In 1969, Linda Lassen was a poor, single mother, a high-school dropout with two growing boys, who went looking for help.
She found it at Penn House, the emergency assistance charity at 1035 Pa., where she now is director.
A home, a beginning
Lassen started going to Penn House only months after the organization, now a Lawrence institution, opened its doors in an old, two-story house donated to the group by the Kansas University Endowment Association.
Within days of her first visit to Penn House, Lassen had enlisted as a volunteer, working several hours each day to help people in circumstances as difficult or worse than her own.
"I started out as a client," she said in a recent interview. "Then I started volunteering."
Lassen, 50, has grown up with and at Penn House. She eventually became a paid assistant director. Then about three years ago she became director.
Meanwhile, Penn House, which provides clothing, food, furniture and other assistance to the needy, got a new building, built in 1981 in one day by 500 community volunteers. The charity, which has an annual budget of about $63,000, is funded by the United Way and private donations.
Lassen still remembers her amazement the day so many volunteers put the building up so quickly.
"I kept thinking the wind was going to blow it down," she said. "But we're still here."
Lassen said Penn House rarely turns anyone away, and she and her staff do their best to provide a friendly, family-like environment, free of bureaucratic hassles and condescending attitudes toward the poor.
She knows first-hand what hard times are like.
"I never graduated from high school. But I don't think it was my downfall," she said. "I got a lot of street smarts. I think that's what it takes to help people these days. There's a lot of people out there like me when I started, not having anybody, living month-to-month.
"Penn House is my life," she said. "People come in and feel comfortable because we're not professionals all dressed up. We're just one of them who got a little further in life."
"She's very giving, very compassionate," said Loretta James, a childhood friend of Lassen and president of the Penn House board of directors. "She seems to always be able to find some way to help out someone else's problems. She gives new meaning to the word 'friend.' You don't find many like her."
Miles to go
Lassen said she has done every job at Penn House and still makes runs twice a week with her pickup to collect donations around town. That's something she'd rather not do, she said, because she doesn't have the strength to manhandle sofas and other large items. She would like to hire a part-time janitor who also could handle collections, but that would require a pickup truck for Penn House.
"What we need is a good used pickup," she said, "not one we have to work on constantly."
But that will have to wait until one is donated, "because we don't have the funds."
Other items constantly needed are disposable diapers and baby formula.
"We run out of those items as fast as we get them," she said.
Lassen grew up in Douglas County, dropping out of Baldwin High School at age 16 because she was pregnant. As much as it pained her to seek government aid, she was on welfare for awhile, she said. Then she found Penn House.
"The reason I get along with people is because I've been there, done that," she said. "It's easy for me to relate."
Now married and a grandmother, she relaxes in her spare time playing cards or bingo with friends, or she goes bowling.
Welfare reform has created greater demand for assistance than she remembers from her first days at Penn House, she said.
"The saddest part of the job is knowing there are kids out there suffering and we're not getting to them," she said. "What really gets to my heart is people living in cars or tents at the lake with kids."
Most come from out of state seeking work. Either the jobs don't materialize, or they end up living at the lake until they manage to get on their feet financially.
-- Mike Shields phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.