Allan Barsema, 62, knows what it's like to hit bottom. Nearly 30 years ago, his home was an abandoned trailer in Anchorage, Alaska, alcohol his only comfort. "I was a basket case," he says. "I lost everything — my family, my house and my real estate business."
In despair, he drove his car to a steep mountain ledge intending to end his life. "But it was such a beautiful place, I started thinking that there has to be a creator who has a better plan for me than I have," he says. "I reconnected with God and put the car in reverse."
Ten years later, with his parents' support, Barsema was sober, remarried and the owner of a Rockford, Ill., construction company located in a gritty, crime-riddled neighborhood. "I kept seeing the same drug addicts, prostitutes and homeless folks on the street and wondered why, because Rockford has good services," he says.
One day, during the summer of 2000, Barsema invited eight street people in for coffee and doughnuts, and asked what help they needed to turn their lives around. Suggestions poured out, and gradually Barsema offered storage lockers, shower facilities and laundry services to growing numbers of chronic homeless. Soon he was hiring staff for social programs and personalized case management. A year later, Barsema — with the help of his wife, Cathy, and seed money from his brother — launched Carpenter's Place, a faith-based outreach center for the homeless.
"I realized this wasn't a sideline or an experiment, this was my life calling," he says.
Model spreads to other cities
Barsema is one of five winners of this year's Purpose Prize, honoring age 60-plus Americans for innovative efforts to solve society's most pressing problems. They will each receive $100,000, and another five honorees will get $50,000 apiece. Financed by the Atlantic Philanthropies and John Templeton Foundation, the award is sponsored by Civic Ventures, a San Francisco think tank on boomers, work and social purpose.
In the last five years, 56 older Americans have received the award for using their accumulated professional and personal experience, skills and networks to effect change, says Alexandra Kent, Civic Ventures' director of the Purpose Prize. "Allan is a perfect example of using your transferable skills," she says. "If he could build houses, he could build a community."
The lives that Carpenter's Place was attempting to rebuild are similar to construction projects, says Barsema. "You need a plan, tools and a way to coordinate with subcontractors," he says. In this case, subcontractors were the various agencies that provide the homeless with separate services such as housing, transportation, mental health care, addiction counseling and job training.
Barsema eventually closed his construction business to work full time with his nonprofit. As Carpenter's Place grew, he played a part in developing Web-based software to help caseworkers at different agencies collaborate on individual cases, to expedite delivery and avoid duplication of services. The model has been adopted in 12 other communities in seven states, and attracted the attention of the federal government.
Barsema estimates that 10,000 people have come to Carpenter's Place in the last decade. "Guests," as they are called, receive free services but must develop life-recovery plans and are held accountable by case managers for meeting goals. Last year Carpenter's Place helped 321 guests transition into housing, 114 secure jobs and 99 complete job training.
Two years ago, Debbie, a 50-year-old former long-haul truck driver, suffered a mental breakdown and walked off her job. "My home was my truck, so I lost both my home and my job," she says.
Carpenter's Place case managers arranged housing, mental health counseling, pro bono doctor and dentist appointments, even hair and makeup sessions to prepare her for the workplace. Today Debbie is studying for an associate's degree in business administration and working part time as an administrative assistant at a community college.
"Carpenter's Place was always there to lift me up whenever I got down and push me harder," she says. "If it weren't for them I really don't think I'd be on this earth."
Here's a look at the other winners of the $100,000 Purpose Prize:
- Former corporate executive Barry Childs, 66, of Marylhurst Ore., grew up in Tanzania and returned to start Africa Bridge to help AIDS orphans. His organization builds classrooms, clinics and income-generating farming cooperatives for orphans' caregivers.
- Housekeeper Margaret Gordon, 63, learned that pollution from the nearby Oakland, Calif., port contributed to rampant asthma that affected her family and community. She became an activist and later mayor-appointed commissioner to the busy container port. Gordon also cofounded West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project to fight pollution in her community.
- Inez Killingsworth, 72, realized predatory lending practices led to foreclosures in her Cleveland neighborhood. She started Empowering and Strengthening Ohio's People, a foreclosure counseling agency to help homeowners negotiate with banks for more favorable terms and payment plans. The program now runs statewide and more than 80 percent of clients have loans modified.
- As a hospital administrator, Judith Van Ginkel, 71, of Cincinnati knew the importance of in-home counseling for first-time, low-income mothers. She launched Every Child Succeeds to provide home visits by social workers until a child turns 3. The program has helped 16,500 families.
And these are $50,000 winners:
- Barbara Chandler Allen, a former art museum administrator, created Fresh Artists to help fund art supplies in Philadelphia schools. Businesses and organizations donate money in return for large-scale reproductions of artwork created by K-12 students to display in offices. Fresh Artists uses the money to buy art supplies for under-resourced schools.
- Former corporate lawyer Dana Freyer, 66, of New York cofounded Global Partnership for Afghanistan to help rural Afghans revitalize woodlots, vineyards and orchards. More than 12,000 Afghans have planted 8 million trees in 12 provinces, with the potential of providing a healthy income to residents in one of the poorest countries in the world.
- Hubert Jones, 76, devoted a long career to resolving racial tensions by building nonprofit organizations and serving as the first-ever African American dean of the Boston University School of Social Work. As an encore, Jones founded the Boston Children's Chorus, bringing together children ages 7 to 18 of diverse racial, religious and economic backgrounds to perform around the world.
- Former psychologist Donald Stedman, 79, of Raleigh, N.C., has a 15-year-old grandson with autism. He started New Voices Foundation to help students with serious disabilities thrive in public schools. The nonprofit has trained more than 50 teachers in five school districts and plans to open a school soon.
- Bo Webb, 61, retired to his family home in Whitesville, W.Va., expecting to enjoy the majestic mountains. Instead the former businessman discovered the coal industry was blasting mountaintops to expose coal, destroying at least 500 mountains and burying 2,000 miles of streams. He joined the board of Coal River Mountain Watch, and enlists prominent environmentalists, celebrities and coalfield residents in a movement to abolish surface mining.
Elizabeth Pope is a writer in Portland, Maine.