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FELLOWSHIP HOUSE SEES NEW CHALLENGES ON EVE OF NEW YEAR

In the early 1970s, Husnara Sundram conquered some large obstacles in the way of her dream to establish a halfway house for recovering alcoholics.

Now, after expansion in 1997, the Fellowship House Foundation faces new challenges in the new year.

While working with alcoholics through the Niagara Community Action program in Niagara Falls, Mrs. Sundram realized that some of the people coming in for alcoholism treatment had nowhere to go when they left.

"What happened is that they'd go back onto the streets and into their homes with other addictive persons and would relapse," she said. "So, thousands of dollars spent at hospitals for their treatment were virtually wasted."

Then, she said, one of her clients told her that what was needed was a home where recovering alcoholics could have a family kind of support to help them stay sober and get on with their lives.

In 1974, she said, she began "going to work on that concept."

"I thought it was a great idea," she said, "but nobody was buying it. They kept telling me there was no way for me to open a halfway house for alcoholics. Regardless, I managed to get together a group of recovering alcoholics and their families and formed an association that then became a not-for-profit corporation in 1979."

Since then, with the help of state grants, private donations and fees from those clients who are able to contribute, the Fellowship House Foundation, Inc. has grown. It now operates two halfway houses in Niagara County, at 431 Memorial Parkway in Niagara Falls and on Lake Road in the Town of Somerset.

In addition to the halfway houses, the agency finances 10 "supportive living" apartment units, each housing three or four clients. These serve about 80 recovering alcoholics at any one time.

"We also have 12 shelters," she said, "and 'plus-care' apartments where the client's family can stay with them with a state subsidy to help pay the rent."

It has also been named by the state of New York as the lead agency for vocational counseling and job placement for recovering alcoholics who are clients of agencies in Niagara, Cattaraugus, Genesee and Allegany counties.

Tom Borawski, comptroller for Fellowship House since 1988, said, "Our organization has been very good in getting our people back into a productive frame of mind and getting them jobs.

"Our mission is to get people who have hit bottom back up on their feet and give them self-esteem. A large percentage of our clients -- about 60 to 80 percent -- are either working or in school getting the job skills they need to get decent jobs."

While the dream Mrs. Sundram had more two decades ago is nearer to reality, the foundation faces a financial crisis as 1998 approaches, she said.

"Our first priority is for our clients," she said. "But all of the buildings we use in the program need maintenance. The Administration Office roof leaks and needs repairing and we can't even pay for that."

Also at risk is the Foundation's "Faith Fund," which Mrs. Sundram said is "a fund used to give our graduates a little money when they go on to make a new life for themselves, helping to pay for their rent and keep them going until they can find work. That money used to come from activities organized by the clients, but unfortunately it hasn't kept up with the need. Now the Faith Fund has just about zeroed out and we may not be able to maintain it."

On Dec. 31, the Fellowship House Foundation will hold its 10th Annual New Year's Eve Sobriety Dance at Our Lady of Lebanon Church Hall, 1110 Niagara St.

"In all of our previous dances," she said, "the net proceeds went into the Faith Fund. This year, because of the extraordinary efforts we made to purchase and renovate our 1204 Niagara St. site, our building fund is depleted. We expect that only $1,200 of the proceeds will go to the Faith Fund and the rest will have to go to our building fund."

In early September, Fellowship House unveiled a new supportive living center and meeting room in the former Shouts tavern at 1204 Niagara St.

Mrs. Sundram is hopeful that the financial setback will be temporary, though, and Fellowship House will continue to grow.

"Gov. Pataki this year released his freeze on development of any community residence in the state. Fellowship House has had plans for a youth home and a program for women and children, which we hope will happen soon," she said.

"Most of the money for this program will come from New York state, but there are additional expenses that we can only get through local donations that will help these programs get off the ground."

Individuals or companies interested in contributing to the Fellowship House Foundation may call 284-6228.