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Archive for Wednesday, October 12, 1994

AGENCY TO MARK 25 YEARS OF CARING

October 12, 1994

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A house with humble roots celebrates its evolution in Lawrence.

Linda Lassen was an insecure, shy welfare mother raising two kids on her own when, in 1969, she first sought help from a new volunteer group helping the poor in East Lawrence.

"I didn't want to ask for things," she recalled today. "I didn't want everyone to know I was on welfare."

A quarter century later, Lassen is skilled at confronting people and asking for help. She's also still at Penn House, 1035 Pa., now as co-director of the organization that helped her take her shaky first steps toward independence.

Penn House, which distributes donated clothes, food, household goods and school supplies and arranges legal, medical, rent and utility assistance and counseling for low-income families, will hold a 25th anniversary celebration from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Thursday.

The open house will include refreshments, music and presentation of a video about the 9 1/2-hour construction in 1981 of the single-story tan house that Lassen says the organization is once again outgrowing.

Penn House was founded in 1969 with a $100,000 state grant funneled through the Kansas University department of human development, which for a time studied the Penn House volunteers and beneficiaries.

Today the organization survives on a $57,000 annual budget supplied by United Way of Douglas County. Three full-time employees and one part-timer work with volunteers to collect and distribute goods and arrange services for the city's poor.

Last year more than 6,000 people received help from Penn House, Lassen said.

Francene Criswell was one of them. She first came into Penn House about a year ago. She and her husband had just moved to the area from Arkansas in search of work.

"If it wasn't for Penn House I don't know where we'd be," Criswell said.

In addition to providing food and clothing, Penn House also helped with Criswell's prescription medicine bills. "They helped us all the way around," said Criswell, who is 36 and unable to work because of a medical condition.

Her husband now has a job and they're raising Criswell's niece and nephew, whose clothes come from Penn House.

"When they outgrow the clothes I return them, because someone else can use them," Criswell said.

"It's really easy to help somebody else when you've been in the same situation," Lassen said. "I've learned everything on the street, and evidently I've learned well. I think helping people is the most satisfying thing in the world."

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