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Holy Ground Homeless Shelter director struck by mysterious ailment

HUDSON — For the past 17 years, Lisa Barabas-Henry has operated Pasco's only all-inclusive homeless shelter.

Over the years, she has survived an incident with a gun-wielding client and the near closure of her shelter, all while upholding her belief to provide a haven for those who need it most.

Now, the 49-year-old is battling a host of medical conditions that doctors are unsure how to fix.

She has been in the hospital since Monday to treat an abscess, an enlarged stomach and a pool of blood doctors found in her stomach, said her sister, Marla McDonnell.

Barabas-Henry has been in excruciating pain, McDonnell said. Doctors don't know what caused it, she said.

Barabas-Henry underwent exploratory surgery Friday at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point. McDonnell has been running the shelter at U.S. 19 and Denton Avenue.

Even while in the hospital, McDonnell said, Barabas-Henry has been thinking about her clients at Holy Ground Homeless Shelter.

"She is so devastated," McDonnell said. "This was the first time she wasn't able to have Thanksgiving there. She was beside herself."

Barabas-Henry's illness comes during a busy time of year for the shelter, with temperatures dipping into the mid 40s some nights. McDonnell said the shelter is close to capacity, and that she's prepared to put up tents if there's more demand.

"Especially with the holidays, we do see more people," she said.

On Monday, McDonnell said her sister went to the doctor with an enlarged stomach. She was in pain, and her doctor thought she might have had a blockage in her colon. He told her to go to the hospital.

Barabas-Henry went to Holy Ground and told her family that her stomach was pressing on her diaphragm, making it hard for her to breathe. McDonnell took her to the hospital.

Doctors ran tests, but still weren't sure what had caused the swelling in her stomach.

On Friday, doctors discovered the pool of blood and the abscess in her stomach, McDonnell said, prompting the exploratory surgery. Doctors aren't sure if the blood, abscess or enlarged stomach are to blame for how Barabas-Henry is feeling.

"They don't know what caused the pain," McDonnell said.

Since Barabas-Henry opened Holy Ground, she has endured ups and downs.

After going through hard times in her personal life, Barabas-Henry decided to give back by starting the shelter in the early 1990s. At the time, she had $900, seven clients and a few acres of land.

In 2005, she loaded a caravan of buses with food, water and medicine, and delivered it to victims of Hurricane Katrina. She also brought evacuees back and put them up at her shelter.

In 2006, a repeat client allegedly waved a handgun at her and her mother, demanding money. Barabas-Henry threatened to close the shelter, but backed off when she received financial pledges to keep Holy Ground open.

Joe Salvato, 49, who lives at Holy Ground, said morale has been low since word got out that Barabas-Henry is sick.

Salvato said he has stayed at the shelter off and on since 2002. A felon and former cocaine addict, he credits Barabas-Henry for helping turn his life around.

"She said, 'You can look forward to living the life you've been living, or living this new life,' " he said. "She cracked down on me, and I got it. She's helped me tremendously."

Camille C. Spencer can be reached at or (727) 869-6229.

Where to call

Contact the shelter

Holy Ground can be reached at (727) 863-9123. Marla McDonnell, who is running the homeless shelter in her sister's absence, can be reached at (727) 226-3414.

Holy Ground Homeless Shelter director struck by mysterious ailment 11/28/08 [Last modified: Sunday, December 7, 2008 9:43am]
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