BARSTOW - It was tough for the Townsends to talk about Emma Gross leaving. Sitting in a hallway of Desert Manna, Herbert, Melody and their three-year-old son, Joshua, did not want to think about the homeless shelter without the woman they called its soul.

"I hate to lose her," Herbert said. "She's a good friend. She helped us out when we needed it."

He wondered if the shelter could continue without Gross.

The two paused often, sometimes nervous they would start crying, while they related all that Gross had done for them. As executive director of the homeless shelter, Gross helped them out with food, clothing, personal issues, getting their birth certificates, finding their children and even getting them tickets to Tennessee.

And the Townsends are not alone. Many homeless and needy people in Barstow have been helped by Gross in her seven years with the shelter.

"She did a lot," Melody said. "I don't want her to go."

But after seven years, five of which she spend at the head of the shelter, Gross decided to resign and pursue a different career path. She plans to stay in the area and to stay involved with Desert Manna. Helping people, she said, has connected her to this community, and she will miss the people the most when she leaves on Thursday.

"I'm not deserting them," she said, adding that she intends to still help out around the holidays and throughout the year.

Many people remember that Gross' caring heart for the homeless and needy often mixed with a strict consideration for rules and regulations. Melody said that Gross "didn't take no gruff," but appreciated it, claiming it is what helped her get back on her feet. Gross said she had to have a rough side in the business. Sometimes people tried to take advantage of the shelter's services and sometimes people just needed someone to straighten them up.

"If you're just wishy-washy, it doesn't help. You need to have rules and regulations," she said.

Stepping into her post in Jonathan Gilman, who has worked for San Bernardino County for eight years, mostly recently with adult protection services. Gilman said he knows he has big shoes to fill when Gross leaves but hopes to continue to service Barstow's homeless and needy as the shelter has for 22 years, he said.

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(760) 256-4121 or aaron_aupperlee@link.freedom.com