Linda Lassen had no idea Friday would be her last day as director of programming for the Penn House.
She had been there for more than 40 years. She was married there, and a photo of her wedding ceremony hangs on the wall. For many in Lawrence, Lassen's name has been synonymous with the local social service agency that provides food, clothing and help with utility bills for families in need. Adopt-a-Family, backpacks for kids — she did it all, friends said, and she was close to retirement this year.
But shortly after Lassen arrived for work about 8 a.m. Friday, she learned she was being laid off at the end of the day. So was the assistant program director, Larry Woydziak, who has been at the Penn House for about six months.
Woydziak said he wasn't concerned about himself and felt sure he could move on to something else.
"I'm just disappointed for Linda," he said. "She's given over 40 years to the community."
All day Friday, Lawrence residents who had been touched by Lassen's work in the community visited the Penn House to see her or called with a few kind words.
"It's been a tough day for all of us, especially her," Woydziak said. "It's very sad. A lot of tears. She was the heart and soul of Penn House."
Lassen had been with the agency since it opened in 1969. Located at 1035 Pennsylvania St., the current building was constructed in 1981, by volunteer labor in just one weekend, using mostly donated materials. The Penn House board of directors voted to merge with Ballard Community Center in 2005.
For most of that time, Lassen was a full-time employee but was reduced to part-time a year ago. She's particularly well-known for her part in Lawrence's Holiday Bureau Adopt-a-Family efforts. That's what came immediately to mind for Nancy O'Connor, director of education and outreach at The Merc, 901 Iowa St. For 14 years, O'Connor has worked with Lassen every holiday season to arrange for The Merc to adopt families.
O'Connor learned Lassen was gone Friday when she made routine call to the Penn House, and her old friend was already gone.
"The kind of a dramatic change, when someone has been there so long," O'Connor said, "it kind of makes you shudder a little bit."
Lassen knew all the details and nuances of Adopt-a-Family, calling The Merc earlier in the year, when they needed to prepare, and providing just the right amount of information about the anonymous families. O'Connor said she couldn't imagine doing those things with anyone else but the "feisty champion for her people" who got her involved in Adopt-a-Family in the first place.
"To me, Penn House and Linda Lassen are inseparable," she said. "I don't know how they're going to get along without Linda."
Lassen, reached by phone Friday, said she was still too emotional to talk about her departure from Penn House.
Management at Ballard Community Services, which is responsible for staffing decisions at Penn House, said laying Lassen off was an unfortunate but necessary step under this year's budget.
Kyle Roggenkamp, director of human services, is one of two remaining employees in his department with Lassen and Woydziak gone.
"They did a really good job" he said. "This is tough for all of us. The past couple of years have been tough for everyone in Douglas County."
The Ballard Center depends on donors and investment from the community to pay employees and finance its services, and Roggenkamp said it has been under the same pressures as other social service agencies in the area. That means it will have to rely even more on the 20-30 volunteers that support it, along with partnerships with other agencies like Just Food and the Salvation Army.
"Any decision we make is done with the whole community in mind," Roggenkamp said.
For good news, he pointed to the Ballard Center's latest numbers. The agency helped 1,500 kids through the Adopt-a-Family program this holiday season and provided clothes, food, and utilities to 6,700 people in 2012.