Shirley LaMarr lives a life of vibrancy that can only truly be appreciated by those who have felt the most debilitating darkness. Marked by a past of heroine addiction, negligent parenting, terrorizing violence, prostitution and homlessness, LaMarr measures the beauty of each day alongside the knowledge that without a gracious hand she would be dead.
“I know what the depths of hell feel like,” LaMarr said. “I can’t explain it, but I can feel it and taste it.”
A former inmate, LaMarr said her life was transformed when she was enrolled in the residential rehabilitation service Delancey Street in San Francisco.
“I would have been dead, there’s no doubt in my mind,” LaMarr said when she thought of her life without Delancey Street. “I would have killed someone or they would have killed me.”
When the program revived her health, mind and self-worth, LaMarr was able to revive the strength inspired by her grandmother and realize her dynamism for assisting those in dire need.
“That little piece had lived in me, so when I went to Delancey Street it was reformed,” she said. “My quest or my place was to help people, and when I left that’s what I wanted to do.”
LaMarr, who has served as the Director of the in-custody program Choices at the for nearly 6 years, opened the doors to Mz. Shirliz Transitional Living Center in Redwood City to provide hope to those who wish to revive their lives.
“This woman, she moves people to places,” said Angela Taylor of the inmate reintegration program Achieve 180. “It’s emotional who she is and what she means to people.”
Taylor looked at LaMarr as the tears began to swell.
“It means something more than what words can mean,” she said.
LaMarr, who recently received the Jefferson Award for her service to the community, began her work at Choices nearly 20 years ago, and since then has changed lives. She hopes to continue her unprecedented track record with Mz Shirliz Transitional Living.
“I hope to fill in the gaps of the criminal justice system,” LaMarr said. “And there’s a lot of gaps. A lot of these guys, if they don’t find a safe place they’re likely to fall prey.”
The 501(c)(3) non-profit organization moved into 1718 Broadway Street July 1 to bring a safe, sober environment.
The building, illuminated with floor to ceiling windows, provides shelter and food and includes a computer lab where residents will be tutored in computer programs and have the ability to attend workshops on how to create a resume.
“Many people know how to do simple stuff like social network sites,” said volunteer Marc Shoolman who set up the computer lab in the housing center. “But it’s a lot different when you have to fill out an application on Monster.com.”
LaMarr said she assists individuals with circumstances they may not be familiar with including obtaining a copy of one’s birth certificate, the proper identification needed for employment or the appropriate attire for an interview.
The organization will also begin yoga classes, a GED program and currently holds monthly support groups but is in no way meant to be a substitute for long-term care.
There are only a few requirements in order to be admitted to the transitional housing center.
“They have to be fighting to stay clean and sober,” LaMarr said.
For LaMarr, the development of the organization evokes pride and nostalgia.
“I dreamed about this from the moment I graduated from Delancey,” LaMarr said.
Her CFO Chris O’Dell has stood by her side and assisted her through the project’s development.
“I couldn’t love him any more than if I birthed him myself.” LaMarr said.
However, though the project is not focused on creating any type of revenue, the new organization is already feeling financial pressures.
LaMarr took out a loan in order to begin the organization and it currently runs on individual donations.
“We’re struggling really bad because we didn’t get any funding,” LaMarr said. “If we can keep the doors open we can stay self-sufficient.”
The organization will be holding a Flea Market and barbecue September 24 and 25 to raise funds for their mission.
“I know what it’s like to forge your way up and get up that mountain,” LaMarr said. “You then can grab that and use that to help others stand up.”