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Talking Across the Lines: Astrid Williams

Michael and Carrie Kline of Talking Across the Lines sat down with Astrid Williams about Mrs. Williams’ life experiences growing up in the Northeast, her long and illustrious career in human services with Community Chest in Concord, Massachusetts, and much more. Press the Play button to stream the audio and follow along with the interactive transcript.

Carrie Kline: Okay, today is the twenty-fifth of September. I’m Carrie Kline here with my husband and partner, Michael Kline, who’s taking notes here. Could you tell us your name?

Astrid Williams: Astrid Williams.

Astrid Williams addressing friends and colleagues at a celebration of her retirement from Community Chest.
Astrid Williams addressing friends and colleagues at a celebration of her retirement from Community Chest.

CK: My name is—

AW: My name–? Oh, my name is Astrid Williams.

CK: Okay, and your date of birth to put this in some perspective?

AW: Sure, April 12, 1959.

CK: Okay, and tell us about your people and where you were raised.

AW: Okay. I grew up in Vermont in a small town called Fayston, which is associated with Waitsfield, Vermont, which was at the base of three ski areas, Sugarbush, Mad River, and Glen Ellen.

A map of Fayston, Vermont, where Astrid Williams grew up.
A map of Fayston, Vermont, where Astrid Williams grew up.

CK: Base of what? I’m sorry.

AW: Of three ski areas—Sugarbush, Mad River, and Glen Ellen ski areas. So I grew up in Vermont with my parents and two brothers until I left for college in 1977.

CK: Their names?

AW: My father is Arthur Williams, and my mother was Hannah Nielsen Williams. And my brothers are John Williams and Nathaniel Williams. And my parents moved to Vermont from Connecticut to start teaching school in a one-room school house in Vermont. And my father was one of the first founders of Sugarbush ski area. So we stayed there and grew up skiing, and my father went on to be a state legislator and then ran the Vermont Council on the Arts until his retirement. And my mom was—worked for the Associate of Architects in Vermont. And I went to the local elementary and high school there and then on to New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, for my college degree. When I left college, I moved to Concord.

CK: Why would you do a thing like that?

AW: (laughs) My best friend from college (laughs) was a year ahead of me and moved to Concord and I wanted to get out of Vermont. I felt like I was—as my parents said—too big a fish in a small pond, so I moved to Concord just following a friendship from college and fell in love with it and have stayed here on and off ever since.

CK: So that was in the early ‘70s?

AW: So I graduated in 1981 from college, so in 1981 I moved here.

CK: Sorry, I skipped a decade.

AW: Yeah. So I graduated from high school in ’77 and then moved here in 1981 and then moved into Boston when I was single, moved back out here when I was married, did two brief stints in San Diego, California, for America’s Cup, and then moved back here to Concord again.

CK: Wow.

AW: So it’s been—I’m considered an old timer now by a lot of Concord standards. (laughs)

CK: So what kind of a big fish were you, and what was Concord like in ’81?

AW: Well, you know, growing up in a small town in Vermont, everyone knew each other, so I really—I was wanting to stay in Vermont because I felt that that was where my roots were and that’s where everyone knew me. Then I moved to Concord, and it was much smaller than it is now. I mean, there was a lot less building. I mean, some of the older—you know—the historic downtown was the same, but there’s been significant growth like in every community since 1981. I rented houses in West Concord and then over on Garfield Road and then bought our first home here on Monument Street. Then I now lived in West Concord again and now on Elm Street, so I’ve moved around a little bit in town.

CK: What was West Concord like in the early ‘80s?

AW: A lot as it is now. I mean, it sort of had the same downtown feel to it, the West Concord Five and Ten, some of the same—a few of the same stores were still there. The West Concord Supermarket was there then. I actually walked to the train and was taking the train into Cambridge when I first got out of college to work in a bank. But the infrastructure hasn’t changed a lot in the downtown area, except recently there’s obviously a lot of new building going on sort of behind the main façade of West Concord. It’s a lot more crowded now. There are a lot more commuters, a lot more people coming into Concord and staying here now with big apartment buildings. So I think the whole community scene is different, and the amount of people you know and don’t know has significantly changed since I was here.

The West Concord 5 & 10 is a local institution.
The West Concord 5 & 10 is a local institution.

CK: More commuters now?

AW: More commuters now, yes. And we’ve—you know—Concord’s had a significant growth in affordable housing and public housing since I first moved here, so you’re seeing a lot more people who are coming here either by choice or by Section 8 housing, so there’s more people trying to come here to work—and then get into Boston to work. And no development now, as you’ve probably heard, goes—multiple units of housing don’t happen here without affordable housing attached to them. So you’ll see it’s a higher density population and bigger structures than we ever saw before. My previous job was very much concerned with people in those types of situations that were sort of put here because that is where they were told to go or could afford to go. In my human service work, I really saw that population most significantly.

CK: Your human service work?

AW: So I ran the Concord Carlisle Community Chest, which is a local nonprofit that has been around about sixty-six years now. It started in 1947, and it was really the first offshoot of the United Way. So before the United Way became the United Way, it was really Community Chest, like your Monopoly board. And they were the major fundraiser for all human service organizations in town. I took over as executive director in 1997 and directed that organization for sixteen years. So we raised over half a million dollars a year and gave it out to any organization that was serving Concord and Carlisle residents, and it was a non—not-for-profit. So I really got to see the amount of need in town and how that grew and changed and—as part of history, this organization really did only—the only fundraising for the hospital when it was originally founded. So I’ve seen the significance in the amount of nonprofits that have started here in town in the last sixteen years, sort of groundbreaking in many ways that are now going out to be sort of national organizations like some domestic violence programs, some—Community for Restorative Justice, which is restorative justice in the—you know—the police force uses restorative justice now especially with teens, so there are some groundbreaking things that were done here in Concord that are now really models for national nonprofits.

CK: Restorative justice–

AW: Uh-hunh (affirmative).

CK: –is–?

AW: So it’s the belief that sort of first-time offenders, especially youth, when they do something of nature that they could be actually charged with—vandalism, alcoholism, anything that’s some kind of reckless—reckless—I’ll say, I guess it’s mostly vandalism or robberies—they can—the chief of police here in Concord can decide to, instead of charging them formally and having a record, they can go through what they call restorative justice, which is a program where—and works most well when you have a victim and an offender, and they really believe—it started in New Zealand many years ago before we took it on, but it hadn’t been in this country really before—

CK: Hold on just a minutes.

AW: Oh okay. (laughs)

Michael Kline: Would you mind taking your wristwatch off?

AW: Oh surely. Yeah, it’s clicking.

MK: It’s just this microphone—

AW: –picks up all the—

CK: –the glass table–

AW: Oh yeah, right.

CK: –everyone’s jewelry.

AW: Yeah right, exactly.

MK: I was (taps fingers) a real finger tapper at one time, and I remembered that I just purchased a footpad—

CK:0:09:19.4 (???) (inaudible). Okay, so restorative justice.

AW: Right.

CK: Second chances.

AW: So it’s a program that allows people who’ve offended people, usually through acts of vandalism or acts of drinking and injury or drinking and ending up in a situation where they’ve been arrested, to make whole with the victim, which is either a store owner in a case if he defaced their property, with a homeowner if you’ve gone ahead and smashed their mailboxes, to sit down and hear the victim’s side of the story and how it felt to have themselves victimized. And then the offender, usually a teenager though it’s spread a little bit to adults now, has to make amends by apologizing and doing some kind of community service to rectify their misdeed.

CK: And where would this take place, this sort of interaction?

AW: At the police station. They have a—the Community for Restorative Justice has an office right at the police station, and it’s a group of volunteers, and they have a director. So those are the kind of things I raised money for, sort of helped get off the ground here in Concord, which is what makes Concord such a unique town because there are so many people here, it’s always hired—the town’s always believed in hiring great people who are innovative and willing to try something outside of the box. And this is an example of that.

CK: That’s fascinating. So yeah just, will you talk more about both the need and the organizations that you are working with?

AW: Sure, sure. So I think because Concord has the hospital—Emerson Hospital—here, I think it’s a good landing pad for a lot of people who are trying to do work helping other people, and I think the Community Chest, which I ran, was really a great catalyst to providing funding fairly simply for startup organizations or keeping—our belief was really the people who know how to do the work are good at what they’re doing, but they’re not good at raising the money to keep themselves going. So which is sort of the way the United Way’s whole philosophy started as well. And so a lot of organizations came here thinking they had a good idea and they’re obviously looking for a foothold here in Concord either because there are a lot of good people with a lot of abilities to help or volunteer or there is a good network with the hospital to be able to establish a great mental health clinic here, one of the last freestanding mental health clinics probably in the state. We have a great food pantry program, Open Table, all volunteer run.

A wing at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Massachusetts.
A wing at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Massachusetts.

I was really on the forefront of developing two programs totally based out of what we were seeing not happening in town, and both of these programs were actually—one’s going to be on the front page of the Concord Journal today, but we started—we had some suicides with our teenagers. Our first significant one was probably twelve years ago, and this again sort of harkens back to–a nice wealthy town like Concord has those in need, and this was a mom in public housing. We have a large percentage of single moms in public housing here that are Section 8 vouchered, which means that they are told—they want housing, but they’re told they need to go where they need to go. And some people are happy to end up in Concord, because the school systems are good, but a lot of people are not happy to be in the situation where their kids are exposed to a lot of other wealthy children, there’s no transportation. So this young boy committed suicide on Father’s Day, hung himself in his bedroom. The police arrived there, and the table was covered in unpaid bills, and apparently this boy was very distraught about his mother’s inability to find work and the financial situation. Dad was out of the picture.

So I convened all the major players in town, and that was the police chief, the head of public housing, the town manager, recreation department, and said, “How does something like this happen? What are we missing? And how can we help?” And we really found out that—the head of public housing said, “There is no good support system for parents in public housing that–” They’re given a house here in a town, and that’s it, and there’s a lot else that needs to support that. So we started—I said well I think—one—the gentleman said, “I think we can—if we had a town social worker, we could really address helping some of these people in public—mostly in public housing.” So they said we don’t have the money. Well the Community Chest funded it. So I went to my board of directors, and we founded the Community Outreach Coordinator, which is a town-run position no but funded in its entirety by the Community Chest. Now the town is just picking up some of the hours because there’s such a need for her now that they’ve increased the hours from twenty to forty hours a week. And this woman just helps people. It’s free of charge to any town resident, and they can—she focuses a lot on her work around public housing and affordable housing, which is—affordable housing’s really—if you’re building high market apartments, you can relatively charge less for some units that make them affordable. But they’re still a stretch for some people.

So she provides help with getting food stamps, finding medical help, finding fuel assistance, mental health clinics, clothing, housing, and so that was one of the kind of positions that was able to be started here because we had people who really cared, people who were willing to say, “Yes, we can do this,” and an organization like Community Chest that said, “Okay yes, we can fund it.” So that was a great way to start a program here that is now taking off in other towns. You’re seeing surrounding towns now decide they need community social workers as well that are really helping populations that are maybe immigrants that have moved here who have no way of knowing how to work the system. Just if you’re in need and trying to get Medicaid or Medicare or food stamps or even fuel assistance, the amount of bureaucratic red tape is amazing.

So that was one position we started, and then three years ago, we had another rash of suicides at the high school. We had three or four children commit suicide again within a really short period of time, and again I was able to convene all the players and mostly the school—parents were outraged, kind of really focusing on what the schools were missing in these kids’ deaths. The superintendent of schools said, “This isn’t just a school problem. This is a community problem.” You know? We have these kids six hours a day, but the community has them twenty-four hours a day. So we really decided we needed a youth coordinator or a youth worker for the town of Concord. It had been tried on and off before, and so the superintendent of schools turned to me and said, “Astrid, I want this to happen. I want you to fund it and the town to manage it.” So we now have a youth coordinator who works with our community outreach person in the same building, and she’s really focused on resources for kids in need and really helping support the schools with education and opportunities for kids and really hoping to sort of help kids from falling through the cracks, or have parents have resources to help their kids. So those are two programs that were really allowed to get going here without a lot of red tape, which is what really makes Concord resourceful and innovative. And we have great town managers, great police chief that are willing to really see that things need to happen and work to make them happen. So it was really the beauty of my job, which is why I think they asked me to come and talk to you today because I’ve worked—have worked so much with sort of that population of people in Concord and—

CK: The population–?

AW: The population of people in need. Well, sort of the combination of working with other town officials, but also really seeing the amount of need that’s out there, seeing the kind of organizations that are helping people in need for from a recreation standpoint to a lot of work with the elders. We have a—as we do in this whole country—a huge growing population of senior citizens, and I’d say forty percent of our funding went to helping with Meals on Wheels, elder abuse, elder daycare, and so we have significant organizations that do that kind of work here as well. So I think it was a really unique opportunity to run a really locally based umbrella organization to sort of be in the know of who was doing what and who wasn’t and what things needed to be done in a relatively contained area and make a huge difference. Domestic violence—the rate of domestic violence in Concord is per capita the same as it is in Boston, again something that people just don’t see. As we always say, “There’s a long driveway without a lot of—neighbors don’t hear the commotions.” So I think it’s been really eye-opening to try to get people to pay attention to that in a town where everyone loves all the great trails we have and the beauty and the history and really also focus on those things that are not working so well and make them better.

CK: How? I mean, it’s so important.

AW: Yeah.

CK: How do you address that?

AW: Well I think just allowing—I mean—again the police chief at the time is no longer the police chief. Len Wetherbee really believed, along Community and Restorative Justice, in the domestic violence issue. Len really felt there was a problem here, so he wanted to Community Chest to fund a domestic violence program, which has now expanded from Concord to serving probably twenty communities in the surrounding area. We have an executive director of the Domestic Violence Victim’s Assistance Program, and she trains advocates so that any time a—there’s a domestic violence call or there’s a suspicion of domestic violence, the police hands cards to the abused and say, “I would love you to be in touch with our program here. They’ve got great resources.”

CK: Such as?

AW: Well, you know, they’re obviously the ability to one, figure out how bad the situation is, and if you would like to leave, how are we going to help you leave? They will also have—they have advocates come and sit with people in court, which is—they’re all volunteers from Concord, because that is—you’ve heard it even nationally lately with the NFL. Victims are very reluctant to, one, admit there’s a problem; two, prosecute against it; and three, leave. The culture here has really become, we’ll help you leave. We’ll help you feel safe. We’ll help you. We’ll go to court with you. Don’t not file that restraining order. File the restraining order. We’ll sit with you in court and help you go through that process. So again, something that I feel is unique to Concord that started, and now every town and police—really out of the police offices—have domestic—this program, domestic violence victim’s assistance, in place and use these advocates to help victims. And it can be women. It can be children. It can be parents of—who are being abused by their teenagers, and husbands that are being abused by wives, elderly people who are in an abuse situation. And Community Chest, for example, gives them forty-five thousand dollars a year to help with that kind of programming. And we are probably the largest funder of many of the programs that are helping people in this town. Programs that have under a million dollar budget, Community Chest is probably their largest sole grantor. And every year, everyone has to apply for grants, so it’s not a given that you’re going to get this money year after year, but—so it was a great opportunity to really make a huge difference in a town where it’s hard to see the difference needed to be made in some cases. And just to have the opportunity to work with really great people who believe in helping other people, as well.

We’ve kind of always been associated with Thoreau and Walden Pond and our environmental causes, but there are a lot of people doing great work here that are trying to better it. We have probably one of the largest Arc programs in the state too, Minute Man Arc, which is the Association for Retarded Citizens. They see them employed in a lot of our stores here, and they run a bid day-hab program in West Concord. So they have a lot of housing here in Concord.

Walden Pond, made famous by Henry David Thoreau.
Walden Pond, made famous by Henry David Thoreau.

MK: Ark, A-R-K?

AW: A-R-C. Yeah, it’s a national program, but the one here, Minute Man Arc, is probably one of the largest.

CK: Largest in terms of–?

AW: How many they’re helping—people they’re helping. And they have a big early intervention program which is really reaching kids between the age of six months and three years, kind of getting in there and intervening before they get really developmentally delayed or have problems with walking, talking. So again, we gave them sixty thousand dollars a year in funding. Elliott Mental Health Clinic, which is the only mental health clinic with sliding scale fee, Community Chest again gave them sixty thousand dollars a year so anyone who wanted mental health— You know, a big barrier to getting mental health is, “I can’t afford counseling.” And we’ve obviously made great strides in Massachusetts with our Affordable Care Act, so—which is why it’s important for the country. So people here can access more health and mental health services than in many places. But when I first started this program, a lot of people were not getting counseling. A lot of the kids from the high school who needed therapy, parents couldn’t afford it, they just didn’t do it. So, you know, if anyone came and needed mental health counseling and psychiatric evaluation and medication, they were able to afford it because of our funding for that.

MK: Were there class issues in how local residents respond to mental health services?

AW: Absolutely. I mean, I think mental health is still a big taboo in this country in general, and I think it’s not—suicide in itself, as I think you’ll see quoted in the Concord Journal today. We’re doing a big Walk Out of Darkness. It’s a suicide prevention—national suicide prevention program. But we’re the regional—we’re going to do the regional walk in two weeks, and we have the Carlos Arredondo, whose son committed suicide. He’s the Boston Marathon famous guy with the cowboy hat who helped save the guy whose legs were blown off in the bombing at the Boston Marathon. Well, he’s coming out because his son committed suicide after his other son died in Afghanistan. But you know, his message has always been about his son’s death, but he got famous because of saving somebody else at the Boston Marathon bombing.

Carlos Arredondo (in the cowboy hat) with Jeff Bauman, Jr., the man Arredondo helped save in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.
Carlos Arredondo (in the cowboy hat) with Jeff Bauman, Jr., the man Arredondo helped save in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.

 

But as I say in the Journal, mental health is still very much of a stigma, and I think that people—the schools—most of my work really took place with the schools seeing kids coming to school depressed or self-medicating and parents being in total denial that their kids are suffering from depression, suffering from anxiety disorders, or the parents are themselves. And it’s all swept under the rugs. The middle school principal came to me and said, “I have kids who tried to commit suicide the night before, and their parents send them to school the next day and tell me—don’t tell me. And I see—and they are in denial, and therefore they expect us to fix it. Or we don’t know there’s a problem, and they’re failing out of school.” So I think—and a little bit of a different stigma than in other towns where you may see a lot of people on lower socioeconomic rungs sort of—there’s a different atmosphere about mental health and how it’s treated. But at this level, it’s everyone’s perfect. You know? Our kids are all at a very high-performing high school. We all want them to go to very high-performing colleges. And we don’t—there is no depression here. It’s all rah-rah. So I think really identifying those kids that are in need or parents that are in need and helping provide the services, it takes a lot in a town like this to be able to admit that you’re not doing well or your kids are not doing well mentally. One thing, if they go and have a football injury, or concussions are now a big thing here, they deal much more seriously with that kind of issue than if your kid’s having a breakdown or using drugs. That they just don’t want to hear about and want to ignore. So having resources in a town like this are critical, but getting people to access them because of the stigma attached with it is very hard.

MK: Do you have higher degrees in social work? I mean, how could you have prepared yourself to deal with all of these levels of social stuff that you have dealt with?

AW: I have an undergraduate degree in sociology and psychology, so—which was—actually I did a brief stint in social work in Barre, Vermont, in the Department of Vermont’s Social Services. And I thought, I can’t do this every day. This is really tough. And I was actually dealing with a lot of other social workers who were burned out. Like, don’t—forget her. They’re always in here with some problem or another. So I was sort of disillusioned pretty quickly. So I went on to get my master’s degree at Lesley University in Cambridge in master’s of science in nonprofit management, so it was a great way to meld my love of taking care of people but removing it by one step and sort of helping to support the people who really are on the front lines. And being able to say yes, I’ve seen that need. I understand it’s out there, and I can support you in doing your work by raising the money to get you—to have the—so you can do your job, which is really the goal, which is great for people who are trying to feed a hundred and fifty people here every Thursday night at First Parish Church. These are great volunteers who love to serve dinner to guests, but they don’t know how to go out and ask people for money to do it and to run the food pantry. So Community Chest was giving twenty-five thousand dollars a year so they can go buy meat and eggs and milk and stuff that is—and I’ve sort of partnered with a local—Gaining Ground, which is a local garden—organic garden—so it brings them fresh produce, organic produce, to these food pantries.

The unique garden loom at Gaining Ground, a non-profit organic farm in Concord, Massachusetts.
The unique garden loom at Gaining Ground, a non-profit organic farm in Concord, Massachusetts.

CK: You support Gaining Ground financially?

AW: Yes, yes, yes. So with about twenty thousand dollars in funding a year, mostly for help staff and then they have a big volunteer program, as well. And then we said to Gaining Ground, we’ve got all these people in public housing that are ashamed to go to Open Table. They don’t want to be seen in Open Table on Thursday night, but they would love the access to fresh food. So they set up with our community outreach person behind her building on Saturday mornings, it’s called Food for Families, and any family from public housing can go there on Saturday mornings during growing season and get fresh produce without having to go to the food pantry.

CK: How was that need identified?

AW: It was really between Gaining Ground and Open Table who were kind of saying—Gaining Ground saying, “We have a lot of produce that we’re actually sending into Boston. But we still think we’re not getting everybody here in Concord that could access–” I mean, I think as we all know, those at poverty level are probably—are poor eaters either because of cost, especially for organic produce. And so Gaining Ground said, “I think we can use our produce better out here in addition to what we’re giving to the Thursday night programs,” and our community outreach person said, “I’m happy to put a letter out to all the people I know that are here in vouchered housing. And it’s been oversubscribed every summer for the last 3 summers. So they take about forty families.

CK: What’s a subscription?

AW: I mean, all you have to do is sign up

CK: Just sign up.

AW: There’s no cost, yeah.

CK: To go behind that—

AW: Yeah, right. So they can control how much the people that really need it are getting it. And then people are committed to coming every Saturday.

CK: And how many folks do that?

AW: About forty families. So multiple bags of produce every Saturday, I think till probably the end of October.

CK: Forty out of—I wonder how many are even–?

AW: So I think there are probably about—now about sixty units of public housing, so it’s a large percentage that are actually accessing the food. And everyone has—I think if someone wanted it and couldn’t get it, they’d be encouraged to go to Open Table on Thursday nights. Open Table, I don’t know if you’ve heard about that. They serve a meal, but they also have a pantry. So every person is allowed two bags of groceries, which include produce, all to take home with them every week.

CK: Every person that shows up with a voucher or–?

AW: Shows up no questions asked, which is becoming a little bit of an issue, I think, because they’re growing so fast. Again, some of these surrounding towns, people know that on Monday night it’s Acton is offering that. On Tuesday night it’s Bedford, and Thursday night it’s Concord. So there’s a—there is the ability to access most of these pantries without any qualifier whereas in a lot of places you’re asked to show need by your tax returns or some kind of filing. But Open Table just offers anyone that wants to come for a meal and have groceries to come.

CK: So one or the other or both?

AW: Right, or both, yeah.

CK: And that’s become a problem then?

AW: I think it’s—yeah, they’re sort of outgrowing the amount of people they can handle a night. I think they can serve about a hundred and fifty to a hundred and seventy-five dinners a night. And some—especially in the winter months, you see a lot more than that coming through the door. Some people drive out from Boston to get food because they know it’s very low entry point. I mean, it’s very easy to get.

CK: So is that taking advantage, are you saying?

AW: I don’t—I mean, I think that would be arguable. I think as a funder of things like that, I started to argue that point a little bit, that—you know—you might at least want to—I ask them to at least tell me—survey who’s coming through your doors. Is it Concord and Carlisle residents? Or are seventy-five percent of the people coming from Jamaica Plain? To have some sense of where the need really is and where their services are being used, especially if an organization like the Community Chest is really funding things that help local residents versus people from another town altogether, and maybe taking away from people who really need it here in Concord because there is a shutout or whatever.

CK: For the population in Concord, are we talking about people of color? People who have moved in from out of state? Are folks getting integrated into the social scene here?

AW: Not really. I think people, as I said, either come here because they’re vouchered housing. They could move here from Virginia, let’s say. The move up here because they think they’re going to get a job, and they want to get into public housing which is—you kind of pay whatever you can afford. And they—maybe an immigrant population would much rather be in a lull where they have more people who’ve also immigrated from their native country or native area, but they say, “We’ve got some affordable housing in Concord. You need to take this if you want a place to live.” So they come here. If they have children it’s great, because the school systems are very good here, but there’s no public transportation. There’s no way for a single mom to maybe get—there’s a train into town—but to maybe get to the train or get to a doctor’s appointment without a car. So they tend to be isolated. And I know, for example, at Open Table there was some question about having to go around in advance to pick up some people who couldn’t walk to the center of town with their children or get groceries or whatever, so they do provide transportation or meals will be brought to people’s homes if they’re unable to get here. So I think that a lot—there isn’t a lot of integration for people who are really struggling here. They kind of keep their shades closed and they send their kids off to school, and they really stay—a lot of these moms are unable to find jobs, are unable to work without any backup. Many of them are without child support. So we have great after-school programs here so that if a mom is working kids do have a place to go from school till the parent gets home

CK: And then they’re transported?

AW: By the buses, yeah. But again, at 6 o’clock the mom needs to come get them somehow, so again that can be a problem.

CK: She has to come get them?

AW: Right, right. There’s no way for those children to get home from after-school programs. So but that is the biggest issue we’re still addressing in Concord, I think, which is—we’ve been talking about it for the last sixteen years—is transportation, (laughs) you know, in communities where you really need it. It’s just been hard to make it work where people will use the public transportation or it works on a schedule for everybody. So it’s very hard.

CK: How do those conversations go?

AW: I mean, we all agree we need it. It’s just figuring out a way—we actually started one—I’m sure—I don’t know—you probably interviewed Phebe Ham at one point. I don’t know if you’ve interviewed or heard people talking about Phebe Ham, a long-time resident.

CK: H-A-M-M?

AW: H-A-M, I think. Longtime resident here, started a community bus, and it was an old school bus. It drove around town trying to pick up people to take them to errands. First of all, it was a huge school bus. It was hard to find drivers for it, and people just weren’t using it, so again, it’s been really hard. Everyone agrees some kind of transportation would be great, but no one can figure out how to make it work well and be effective and really get—

MK: –and affordable.

AW: –and affordable, right.

CK: I mean, if that’s too big then wouldn’t a start be a smaller vehicle?

AW: Right, our best hope is COA vans. You know, Council on Aging vans, and they—the age over-60 can get around pretty well with the COA vans. It’s kind of the teenagers and the single moms that there’s been—finding drivers even for the COA vans is tough because it’s all volunteer.

CK: There’s no budget or couldn’t be?

AW: You know, the budget’s fairly large for COA. In fact, the Community Chest funds three positions for the Council on Aging, social work positions, mental health positions there. So they were just able to finally get a new van that they very much needed, so it’s pretty tight.

CK: Why? It’s hard for me to fathom in a town like Concord that they couldn’t even hire drivers for older folks.

AW: Yeah, I don’t—I think that it’s been really hard to find people that want that kind of job or—

CK: For pay?

AW: Yeah, for pay even. Bus drivers are sort of the—there’s a big crew of them, but for the Council on Aging, it’s usually other aging people that are driving these vans. So I think finding someone to just—I mean—ideally it would be great if we had a service that would just—like an Uber. You could call up and say, “I need a ride to the doctor’s,” or “I need a ride into the grocery store,” and have someone at the ready. There just isn’t something that’s cost-effective yet to—that we’ve been able to identify and make work yet, but I know it’s sort of on the—it’s on the forefront of the town’s planning. So we’ll definitely keep looking at how we can make it effective and look at other towns that are in similar situations.

CK: Is there a taxi system?

AW: There is a taxi system, Sunshine Taxi. They’re kind of around, but they’ll come and you can call them and they’ll come. Again, affordability for some people is a big issue.

CK: So it’s big—so the class divide is hanging on.

AW: Oh absolutely, absolutely. And I think there’s opportunities for some people to be here that want their kids to be in a good public school system that have places to live now, but again, it’s still they feel very much divided about—their kid doesn’t have the new iPhone 6 and the hundred-dollar sneakers. We have a big METCO program here to. I don’t know if you’re familiar with METCO, which is the inner—sort of—bussing out kids out of Boston to come to school here every day. So there is a divide. It’s—these kids are being offered a great education, but they’re being bussed out of Boston at 5:30 a.m. in the morning and bussed back in at night. The parents aren’t integrated into the community. The kids all—I don’t know if you’ve read that great book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting at the Lunch Table Together? I mean, again, they hang with their own group of friends or the kids that they’ve come down from Boston from. They’re kind of, again, fighting uphill against—it’s great to have a great education, but at what price does that come for your socialization and your–? So it’s been a great program, but it’s also been fraught with problems, as well. Again, the class issue again.

CK: Does the Community Chest play a role in helping schools unravel that?

AW: We’ve not really gotten involved in the METCO situation, because it’s a state-run program. We’ve helped—I also was president of the parent association at my daughter’s elementary school and at the high school. So we tried hard to get other local families to be mentors or sponsors of METCO children so that if a snowstorm happened, kids could have—parents from Boston could know their kid was going to stay with a Concord family. Or football families would take in a kid who needed to be out here for a Saturday morning practice. A lot of these METCO families don’t have transportation either. Our biggest help at the Community Chest was really funding summer scholarship programs. So Concord School System has a program where if you’re falling behind in school, they ask you to come for help for the month of July to catch up on your reading or your science or your math. And a lot of these METCO kids were asked to come and be a part of this program but then were being shipped back to Boston at noon every weekday during summer to go home and maybe be a turnkey. So the Community Chest had a private donor that allowed any kid that wanted to go to after-school summer camp—after they finished their morning summer camp—to attend summer camp, so that was cool. So the opportunity for about thirty of the METCO kids to stay here and do archery and swim and do the things that every kid loves to do at summer camp.

CK: There must have been quite a price tag on that program.

AW: Yeah! (laughs) Twenty thousand dollars for a month, yeah.

CK: One donor?

AW: Yeah, one donor stepped up and then the school in the last couple of years has met our match, so we’ve funded about ten thousand of it and the school—public schools are spending ten thousand on it now. Otherwise these kids may choose not to come out here for remedial help. You know, the parent’s like, I have to work. I can’t have my kid come home in the middle of the day. Some of the streets in Boston aren’t so safe, so I’d rather leave them at the Boys and Girls Club in downtown Boston all day than have them come out and get the educational help they need. But this is a great way to—and again, our rec department leader, Danner DeStephano, just said, “Hey, I see a huge need here.”

CK: The name again?

AW: Danner DeStephano. I don’t know if you’ve interviewed him. He’s been in the recreation department here for—

CK: D-A-N-N-E-R?

AW: Right, DeStephano, D-E-S-T-E-P-H-A-N-O.

CK: He’s been a leader in the rec–?

AW: Uh-hunh (affirmative). For thirty years, I think, yeah.

CK: Concord Rec Department?

AW: Yeah, Concord Recreation. And everything he does is sliding-scale fee. The amount of scholarships he gives for summer camp, the amount of scholarships—they run the Beede Center, which is the pool. It’s located across from the high school. Anyone over eighty can swim—be a member for free.

The Beede Center in Concord, Massachusetts.
The Beede Center in Concord, Massachusetts.

CK: B-E–?

AW: B-E-E-D-E. It’s called the Beede Center. It was a public/private partnership to build a great recreation and pool facility.

CK: So the terms again are anyone over–?

AW: –eighty can come and swim and exercise for free, and then anyone who would like to exercise and can prove need can have a sliding scale fee to be a member of this town recreation department. And then he also offers after-school and summer camp scholarships for hundreds of families that, again, parents are trying to work and the kid has nothing to do all summer. So they can come to a full-day recreation program.

CK: An organized program?

AW: Yeah, yeah, very organized like any summer camp. So Community Chest gives him fifteen thousand dollars a year in summer scholarship and then an additional ten thousand dollars for the METCO scholarships alone for summer camps.

CK: At the Beede Center?

AW: Or at the Concord Recreation Department as a whole. I mean, he can tell you stories about needs that—you know—are horrible. Because these moms—these parents have to come and say why my kid needs to come to summer camp and why I can’t afford it.

CK: The Boston parents too?

AW: Yes, yeah. I guess they just have to kind of say they’re interested in signing up and maybe kind of fill out one piece of paper. They’re just committing to sending their kid out here for remedial reading every morning for the month of July, so—

CK: But the Concord folks have to make a case for why their kid should be there?

AW: Right, and either free of charge or a much reduced rate for camp. So again, no real—just a story, not a lot of documentation—financial documentation particularly.

CK: Well you’ve heard some stories.

AW: Yeah, definitely, definitely. But it’s a perfect balance of being able to make a difference and see—be in a town that you love to live in and also make a huge difference. I left the job in December. My dad was dying, so I wanted to spend more time with him. Unfortunately he died two days before I was supposed to leave my job. So anyway, so I’ve moved on from the Community Chest now, and just working in a local retail store now and then trying to figure out what’s next because I really miss being able to help people in that way.

CK: Life’s changed for you.

AW: Yeah, right, huge change so—but it was great. And being sixteen years at any—that’s a long time, and I felt like Community Chest had been around for sixty-seven years. It was time for them to have some new energy as well, so it’s just a part-time job—it was a part-time job, and so there are three of us in the office, so it was just good to have them have some new blood and try to keep it moving forward and raising more money, though that’s harder to do. Because all these organizations now need more money to run. I mean, we used to be this little provider of funding for a lot of organizations that now have too big a budget for what we can offer.

CK: How much does the Community Chest—

AW: The annual campaign goal for the last probably eight years has been six hundred and fifty thousand, which we’ve usually met or come close to. But you’re looking at budgets of places like this Minute Man ARC or Gaining Ground that are—Minute Man ARC’s probably over three million. Gaining Ground’s budget’s at about seventy-five thousand. So there’s no way we can fill all the gaps that need to be filled. So they’re all doing their own fundraising as well. (laughs)

CK: All right. So how do you raise money, is what we all want to know.

AW: (laughs) Right.

CK: What’s your secret? Or what are some of the techniques?

AW: Well, here it’s worked well with just—we send out an annual appeal, like a letter, to every household in Concord. And again—and I think the biggest problem in a town like Concord is getting people to realize that one, there’s good things going on in Concord, that two, people are in need in Concord and that it’s important that they give here and not give to the Red Cross who’s dealing with a hurricane halfway around the world. So I think people see international causes or the call to action right away from the Red Cross, for example, and they send their dollars there versus keeping it local. So I think again, that is the biggest challenge is—what’s the—think globally, act locally, or that whole—think globally, give locally.

CK: Why?

AW: Why give locally? Because I think that—and as you can see now with some of these big disaster relief programs, the money’s not getting to where it needs to go. It’s getting bogged down whereas here you would say—Community Chest, our biggest thing is that we oversee every organization that we’ve given money to. We check in with them. We come back to them every year and say, “What did you do with our money last year?” And when you’re right in the town, you can see—I see the domestic violence posters up in the inside stalls at the hospital and the schools. If you send you money halfway around the world, you don’t know if those organizations are still in existence or they’re doing the right thing. So it’s hard to get people to pay attention. I think our biggest benefit at a place like Community Chest is its longevity. Our biggest challenge is that as the population ages, the people who sort of started the Community Chest, who get the Community Chest way of doing things, are dying or moving, and the younger generation is more focused on their private schools, their kids’ soccer teams, their churches. So they’re—and because the face of what we do is not as structured—you know—it’s not like having your name on the side of a hospital—or it doesn’t directly affect people, they have a hard time identifying why their money is important to an organization that they don’t—may or may not have any affiliation with. Though their kids may volunteer at Gaining Ground, or they may see—you walk into the local grocery store, and there’s a huge place where you can donate food to Open Table. It’s very hard to get them to think about putting their money there as well. So fundraising is tough. And it’s sort of gotten to the point in town where people see me on the street (laughs) and start crossing. (laughs) Like, oh, what does she need from us now?

CK: Because you would meet people on the street—

AW: Yeah, and say, “Really I need your commitment.” I mean, I did—it was more subtle than that. I developed great relationships with people, and I’m passionate about letting people know there are people here in need. Unfortunately the trouble is that you don’t—very few people who are really getting the help want to be anonymous, so they’re not—they’re not like the Jimmy Fund. They’re not on the front page of the newspaper saying, “I’m fighting cancer.” They’re not saying, “I’m fighting poverty,” or “I’m running from my husband.” They don’t—they want to be anonymous, so it’s harder to make that connection for donors, I think. But we tell as many stories as we can, and we tell them—we tell them from the volunteers who are having a direct impact, who get the thank you and have gone to court with a victim and said, “I would have never left without the support of my advocate.”

CK: So those volunteers will do public speaking then?

AW: They will. Yes, they will. They’re much more apt to be able to tell the story from an anonymous point of view, but how—they can see more the direct impact than I can as the—just the writer of the check.

CK: Well, we talked about domestic violence, and we talked about kids—drug issues a little bit and feeling the weight of poverty. What about sexual orientation in these suicide stories or other issues? Is that something that’s come up at Community Chest?

AW: Not so much. I mean, I think suicide is complicated. So I think the hardest part is figuring out why someone has committed suicide, whether it’s a teenager or a young adult—you know—a lot of middle-aged men. I think there’s a big statistic there not so much that we’ve seen in Concord, but I think sexual orientation, which is a big cause, I think, for suicide in some teenagers. You know, they’re struggling with their sexual identity or they’ve been bullied by that—again it’s really hard to figure out why these kids are committing suicide with struggles that sometimes parents don’t even know about or teachers don’t know about. Two of the prominent suicides three years ago were two very highly achieving kids that were in some therapy but were not on anyone’s radar screen as a high risk. It’s more impulsive in teenagers, suicidality. They can have a bad go of it and think this is the best way out without leading any people to really know what the—undiagnosed bipolar, undiagnosed schizophrenia at that point. So the school’s been very supportive around sexual orientation and the ability to—they have their own Spectrum Club at the high school, which is great. Those really support—there are several teachers at the high school that are gay and really support those kids there, so I think there is a safe feeling about that at the high school. But the real cause of what’s happening with these kids is hard to—high pressure, I think.

CK: High pressure–?

AW: You know, they’re stressed about performance. They are doing well in school, but it’s almost too much pressure. I mean, I read about another suicide at MIT the other day. I mean, again these kids just somehow seem to think that this is—it’s too much, and they can’t cry help and say, “I need a break here.” Suicide is the—an option—or using heroin or—I mean—marijuana or drinking. I mean, these are ways that a lot of people end of coping with things, and they don’t understand or they’re trying to hide.

CK: Are those large issues in Concord, substance abuse?

AW:   Yeah, yes, very much so. No more—I mean—the principal will tell you no more than any high school. Some parents will tell you it’s a huge problem at the high school.

CK: What is?

AW: Mostly marijuana use. The State of Massachusetts is legalized under an ounce, or you can’t—it’s not a federal offense now to be caught with an ounce of pot or marijuana on you. But not—so kids more readily use it, can more readily access it. I mean, we’re not Colorado yet, but a lot of kids are dealing it at the high school. They actually brought in dogs a few years ago to do a drug raid, and parents were up in arms about that. Some parents were up in arms that it happened, and others were like, “It’s about time it happened.” So (laughs) it’s sort of—I would say the police chief—the new police chief—would tell you there was almost an overdose on some new Ecstasy drug out there from a kid in Concord. So there’s definitely use.

CK: The drug—the dogs came before the legalization?

AW: No, it was after the legalization and they were trying to find—just sniff out dealers really. Yeah, over an ounce. And I think these dogs are trained to look for big amounts in lockers, and a lot of schools are doing it. But again, parents weren’t happy when it was their kid that was sniffed out or whatever. (laughs) So that’s our big next agenda item. I’m on the youth advisory board now for the town of Concord with this youth coordinator position, and we really need to deal with substance abuse. And the schools will be the first to tell you it’s a community-wide problem. Parents are setting a bad example, and so it’s not only our issue, so we’re trying to make it a community-wide issue. And again, how do you address that? You can hold every program out there. We used to hold social liability law parents’ nights at the high school, and it’s literally preaching to the choir. The kids whose parents are coming to these things aren’t the kids whose parents are locking the basement door and bringing out the keg for sixteen-year-olds.

CK: Social liability.

AW: 1:02:46.2 Yeah, so you know, if you are knowingly allowing alcohol to be in your home for under twenty-one, you can be thrown in jail. Or God forbid if some kid leaves your house drunk and kills himself or somebody else. And it’s been hard to get that message across to parents even though there have been some big high-profile cases in Massachusetts where that exactly has been done. Parents have been upstairs in the bedroom supposedly not knowing what’s going on, and the kids are having a raging party in the basement, and someone gets killed.

CK: Youth advisory group, huh?

AW: Yeah, so that’s a town made-up board of concerned citizens that help the youth advisory—the youth coordinator, which is a position I helped start, kind of oversee her position, help her—we’re all working on this Walk Out of Darkness in two weeks. We’re helping do mental health week at the high school. So we’re just—and overseeing the board to a town position.

CK: So you’re keeping your—

AW: Yeah, I’m keeping my hand in it a little bit (laughs) which is great, especially in something I believe in and helped start.

MK: How is it that Concord is a cradle for this kind of social safety netting creating these programs, many of which have become national models and all that? What is it about Concord that it’s always trying to take it to the next level, I guess you could say?

AW: I think there are just a lot of really educated, smart people that sort of are drawn to Concord either to work or to live that really get it. I mean, we’re a pretty democratic community. We mostly vote that way. I think we’re sort of not every man for himself for people who live here. I think it really harkens back to the days of Thoreau and Emerson and people who really believed in helping mankind and the belief that we all have to work together. You know, the Patriots rose to arms to fight the British, and I think there’s this real sense of community that people who come here may because they love Walden or Emerson or Thoreau are also very socially minded people. So I think you’ll see people—and they are well educated—who get it, that helping other people is an important part of making a great community. So I think Concord has attracted—has always attracted people like that from those days of the great authors themselves. And I think having a community hospital here that’s been around for a hundred years also again brings physicians and administrators that really care about community as well.

CK: Community hospital, is that a certain category?

AW: It is a—my husband’s a—runs the hospital, so I’m very focused on—he’s a chief medical officer there. So a community hospital is really, though it serves twenty surrounding towns, it’s really—it’s a localized hospital that’s run by a community board of directors. And there are fewer and fewer of those hospitals. They’re all being bought up by bigger healthcare systems, but it allows people to get their healthcare right in the town and not have to drive into Boston for care. We’re close enough that it’s easy enough to drive into Boston for care, but there’s—we are—Emerson Hospital is still one of the only community hospitals that has a mental health floor and addiction services, for example. So I think again people are drawn to live and work around a hospital setting that care about people. So I think it’s been—and the town’s small enough. It’s about eighteen thousand people, and people sort of feel—big climate change group here. I’m sure you’ve interviewed some of those people too—sort of big people on the forefront of climate change issues too, so it’s a real melting pot of environmentalists and human service people in Concord that you don’t see in many surrounding towns. I think it really comes back to the history of our town and people who helped found this town sort of believed in that, the Alcotts and all. There are still descendants living here who still feel very much the same way. And long-time families here whose kids are a little younger than me who really stayed here and are really committed to making this town a great place still, which is great. They’re very philanthropic. They’re very willing to dig in and help, so it’s very unique that way.

MK: Thank you.

AW: Yeah. Good, I hope it was helpful and sheds some sort of light on—you know—a really segmented part of Concord but an important—

CK: It sounds like you’ve been well accepted and made vast contributions to the town. So thank you for that too.

AW: Oh yeah. Well, I love it, so—(laughs) so I keep doing it. Right. Good.

MK: Anything else that we’re–?

AW: No, I can’t—I just—if you’re looking at Internet research, you can check out the Community Chest on the website and just see what their mission is. It’s just CCCommunity Chest.org. And it gives you a pretty good sense of all the organizations that are here in town and the mission if you’re just wanting a little bit more of a visual.

CK: Great, thank you.

AW: Okay. Thank you.

1:09:34.4 (end of audio)