Our Story

Project Weber

Rich Holcomb and James Waterman founded Project Weber in 2008.

Rich had just been diagnosed with HIV at the time. Having previously done street-based sex work, Rich wanted to make it easier for the next generation of men living a similar lifestyle to access the services and support that had not been there for him, particularly tools and education for HIV prevention. Rich invited his friend Jimmy to join his efforts, and together, they started the country’s first peer-led outreach program dedicated to serving male sex workers.

Rich and Jimmy gathered a team of dedicated peer advocates, which they decided to call Project Weber “in honor of Roy Weber, one of our own, who was found murdered on Allens Avenue on Christmas Day, 2003,” Rich says. Roy Weber loved making art and spending time with his siblings. He was just 19 when he died.

Rich Holcomb (left) and James Waterman

Street outreach made it clear that clients needed a drop-in center: a safe, nonjudgmental place where they could talk openly about their lifestyles and personal issues with people who were once in their shoes. Rich and Jimmy visited Project Rezo in Montreal, Canada and Project Sance in Prague, the Czech Republic. After observing and adapting the most effective parts of Project Rezo's and Project Sance's drop-in centers, Rich and Jimmy added one key component: peer support. The Project Weber drop-in center opened on October 1, 2013. It was one of the proudest days of Rich’s life.

Project RENEW

Colleen Daley Ndoye, PWR's current executive director, started Project RENEW in 2005 in partnership with community organizations and the police departments in Pawtucket and Central Falls. "People in those cities were asking, 'What can we do to get rid of street-based sex workers?!'" Colleen says. “And I thought, 'We don't want to get rid of people. They're human beings.'”

Project RENEW's original goal was advocating for alternatives to arrest, encouraging law enforcement to connect people who engaged in drug use and/or street-based sex work to RENEW's services instead.

Whoopi Robinson, one of Project RENEW's first peer outreach specialists, first connected with the organization by using near the Project RENEW drop-in center. When Whoopi saw people coming, "I'd run behind the building," she says. “But Colleen and everyone would smile and greet me with "'Hey! Whoopi! How are you?' So I started going [to RENEW's drop-in center] as a safe place to go, cause I knew if I went to the streets, I would use."

Eventually, Whoopi started bringing friends to the drop-in center, too. And whenever Whoopi ran errands with with Colleen, people recognized her, shouted hello, or stopped to talk. Whoopi's community connections made her excellent at outreach, before she realized that could be a job. Within a few months, Colleen had secured a grant, and Whoopi became Project RENEW's first official outreach worker. That was in 2006. Within two years—as a result of RENEW's services— prostitution arrests in both Pawtucket and Central Falls had dropped 90%.

Project Weber/RENEW

Before merging in 2016, Project Weber and Project RENEW "were sort of sister and brother organizations for a long time. We worked in parallel serving different populations,” Colleen says. "Project Weber had a stronger harm reduction focus, Project RENEW had a stronger recovery focus." Despite these differences, the two organizations shared core values. "We were both asking, 'What do people need?' and trying to be there for communities we felt were largely ignored and shunned,” Colleen says.

After a few years, though, the intensity of running Project Weber was taking its toll on Rich. “After we opened, things started to move quickly," he says. "I became consumed with my work. My personal recovery and relationships were sacrificed, and I stopped doing the basic things that helped me sustain my recovery. After two years of running the drop-in center and nearly seven years of complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol, I relapsed. Once I started using, I couldn't stop. I painfully resigned as director of Project Weber.

"Everything I had acquired in those seven years was lost: my home, job, friends, and all of my possessions. I was on the streets and wanting to die. I survived many overdoses, but I couldn't quite get into recovery." Rich remembers hanging out at Kennedy Plaza, Rhode Island's central transit hub, where, seeing people he'd worked with in the recovery community made him feel ashamed.

With Rich gone, the Project Weber board was scrambling to figure out what to do next. Weber was about to lose funding and needed to sustain the drop-in center. That's when Project Weber and Project RENEW decided to merge to serve the full range of people who engage or have engaged in sex work and use substances. The two organizations officially joined forces in March 2016.

There have been lots of challenges since the merger, but Project Weber/RENEW has both endured and thrived. In the early days of COVID-19, when other organizations were closing their doors, we grew to meet the increased needs of the communities we serve.

"It's the same streets as when Project Weber first started, but a much bigger organization than I could have dreamed.” says Rich, who returned to the organization in 2016 as the program manager for Project Weber. “We are still able to carry out the original vision, but we're also able to offer so much more to so many more people. The merger was the best thing that could've happened to this organization."

"We're still doing that core work, the work both organizations were founded to do, but we're also doing more," Colleen notes. “We used to serve members of the trans community on an ad hoc basis, and now we have an entire program centering those clients and their needs. We used to do needle exchange sometimes; now it's offered on every single outreach shift. It's just been this explosion of more—all grounded in compassionate care. And that’s important, because the need is still there, every day.”