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November 30, 2006:
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ST. MARY'S COUNTY, Md. - The story of pastor Maguerite Morris is filled with philanthropy and love, but when listening to her speak, it becomes clear that the person is even more convincing than the story.
Maybe it's because everything Morris says is accompanied with her red-lipstick smile and calming black eyes. And the second she seems focused on one thing, she is lost again to a bevy of jumbled thoughts; a result of her ongoing 60 hour work weeks.
These days, Morris is sending out e-mails at two in the morning in preparation for her newest venture as the founder of Leah's House.
Leah's House is a women and children's shelter in St. Mary's County inspired by Morris' three years of work and commitment to Sara's House in Anne Arundel County.
Morris would bring home disadvantaged women and children on Sundays for dinner back then.
"Our home was never destroyed, never torn up and we didn't have stuff go missing," Morris said recounting the number of women she's had over for dinner. "We made a lot of good friends through that experience."
Morris identified with those women and children she opened her house to because she spent much of her childhood facing the similar realities of the cold streets. It was through the efforts of two girls scout volunteers 40 years ago when Morris learned how to cook and handle herself outside of the projects of Washington D.C. and Maryland. But more importantly, she learned how to give back to a struggling community.
"We didn't know anything," Morris said of herself as a youth, "and even to this day I'm inspired by them."
With the help of a number of volunteers - the backbone of any charitable commitment and the cornerstone of Leah's House - and donations from a variety of organizations, Morris took the concept of Sara's House to the next level. Now her master plan is finally going public.
"Oh my god that's scary, are we ready for this?" Morris asked Lisa B. Beach, a partner in Leah's House, with a nervous laugh and two hands pressed tightly to her forehead. "I hope this generates some excitement in the community."
With financial pre-approval, Morris is in the process of purchasing the Happyland Club in Valley Lee, a hotspot of shootings and violence in recent years.
Morris said she hopes buying the property and turning it from a negative to a positive place is something the surrounding community will appreciate.
The vision of Leah's House, which expands over its temporary five-bedroom- four-bathroom facility, includes a 4886 square foot administrative building with a child-care center, food eating facility, auditorium, and administrative offices.
In a strong step to minimize grant funding, Morris said it is the goal of Leah's House to get Happyland Club renovated into an administrative building, and running with programs that will generate income for a brand new 13-to-14-bedroom shelter to be built directly behind.
"This is a business plan," said Morris. "We want to do things with more compassion, but we also want to provide a structured program so that these women can save money and get the necessary job training."
The embodiment of Morris and her struggle from welfare child to foster mother to mother to volunteer to Pastor and finally to wife and community member is what makes the idea of Leah's House a satisfying thought.
And although today's Leah's House is a short-term 30 - 45 day retreat for women referred by the Department of Social Services, the long range plan strongly targets job training, money saving and stability wrapped in an 18 - 24 month stay.
The women who enter will leave with a sense of accomplishment, knowing they did something for themselves to better their situation Morris said.
The old adage, give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he will eat forever is a virtue Leah's House holds dear. But what is possibly lost in that message is the role of the teacher.
Maybe it doesn't matter because the act of giving is ideally selfless. And while selflessness is a difficult thing to attain, Morris is leading the way with an altruistic commitment to Leah's House without salary. But she does have a pocketbook full of free smiles.