12.11 Organizations Making a Difference in Worcester

Giving Isn’t Just for the Holidays, But They’re a Great Time to Start!

By Tine Roycroft and Rachel Shuster

There are a number of amazing non-profit organizations in Worcester and Worcester County that go above and beyond each day to make a difference. Their task has never been an easy one, but with funding cuts and so many people facing the hardships that come in a tough economy, it has become even more difficult ~ as well as more necessary. Here are just a few snapshots of how the efforts of a few can positively affect the lives of many, along with ways that you can help.

Abby’s House

Being homeless is something no one should ever have to experience, but imagine being homeless with small children to care for.

“Currently, we are seeing a lot of single moms with small babies,” reports Alex Kartheiser of Abby’s House. “We’re also seeing a lot of women, 40 – 50, who, due to the economy, lost their house or got a divorce or are fleeing a terrible situation. Many of these women never even considered that one day they might be homeless.”

Abby’s House provides shelter, low-income housing and advocacy for women ~ with and without children ~ who are homeless and in need of support. The shelter is open year-round and run by advocates and volunteers. Each woman who comes to Abby’s House is assigned an advocate who works to help, educate, and empower her.

“We had a woman here who found out her husband was cheating on her and she decided to leave him,” remembers Kartheiser. “The woman then opted to use the money she received in the divorce to open a business. But the economy was bad and the business failed. She came to Abby’s. It was the first time she had realized that she was homeless. She got into our affordable housing and stayed there for about two years. And now she owns another successful business. She moved out, got her own apartment ~ quite a success story. “

How You Can Help   Abby’s House has many volunteer opportunities ~ from helping with their meal service to staffing a shelter to working at their thrift store. You can also support them by attending their fundraising events and making personal donations. For more ways to help, go to www.abbyshouse.org.

Editor’s Note: Abby’s House was recently chosen as one of the 51 shelters in America to receive an interior paint transformation, made possible by Benjamin Moore Paints, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the Paint and Decorating Contractors of America. Mayor O’Brien was even present for the “paint-over” which took place on November 17 and 18.


Worcester County Food Bank

Hunger is a serious problem for many and the Worcester County Food Bank is doing its best to fight against it.

“In our last fiscal year, we found out that in our network of 150 agencies ~ pantries, soup kitchens and shelters ~ we provided assistance to just over 83,000 people,” says Jean McMurray, Executive Director. “That’s just counting each person one time. If we count how many times each of those individuals was helped, however, that total is around 420,000 people for just one year.”

The Worcester Food Bank serves as a centralized collection and distribution point for food donations from supermarkets, food drives, and the state and federal government. There, the food is checked for quality and taste, redistributed to the agencies located throughout Worcester County, and then made available to people.

Recently, McMurray met a man who had come in for assistance. He’d worked in construction until one day when he entered the job site and was told that the business had gone under. With four teenage children at home and no paycheck coming into the house, he realized he was in a dire position.

“He was so relieved we could help, but I could tell it was so very difficult for him to ask,” says McMurray. “We always tell people to call us back if there’s anything else that we can do and for the most part, we really never get calls back so that tells me that they’re getting the help they need.”

How You Can Help   The Worcester Food Bank welcomes volunteers to help out at their Route 9 location. Food drives and monetary donations are also helpful, as well as contacting elected officials regarding the hunger problem. For more info, go to www.foodbank.org/homepage.php

Second Chance Animal Shelter

There’s nothing cuter than a litter of squirming kittens or tumbling puppies. However, if there aren’t enough safe, warm homes for all of these furry friends, a community is then faced with overpopulation ~ animals roaming the streets and living hard lives without human care, facing sickness, abuse, and often death.

Second Chance Animal Shelter has a high-volume, low-cost spay and neuter clinic that is helping diminish the issue of overpopulation. The no-kill shelter actually has a van that drives to certain sites in Worcester, 5 days a week, to pick up scheduled animals for their procedures, making it that much more convenient for owners.

“We’ve also been awarded a grant for a pilot program in which we’ll be going into elderly and low-income housing and providing free spay/neuter and eye care for their pets,” says Sheryl Blancato, president of the board of directors,. “We’ll update their vaccines and we’ll have food available if they need that as well. We’re picking four sites, two in Worcester and two in Southbridge.”

Second Chance also goes into the public schools to teach children about how to care for animals, how to appreciate them, and how to be safe around them. And because of all of their efforts and good work, they have some wonderful success stories.

“Molly [one of the pets] came to us with very severe eye issues,” remembers Blancato. “She was tearing so badly and because she’d never been taken care of, the whole orb of her eye was visible. We had to do multiple surgeries and skin grafts to make certain she was ok. But she’s fine now and very spoiled.”

How You Can Help   If you’d like to help, you can get involved with the spay/neuter program at the shelter. Also, donations are always welcome and adoptions are always encouraged. For more info, go to www.secondchanceanimals.org/index.htm. (To learn about other shelters in the area, check out “Don’t Forget the Animals This Season” in this month’s online Lifestyle section!)

Hope Lodge

A cancer diagnosis can be a terrifying, especially when you have limited finances. Many people live far away from the hospitals where they receive treatment, so in addition to the cost of the medical care, they need to pay for room and board, travel costs and gas. Luckily, Hope Lodge and the American Cancer Society are making this journey to health an easier one by providing free housing, food and transport ~ and a little more peace of mind ~ to their guests.

“Since 1985, we’ve saved people about $1.2 million,” says manager Debra Aharonian. “At Hope Lodge, we have nine beautiful bedrooms. We provide for the social and emotional needs of our guests and when they’re here, they’re not patients ~ they’re guests, and so are their caregivers. We have lot of wonderful friends in the community ~ such as Niche Hospitality ~ and they provide us with a beautiful, welcoming meal for our guests every Monday night.”

Hope Lodge has touched the lives of many, but perhaps the most affected are those Aharonian calls their “frequent flyers,” or people who have had bouts of the same cancer or who are involved in clinical trials.

“They’re like old friends. When they’re here, they feel like it’s their home away from home,” Aharonian says. “And every day I get to work with my heroes ~ people who are survivors.”

How You Can Help   There are countless ways to help support Hope Lodge, according to Aharonian. Groups or individuals come in and cook meals, people can fundraise, donate or offer to be Road to Recovery drivers ~ individuals who can drive HL vans back and forth to the hospitals. For more info, go to www.cancer.org/Treatment/SupportProgramsServices/HopeLodge/Worcester/index

Habitat for Humanity

At one time, the “American dream” included owning a home ~ and it was an attainable goal. But with few jobs available and people accumulating large amounts of personal debt, that dream is becoming harder to reach. Affordable housing and even shelter space is lacking.

Thankfully, Habitat for Humanity not only helps people become homeowners, but also educates them on how to keep their homes.

“We bring private and public and individual resources together to do the home constructions and repair projects. We’re about putting a face on the need for affordable housing and bringing the public into solving the problem,” says Executive Director Harriet Lebow.

A family needs to go through the Habitat for Humanity’s application process in order to be considered for a home and then they are entered into a lottery. Each home is built by volunteers who work alongside the family and each house has a mortgage that the family must pay. In exchange for receiving help, families then go out and help others through the program. And during the process, lives are changed forever.

According to Lebow, one homeowner’s son had behavioral problems at school, but after seeing Habitat’s volunteers help build a house for him and his family, his attitude changed.

“The principal called up the mother and said one day that he had noticed a stark difference in the son’s behavior and attitude and performance in school. The mom attributed it to the son’s realizing that he needed to step up, seeing as how everyone else in the community was stepping up for him,” says Lebow.

How You Can Help   Habitat for Humanity is always looking for volunteers, monetary donations and donations-in-kind of building materials. For more information, go to www.habitatmwgw.org.

Worcester Tree Initiative

Helping people from all walks of life is an extraordinary mission, but Peggy Middaugh is also looking to provide the citizens of today and tomorrow with a lush and healthy environment with the Worcester Tree Initiative.

“The Initiative was started in 2009 by Congressman James McGovern and Lt. Governor Tim Murray in response to the devastation caused by the Asian Long Horn Beetle,” Middaugh says. “We needed to have a very robust replanting effort in the city and to think even longer term than that.”

The effort began with the hopes of giving away trees ~ flowering, evergreen and large shade trees ~ for people to plant in their own yards and teaching them how to care for their trees. Soon after, Middaugh began visiting Worcester-area public schools to plant trees in the schoolyards and teach children about how important they are.

“We spend a week each season in public schools,” Middaugh says. “Our focus is always on education and we want to create long-term tree stewards. Whenever we go to the schools, we bring the city foresters with us and when the trees are planted, the kids take part and there’s a whole educational experience taking place around this. And while they’re still attending that school, they will be the tree stewards tor that tree.”

The Worcester Tree Initiative recently launched a program called the Neighborhood Tree Stewards for people who have the love of trees in their hearts. They will be responsible for taking care of trees and reporting back to the Initiative about their well-being. There will also be a number of upcoming tree-care workshops offered.

How You Can Help   The Worcester Tree Initiative is always looking for volunteers and monetary donations. For more info, visit www.treeworcester.org.

Boys and Girls Club of Worcester

Just because a family isn’t facing homelessness or chronic hunger does not mean that they aren’t in need of community support, especially if children are involved.

“More and more families are telling us that they are losing their jobs, or, if they’re able to get a job, it pays less than what they were paid a few years ago,” says Director of Development Liz Hamilton.  “Parents are also losing their vouchers; they’re not able to afford day care right now.”

For over 122 years, the Boys and Girls Club has been helping the youth of Worcester get the opportunities they need and deserve in order to become outstanding members of the community. Through art, dance, athletics, music, mentoring and providing each child with stability and consistency, the organization helps create strong, smart and determined kids who are ready to change the world. Annual membership is $25, but even if a family cannot pay, the child is accepted on scholarship.

“We’re really proud of our growing arts program,” says Hamilton.  “We have an actual art suite with a music room, a recording studio, and an arts room.  We also have staff who provide keyboard and drumming lessons to children, and we have an incredible dance program as well.”

Success stories are prevalent here, but one that comes to Hamilton’s mind immediately is that of a young girl named Theresa. She was moved from foster home to foster home, but BGC served as a stable force in her life and a place where people believed in her. Today, she is a junior at Clark University and still returns to the Boys and Girls Club to help kids like herself.

How You Can Help   The Worcester Boys and Girls Club always welcomes donations and volunteers. For more information, go to www.bgcworcester.org.

African Community Education

In 2006, it became apparent to Kasko Yawo that children in the Worcester County community who were refugees or immigrants from Africa were experiencing severe gaps in their education. Not only were they so very far from home (many living with American foster parents), but they weren’t able to perform at their respective grade levels.

Yawo began the African Community Education effort ~ an organization that holds all-day education sessions each Saturday, has homework groups each weekday, and goes above and beyond to teach the kids about their own African culture. And all of the programs are free of charge.

“The children LOVE it! You won’t believe it. They more than love it!” exclaims Yawo “One of the things that we do to keep the community going is that the ladies in the community who cook African food, they cook every Saturday for the children’s lunch. So we all share the African food, the African dance and do other activities. Sometimes the children don’t even want to go home ~ you won’t believe how much they love it!”

In addition to making certain the kids are doing well in school, the African Community Education effort also has college prep courses and translation services for adults so that parents from Africa can take a very active and informed role in their children’s public school education.

How You Can Help   Monetary donations are welcome, as the organization’s funding was recently cut and two teachers were let go. Several children are on the ACE waitlist as well. Volunteers are always welcome. Go to www.acechildren.org. for more information

Veteran’s Inc.

America’s veterans have fought for our freedom, our safety, our rights and our futures. Yet the issue of homelessness among our veteran population is a serious one. Across the United States there are 300,000 veterans experiencing homelessness, and every night as many as 200,000 veterans find themselves without a place to sleep. In Massachusetts alone there are about 7,500 homeless veterans.

For over 20 years, Veterans Inc. has been the largest provider of services for veterans and their families across New England. According to Amanda Riik, public relations manager of Worcester’s Veterans Inc., the organization has been able to design a clinical case management approach to address the “total veteran.” They consider the health and wellness, job training, and employment and housing needs of each veteran. They also provide supportive services ranging from transportation to legal advice.

“One of our past female clients said the following,” shares Riik: “Veterans Inc. has made it possible for me to get back on my feet and start moving forward with my life again. When you have a child and are homeless, you still want to stay upbeat so they feel like everything is okay. Veterans Inc. has become a safe and nurturing home environment for us. Without the support I have received so far I would still be moving around from place to place.’”

How You Can Help   There are countless ways to help our local veterans. You can volunteer or begin a donation drive, give monetary donations or explore their Wish List. For more info, visit www.veteransinc.org.

The Shrewsbury Street Area Merchants Association: Giving Back with Toys for Tots

 By Rachel Shuster

The Shrewsbury Street Area Merchants Association (SSAMA) in Worcester makes giving back a priority. This holiday season, the non-profit, volunteer-staffed organization will again participate in the annual Toys for Tots event.

Lori Kelly ~ Treasurer and 7 year member of the SSAMA and Vice President for People’s United Bank ~ along with Lisa Albano-Selzo, Co-Vice President and 10 year member of the SSAMA and designer at Light Lab on Shrewsbury Street ~ believe in the power of this organization and its positive impact on the Worcester community.

Toys for Tots (which is a national program) is particularly important because each year during the holiday season it collect toys at different donation locations and distributes them as gifts to children in the community who would otherwise not have any presents to open and enjoy. And making sure that kids in Worcester County are taken care of is job 1.

“Everyone in the community may have different opinions, but one thing remains, we all want to help children in need,” Albano-Selzo says. When Belmont Street School got broken into, the SSAMA raised money to help get it back to its rightful state.

The SSAMA will kick off their involvement with Toys for Tots on December 1st with a tree lighting ceremony at East Park on Shrewsbury Street, open to the public at 5pm. “At the ceremony, we have Santa light the tree, the City View school choir sings, local officials attend, the Marines put on a parade and we have food and hot chocolate,” Kelly says. You can also bring your toys to the ceremony!

“The Toys for Tots program really gives back to the Worcester area children directly and builds awareness in the community. It doesn’t matter who you are or if you have kids,” Albano-Selzo says.

Other events and projects the SSAMA take on include maintaining the 7 gardens on Shrewsbury Street, raising money to put on such events as the Taste of Shrewsbury Street, Shrewsbury Street Oktoberfest, Shrewsbury Street College Shuffle, and the Shrewsbury Street Walk and Rock. The SSAMA has worked closely with Pulse’s own Paul Giorgio to make several of these events a success with additional advertising and sponsorship.

In the future, the SSAMA hopes to add more gardens and continue to donate money all around. “We’ll do whatever we can to make lives better and have people stay here in Worcester,” Kelly says.

Despite how busy it keeps them, the SSAMA is proud of their work. “The rewards are absolutely worth it,” Kelly says.

How You Can Help   Visit www.shrewsburystreet.com and www.toysfortots.org for more info, including drop-off locations.