Lou Catano flips a light switch to off as he walks down the stairs. Home to as many as 21 girls and boys ranging in ages from 8 to 18, Webster House’s electric bill can be through the roof. Catano laughs and says he’s always turning off lights.
Year after year, with the help of the community, Webster House, at 135 Webster St. in Manchester (www.websterhouse.com), acts as a temporary home for many of the state’s youth who simply can’t live at home for a variety of reasons. For 125 years, Webster House has been doing that.
In 1884, some forward-thinking officials in the city realized the need for a children’s group home and opened the Manchester Children’s Home on Webster Street. In the 1970s, its name was switched to Webster House. Thousands of kids have since lived at Webster House, said Catano, who is the executive director.
Catano also credits his staff of 18 full-time and three part-time workers and the board of directors for keeping Webster House operating at a high level. The home functions on a 24-hour-per-day seven-days-per-week schedule.
Webster House situates kids in dormitory-style rooms and provides meals, a recreation room and living room areas. The home also offers a variety of services, including individual and group counseling, tutoring, services in life skills, such as banking, interviewing and work ethic, and a volunteering program. The goal is to provide a safe and supportive environment for kids while they aren’t able to live at home, Catano said. The average age is 15.
Residents tend to come from all over the southern half of the state, and particularly from the Interstate 93 corridor south of Concord to the state line. A team of Webster House employees, court system representatives and social workers, along with residents and parents, determine when it’s best for a child to move out of the home. The best-case scenario is reunification with the family. That isn’t always going to be possible, though, Catano said.
Many residents remain forever grateful for the opportunities and comfort the home provided.
“After spending some time during my youth living at the Webster House, I can look back and reflect how tough it is just being a teenager, never mind sometimes having added situations in your life that make it impossible to just live at home with your family,” said Donna Welch in an e-mail. Welch is a former resident at Webster House and currently the owner of From Out of the Woods Antiques in Goffstown. “I appreciate the Webster House because it provided me with the safety I needed at the time to give me a chance to grow into who I am still today.”
Visitors are greeted by a large mural of Fenway Park as they make their way through the doors. A local artist donated more than 60 hours to complete the work; residents would note the progress each day. When John Henry bought the Red Sox, the organization decided to adopt one group home in every state in New England. A former Webster House resident ended up being hired as an executive with the Red Sox, and Webster House was chosen as one of the Red Sox’s adopted homes. Now every year Webster House makes a trip to Fenway for a game. Kids might throw out the first pitch or let the crowd know it’s time to “Play ball.” When Yankees fans move in, Catano said, staff and residents work hard to convert them.
Catano said he likes to leave the explanation of why kids live at Webster House at, simply, because they are unable to live at home. The reasons vary greatly and he said he doesn’t like to see it get branded one way or another.
“It’s a home for kids who need a temporary home away from home,” Catano said.
Catano said the community has stepped up to help Webster House over and over again.
“I’m just overwhelmed by the good nature of the churches, businesses and individuals in how they come through that door,” Catano added.
There’s a wide-screen television in one corner, courtesy of former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling and his wife Shonda. There’s furniture donated from Southern New Hampshire University. Brady-Sullivan donated leather furniture, new carpeting and appliances, such as televisions. The local YMCA lets Webster House kids use their facilities. An artist painted a mural of dinosaurs on one of the rooms for younger children — which drew tears of joy from a youngster when he walked into his room, Catano said.
“That kind of thing can be repeated in numerous ways,” Catano said.
Catano said Webster House has felt the economic downturn but had help from the community to get its budget out of the red. With health and human services under more stress from the tight economy, there are dwindling resources available.
“The community is a godsend,” Catano said. “It’s just amazing how they come through for us. It’s really a tribute to the people in the community.”
Catano, who has been with Webster House for 26 years, said kids did need to stay longer in the past, perhaps for several years. Today, the stints at Webster House average three to six months. He said the jury is still out on why that is. Last year, the home saw 54 kids walk through its doors. Kids are referred to Webster House through social services. The home works closely with government agencies.
Friendships between residents and staff have remained strong through the years. Staff get phone calls from former residents thanking them. Former residents also come by as guest speakers. Catano said the job is challenging at times but it’s also filled with hope. The relationships that come out of Webster House indicate a connection has been made.
“Some of the stories that come through here are so alive,” Catano said.