You matter, and your community has your back. That’s the fundamental message Florence Bergmann has tried to impart to thousands of East Somerville children over the past 45 years through her work at the Mystic Learning Center (MLC).
MLC works to break the cycle of poverty by providing a safe, low-cost space for kids and teens to thrive. The center offers after school programs, sports, mentoring, career training, and more.
The 100 elementary and high school students from the Mystic Housing Development and nearby neighbors who show up at MLC each week know Bergmann as Fluffy. Her father invented the nickname based on her childhood love of soft blankets, and the name stuck.
Bergmann’s family moved into the Mystic Housing Development when she was two years old after their home was destroyed in a fire. Six years later, her father passed away, leaving her mother to raise five children on her own.
These early years cemented Bergmann’s belief in the power of community to foster self esteem—an essential survival skill, she says.
“We didn’t have much growing up, but I never felt poor because I had other riches,” Bergmann says. “I had the riches of a family and a building filled with other families, a whole development of buildings with all kinds of friends and people that looked after us.
Bergmann’s work has focused on recreating this sense of family at MLC. Since taking over the program in 1978, she’s encouraged volunteer mentorship, made it possible for the center to stay open later for teens, and built up funding for the center “grant by grant.” She’s also overseen the formalization of MLC’s offerings, including the afterschool program, which is now licensed by the state, and made it mandatory for parents to participate on MLC’s Board of Directors—which ups their stake in the organization, she says.
In addition to fundraising for the center’s $300,000 annual budget, doing paperwork, managing the staff, and running programs, Bergmann has her own set of four mentees.
“The kids just love that individual attention and having that one person who really cares about them and can be their go-to person,” she says.
It’s not so much what you do with the mentees—making a trip to Applebee’s or a bookstore, or tabling at the Summer Activities Fair—as showing a keen interest in them, she explains. Helping local teenagers get paid jobs, like at the center’s afterschool program, also helps give them a sense of confidence—“a chance to shine,” she says.
“I was a project kid [in public housing], so I know what that felt like and I know that sometimes people look down on projects, and people from the projects, thinking, ‘Oh they’re bad people.’ But we’re not! We’re just people that ended up in this development for whatever reason, some kind of struggle or financial difficulty,” she says.
Her deep roots in Somerville—going through the public school system, attending a local church, knowing so many neighbors—have defined her outlook, she says.
Bergmann will retire from MLC in June 2020, leaving the place she’s lived all her life and relocating to a house in the Adirondacks.
“I think I learned about what’s important in life,” she says. “It’s not money that’s important. What’s important is that you live a good life and you’re a good person and that you help other people. So I think that’s kind of what made me stay here all these years, I felt like I was giving back to a community that had given me so much.”
What Bergmann continually circles back to is her feeling of optimism, despite the challenges of uncertain funding and never-ending paperwork. She radiates warmth and she’s not afraid to convey it.
“We’re not a program that says don’t hug the children,” she says. “There’s a lot of love and a lot of hugs in this program.”
This is an online-exclusive story paired with the print Do Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.