When Nanci Baren walked into the Ruby Rogers Center nearly two decades ago, she had nowhere else to go. She’d been living in her car for several months, and she didn’t know what was coming next. “It was kismet that I ended up here,” says Baren, revealing a big, warm smile.
Since that first visit to the center, Baren has been a member, a volunteer, an assistant and, finally, a director. But in all of those positions, her work has been about giving back to the space, about making it better.
Six days a week, Baren, 65 years old and of petite build, opens and closes the Ruby Rogers Center, a Union Square community of nearly 500 people going through mental health recovery. Established in 1985, the center bears the name of a woman whose case established that the mentally ill must give consent before being medicated. Navigating between a spacious kitchen, a visiting room with a TV and dining table and her busy office, Baren moves quickly to fill everyone’s needs: getting meals ready, helping a member with a housing application, welcoming a first-time visitor.
“It was someplace to go during the day,” recalls Baren of her early visits to the center. “And it was safe.”
As a teenager, Baren longed to experience life at its fullest, even at the expense of safety and stability. At 16, she ran away from her home in Williamsville, New York, and from her controlling father. Though she had little cash in hand and spent her nights crashing with friends, she’s nostalgic for those early vagabond years. “In 1968 I ended up in Haight Ashbury. It was so good then,” she remembers. With her ear-length, wavy hair—parted straight down the middle—she still has the look of a California hippy.
But freedom, she learned, was not always safe. Once, as they hitchhiked through the South, Baren and a friend were picked up in Georgia by a pair of guys who drove them into the hills. When the danger became imminent, Baren acted boldly. She kicked the guy’s knee out, she says, and drove away with her friend in the car of their would-be attackers. (“Never go for the balls, because that’s the first thing they expect,” she says, half seriously.)
She’s always been on the run, it seems. After settling in the Cambridge area, she got involved with a “brilliant and very cute” musician, who became the father of her two children. But his drinking problem wrecked the family, she says. And it wrecked her. When he threw a plate of food against the wall in front of their two kids, Baren knew she had to leave. Only this time, she didn’t have a place to go. She left the home she shared with the musician and found herself on the streets, with only her car for shelter at night, afraid to engage with the world.
Her voice softens when she talks about her children, both boys who are now men in their twenties. “We haven’t been in touch lately,” she says. They’re currently attending college—one in London, another in Ohio. Baren wasn’t sure what they were studying. “Something practical, probably,” she says. She studied philosophy and music at the University of Miami, but never finished her degree. “I’m on hiatus,” she says, “a long hiatus.”
As Baren shares her story, a neatly coiffed woman walks through the Ruby Rogers Center and peers over the top of Baren’s half door.
“We have somebody nearly homeless, and they have no food. If I get them to come here, what do they have to do?”
“Tell them to bring their ID and see me.”
Becoming part of the Ruby Rogers community isn’t difficult. Ghirmai Nigusse, 52, a native of Eritrea, has been coming to the center for five years. He says Baren asks him to check up on members who she hasn’t seen in while. “We’re like a family,” says Nigusse. “She’s our mom, big sister and a guardian.”
Since Baren took over in 1998, the center has become a lot like her, a place that reflects many of her values.
Take, for instance, the focus on serving fresh food. Primarily a gathering space, the center isn’t required to feed anyone. But Baren felt it was important to institute three meals a day, and now, cartons of oranges, boxes of apples and packaged bags of greens create a barricade at the entrance to her office. The metal pantry rack is stacked to the brim with cereals and grains. “You can’t help somebody if they’re hungry,” says Baren simply. (She loves cooking, but tries to refrain from carbs to stay fit.) All the food is donated from local grocery stores and restaurants, and anything that’s leftover, Baren tries to give away. Even the mention of waste makes her cringe.
Vicky I, founder of the local organization Community Cooks, which asks residents to cook meals for neighbors who struggle with food insecurity, has known Baren since 2014. “Whenever I drop by, the first thing Nanci says is, ‘Sit down and have something to eat!’ She’s always generous and appreciative,” I says.
Baren also tries to fill the members’ lives with something to look forward to. She’s gotten free tickets to the Cutler Majestic Theatre, the Paramount, the Museum of Science and other attractions. “Nanci has this amazing talent of getting things for free,” says Harry Agritha, Ruby Rogers activities coordinator and Somerville native. Agritha says Baren writes incredibly persuasive fundraising letters that help the center get all it needs for free, or at the very least, at a significant discount.
During a recent afternoon at the center, members were abuzz about their trip to the CoCo Key water park in Danvers, where they got to stay in a Hilton and enjoy the hotel’s spa and yoga studio. But it’s not all fun and games; when Baren turns down the TV screen to get the attention of the members sitting around the dining table for a daily 1 p.m. member meeting, one of the attendees anxiously inquires, “So, what’s the story about us moving?”
“We’re not going anywhere. At least, not yet,” she responds calmly. Eventually, she admits, Ruby Rogers will likely be pushed out to a less accessible location because of the rising rents in Union Square. “Every time we move, we lose space and gain members,” she says. For years, she’s been advocating for their umbrella organization BayCove Human Services to purchase the space to save money and secure their place in the community. “We’re paying ridiculous rent,” she says, “and I don’t even have a parking spot.”
But little is going to change for Baren—regardless of the center’s location.
“I’m never going to retire,” she says. “I’ll be here until I die.”