“What we know about young people is that they’re at an age of transition, and we can hear their story,” says Antwan Steed. Steed is the Program Director at Shortstop, a transitional living program for homeless young adults ages 18 to 22. He’s been with the organization for more than 10 years and believes that Shortstop’s success comes from its nurturing environment—one that focuses on goals and aspirations unique to each individual. Most homeless young adults don’t have family members supporting them, so Steed makes sure that Shortstop is a place where they can find positive reinforcement.
“We pride ourselves in welcoming all identities,” says Steed, recalling one young gay male who came to Shortstop after his father kicked him out of his home because of his sexual orientation. “It was a blessing to witness this young person blossom from where he thought he did something wrong and he was abandoned by his family, to him graduating and feeling like he can be a part of his community.”
Steed applies a strength-based approach to the support Shortstop provides, meaning that he recognizes that most homeless young adults have been silenced and wants to empower them to find their voice. “We allow a young person to be who they want to be, or we simply coach them on how to be better at what they do,” he says. After an individual assessment, along with resume and cover letter guidance, Shortstop helps young people discover their interests and recognize their potential so they can follow a career or education path that’s the best fit for them. According to Steed, Shortstop doesn’t only provide a platform so that homeless young people can have options; the program tries to remove any limitations.
“I always say, you can go higher and further, but you have to believe and put the hard work into it.”
When Jack Hamilton passed away earlier this year, the line to attend his wake in Union Square stretched out the door and around the block—despite a cold, steady rain—for hours. “A number of people came up to me and told me how he had helped them,” recalls his wife, Kate Cloud. “People who I didn’t know, who I had never met.”
During his 25 years as the executive director of the Community Action Agency of Somerville, Hamilton was committed to helping the city’s vulnerable populations: the poor, the young, those with mental health issues. “Jack loved people,” Cloud explains. “And he had the Irish gift of gab.” He spoke several languages—Portuguese, Spanish, some Creole. In 2008, he told the Boston Globe that “to have fun in Somerville, you have to speak at least two languages.”
“And he attracted people who were also interested in making change,” Cloud says. “He was able to rally people behind him to work on projects.”
Cloud, too, has lived a life of activism here in Somerville. She worked with the Somerville Council for Children throughout the ‘80s, setting up task forces, conducting needs assessments and working with teachers, educators and parents on issues affecting city youth. “In those days, we had a very vibrant community of activists,” Cloud says. “And there was funding for activists.” In the ‘90s, she came on board as the director of RESPOND, the first domestic violence prevention agency in New England. She also served on the board of Resist and was involved in the anti-war and anti-nuclear movement. In fact, she literally wrote the book on parenting during times of war: Watermelons Not War!: A Support Book for Parenting in the Nuclear Age, which came out in 1994.
But while activism was important to both Cloud and Hamilton, they rarely brought it home with them.
“We didn’t really talk about work that much outside of work,” Cloud says. “Home was a place to rest and be comfortable. We could be quiet together.”
Somerville’s annual senior picnic. Trips to Tanglewood, a dude ranch and Florida. Outdoor yoga, home fitness and nutrition advising. Cindy Hickey can speak to all of these varied events and programs, because she’s the one running them for the senior community in Somerville.
“It’s a very small group,” she says of the department she oversees, “but we get a whole lot of stuff done.”
Hickey says she’s held almost every position at the Council on Aging over the past 22 years. The office has a mission of ensuring that seniors can stay in their homes and engaging them as active members of the community. The Council on Aging works to coordinate intergenerational programming, home visits, friendly calling and some medical escorting, as well as outings and events. According to the 2010 census, Somerville has nearly 7,000 seniors. Hickey works tirelessly to find ways to engage each member of this important community.
It’s clear, after speaking with Hickey for even a few minutes, how passionate she is about her work. “You know, it’s that smile on their face when you help somebody,” she reflects. “It’s really completing that circle for them socially, physically, educationally. It’s being of service to them.”
This year, Somerville’s 37th annual senior picnic will be held on August 3rd. Hickey is also the executive director of Toys for Local Children, a charity that provides toys to families in need around the holidays and to fire victims all year round. More information can be found at www.toysforlocalchildren.org.
For the past 10 years, Second Chances has provided free clothing to homeless and low-income people in Somerville and Cambridge. “They’re folks who are doing all kinds of things once they get clothing,” explains founder and CEO Andrea Shapiro. “So we provide the full range of clothing that folks might need, from something to wear to church to something to wear on a job interview.”
Shapiro first discovered the need for this service through her work as a management consultant with nonprofits in the community. She noticed these organizations were receiving an overwhelming amount of requests from the public to take in clothing and other donations. They accepted the donations, hoping there would be a match, but didn’t really have the storage space or the staff to handle the sheer weight. Donations piled up, to the point that one organization had to turn its conference room into a storage room. Shapiro started to think about her own resources and how she could help get these donations to the people who needed them.
“Housing and homelessness and equity in the community have always been things I care a lot about, and I’ve worked most of my career on those issues,” says Shapiro.
She believes that Second Chances is most successful when the people receiving the donations go on to be donors themselves. She recalls a client from about eight or nine years ago—a mother with a two-year-old son who had just left a domestic violence situation and was living at a local shelter. Second Chances brought them clothes several times during their first year in the shelter, and the mother would send them photos of her son.
About a year ago, Shapiro received an email from that same woman. This time, she was contacting Second Chances because she wanted to donate a stroller. Shapiro followed up and discovered that the woman had finished her bachelor’s degree and now has a great job that she loves. She’s living in market-rate housing in Somerville. Her son skipped a grade and is a year ahead at his school.
“Her life is stable; she’s happy, and, best of all, giving back,” beams Shapiro. “Which is a big part of completing the circle—being able to be in the position to give back.”
State Representative Denise Provost has lived in Somerville since 1982. And when we observe that she must have witnessed some significant changes in the city over that time, she responds, “Well, I made some changes.”
She’s absolutely right. During her time as a state representative, a seat she’s held for a decade and for which she’s seeking re-election in 2016, Provost has worked on energy and environmental policy issues, zoning laws and the Green Line Extension. “That’s been a long struggle,” she acknowledges. As an alderman from 2000-2005, Provost led the city through the Assembly Square redevelopment process and capital projects with a focus on good governance.
Provost attended law school at Boston University before accepting a position working for the city of Somerville. She says that when she came here in the early ‘80s, Somerville was known for political corruption and not much else. But under then-Mayor Eugene Brune’s leadership, and with the hard work of residents like Provost, Somerville got back on track. Provost met her husband working for the city in what sounds like a meet-cute straight out of Parks & Recreation—he worked in the auditor’s office, she in the legal office—and they’ve raised their family here.
Today, Provost continues to fight for the people of Somerville on issues ranging from women’s health to clean air to transgender rights. “Somerville always has lots going on,” she says.
“My life was Somerville’s local businesses,” says the Somerville born-and-raised Courtney O’Keefe of her childhood. “I can talk about walking up the street and buying my brother’s birthday cake at Cara Donna’s bakery … I can tell you about going to Frenchies every Saturday for breakfast, going to Gino’s shop on Broadway after church on Sunday. That’s what I grew up with.”
There is, perhaps, no better person to speak for Somerville’s small businesses today, which is why O’Keefe’s role as executive director of Somerville Local First makes so much sense. She’s a frequent patron of the area’s shops, bars and restaurants—not because she has to be, but because she genuinely enjoys connecting with local business owners. Her parents met in the space that’s now Daddy Jones Bar—they ran a business together next door.
“The needs of businesses are evolving here in Somerville,” O’Keefe explains. “When Joe Grafton started Somerville Local First eight years ago, it was really about bringing the business community together. It was about showcasing Somerville as a business destination.” Today, Somerville is a destination, which means she’s addressing new concerns that are specific to business owners in the area. “They want to be here. It’s getting more and more expensive to be here,” O’Keefe says. She’s working with shops and restaurants to foster creative collaborations and points to pop-up markets at eateries like 7ate9 and Slumbrew as one of the ways the business community is rallying together to support one another.
While her Somerville roots run deep, O’Keefe isn’t averse to new residents who have been attracted to the city by its thriving food and cultural scene. “You want to live in Somerville?” she asks. “Great, we already have something in common.”
Though she does wish—as do we all—that you’d register to vote here.
“Our workers are superb. Not a knock on any other city or town, but you won’t get what you get in Somerville.”
Ed Halloran sees his job as more than just union president for the 220 members of the Somerville Municipal Employees Association (SMEA); he says he has a responsibility to the city. Halloran credits his love for the community and his passion for labor law to growing up in tight-knit Somerville neighborhoods—and to coming from a long line of union workers.
“We were always protective of the name of Somerville,” recalls Halloran. “We were street educated, and we learned how to respect the city. I love the old Somerville, but I also love the new one.”
By negotiating for higher wages, better hours and improved working conditions, Halloran defends the rights of workers ranging from librarians to Department of Public Works employees to school nurses. But his efforts don’t end at the union contracts. “We want what’s best for the city, and affordable housing is currently a number-one priority,” he explains. “I’m thrilled to see they actually raised the cap on that to 20 percent.”
Because Halloran believes that an important part of his job is reaching out to the city, SMEA offers scholarships to high school students and is active in local charities and fundraisers. Halloran makes an effort to meet with community organizations like the Somerville Homeless Coalition and Somerville Overcoming Addiction and to connect with people from all wards. “I don’t just sit behind a desk,” he laughs.
“I really do enjoy it, Halloran adds. “We’re only a small labor association, but I always knew this is where I was meant to be. Our workers are so important to the city, and I didn’t want to lose that.”
There isn’t much that Brad Rawson isn’t doing. In addition to raising his 8-month-old son with his wife in Teele Square, he’s the city’s director of transportation and infrastructure and the mayor’s point person on the Green Line and Community Path Extensions. He’s the head of a five-person team that deals with issues like bicycle and pedestrian planning, parks, public space work and forestry issues. And he’s quite literally mapped out Somerville’s future thanks to his extensive work with SomerVision, the city’s comprehensive long-term plan.
“It is grueling work, and we make a lot of sacrifices, says Rawson, “But it’s also very rewarding and special to help shape the community that I live in.”
Rawson got his start in Burlington, Vermont, but moved to Somerville and began working in city hall in 2007 after realizing he wanted to practice as a city planner in a larger, more diverse environment. For Rawson, the main attraction to the profession comes from a basic curiosity about why things happen where they happen. “Every time I’m walking down the street, or I’m on my bicycle or riding the bus or driving around, I’m just fascinated by what I see. You notice different things at different times of day.”
Rawson believes that everything we love or hate about our community is rooted in public policy. To him, the city is shaped by those decisions.
“As planners, we are ambassadors to the public, and we try to make sure that people understand that they have an opportunity to face the future of their communities,” he explains. “Because if we stick our heads in the sand … if we don’t make proactive choices, then the communities will change. And often, they’ll change for worse and not for better.”
“Imagine losing your caregivers and then your siblings,” says Kelley Lane, who started working with Sibling Connections in 2009. “A lot of times, the kids in our program depend upon each other. Big brothers and sisters parentify; they care for these siblings, they change their diapers—and then they get separated.”
In foster care, siblings are often separated due to the lack of available homes. But with Sibling Connections, Lane has been fighting to keep them together.
Brothers and sisters participate in the program for up to six years, during which time they’re picked up once a month for sibling days that involve activities like rock climbing and roller skating. Sibling Connections also offers week-long overnight camping trips where kids spend their days reconnecting and sharing new experiences, all of which are photographed and documented in scrapbooks that participants take home with them.
This is a personal cause for Lane, who was herself separated from her siblings in the foster care system. “That’s what drives me to do the work,” she explains. “Had my siblings and I had the program, I think we would have a better relationship than we do now.” Lane lived in seven foster homes throughout her youth, and at just 20 years old, she knew she wanted to begin fostering herself. She and her partner, Jeff, have welcomed more than 40 kids into their Somerville home over last 12 years, and they’re in the process of adopting their fifth child. It’s selfless work, and it isn’t always easy, but people have taken note of Lane’s efforts. In December, her work with youth earned her a profile in Good Housekeeping.
“A sibling relationship is the longest relationship you’re going to have in your life,” Lane says. “If you lose your caregivers, you still need that sense of who you are and where you came from. I think that siblings do provide that for one another.”
Building something with your own hands is a powerful experience.
No one knows this better than Metro Pedal Power founder Wenzday Jane. As a child, she was always eager to learn how things worked. This curiosity drew her first to art school, then to a metal fabrication shop in downtown Boston. Eventually, she started building bicycles on the side.
Metro Pedal Power was born in the summer of 2007. Jane wanted to create a business from the ground up and saw an opportunity for a company that provided distribution-by-bike for goods on a local scale. Today, Union Square-based Metro Pedal Power’s 10 employees provide home distribution for farm CSA programs, act as a conduit between small farmers and local restaurants and perform recycling pickup for the city of Cambridge.
Jane views the accessibility and affordability of bicycles, not to mention their environmental benefits, as a key component of her business model and her personal worldview. “To me, bikes are about autonomy, freedom, self-reliance,” Jane says. “When I started riding a bike as my primary mode of transportation, with every pedal stroke I was awakening the knowledge that it was my own power that was going to get me where I needed to go.”
Let’s put it this way: “I definitely wouldn’t be running a distribution company with trucks,” she laughs.
This story originally appeared in our July/August print edition, in which we profiled 40 local leaders who make Somerville great. The magazine is available for free at more than 150 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
Check back next week for profiles 31-40!