It all started in the mid-1980s with a group of friends who wanted to help.
More than 30 years later, The Life Link has become one of Santa Fe’s success stories, providing housing and services to families and individuals beset by homelessness.
One of the drivers of the effort, Carol Luna-Anderson, 73, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit until last year, got together with friends who wanted to make a difference but weren’t sure how. They would meet regularly for dinners and talk. Initially, they were focused on developing countries.
Then they had a plan that hit much closer to home.
“It was kind of interesting because we looked at each other and we said, ‘You know, we’re willing to do something in another country, and we aren’t doing squat here,’ ” Luna-Anderson said.
Then a nursing administrator at a hospital in Los Alamos, Luna-Anderson and her husband at the time, Carl Luna Jr., took the lead, approaching civic and community leaders to ask what was most needed in Santa Fe. They settled on a mission: a center that would focus on homeless families.
The project’s start was humble.
The group first leased what Luna-Anderson called “a mess” of an old, foreclosed hotel on Cerrillos Road and spent several months repairing broken windows, repainting, furnishing the rooms and fixing the plumbing.
In September 1987, the facility opened as La Luz.
The first family to arrive was a Native American mother and her two children, Luna-Anderson recalled. Within just a couple of weeks, La Luz was filled with families in need.
Luna-Anderson and three other “smart, energetic women” ran the place, she said, helping residents get food stamps and IDs. They were learning on the fly, and one of their major lessons was that there are many reasons for homelessness, including mental health issues and substance abuse.
“They needed a whole lot more than just a place to sleep at night,” said Luna-Anderson, whose hard work in the past three decades has earned her recognition as one of the Santa Fe New Mexican’s 10 Who Made a Difference for 2019.
When La Luz outgrew its first old hotel, it moved into another one at The Life Link’s current site on Cerrillos Road.
Luna-Anderson, who continued to work as a nursing administrator in Los Alamos, would spend her evenings at The Life Link. She became its full-time executive director in 1994.
The organization eventually tore down the hotel and built a new facility on the property. It has since grown to a nonprofit with 89 employees and a $7 million budget, providing 24 permanent supportive housing units on-site, as well as 105 federal- and state-funded units elsewhere in Santa Fe. It employs therapists and caseworkers to help residents with mental health problems, substance-use issues, human trafficking-related trauma and other struggles.
Luna-Anderson became emotional as she recalled the success stories over the years.
“Oh, we have so many, it makes me cry,” she said.
She once received a note from a woman who had visited Santa Fe with her family after being gone a decade. She saw the building was still there.
“That’s where you took care of me and my two kids,” the note said.
Another former resident phoned Luna-Anderson to say she had just graduated with a master’s degree in social work.
“Those are the real differences,” Luna-Anderson said.
Other former clients simply thank her, saying they now have stable housing, are self-sufficient and are participating in the community.
Cheryl Bartlett, 65, was a client of The Life Link in 1993 and went on to become a volunteer.
“I wanted to give back,” Bartlett said.
She had suffered from depression, had been hospitalized a couple of times and was on food stamps. Her caseworkers worried she would become homeless, so The Life Link housed her for 11 months.
“I was alone, and they were all I had,” Bartlett said.
Bartlett described Luna-Anderson as a tireless and dedicated advocate: “She is just unstoppable.”
Luna-Anderson was born in Nauvoo, Ala., and moved with her family — five siblings and four stepsiblings — to California as a small child. She received her nursing degree from San Jose State University before she and her husband moved to Santa Fe in 1973.
After establishing The Life Link, Carl Luna Jr. died in a car accident in 1989.
Six years later, Luna-Anderson married Andy Anderson, who has worked at The Life Link since 1990 and is now its director of operations and training.
Luna-Anderson said she has not retired since stepping down as executive director; she has merely “moved over.”
She continues to serve on city and state boards overseeing mental health policy. She conducts educational programs throughout the state on supportive housing, advance screening and intervention practices. And she is working on “innovative” affordable housing projects.
Reflecting on those first years at The Life Link, she said, “We were people that thought we should do good work. And it was a lot of work. But what I’ve found, which I think is still true today: A lot of people have a really good idea, but if they don’t put actions to that idea, it’s hard to move forward.”