English for Advancement Program Launched

Xiyin Liu speaks with Sen. Eileen Donoghue

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.

Mayor Bill Samaras touted the importance of the work of JVS and their non-profit partners to the continued success of the city of Lowell.

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.

CBA Executive Director Yun-Ju Choi.

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.





The Ayer Mansion

By Jennifer Myers



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.

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.”

patton wedding
George S. Patton and Beatrice Ayer

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. 

STEP Graduates Its 3rd Class

IMG_7262“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.

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“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 sako.long@cbacre.org or Will Ren at will.ren@cbacre.org

What is CBA Anyway?

Since 1982, the Coalition for a Better Acre has developed 476 units of affordable rental housing and 50 homes for first-time homebuyers in the Merrimack Valley.

But, our work doesn’t end with housing.

Community Building

In recent years the focus of our mission has shifted to ending the cycle of poverty and leading families on the path to economic self-sufficiency. Doing so includes building not only safe, warm, affordable housing, but also programming that provides economic, educational, community building and civic empowerment opportunities.

YES (Youth Educational Success): Last year CBA launched YES, an after-school program that serves 25 neighborhood kids in grades 1-8 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. four days a week. The mission is to provide academic support and open the door to activities and experiences they otherwise would not be able to access.  In addition to homework help and an afternoon snack, the kids engage in arts & crafts, STEM activities, cooking classes, Taekwondo and Girl Scouts.  Earlier this year, a group of older kids in the program designed and launched their own blogs through a partnership with Kids in Tech, Inc. They are also exposed to college life through interaction with Middlesex Community College Service Learning students, as well as career options through a series of Career Day speakers.

STEP (Supported Training Education Program): The workforce development arm of our organization, STEP recently graduated its second group of students.  The six-week program equips high school graduates and GED recipients with the skills they need for career success and places them in entry-level positions within medical device manufacturing companies in Devens; graduates are provided with free transportation to and from work for one year through CBA’s partnership with transportation company QRyde. The program includes financial education and case management to help ensure graduates’ success once the official training is completed.

Financial Opportunity Center: Since 2007 the Financial Center has counseled more than 1500 Merrimack Valley homeowners in foreclosure prevention and reported an average success rate four percent higher than agencies providing similar services nationwide. As the number of foreclosures dwindle, the Center has begun to focus more of its resources on financial counseling and financial literacy education. The staff would like to expand their reach to provide basic financial literacy education to members of STEP. Incorporating basic financial literacy, such as how to fill out a W4 form, understanding how checking accounts and direct deposit work and how to best use your bank, into the STEP program is a natural way to help ensure their employment success and is in tune with our mission of helping to make people self-sufficient.

Civic Engagement and Community Building: Building community and empowering residents to be more involved in their city is central to our mission. To that end, we work to provide outreach to members of the community to help them learn about the issues facing the city. We recently hosted a successful informational meeting about the options for a new Lowell High School that drew more than 200 people. In recent years we have held fun, informational events to introduce candidates running for City Council, School Committee and State Representative to voters and are holding monthly community dinner aimed at bringing information and resources to residents in a fun, family-friendly venue. At the end of April, 300 people joined our 30th Annual Acre cleanup and we team up with the ACTION neighborhood group each June for their Acrefest party on the North Common and for National Night Out each August.

We need your help to continue and expand upon this important programming and continue increasing opportunities and quality of life for the residents of the historic Acre neighborhood, the first stop for so many immigrant groups and home to many proud Lowellians.

We will be holding our annual fundraiser – 6 Degrees of the AcreJune 22 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the beautiful former Saint Jean Baptiste Church on Merrimack St.  The event, which will include food from a variety of ethnic Acre restaurants, entertainment, exhibits and raffles, will attract more than 250 professionals, business owners, and civic leaders from Greater Lowell.

For tickets and sponsorship opportunities, visit: 6Degrees




STEP Graduation

Five Graduates STEP off on a New Adventure

For nearly 20 years Ali Abolhassani worked as a computer hardware technician/manager at Mahab Ghodss, a consulting engineering firm in Tehran, Iran.

IMG_0273But seven months ago, the 54-year-old newly arrived immigrant to the United States found himself starting at the bottom, working as a driver’s helper for UPS.

“It was cold,” laughs Ali. “Living here is good for us, but it is hard for me. I don’t have any background here so I have to start at the minimum point. But it is easier here than in Iran to improve your life. I work hard and have a lot of enthusiasm and I’m sure I can improve very quickly in this country.”

On Friday afternoon Ali stepped up onto the first rung of the ladder leading to a successful career in his new home when he joined four others, including his wife Marjan Ashrafian, in graduating from the Coalition for a Better Acre’s workforce development program, STEP (Supported Training Education Program).

It is the second class to graduate from the six-week training program, which was launched last fall and is led by Workforce Development Program Manager Sako Long and Program Coordinator Will Ren.

CBA Workforce Development Program Manager Sako Long addresses the graduation.

Participants, who must be 18 or older and hold a high school diploma or equivalent, spend six weeks learning and practicing the 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. 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 in Devens 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.

IMG_0263“I’m really really excited about this program,” said CBA Executive Director Yun-Ju Choi. “It took almost 3 years and Sako to get this program going, but it will give these graduates the foundation of good skills they need to succeed. “

Marjan said since entering STEP her life has changed dramatically.

“When we came here we didn’t know about people, culture, customs,” she said. “I had no self-confidence because of my English. We learned so much and had so much fun every day; today I feel more confident and that is so valuable to me.”


Ali added they learned about communicating, negotiating, thinking professionally and out of the box, as well as how to write a resume and cover letter, all critical skills to be successful in the workplace.

“My success will be the CBA and STEP program’s success,” he said.

Ali and Marjan applied for the immigration lottery to the U.S. in 2015 to give their son, Sepand, better opportunities than he would have in Iran. Today, the 17-year-old Lowell High School senior is excited about starting at Middlesex Community College in the fall.

Graduate Jeannette Caraballo had been struggling to find a job and a career path before she saw a flyer for STEP.

IMG_0270“I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try it,” she said. “It is a real opportunity for success and a better life.”

Jeannette said she learned a lot about herself in the program, as well as what it was to be well-rounded and practice self-control, accountability, and responsibility.

She added that one of the quotes of the day Sako shared with the class that stuck with her was “find what you love to do and then find someone who is willing to pay you to do it.”

“I now understand why he is so good at his job,” Jeannette said. “I am confident I now have the skills to become a successful leader one day.”

That confidence presented itself as Jeannette came to the aid of classmate Breanna Ortiz, who was too nervous to address the crowd alone. Jeannette read a statement Breanna wrote about her experience in the program and her hopes for the future.


Graduate Jesus Perez started his remarks with a quote from T.S. Eliot that he felt summed up their experience.

IMG_0298“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

“Throughout my life I have struggled,” he said, before being halted by emotion, pausing and taking a breath. “I found a friend and she helped me and pushed me and it is because of her that I’m here.”

“I have learned a great deal,” Jesus said. “Especially from the role play, whether I was playing a supervisor or an employee – that was very important to me because I am a visual learner.”

He added he benefitted from one-on-one time with Sako and Will, who were always there when he or any of his classmates needed a little extra help or encouragement.

“I would recommend this program to all of my friends and anyone who needs a job or wants to learn new skills,” Jesus said. “We have reached our goal by reaching the end, but we have started a new beginning.”

The class then surprised their mentors by turning the tables and presenting Sako and Will with certificates of appreciation. A gesture that quickly turned into a group hug punctuated by tears and laughs.

“Over the last six weeks we have formed a very strong bond,” said Sako. “And that will continue on.”

IMG_0379At the reception following the ceremony, Ali cracked open a fortune cookie to reveal a appropriate fortune: