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Published Book or Work by:

Rick Guinness

Partners in poverty, and recovery, tell their tale

  Partners in poverty, and recovery, tell their tale
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Published by the herald
11/23/2007
Partners in poverty, and recovery, tell their tale By RICK GUINNESS, NEW BRITAIN - Poverty makes strange bedfellows. But who would ever think poverty could spark up a romance? Well, it happened to one homeless couple who celebrated Thanksgiving at the senior center this year over a turkey dinner provided by the Salvation Army. Barbara Lombardo, 55, and Michael Sestakauskas, 58, have been together for 13 years. They are very much in love, but can't afford a place to live. She stays in a woman's shelter in Hartford, and he lives in the back of his car. After dinner, he has to drop her off at the shelter by 6 p.m. or she will lose her bed. "We had some bad times," Sestakauskas said. "Everybody runs into problems. But I am not going to lie to you. Ours had to do with alcohol and drugs." Drinking cost both their jobs, they said. In her case, she was also taking tranquilizers and cocaine until finally entering a recovery program that worked for her at Hartford's Institute for Living. And Lombardo had high praise for the woman's shelter, Kathryn's Place, where she is well treated. "I am very grateful," she said, "because there are so many people less fortunate." "I have a son who is 37," she said with a broad smile and tears welling up in her eyes. "He is clean and sober." "I went from a luxury condo to a homeless shelter," she said, recalling how she had worked for 11 years at a Bob's Stores clothing distribution center in Meriden. But one day on her way home - after 10 years of sobriety - "I picked up a six-pack of beer and my life went downhill. I lost my bank account, my condo, my Blazer ..." Before the shelter, she had been in a jail cell. Lombardo didn't dwell on the details, although she said with understatement she prefers the shelter. The prison didn't allow her to have a pillow. Remarkably, she is happy. "I love him," she said, as she watched Sestakauskas polish off the turkey on his plate. He has to eat very slowly because of a problem with his throat. They were the last diners to leave the senior center building. The volunteers waited patiently for him to finish every bite. "When I look at my life, the way things are today, I am not singing the blues anymore," Lombardo said, and she even wants to be a volunteer. Sestakauskas is trying to hold down a job in Kensington. "Do you know where I take my showers?" he asked. "The cemetery. Cold water every day. It's invigorating!" Although he was sober at dinner, he said he is still drinking - not to get drunk, just to relax and fall asleep after he has found a place to park for the night. In the past year, Sestakauskas' weight has dropped to 135 pounds from 185, she said. In comparison, Lombardo joked, "I am just a chunky ex-junky." Like Lombardo, Sestakauskas cries when he talks about his children, a 38-year-old daughter and a 39-year-old son whom he hasn't seen in 17 years. "They live in Hyannis. Mom married a doctor," he said, referring to his ex-wife. Sestakauskas worked for the New Britain Housing Authority for 22 years until his drinking cost him his job, he said. "They gave me three days in Elmcrest," he said, referring to the defunct Portland psychiatric institute. "That's where we met," Lombardo said, looking across the table at him. As Sestakauskas and Lombardo left the building, another couple brought together by poverty - albeit in a different way - followed them outside and gave them a huge box of leftover food and nonperishable food items. It was Maj. Stanley Newton and his wife, Maj. Norma Newton, who met each other and fell in love while training to become Salvation Army officers in the late 1980s, so they could help the poor people of the world. At first they were stationed in different parts of the country, but they eventually connected. "I told her brother my intention was to marry her," Newton said, "a year before we dated." She said she didn't believe the story until her brother confirmed it after their wedding. They now run the city's Salvation Army, which is being prepped for construction. The building is to get a significant expansion - for a food pantry. Like the people who live in the shelter, it's a work in progress.
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