Property management company 'spruces up' Elizabeth House in Laurel

Elizabeth House in Laurel received a free makeover from volunteers who work with residential property manager Southern Management Corp.as part of the company’s Spruce Up service project to give back to the community.

Managed by Fish of Laurel, the nonprofit meal kitchen started serving meals to homeless in the Laurel community in 1988, and earned its name two years later to honor volunteer veteran Elizabeth Colnaghi.

Known to her friends as Betty, Colnaghi started a food pantry in her basement in the mid-1970s to feed low-income Laurel residents, later providing emergency financial aid and transportation. A decade later, a donation gave volunteers a new home to open a soup kitchen.

Pamela Martin, director of Southern Management’s community team, said the multi-family housing management company operates five communities in Laurel, including Laurel Park apartments on Eighth Street, and has more than 24,000 apartment homes, six office buildings and two hotels in Maryland and Northern Virginia, with a third hotel under construction. Through the Spruce Up program, Martin said team members and company-approved vendors find areas in need of “sprucing up,” such as schools, Boys and Girls Clubs or senior centers, and volunteer their time and materials for renovations.

Volunteers complete anywhere between one and six Spruce Up projects a year, she said.

“It’s usually not major renovations. We do painting, landscaping and flooring,” Martin said. “It [involves] our skilled service technicians, but it’s also our corporate team members, leasing professionals, property managers and residence services center [who volunteer].”

On a sunny September Saturday morning, Elizabeth House kitchen coordinator Laura Stough watched the 1950s home brighten up the block once again at 308 Gorman Ave. Southern Management volunteers applied fresh coats of paint inside and outside the home, trimmed shrubbery and laid new flooring to level its industrial kitchen. Fifty Southern Management volunteers spent four hours that day renovating Elizabeth House.

“It’s all team members who are volunteering their time,” Martin said. “They’re not paid to do it. We may have an approved vendor who also provides supplies or we may purchase minimal supplies for it. … Our communities are separated into what we call clusters [and] we have six of those. Each cluster can do a spruce-up if they so desire.”

Southern Management partners with McCormick Paint, who donated paint for the latest project, and Martin said Southern Management purchased the flooring material.

Renovations were “very necessary” at Elizabeth House, said executive director Nancy Vawter, as volunteers serve about 75 lunches every afternoon and about 60 meals every evening.

“We have a tremendous amount of traffic going through there every day, so it’s a real struggle to keep it cared for, but I think it’s important,” she said.

The kitchen floor was beginning to rot and sink from the weight of the refrigerators and freezers, said Stough, who keeps busy preparing meals in the kitchen. Although the food preparation and cooking space was temporarily out of service Saturday afternoon, she said clients still received their lunches and enjoyed them outside in the warm weather.

Every day, volunteers from local churches or community groups, like Boy Scouts, will join meal preparation and serving crews. Stough said between three and five people prepare meals, including making bagged lunches. Four to six people serve meals and clean the kitchen, bathroom and dining areas in the evening.

Doors are open between 6 and 7:30 p.m., she said, and most clients pick up a bagged lunch when they leave.

The kitchen accepts donations every day between 4:15 and 5:15 p.m. and also between 10 a.m. and noon on Saturdays. Stough said vegetables are always needed, such as romaine lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers.

Southern Management volunteers finished their work in time for clients to eat dinner in the newly painted dining room.

“All of this was really needed,” said Stough, a 15-year volunteer at Elizabeth House. “It’s really great for us because we’re a nonprofit organization and it’s hard for us to do some of those repairs. For somebody to do those for us free-of-charge is wonderful.”

For many people in Laurel, Elizabeth House is like a home, Vawter added. Many people in Laurel who are homeless depend on having a hot meal at Elizabeth House every night, she said, and the nonprofit wants their home to be “clean and comfortable.”

Although Elizabeth House is a volunteer-based organization, she said Stough and Linda Crossley, who works with the pantry and grocery distribution, put in “countless hours every week.” Their efforts include spur-of-the-moment dinners for clients when original plans fall through.

“When that happens, Vawter said, “Linda and Laura will go to the grocery store and start buying tons of food. On a moments notice, they’ll have a meal for 60 people. They make sure Elizabeth House opens every day, and as president, I’m super thankful for their dedication and commitment.”

Martin said Southern Management is dedicated to building partnerships within its community and the Spruce Up program is one of many services to do so.

“It’s part of our values. It’s the whole reason we do it,” Martin said. “It’s a great feeling for the team members. The good majority of our team members live in our communities. When they’re doing a spruce-up, it’s even improving the quality of life for themselves and their families. They feel like they’ve accomplished something and contributed to their neighborhoods.”

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