Coalition for a Better Acre is looking for an AmeriCorps member to work as a Career Coach for the participants and graduates of our STEP (Supported Training Education Program) Workforce Development Program and right-hand person to our workforce development staff.
The job description and information regarding how to apply can be found here: Job Description
What is STEP? STEP is a 6-week, 150-hour job-readiness training class covering soft skills such as written and verbal communication, active listening, and teamwork and complex life skills like conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and critical thinking as well as financial education to prepare participants for successful careers with our employment partners in the medical device manufacturing field and other growing, well-paying industries.
STEP guarantees job placement upon graduation–a certainty no other job training programs in the region provide—a completion stipend, free shared transportation to and from work for a year, and 18 months of follow-up case management and wrap-around services.
Since January 2017, 42 people have graduated and been placed in jobs. Eighty percent of those graduates continue working full-time.
“Next Monday I’m starting at the Lowell Police Academy,” Andeth (Andy) Van announced to her Empower classmates on the evening of their final class to a chorus of gasps, followed by cheers and applause.
“All the skills, the lessons, and techniques I have learned here – the entire time I was thinking ‘how can I apply this to my life’,” she said. “I really want to make an impact in the community, hopefully in a profound way. “
Andy is one of 16 who graduated from Empower on May 17. Empower is a nine-week interactive resident leadership course offered through a partnership between Coalition for a Better Acre and Lowell Alliance. Throughout the nine weeks participants expand their own personal and professional networks while gaining the skills, knowledge and resources needed to lead and create grassroots change in the community.
The guest speaker for this year’s final session was Peter Martin, one of the organizers of last year’s effort to keep Lowell High School downtown, a true grassroots movement that came together quickly and brought together people of all ages, ethnic, political, and socio-economic backgrounds.
“I have been involved in a lot of campaigns, but never one that caught fire so quickly and had so much energy,” he said, adding they collected 800 signatures in four days to present to the City Council in favor of keeping the high school downtown.
Martin spoke of the darkest point in the movement – the night in June when the City Council voted 5-4 to move the high school to the Cawley Stadium site. But, he said, the activists who had already put in so much work and knew there was close to 65 percent pro-downtown support among the city’s voters, did not give up.
“Sometimes you have to lose to win,” Martin told the class. “We had to lose to really wake people up.”
The campaign split into two groups – LHS Downtown, focused on supporting pro-downtown City Council and School Committee candidates and Save Lowell High, focused on collecting the 7,000 certified voter signatures required for a ballot initiative.
They formed alliances, stretched outside their comfort zones, knocked doors and really listened to people.
Martin said he looked to Lowell’s mill girls, who attempted strikes several times in the 1830’s, for lessons in leadership and perseverance.
“They got absolutely crushed the first two times they did it, but they kept at it,” he said.
In the end, LHS Downtown and Save Lowell High won, as voters chose seven pro-downtown councilors and five pro-downtown School Committee members. The ballot question seeking support for keeping the high school downtown prevailed with 61 percent of the vote.
“There is no substitute for putting in the work,” Martin said.
Empower graduates not only learn the skills and strategies to become catalysts for change in the community, they put them into action, choosing two student-conceived projects to work on over the next several months.
Six well-formulated and thoughtful ideas were pitched including Mana Kheang’s mobile library cart for immigrants; Dave Richmond’s plan to learn and share unknown and often dark history stories of how the U.S. has been involved in the politics of developing nations; Pamela Andrews’ desire to hold a big touch-a-truck event coupled with a resource fair and goods drive; and Hope Anderson & Tiffaney Ross’ campaign to promote voter and candidate education.
Once the pitches were done and votes counted, the class chose two projects on which to collaborate.
The first, proposed by Emily McDermott, is to support the proposed ban on plastic bags for stores 3,000 sq. feet or larger, in Lowell, as well as obtain and distribute reusable shopping bags to low-income residents. The group is planning to attend the May 29 Lowell City Council public hearing in support of the ban. Seventy-seven other communities in the Commonwealth have already taken the step to ban plastic bags.
The second group will work on Pam Larocque’s plan to organize Lowell Play Day on the last weekend of August, an event where organizations who serve the city’s youth can provide games and activities for kids, educational workshops for parents, food, resources and more, promoting the importance of play to a child’s development.
Look for our Empower graduates as they work on these projects this summer.
For more information about Empower, visit: Empower
“The building is beautiful and amazing, but deteriorating,” CBA Director of Real Estate Craig Thomas told members of the Smith Baker Advisory Board at the inaugural meeting last week. “”It is not heated. There is significant water damage and it needs to be weatherized and stabilized.”
The 50-member board, chaired by Jim Geraghty, made up of business leaders, philanthropists, educators, non-profit executives, elected officials and community members will be integral to CBA’s upcoming capital campaign to raise the funds needed to restore and preserve the Smith Baker Center, turning it into a vibrant community center and performance space.
In 1884 the First Congregational Church, an imposing four-story 12,458 sq. foot brick High Victorian Gothic style edifice was erected on the lot that is now the corner of Merrimack Street and Cardinal O’Connell Parkway.
It replaced a smaller meetinghouse-style church that had been built in 1827, a year after a group of 50 people from the corporation boarding house, interested in the traditional forms for New England orthodoxy, had secured the land from the Locks and Canals Company. Founding father and industrialist Kirk Boott was not thrilled with this turn of events, as it went against his order that all mill operatives attend his church – St. Anne’s, which had been built the previous year.
The new First Congregational Church of 1884 was designed by famed architects Merrill and Cutler, who also designed Lowell City Hall, the Central Firehouse on Palmer Street (where Fuse Bistro is now) and the Howe Building in Kearney Square.
Fully furnished – including the pipe organ, the building’s price tag was $57,390.
It remained a church until 1968, when the congregation merged with the Highland Congregational and All Souls Churchs to form the Christ Church United on East Merrimack Street.
On December 14, 1969, it was dedicated as the Smith Baker Community Center by the Acre Model Neighborhood Organization, as part of the Model Cities Program. Rev. Smith Baker (a descendant of Mayflower passenger William Brewster) was the pastor of the church from 1870-1890 and returned as pastor emeritus from 1907 until his death in 1917. He and his wife, Isabella, are buried in Lowell Cemetery.
The building served as the city’s Senior Center until the new center on Broadway opened in April 2003. It has remained vacant since that time.
Over the years the performance space, that is said to have near-perfect acoustics, has played host to an impressive line-up. In 1988, Lowell Celebrates Kerouac brought poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti to read to a packed house of 1,000; in 1989 poet and inspirational speaker Maya Angelou was brought to the Smith Baker by Middlesex Community College; in 1995 as part of Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, Patti Smith performed with Thurston Mooe of Sonic Youth. The historic stage has also seen performances by the Lowell Opera Company and Angkor Dance Troupe.
In 2016, the City of Lowell chose CBA to bring the Smith Baker Center back to life. Known as “Lowell’s Cathedral,” the 133-year-old building located at the gateway between the Acre neighborhood and Downtown Lowell, has the potential to be a community center for all Lowellians, as well as a sought-after performance venue.
CBA’s plans restore the cathedral’s chapel as a performing arts center and the offices as a community center. The building will become home to CBA’s workforce development, afterschool, and financial education/counseling programs and be anchored by CBA’s offices. Having this space will allow for the expansion of CBA programming to serve more people. The large space and commercial kitchen will also allow it to become a place to take Zumba, yoga, dance, art, cooking and other continuing education, cultural, and enrichment classes.
While the bulk of our work centers on serving low-income families in the Acre neighborhood, the Smith Baker Center will be a community center with classes, programming, events, and performances for all of Lowell.
We envision it becoming a center for cultural exchange, with residents from all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds having the opportunity to, for instance, take a Cambodian or Greek cooking class; learn some Bhutanese or Irish dance moves, or pick up a few conversational Spanish phrases. It will be a place where the city’s celebrated diversity can shine in action every day.
It will also become a focal point at which residents and visitors can celebrate the life and works of Lowell’s favorite literary son, the legendary Jack Kerouac and a place for organizations and institutions like the Angkor Dance troupe, Middlesex Community College, UMass Lowell, the Moses Greeley Parker Lecture Series and countless others to hold events, meetings and performances.
The 600-seat performance hall is an excellent small to mid-sized venue for local acts, small regional touring acts, and other special events such as speaking engagements, poetry readings, weddings and other celebrations. Not only does the size sit right in the middle of the larger auditoriums and smaller school buildings available in town, the use of a commercial kitchen with room for a bar makes it a perfect place for events with culturally appropriate food.
Redeveloping the building will drive investment in a neighborhood in Lowell that has shown enormous potential for improvement, but still remains underdeveloped and under-resourced. As Lowell has recovered from the economic recessions of the 1980s, low-income and moderate-income working-class residents have been left behind. In the Acre neighborhood, 35% of residents live below the poverty line and 42% speak a language other than English at home.
The project’s total cost is estimated at $16,518,372. CBA will use a combination of New Market Tax Credits, Federal and State Historic Tax Credits, grants, and individual donations to fund the project.
The operations and the programming for the building will be funded through grant money, ticket and concession sales, as well as rental income including that from having the CBA offices on-site, keeping the center sustainable.
Our vision is inspired by the success of Manchester Bidwell Corporation, a set of community-based organizations that is creating pathways through education to employment in a neighborhood in need and using arts programming to inspire urban youth and innovative career training to support struggling adults in Pittsburgh, PA. The founders of Manchester Bidwell believed that bundling job training, arts programming and exhibition space for youth with a performance space open to community members would combat the devastation wrought by the collapse of the steel industry. Today, Manchester Bidwell’s programs have grown into nationally recognized enterprises and serve nearly 3,900 Pittsburgh youth every year, providing a unique haven that fosters a sense of interconnectedness in the city. Closer to home, we are looking closely at the model employed by the New England Center for Arts and Technology in Boston, which developed as a replica of the Manchester Bidwell model and opened its doors in September 2013.
Bringing life back to the Smith Baker Center is in line with CBA’s mission to revitalize the Acre neighborhood. A vibrant community center and destination performance space will spur economic growth in the neighborhood. At the same time, the variety of programming available and events held, will both help Acre families become financially self-sufficient and build community as both Acre residents and those from other parts of the city come together to learn, share culture and enjoy art and performance.
Dubbed the “queen of all trades” because she has had so many different jobs over the years, Natasha Ford thought she was beyond learning anything new.
She was encouraged by a friend to sign up for Coalition for a Better Acre’s STEP (Supported Training Education Program) workforce development program and jumped at the chance when she learned graduates receive free transportation to and from work for one year.
“Transportation was a big issue I had,” said Ford, who moved from Boston to Lowell two years ago. “I didn’t expect to learn a lot; I thought they cannot teach me anything I’m an old dog.”
She was pleasantly surprised.
“I learned a lot about myself – I’m a challenger and a collaborator,” she said. “I learned about teamwork and how to raise my credit score. I learned a lot of tricks from Doc at Eastern Bank to help me out.”
Natasha was one of 10 who graduated from the fifth cohort of STEP on Friday March 30.
She said the experience made her feel “rejuvenated and reinvigorated,” ready to take on new challenges in the workplace and the classroom.
“I am going to go back to school in September,” said Natasha, who will begin working at Sterilite Corp. in Townsend this week. “I don’t want my kids (two in college and one in high school) to finish their bachelor’s degrees before me.”
STEP, launched in November 2016, is a six-week, 150-hour soft skills job training program for people 18+ with a high school degree or equivalent. Participants practice basic skills like verbal and written communication, active listening, and teamwork and complex life skills like conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and critical thinking. STEP also addresses barriers to employment, financial education, the guarantee of job placement, a graduation financial bonus, free shared transportation to and from work for one year through a partnership with QRyde, and 18 months of follow-up case management with wrap-around services.
No other job training programs in the region provide guaranteed job placement upon graduation.
In 2017, STEP graduated 27 people, placing most in entry-level jobs in medical manufacturing companies in Devens, MA. Seventy-six percent of those placed continue working full-time.
To provide participants a large pool of career opportunities, we are focusing on the manufacturing field, which remains the 5th largest employer in Massachusetts. The sector employs over 250,000 workers, according to a 2015 report from Jobs for the Future. Yet, the sector is also greying; the average highly-skilled manufacturing worker in the state is in their 50s. STEP will stop the cycle of poverty in many families while providing a career-track field with new, skilled workers.
Employers with whom we currently have relationships include Nypro, SMC Ltd., and Sterilite Corp.
The Winter 2018 cohort included participants from a wide range of backgrounds, experiences and ages, including three immigrants with college degrees from their home countries who needed training in American workplace culture and a step up into the workforce.
“It is a struggle to get education (from other countries) recognized and they have to start over again,” said CBA Workforce Development Program Coordinator Will Ren.
Saifuddin Badloon, his wife, and their seven children moved from Afghanistan to the United States five months ago. He has a college degree in Agriculture Operations and related sciences and worked in the high tech field, as well as with USAID Afghanistan’s Regional Agricultural Development Program and with the U.S. Army. He speaks four languages: English, Pashto, Dari and Persian and volunteered as the Program Director for the Afghan Anti-Corruption Network.
He signed up for STEP because he needs a job, as well as transportation as he settles into his new home and looks forward to pursuing a master’s degree.
Saifuddin said he learned a lot about teamwork, how to make a positive first impression and how to recognize his strengths and weaknesses in the workplace through STEP.
Bochanna Kheng, who was an elementary school teacher in Cambodia, has a college degree in Education and Hong Chey, also from Cambodia has a degree in accounting and management.
Shannon Zukas, a single mother of four, said the program provided the support system she needed to find a new career after a recent layoff.
“I do all I can for my family by myself, I don’t have a strong family support system,” she said, adding Workforce Development Director Sako Long and Ren helped her work out some childcare issues so she could attend STEP.
“(STEP) was a positive environment where I felt the support to not fear taking the next step,” Shannon said. “We believed in the program and were motivated to gain new skills we will use to be successful in our careers.”
Shannon compared the graduation to her and her classmates all being in an airport terminal, boarding different planes.
“Once we depart each of us will soar far, fast, and high with our luggage and carry-on filled with tools and new found confidence to succeed wherever we land,” she said.
Xiyin Liu came to the United States from China seven months ago knowing very little English. She began taking English classes through JVS Boston and learned the language, as well as how to handle herself in a job interview and other aspects of American workplace culture.
Last month she landed a job at an early education center. Monday morning she addressed a room full of people, including Mayor Bill Samaras and State Sen. Eileen Donoghue – in English.
Liu and fellow student Chimanlal Patel proudly told their stories in the Mayor’s Reception Room at Lowell City Hall as part of the launch of JVS Boston’s “Lowell Pay for Success English for Advancement” program, a partnership between JVS, Coalition for a Better Acre, Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, and the International Institute of New England.
The program provides free English classes with a focus on the workplace, as well as job coaching, at CBA’s 450 Merrimack St. location. And because there is always a deeper Lowell connection — Jerry Rubin, President and CEO of JVS was CBA’s first executive director.
The city of Lowell has a proud history of welcoming immigrants and refugees from all over the world. Some are fleeing war and genocide in their homelands; others come seeking economic and educational opportunities to build a better life for themselves and their families.
The biggest barrier many face is not knowing how to speak or read English, an obstacle that limits their ability to secure employment or advance professionally, regardless of prior work experience.
Coalition for a Better Acre Executive Director Yun-Ju Choi came to the United States from Korea at 11–years-old, unable to speak a word of English. Her parents had a strong work ethic and worked long hours in difficult manual labor jobs to provide for their family.
On Monday, Choi said she wishes a program like “English for Advancement” had been available to her parents.
“My dad loved to learn, he was always studying,” she said. “They could have done so much more.”
Sen. Donoghue recalled growing up in Holyoke at a time when many people from Puerto Rico moved to the city. Being bilingual and bilingual education became very important. Donoghue earned a degree in bilingual education and gained an appreciation for how difficult it is to learn a new language, particularly for those also adapting to a new culture. Although she did not become teacher, she did use her ability to speak Spanish in her work as a lawyer and as a legislator.
Choi noted the residents of the Acre, a majority-Hispanic neighborhood, truly appreciate that when Donoghue visits she speaks to them in Spanish.
For more information about “English for Advancement” visit http://www.jvs-boston.org/EFA, call 978-452-7523 or attend an information session, held every Wednesday morning at 10:45 a.m. at 450 Merrimack Street in Lowell.
In the 1670’s it was the site of the wigwam of Wonalancet (better known around these parts today as Wannalancit), sachem of the Penacook Indians and son of Chief Passaconaway.
In the 1820’s, it was home to Captain Phineas Whiting’s mansion, barns and general store. In fact, industrialist Kirk Boott, one of the founders of Lowell, lived with the Whiting family in 1823 while awaiting the completion of his home, where the Boott Mills now stand downtown.
In 1855, a businessman with humble beginnings as a country store clerk in Baldwinsville, N.Y. arrived in Lowell to join big brother James Cook (J.C.) Ayer, who ran a very successful patent medicine company. His name was Frederick Ayer.
Four years later, Ayer purchased the house and land at the corner of School and Pawtucket Streets from Captain Whiting’s widow, Sarah, for $11,250. He and his first wife, Cornelia Wheaton Ayer and their four children lived in the former Whiting house, which they enlarged and renovated, until their dream home was completed on the site in 1877.
The Ayer mansion at 357 Pawtucket St., a 67-room, 2.5 story manse built in the Second Empire style was designed by architect S.S. Woodcock.
The first floor included a drawing room, library, sitting room, dining room, kitchen, music room, smoking room and other smaller rooms — a real-life game of “Clue” just begging to happen.
The second floor housed six bedrooms and their accompanying dressing rooms, of course. While the third floor included 10 additional bedrooms.
The grounds were home to stables, barns and greenhouses. A horse trail surrounded the property.
Ayer was a very busy man. In addition to working with his brother, in 1871 he bought controlling interests in the Tremont and Suffolk Mills (also in the Acre, of course). The site of the Tremont Mills now houses Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union’s headquarters, while the Suffolk Mills are now better known as the Wannalancit Mills, which houses offices as well as the Lowell National Historical Park’s Suffolk Mills exhibit.
He also had interests in the Washington Mills in Lawrence and the Lowell & Andover Railroad, among other endeavors and served on Lowell’s Board of Aldermen and as Chairman of the Board of Health.
Despite his jam-packed calendar, Beatrice Banning Ayer, one of the three children he fathered with second wife Ellen Barrows Banning Ayer, recalled in “Reminiscences of Frederick Ayer,” he was never too busy for her.
“He worked all day at the J.C. Ayer Company and spent only an hour at home at noon,” she recalled. “But there was always time to lead me around the driveway on his horse.”
Fred was also a bit of a romantic, according to Beatrice, who said this about her father’s relationship with her mother:
“Ever since their engagement, when in answer to the question of what gift she would like best from him, she had said ‘roses,’ he always showered her with flowers,” she said. “The greenhouses at Lowell had been built for her.”
Beatrice went on to marry George S. Patton on May 26, 1910 in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts. Patton, of course, became a famed U.S. Army General who led the American troops in the Mediterranean and European theaters in World War II.
The Ayer family moved out of Lowell in 1899, to a mansion on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. Their ornate Lowell estate remained empty from 1899-1908, when it was purchased by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate for $1 up front and $45,000 at 4.5% interest to be paid over 10 years.
An orphanage, for Franco-American children and old people’s home was established there. The orphanage was managed by the Grey Nuns of Quebec.
A four-story brick addition was built on the back as the population of the orphanage grew in 1912.
It officially became the Franco American School in 1963, teaching both live-in and day students. In 1978, it became a day school only.
Over the years the school and grounds have been visited by luminaries including future First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (campaigning for her husband in 1958), music legend Bob Dylan and beat writer/philosopher Allen Ginsberg.
The school closed in June 2016 and was sold to a partnership between Brian McGowan’s TMI Management & Development and Coalition for a Better Acre.
The building is being restored and renovated. The site, once complete, will include a mix of market rate and affordable housing units as well as some commercial space.
CBA was awarded a $500,000 grant by Project Reinvest to create a public park along the Northern Canal at the rear of the 4.5 acre parcel at the site of the existing grotto built by Jean-Baptiste Moran in 1911. The 14 Stations of the Cross, which date back to 1912, will be relocated to the new green space, creating a more accessible and welcoming area for the public to reflect and relax along the water.
The park will include a canal way, connecting to the existing Northern Canal Walkway owned by the Lowell National Historical Park, providing additional access and visibility to that beautiful, yet underused, resource.
Come see the beautiful Ayer Mansion yourself. Coalition for a Better Acre will be hosting its 3rd Annual 6 Degrees of the Acre fundraiser there on June 28. Stay tuned for tickets and more information. It promises to be an evening of glamour and surprises!
Special thanks to Steve Stowell of the Lowell Historic Board for providing the source information used to write this post.
“I really wasn’t doing anything with my life and was in a slump,” Johnny Phal said of a time before the fateful day a few months ago when his cousin showed him a flyer for CBA’s Supported Training Education Program (STEP) she saw at the laundromat.
Earlier this month, Phal, now employed by medical device manufacturing company Nypro, Inc., was one of seven graduates of the third group of students to complete STEP.
“It changed my life,” he said.
Launched in the fall of 2016, STEP is a six-week, 150-hour workforce development program run by CBA Workforce Development Program Manager Sako Long and Coordinator Will Ren.
Participants, who must be 18 or older and hold a high school diploma or equivalent, learn and practice soft skills that make a successful employee like how to deal with stressful situations at work, the importance of a strong work ethic, how to act professionally and as a team player, as well as ho to craft a resume and write a cover letter. They are also given financial literacy education so they can make the most out of the money they begin to earn once they go to work.
Following completion of the program, each graduate is placed in an entry-level job at a manufacturing company through a partnership with staffing agency Operon, provided with free transportation to and from work for a year through a partnership with QRyde, and 18 months of follow-up case management.
Since January, STEP has graduated 21 participants, 18 of whom are still working full-time — one was injured; one is working part-time and one is enlisting in the U.S. Army.
The most recent graduates include: Phal, Lil Sam Sum, Maria Cruzado-Rivera, Michelle Gath, Hanifah Serunjogi, Sokreth Chan and Vattana Thach.
“This is a new beginning,” said CBA Workforce Development Program Coordinator Will Ren. “We will be working constantly with you as friends and coaches over the next 18 months.”
Thach, who has been involved with DIY Lowell, learned about the program when he heard CBA Executive Director Yun-Ju Choi speak about it at a neighborhood meeting.
“When I heard that graduates are guaranteed a job I couldn’t believe it – that is not something I had ever done before,” he said.
Thach said the classes didn’t feel like “school,” as they group learned negotiation and teamwork skills through a variety of exercises, as well as how to write professional resumes and cover letters.
“After three weeks I started to see Sako and Will as uncles – maybe because they are Asian,” laughed Thach. “They showed us you can be hard working and professional, but still personable.”
“I recommend this program to anyone who is looking to improve themselves as a person or their professional work ethic,” said Thach, now working for Wish Design, a 30-year-old custom design and screen printing company that recently moved from Lawrence to Lowell.
Gath said before she fund STEP she was throwing herself a “self-destruction pity party,” having recently left her job after being injured and working in unsafe conditions.
STEP, she said, boosted her self-confidence and helped her overcome her fear of failure.
“I have a new job, a list of goals and I am more organized, and I learned that education doesn’t stop after we graduate,” Gath said. “I no longer feel lost.”
For more information about STEP, contact Sako Long at firstname.lastname@example.org or Will Ren at email@example.com