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Why Community Matters

I told the story of Brendan Loughlin. I don’t know of any person more tied to community than Brendan, now nearly 70. His community is Guilford, Connecticut, and if you go there, you can’t miss him or his work. He gives painting classes in a downtown parking lot, and people come from all over to take them. When you walk the streets, you see his art everywhere — along sidewalks, murals on walls, canvasses hanging in shops. Brendan is Guilford.

And not so long ago, he was homeless here: living on food-bank canned food; sleeping in his daughter’s car, or sometimes in strangers’ sheds. After 9/11 he started painting bold sunflowers, bursting with color — his way of expressing, well, determination, hope, resistance to despair and fury. He’d paint, and people driving by would honk, and he’d smile — and then people started buying them, and people started coming up from the city and paying him enough to get him a neat little studio apartment near the green. And there’s barely room in it to squeeze a bed in — it’s coated with paintings and paint and brushes and blank canvasses waiting to be filled.

Guilford gave to Brendan and Brendan gave back. See, many of the people who own his paintings, who study with him, knew him when. He shows them every day that you can make your life a breathing canvas, and sometimes if the will is strong, you can wake up one day, paint a sunflower bursting with hope, and start over.

We have an annual feature we call “Angels Among Us.” Readers tell us about the unsung heroes who live in their communities, who work behind the scenes to make the lives of others better. The missions of these angels vary, but their goals are the same: Start small, think big. Follow the need wherever it leads.

Our readers have come to know Nancy Schwoyer of the Wellspring House in West Gloucester, Massachusetts. Wellspring was once one of the first family shelters in the state. “But we quickly realized that shelters are dead ends, and so we began investing in solutions,” Nancy said. So Wellspring grew to offer not just housing, but education — now with more than a dozen programs to help people lift themselves out of poverty. “We realized the system was broken,” Nancy told us. “So instead of just trying to fix it, we created something that worked better.”
We told the story of Deborah DeScenza, who created Farmsteads of New England, where developmentally disabled young people and adults could cast aside loneliness, where they could live and work in safety and beauty, supported by mentors. “When parents see their child flourish here,” she said, “they can finally just breathe.”
There are many others, of course. We tell about projects large and small, because they all spring from the same place: a need in a community and the desire to help fill it.
Which brings me to all of you in front of me tonight. For 30 years I’ve found stories in New England. And I’ve never found such a powerful place as I find myself in right now — here, surrounded by the people who make the Howard Center work, and the people who support it with your generosity.

You know this because you live here, but there’s no more beautiful and dynamic place in all of New England than the Burlington region. Especially now: the flowers in bloom, the lake warming, the walkers, the bicyclists, the dogs all trotting alongside; people strolling, cafés full, street performers filling the air with music. From the outside, it could be so easy to think there can be no trouble here in paradise, not here in early summer.

But you know better.

Every day we cannot escape the image of oil gushing into our seas, threatening the well-being of all of us. A rupture that seemingly cannot be stopped. Every day we see oil-covered birds and mammals; we see distraught residents of the Gulf weeping because their entire way of life is coming undone before their eyes. And we all know that for every pelican or dolphin that’s rescued, there must be hundreds, thousands, that slip away unseen. For every fisherman or shopkeeper or hotel worker we see interviewed, we know there are tens of thousands who are suffering with no one to hear them. As their lives unravel, we can only wonder what the effect will be for years ahead.

So I think of what you do here. You see the fractured families, the ruptured lives, the danger when that anger and helplessness spill onto the shores of your beautiful towns. You see the costs when kids are in trouble with seemingly no way out. You see what can happen when a family implodes, when alcohol or drugs invade lives, when an unwanted pregnancy throws a life into a tailspin, when people become prisoners inside their own demons. And yet you’re drawn to this hard, hard work. Why? Because you’ve seen what can happen when the hopeless gain hope; you’ve seen what can happen when you stop the rupture and start the mending. You’ve seen what can happen when you give voice to those who cannot articulate.

And somewhere you learned this truth: If you do not do this work, then who? You know more often than not that you’re giving a last chance to many.

You provide that rare and special glue, the unbreakable thread that mends people and, by extension, community. I should have known about you years ago, and I did not.

This small city, this county, this state, and our whole region is so fortunate to have all of you who give so many hours, so many sleepless nights. Because I know firsthand about the ripples: I know that when you change one person’s life for the good, it changes so many others. And when one life slips through, the damage can also spread through generations.

How do you do this? Work, yes; dedication, yes; sacrifice, yes. But I know your secret, too.

For 10 years I’ve taught magazine writing at the University of Massachusetts. The students come into the room that first evening, and they open their notebooks and think, I suppose, that I can teach them some magic way to become writers. I tell them I do have a secret. But it’s not what they think; it has nothing to do with writing strong leads or using verbs.

I hold up a notebook. I say it begins here: with what goes into those pages. And it begins with listening. I tell them to take a minute — to be silent and to think about the last time anyone ever truly and absolutely listened only to them. Not with background music, not with getting up and shifting around and interrupting. Just complete listening.

Updated Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

Bring New England Home

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