Donna Denison knew something was missing from her life.
After a bad day at work about 10 years ago, she ended up in front of Lazarus House, a nonprofit charitable organization serving people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
“It just clicks; it’s just right,” Denison said of Lazarus House.
Fast forward to 2015, and Denison is entering her ninth year as a Lazarus House operations coordinator. She works out of the house’s Women and Children’s Day Center in downtown St. Charles.
Those who stay at the center affectionately call Denison and the other coordinators “house moms.” It’s their job to keep things peaceful and orderly at the center.
The center usually serves between 15 to 18 women at any one time, Denison said. She works there every Wednesday through Sunday and starts each womens’ day off with breakfast.
Working at Lazarus House helps fulfill Denison’s longtime call to serve others. When she was 12 years old growing up in St. Charles, Denison wanted to open her own orphanage.
“I’ve always been one for the underdog,” Denison said.
Denison said she knows what it’s like to need someone else. She said her first husband was killed in a car accident when their first child was still an infant.
When someone is down, it’s important to have even one person there to say that things can turn around, Denison said.
Denison knows how to lift the spirits of those at the center, said a Lazarus House client who nominated Denison as an Everyday Hero but did not want to be named for privacy reasons.
Denison treats residents like individual human beings instead of the label “homeless,” the client said.
Lazarus House Operations Manager Carol Migacz describes Denison as warm, caring, motherly and also assertive.
“Donna and I were both crossing guards years ago – she was somebody who wasn’t going to be pushed around,” Migacz said. “She has the balancing part down of the kind heart and keeping authority.”
Migacz and Denison were crossing guards in the 1990s for St. Charles School District 303. They did not keep in touch but connected right away after Denison showed up at Lazarus House.
“I believe that God calls you to this,” Migacz said.
Denison’s youngest son, Cody, was also called to Lazarus House and works an overnight shift and helps maintain the organization’s computers.
Employees are not allowed to befriend Lazarus House clients, but Denison said sometimes women will call into the center after their stay to express their gratitude for her kindness.
People have negative connotations of the homeless community, but Denison said all the women are grateful to be able to stay at Lazarus House. Most of them embrace the structure of chores and classes geared toward helping them achieve their goals, she said.
“If you can’t have a home of your own, then this is the place to be,” Denison said.
The Denison lowdown
Who she is: Donna Denison, operations coordinator at Lazarus House
Town of residence: St. Charles
Family: Husband, Lenard; children, Cory, 42; Cody, 25; Heather, 36 and Jodi, 31; and eight grandchildren
Hobbies: Sewing and baking
Fun fact: Loves getting dressed up for Halloween and putting out Christmas villages all over her house during the holidays.