are coming from because she has been on “their side of the fence.” At one point in her life, she witnessed first-hand what it was like to live a very meager lifestyle.
“When I was a young child, my family was doing well,” Castillo said. “My father had a good job in construction. But he got cancer, became disabled and eventually lost his job. By the time I was a teenager our family was struggling. “
“So, I have seen both worlds – I have sat on the other side of my desk, where my clients who need help now sit. I know what it’s like to have it all and then not to have it. Anything can change anyone’s life. A job loss, an accident, an illness or divorce. I often tell people I am on this side of the desk now, but it can change in a heartbeat.”
“We never know what tomorrow will bring,” Castillo continues. “Life can be like a barrel…you are at the top and then it rolls around and you’re at the bottom. It takes someone to help you push it and get it turned over again, but it can happen.”
“Our advice and referrals to helpful agencies can help turn it around. My passion for this type of job definitely comes from my past experience growing up.”
New Beginnings Homeless Shelters and the food pantry are overseen by a volunteer board of directors and the CWCAC. Castillo credits the combined efforts of the local churches, the Mayor’s office, St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Salvation Army and other local groups and agencies for joining forces with the CWCAC to quickly locate a shelter for homeless men.
Castillo’s supervisor is more than impressed with her work ethic and fit for the job. “Letty puts in way more time on the job than anyone realizes,” said Susan Tucker, a unit supervisor at CWCAC’s headquarters in Wisconsin Dells. “She’s there a lot more than she gets paid for – early in the morning, weekends and nights. She’s behind the scenes working with the homeless shelter, the transitional housing and the food pantry,” Tucker said, explaining that with Letty’s quiet input and assistance, Beaver Dam is a better community in which to live. “Due to the services Letty performs, there is less demand on the churches, the police and the emergency room.”
“She is a very tender-hearted person who treats each person that comes to her as an individual. She looks at their situation, their unique needs and what they bring to the table – and she doesn’t prejudge anyone.”
And, now we know why she cares so much. It’s because she’s walked in their shoes.
NOTE: The Beaver Dam Community Food Pantry is located at 134 S. Spring Street and is open on Tuesday and Thursday from 1:30-3:30p.m. It is operated by the CWCAC and overseen by the coordinator, Letty Castillo and volunteers. Donations to the food pantry are always welcome. For information on how to donate, call 885-9559. More information can be found online at www.cwcac.org.