Share this article

print logo

MIRACLE ON SYCAMORE STREET
HOW TWO ORDINARY PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO RESCUE SOCIETY'S FORGOTTEN SOULS

We all search for it. They have found it. True happiness.

Many think happiness will come with a luxurious home or fine clothes. Amy Betros and Norm Paolini found it in the middle of misery.

She used to run a restaurant. He was a researcher at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Nearly four years ago, they left the material world for a bleak neighborhood.

Their mission: To bring hope and self-respect to society's discards. To open their arms to the mentally unbalanced, the deeply addicted, the desperately lonely. No one is turned away.

"That's what Jesus did, went among the hopeless cases," said Norm Paolini. "Then you find out they're not hopeless."

They started St. Luke's Mission of Mercy on Sycamore Street.

Paolini and Ms. Betros bought the old Catholic church and surrounding buildings and made it a center for lost souls. Some live here until they heal. Others -- addicts, prostitutes, runaways, homeless people -- stay just a night or two. Ms. Betros lives in the building with the transients, in a room upstairs.

They take not a cent of government money. They have, time and again, helped to heal the physically and emotionally ill.

There's the crack mother who became a solid citizen. The abused runaway who's now going to college. The distraught teen-ager they might have saved from suicide. The stories are as endless as their patience.

"They're working miracles there," said Msgr. Ron Sciera, the pastor at Precious Blood Parish on Lewis Street. "I can't call it anything less."

The miracles happen quietly.

The latest is taking place on the streets around the mission. Landlords weary of crime and bad tenants are donating houses to St. Luke's. Volunteers -- led by local contractor James Yoviene -- fix them up. The people helped by the mission move in.

And the neighborhood, in small steps, starts getting its legs back.

"That's part of our dream," said Ms. Betros, "to take houses one by one and, as people recover, put them in them."

Two houses are done, maybe four more will be ready by year's end.

But that's just the now of this story.

Four years ago, Amy Betros sold her restaurant, Amy's Place, on Main Street near the University at Buffalo. Norm Paolini left Roswell Park after 22 years. "Everybody -- families, friends -- thought we were nuts," said Paolini. Ms. Betros is equal parts Madonna and earth mother -- rotund, energetic and talkative. Paolini looks like a college professor, with his crew-neck sweaters and hair flecked with gray.

They are the Mama Cass and Mr. Rogers of love and mercy.

Their bond is St. Luke's, which they bought from the diocese nearly four years ago. The complex -- a church and the former school, rectory and convent -- covers an entire city block.

Ms. Betros and Paolini are Catholics and have the church's blessing. But there is no formal connection to the diocese. They pay their bills -- utilities alone run $70,000 annually -- with donations. There are no safety nets, other than faith and hope.

Emergency rooms

On a recent morning, a woman with straggly gray hair walked out of the rectory and into the courtyard. She mumbled to herself while dumping a bag of garbage on the ground. It had been days since she had touched soap.

This is the building where the "emergencies" -- transients and homeless people -- are housed. Couches sit arm-to-arm downstairs to accommodate the males. Females stay upstairs. After taking a few steps inside, a visitor retreats to the fresh air, stomach churning from the odor of unwashed bodies. From behind a closed door comes the deep moan of an addict in pain.

It is a jolting reminder that helping the troubled is more than a lifestyle choice.

"You go there at night sometimes and it's eerie," said Andy Fleming, an attorney on the mission's board. "All these people are shuffling through. You hear these weird sounds."

Msgr. Sciera of Precious Blood is a frequent visitor. "Sometimes I say Mass over there, or help out," he said. "But after a while it's too much. I have to get away. It's a special calling; not everyone could do it."

The troubled souls in for the long haul, about 35 men and women, live in one of the two dormitories. So do five other missionaries who have followed Ms. Betros' lead. None is paid. Their shared gift is to see the humanity buried deep beneath the affliction.

"When you know their stories," said Ms. Betros, "it's easier to understand. Usually it's a pain from childhood, some sort of physical abuse."

Rochelle (not her real name) is a prostitute and addict who lost custody of her kids.

"She was sexually abused since she was 3," said Ms. Betros. "Her own family bought her gifts to keep her quiet." She has been clean for two months, will be baptized at Easter and then enter a six-month rehab program.

"She's not all the way back," said Ms. Betros, "but she has remorse now. That's a huge change."

There's no shortage of residents. Police from the city, and elsewhere, bring runaways and homeless to the door.

Charles Rizzo is overnight shift supervisor for the Town of Tonawanda Police. He recently answered a domestic dispute call at a hotel. The family, with a young boy, was here from Tennessee. It was 4 a.m. Rizzo had to find a place for the mother and son to stay. Haven House -- the home for battered women -- was full.

"I called Amy," said Rizzo. "She was waiting at the door when we got there. Any time we have no place else to turn, that's where we go."

Society's discards

Here, many of society's discards discover what they had long ago lost: a semblance of family, the ability to trust.

"We call ourselves the Misfit Waltons," said Ms. Betros. "Learning to tolerate each other helps them all."

Residents on welfare give what they can spare. The rest don't pay a cent. Some stay a few weeks. Others stay for years. However long it takes.

"We weren't going to do sheltering when we first came," said Eddie Simon, one of the full-time missionaries. "But one day the cops brought Gail in. She was living in a field."

Gail is the straggly-haired woman who, that morning, was emptying garbage on the ground. She is, Ms. Betros says, a paranoid schizophrenic. She has lived at St. Luke's for years.

In a room in the old convent is a 3-month-old baby, born to a cocaine addict. Mission workers care for her. The mother visits every morning and night.

"To keep seeing her baby is a big incentive for her to get better," said Ms. Betros. "She's going to outpatient programs. It's a slow process. But we're in no hurry.

"You've got nannies who take care of rich people's kids. This is the same thing. We're just helping out." The baby is healthy, smiling, beautiful.

Not all the guests are hard-core cases. Maleek said goodbye last week. He came here homeless a few months ago, and stayed until he had saved enough from a fast food job for his own apartment.

Ron is a Vietnam vet with stress disorder and a drinking problem. Dubbed "the Supervisor," he helps in the kitchen. "He hasn't stopped drinking," said Ms. Betros, "but he drinks less now."

All of them form a loose community. Many unload food and clothes -- the mission has a food pantry and free-clothing store -- pick up litter, shovel snow. A few helped to repair the donated houses.

"Once they start taking care of the pain inside," said Paolini, "they can take care of what's around them."

It's not the Holiday Inn. There are holes in the walls. Some guests are a collection of nervous tics, poor hygiene and bad habits. Like life, St. Luke's is edgy.

"At first, it put me on guard," said Msgr. Sciera. "But gradually, I saw you had to go with the flow. You can't stack all the discards in a neat pile, for all the people who've left comfortable houses to come down and take a look."

They've had everything from a clothes dryer to boxes of sandwiches ripped off. Sometimes it's neighborhood thieves. Sometimes it's the residents.

One guest stole an electric saw from a workman. That night, they said a group prayer for the culprit. The guilty party stood up and confessed, said he had sold the saw to buy drugs.

"If you condemn someone, they don't change," said Ms. Betros. "But if you show you still love them, they pour coals on their own head."

Though there are occasional fights, no one has been seriously hurt.

"These guys grow up with violence, so that's how they solve things," said Eddie Simon, the lanky, sandy-haired missionary who lives in the men's dorm. "It's, 'Leave me alone or I'll beat your face in.' "

"Our job," said Ms. Betros, "is to endure the fights and hope, in the end, they see us as a friend."

The attitude helped many find salvation.

A success story

Micky Spikes lives with her two children in one of the houses donated to the mission. The place is spotless. She juggles the kids and chores with the efficiency of a ticket-taker.

A few years ago, she was a prostitute and crack addict. When her grandmother willed her a house, she tried to sell it for drugs. Soon after, she met Amy Betros.

"Everyone I'd ever met who was nice wanted something in return -- drugs, sex, something," said Ms. Spikes. "Amy was nice just to be nice."

Ms. Betros took her to her home in North Buffalo and, to Micky Spikes' shock, left the house. "I thought, 'Does she know who she's leaving alone in this house?' "

The trust was rewarded. Ms. Spikes now runs the mission's literacy program. She'll go back to college when her kids are older. She doesn't even smoke cigarettes anymore.

"I didn't know there were people out there like her," she said. "Amy's like a mother to me."

Helping hands

Seeing what Ms. Betros and Paolini do opens the hearts of others who can give. Their selflessness is contagious.

James Yoviene, 65, owns Sell-More Industries, a building supply warehouse not far from St. Luke's. His workers redid the plumbing and heating at the mission, installed windows, put in a bathroom. Now he's fixing the donated houses. In return he gets a tax write-off and some chits with St. Peter.

"Seeing the way Amy and Norm are draws you into it," said Yoviene. "Amy has nothing. She even lives there. I know if I give her a dollar, all 100 cents goes where it's supposed to go."

Eileen Nanula forgave a $70,000 mortgage from the sale of Ms. Betros' buildings. A woman donated her van. Some 250 people regularly volunteer, from parts as distant as Lockport and Pendleton. The National Fuel workers who last year turned off the gas for non-payment came back with clothing donations.

St. Luke's depends on the kindness of near-strangers. Ms. Betros and Paolini tell their story at churches, schools, community centers. People hear, and give. Or volunteer.

Word of the good works spread into the neighborhood. Yoviene's workers had $1,000 in tools stolen. He told a meeting of neighbors he couldn't fix the houses unless the thievery stopped.

"We haven't lost a thing since," he said.

The payoff is in souls saved.

A couple of weeks ago, a teen-ager came looking for Amy Betros at Precious Blood Church. His family had lived at the mission for a while. He had just lost his job, and things were falling apart. He was talking about suicide. He and Amy Betros stood in the church, him crying on her shoulder.

Ms. Betros told Msgr. Sciera. He made some calls, lined up a job for the teen. Now he's doing OK. "If Amy's not there that day," said Msgr. Sciera, "maybe he kills himself."

Stories like that have become routine. "At first, it was mind-boggling," said Msgr. Sciera. "Now it's like, 'OK, that's this week's story.' "

In the beginning

Amy Betros and Norm Paolini met on a pilgrimage to the sacred shrine at Fatima, Portugal. She had already turned part of her restaurant into a food pantry for the needy. He was praying at the bedsides of cancer patients at Roswell Park. Each was ready to take the next step.

St. Luke's was for sale. Price: $200,000. She sold her restaurant and family-owned buildings. He took out a second mortgage on his home.

You couldn't drag them back to the world of possessions.

"I'm single, but I'm mother to a million people," said Ms. Betros, tears flowing as she speaks. "I have a hundred brothers and sisters.

"I'd never go back. It'd be torture. There's a freedom about being able to trust in God."

Paolini -- who lives in North Buffalo with his wife and four children -- is less dramatic, but equally sincere.

"It's like Jesus said when the rich man asked him how to find happiness: 'Give away all you have, and follow me,' " he said.

They hope to fix up four more neighborhood houses by year's end. They'd like to have a separate place for runaways. On Easter Sunday, 15 people will be baptized at the mission.

In a crib in the old convent, a 3-month-old baby sleeps.

Amy Betros and Norm Paolini found the key to happiness. It was right there, hiding in the hearts of the hopeless.