In 2013, Cynthia Walton Frazier was rocking babies at Arkansas Children’s Hospital while fate was busy pulling together the right people to build something that would impact her, her family, another one across town and homelessness in central Arkansas forever.
“Every week [at ACH], I was waiting on DHS to come pick up a baby. I just thought, there's such a need here. I had been talking to my husband about being a foster parent. I had called DHS, but we hadn't pulled the trigger,” she says.
At home, Walton Frazier, an attorney, and her husband, UAMS hand surgeon Dr. G. Thomas Frazier, had six children, the youngest were tweenaged twin girls.
“A friend of mine was chaperoning a Holy Souls cleanup day at the Abba House, a Catholic homeless shelter, and one of the sisters said, ‘I've got this new mom upstairs who's really struggling, and I need some help,’” Walton Frazier says. The new mom had twins – two healthy newborns – and was overwhelmed.
“It's hard enough when you have one child, but trying to put two babies in a stroller, I can't imagine if you don't have a car and you've got to get on the bus.”
The twins were the birth mom’s fourth and fifth children. She had lost custody of the first three, but wanted to keep the twins, even without a job, house or family in the area.
“So [my friend] said, ‘I have a friend …’” Walton Frazier says with a smile.
“My friend called me and said, ‘Would you be willing to help mentor this woman?’ … Of course, we fell in love. They were precious.”
The next Monday morning Walton Frazier gathered the mom and the twins in her car, got them established with a pediatrician and registered for public assistance.
A couple of days after that first meeting, a sister from the Abba House called and asked Walton Frazer for more. The mom was ill and needed someone to take the babies for a few days.
“She handed me these two kids and we went and got diapers and wipes and just figured it out. I think we kept them for three or four days that first time,” Walton Frazier says.
“My kids were all into babysitting. We'd call her and say, ‘Hey, can we help you run some errands?’ We always took her to get some food and then we would say, ‘Why don't we keep the babies for a couple of days?’ We gave her an opportunity to go look for a job and just have some time.”
The clock was ticking at Abba House, a small, short-term option for homeless mothers looking for more permanent housing, so Walton Frazier talked to her friends, and that’s when Our House was suggested.
“I had never heard of Our House,” Walton Frazier says.
Nonprofit Our House’s mission is to empower homeless and near-homeless families and individuals. It helps clients succeed in the workforce, in school and in life through hard work, wise decision-making and active participation in the community. With longer-term housing and programs available like childcare, the mom would be given the best opportunities to take care of her children on her own.
“The thing that really makes [Our House] stand apart from other places is it's not a place for you just to hang your hat," Walton Frazier says. "You have to commit to getting yourself out of homelessness.”
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
“Cynthia is the rare person who is really smart, has a big heart and is always willing to pitch in and help in whatever way is needed,” says Ben Goodwin, Our House’s executive director.
“She understands Our House's work at a deep level, having been personally involved in one of our client families' lives … and she has been a great ambassador, sharing our story with all kinds of people in her network and beyond.”
Walton Frazier and friends chaired the 2018 Home for the Holidays fundraising event, and it is common for her to amass a group from Bible study or her neighborhood for various wish list and volunteer opportunities. She joined the board in 2020, the executive committee in 2021, currently serves as the vice president, is slated to become the next president and recently agreed to chair the capital campaign that will change the trajectory of the organization.
“It's just a remarkable facility,” Walton Frazier says. "Come take a tour. I promise you, you will be going home, calling your neighbors saying, ‘I just found the most incredible place that I had no idea existed in Little Rock.’”
The twins’ birth mom first lived in the gymnasium housing women and children on one side and men on the other.
“There's 40 something of them living in a room together, and you have to do that for the first 30 days,” Walton Frazier says.
Getting space in the shelter is hard because beds are limited, but counselors constantly help clients find other housing. After the requisite 30 days, pending availability, clients can move to the more private family group housing on campus and must follow the program’s rules like drug testing, paying rent and doing chores.
“You have to be out of there every day by a certain time. … you can't just hang out,” Walton Frazier says. “You have to show that you've looked for a job, and then once you've gotten your job, you have to turn over a certain portion of your paycheck to your savings account.
“All the while you're getting mental health services, career services, bus passes … they have tons of companies they work with that offer jobs to people who are homeless.”
Our House helped the twins’ mom find work and the children were enrolled in Little Learners, an accredited child development center serving ages 6 weeks to 5 years old. She worked Our House’s program for a while, until she met a man and moved to a house off campus.
Using vouchers, the babies stayed enrolled in Little Learners and Walton Frazier’s family helped by dropping off food and babysitting.
Over time, however, the mother's situation worsened. She became pregnant again, the house had a rodent problem and their water got shut off.
It was just before Thanksgiving when the two women faced a new plan: The twins would stay with Walton Frazier until New Year's so mom could get back on her feet.
“She was in way over her head,” Walton Frazier says. “She ends up back at Our House and the whole time the babies were going to Little Learners. I'm taking them down there to school and picking them up” so the birth mom could have access to the twins whenever she wanted.
Even still, the twins’ six-week stay turned into five years.
PLANS TO EXPAND
Our House meets the needs of entire families and has built an effective pathway out of homelessness for hundreds each year, but in order to best serve the community, the organization has developed a $16 million plan maximizing the scope and scale of services it provides on its 7-acre campus by fall of 2023.
In 17 years, housing capacity at Our House has not changed, though homelessness in central Arkansas continues to grow. Children’s programs like Our Club – where K-12th graders are provided a safe, consistent and comfortable place to learn – and Little Learners have waiting lists of up to 200-plus.
The Career Center served more than 1,600 unique people in 2021. Anyone can use this free program helping find full-time employment through education, training, referrals and case management.
“You don't have to be a resident to use that,” Walton Frazier says. “It's got a great program for felons [for whom] it's very hard to get a job. … If you have a court hearing or warrant or something like that, we can navigate the court system for you.”
Through partnerships with ACH and ARCare, the organization provides free, on-site care for children and adults, and with appropriate space, these services could grow and expand along with mental health services.
“In 2021, the mental health team served over 400 clients, including 198 children,” Goodwin says. “With this expansion, we will be able to increase our daily clients served by at least 50%.”
Our House’s leadership has decades of combined experience, with a 24-member board (always including one former resident) and is 100% committed to this project.
To date, the organization has raised $12.8 million from individuals, corporations and foundations.
“We also were able to secure and close on a New Markets Tax Credit deal, with help from Arkansas Capital Corporation and First Horizon, that helped us net approximately $2 million toward the project,” Goodwin says. Our House is “a one-of-a-kind expression of the best this community has to offer, and a great example of what is possible when people from all different walks of life come together.”
“I saw so many families coming in that were struggling at the beginning. Mom looked rough; kids looked rough. You fast-forward six, eight months later, and you see these families where mom looks great. She's got a job. She's got pride. She's happy and the kids look better. They're learning. They have therapy,” Walton Frazier says.
“And I get to witness all of that.”
Our House Expansion Plan:
• 8,000-square-foot, apartment-style family housing addition, more than doubling the current capacity
• 5,800-square-foot expansion of the Little Learners early childhood center, a 100% capacity increase
• 4,500-square-foot expansion of the Our Club "out-of-school-time" program space for grades K-12, a nearly 100% capacity increase
• 4,200-square-foot addition specifically for physical and mental health services
• 4,800-square-foot expansion for the career center, case managers and support staff
• Upgrades to parking, a new entrance, covered walkways and outdoor seating
HAIR & MAKEUP
For more information on the expansion campaign or wish list items for the shelter and its programs, visit ourhouseshelter.org.