Hometown Heroes: Michelle Lennon won’t let those in need slip through the cracks

  • Michelle Lennon risked her livelihood to support local families in need by starting the Tilton Family Resource Center. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 2/6/2022 11:06:17 PM

In the midst of 2015, Michelle Lennon and Karen Welford sat in a coffee shop in Laconia. With every sip, their words became more intentional.

“(Karen) just put her hand over mine and said, ‘If you want to start a family resource center in Tilton, I’ll help you,’” Lennon said.

Lennon had been working as a home visitor for Lakes Region Community Services for several years under Welford, predominantly visiting young mothers affected by addiction, before she decided to make a leap into the business world to start the Tilton Family Resource Center.

Through her work, she consistently saw families in smaller towns surrounding Concord and Laconia, like Tilton and Franklin, falling through the cracks in terms of the care they were receiving, whether it was mental health counseling, parent education or addiction rehabilitation. There weren’t enough employees and counselors to account for all the ones in need, and it left many without care.

The southeastern Massachusetts native graduated with a master’s degree in ministry and served as a part-time pastor at a local Tilton church. Long before Welford and Lennon’s coffee shop conversation, this is where the foundation for the family resource center was built.

“A friend of mine asked me to fill in at the Northfield Tilton Congregational Church, in their Sunday morning services while they were looking for a pastor,” Lennon said. “I was seeing a lot of these community needs – poverty and substance abuse affecting family after family that I was seeing, asking for things like $50 towards an electric bill or something like that. So, I went back, and I asked Karen Welford about maybe facilitating some community, like listening sessions about how the church could be relevant in this community.”

The ball quickly started moving when a group of 30 members within the community, led by Lennon and the other pastor at the time, had multiple meetings on the affect they could have in the community. However, the other pastor eventually moved away, and the church started faltering. This left Lennon with all the responsibility on her plate, adopting five remaining members of the church, and 10 members of the committee to continue the efforts.

For the next year, Lennon helped the group get incorporated as a small community non-profit organization and worked to help several locals in need. At the time she still continued to lead congregation at the church. She had not taken the full leap to pursue her passion full-time.

It wasn’t until Welford took Lennon by the hand in the coffee shop that she realized she would have the support behind her to make this goal a reality. Welford has since served in a mentor role for Lennon throughout this process.

Lennon promptly devoted all her efforts to the family resource center project, and the next few months were dedicated to receiving the requisite accreditation to become a family resource center.

Both Lennon and Joy Moody, a former volunteer at the Tilton Congressional Church food pantry, were the only two employees at the center’s inception and accompanying the eventual campus accreditation was a contract with the Harbor Care Health and Wellness Center that the two constructed and campaigned for. This allowed them to refer people they were helping to Harbor Care and allow them to utilize their variety of health services, both physical and mental.

Two years later, Lennon and the center had fought through much of the growing pains and progressed to a point where both she and Moody decided it was time to move out of the church basement.

“The post office that had been vacant for a while, we approached the owner and ended up renting that 3,600 square foot space,” Lennon said. “That was like the Taj Mahal to us back then…we still had two employees.”

This move allowed the center to grow immensely, as Lennon signed another contract, this one with the local Tilton school district for $40,000, allowing kids to have better access to resources that will help them.

The resource center now has upwards of 20 employees, and Lennon has led an expansion that put another office in Franklin. The center has served as an opportunity for people to get their life on track, as Lennon has hired people that have come in for addiction and mental health help.

According to the center’s website, they offer peer recovery support, family support, parent education and trainings aimed to educate and care for people suffering from substance abuse and sustained poverty. Lennon explained that the purpose of these efforts is to “teach (people) how to fish,” and to support themselves on their own.

Lennon estimates that both the Tilton and Franklin centers together help a couple hundred people per month spanning across all their services, but that with the overarching system they have, it’s hard to tell how many people they affect.

“We do 4,000 meals out of the joint Food Pantry a month, so that’s kind of a hard thing for us to quantify,” Lennon said.

Now with the establishment of the center, Lennon has been able to take a step back and allocate much of the counseling efforts to other employees. There are now three managers that direct traffic at the centers that she works with directly. This has given her more time to spread the message behind her center by appearing on various committees, as she serves as the Board of Directors for the Regional Public Health Network and is on the Substance Use Alcohol Advisory Board for New Futures as well as many others.

“If (Joy) and I didn’t kill ourselves working for two years for nothing, we wouldn’t be where we are, but I think that’s been part of the drive here,” Lennon said. “It has been very mission minded. And I think because I had been a home visitor and had done that family support work, and I knew what burnt me out.”

Despite the endless nights and continuous effort behind the center, motivation within the substance abuse and family care field has not been an issue for Lennon, as she has had to endure the issues first-hand with multiple important people in her life, both currently and in her adolescence. As a child, her parents were Division for Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) involved, and harbored foster kids, so her unique experience has helped her relate with kids and relay her learned wisdom.

“And what I knew from my family support work is my parents did the best they could with what we all knew back then,” Lennon said. “But we know so much more about early childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences now…but as a society, we still treat it as if it’s a moral failing. Even though we talk about, oh, you can’t arrest your way out of this, we still do.”

With the services that the Tilton Family Resource Center provides, Lennon believes the key to affecting more lives is to continue growing as a center and expanding its impact.

“These different little principles hang with me,” she said. “One of them is I rather have one percent. It’s a John Paul Getty quote, like one percent of the efforts of 100 people, versus 100 percent of my own efforts. And so, I recognized pretty early on, there was no way I could keep up the pace when it was just me, so growing is the key.”

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