September 9, 2017

Mariano: The invisible man makes forgotten neighborhood of South Worcester a better place to live

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Giselle Rivera-Flores / For Worcester Sun

Ron Charette, right, has been the man behind the scenes keeping South Worcester together for more than 40 years.

Worcester Warriors is an occasional series. “Worcester is a great community, not because of its buildings but because of its people. From time to time, I will feature some of the people who work to make our community a better place to live. If you would like to recommend an individual or group to highlight, please contact me at Mariano@worcester.ma.” — Ray Mariano

Ray Mariano

Across the city, few people know his name. Despite the fact that he has been at his job serving the neediest families in South Worcester for more than 40 years, he is relatively unknown – sort of an invisible man.

Ron Charette started working at the South Worcester Neighborhood Center in 1975 as an employment specialist. Two years later, after a devastating fire at the Franco-American plastic shop on Douglas Street, he was promoted to the position of executive director, a position he has held for the past 40 years.

A son of South Worcester, Ron was born and raised on Douglas Street, a short distance from his neighborhood center office on Camp Street. His dad was a television repairman and his mother was a homemaker.

In those days, part of the neighborhood was French-Canadian and the other part was Irish. Today, the neighborhood is bursting with dozens of different nationalities and languages.

Around the time Ron started working at South Worcester, there were 11 separate and independent neighborhood centers spread all across the city [see list below]. Each center had its own staff, its own community board and a mission to serve the needs of a particular neighborhood. Along with providing job placement, education and food for those who needed help, these centers helped connect local residents to city government.

Giselle Rivera-Flores / For Worcester Sun

Ron Charette has been the man behind the scenes keeping South Worcester together for more than 40 years.

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In those days, South Worcester Neighborhood Center had an incredibly dynamic group of leaders including Charette, Julie Carrigan and Al DiMarzio.

Former Mayor Jordan Levy remembers when Worcester relied more heavily on neighborhood centers.

“Having (more) neighborhood centers allowed us to be closer to the actual needs and services in each diverse section of the city,” Levy said. “Much of what happened in these neighborhoods focused around the centers.”

Today, there are only three independent neighborhood centers and three part-time satellite facilities. Where city government used to spend millions of dollars to support these neighborhood centers, today it spends only a few hundred thousand.

Sun graphic / Amy M. Capobianco

The three current neighborhood centers collectively have three smaller, satellite locations — but still not as much reach as years ago.

Services

When you walk into the South Worcester Neighborhood Center offices, you are immediately met by the smell of fresh fruit and vegetables. Long tables are filled with boxes that Ron has helped collect to serve the 50 to 65 families who walk into the center each day looking for something, anything, to feed their families. Volunteers stand ready to assist their neighbors.

Charette describes himself as a “food pimp.” He goes to local markets and other food providers like Sam’s Club and Price Chopper to ask for food they would otherwise discard. He uses this food, and food from the Worcester County Food Bank, to help feed the people in South Worcester.

In total, the neighborhood center serves about 4,100 different families every year, offering a wide range of services [see list below].

Along with providing food for needy families, which is its biggest service, the South Worcester center helps local residents find jobs. Last year, Charette helped find full-time work for 82 people and part-time work for another 47.

But while the services provided by the neighborhood center have not changed that much over the years, the model for service has changed dramatically. Charette rejects what he calls “fast-food human services,” which he says rely on a one-dimensional compilation of numbers of people served.

Working with the Worcester Housing Authority at Lakeside Apartments, Charette began development of a case-management model that looks beyond the symptoms of hunger or unemployment.

“We no longer just give them a bag of food,” he explained. “We try to find the underlying problem and then see what we can do to help them fix it.”

Among the many programs offered by the neighborhood center is a highly successful summer camp for neighborhood children.

Sun graphic / Amy M. Capobianco

South Worcester Neighborhood Center is at 47 Camp St.

Charette also teamed up with a national organization known as Family-to-Family. Presently, 35 neighborhood families are paired with other families who provide monthly donations designed not only to help with food, clothing and needed household products, but also games and puzzles designed to bring the families together for activities.

According to Charette, the program promotes having family members spend time together. “So many of our families don’t even have a meal together,” he said.

South Worcester Industrial Park

One of the bright spots in South Worcester is the movement to develop the South Worcester Industrial Park. The idea for the park started in 1995. But until the city administration came to the conclusion that it needed to offer tax incentives, the project never got off the ground.

Thanks to the work of City Manager Ed Augustus and Chief Development Officer Michael Traynor, this development will be delivering approximately 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space (90,000 has already been committed), creating up to 200 jobs. The biggest business at the park is a new Table Talk Pies factory, which should be open for business this summer and provide up to 50 new jobs.

Charette already has a good relationship with the leaders at Table Talk. Nevertheless, he knows that South Worcester residents could easily be ignored. “I’ve got to fight hard to make sure that the jobs from the South Worcester Industrial Park go to the people in this neighborhood,” he said.

A funding problem

Calling Charette’s style low key is an understatement. Unfortunately, that style has had some negative consequences.

“I know that I should do more to promote the work that we do,” he told me. “But I won’t take time away from working with people who need my help.”

Today, while the need of its families is greater than ever, the South Worcester Neighborhood Center is only a shadow of what it once was. In 2000, it had 12 staff. Today, it has only 3 part-time employees. In 2010 it had an annual budget of $325,000. Today, its budget is about $120,000.

Charette’s lack of self-promotion may be reflected in the city’s budget. This year, while the higher-profile Friendly House will see a 25 percent budget increase, Charette is facing a 20 percent reduction in community development block grant funding.

In fact, this vital neighborhood center has lost money to the point that Charette has had to reduce his own position to part time – even though he arrives at work at 6:30 every morning and often does not leave until 5 p.m. while personally carrying a caseload of 150 families.

An identity problem

People, and more than a few community leaders, have confused South Worcester with the higher-profile Main South neighborhood. Main South, located on Main Street, is harder to ignore because it is so very visible.

But South Worcester is a neighborhood that is hidden from sight [see map]. If most people do not see the problem, then there is less of a demand to respond to the needs of the neighborhood.

Even the people at City Hall have a habit of ignoring South Worcester. Charette told me he almost never has any city councilors visiting the neighborhood center.

With his funding cut, little political support to rely on and an increasing demand for services from the families in his neighborhood, Charette is undaunted.

He told me about a family he met 15 years ago. The mom and three children were brought to Worcester after having been victims of domestic violence. The mom was too afraid to even leave their apartment, so her 8-year-old son showed up at the neighborhood center looking for food to feed the family.

Charette made home visits, worked with the local school, made sure the family had counseling and, as the children grew, he helped with employment. As a result of a great deal of hard work, all of the children went to college, have good-paying jobs and are thriving. Every year, this grateful family shows up at the neighborhood center at Christmastime with gifts for neighborhood children.

“There is still so much we need to do,” he said. “We’ve got so many families to feed, so many families that need our help.”

I asked Levy, who worked closely with Charette during his time as mayor, to describe his impact. He said his contributions were immeasurable.

“Ron has devoted his life to working quietly and effectively in one of the poorest and most underfunded areas of our city. Without him there as an anchor, and a conscience, I can’t imagine how much worse off the elderly, youth and others would be.”

***

Even though he may be invisible to most of the people in Worcester, the people who happen to live in this often-forgotten neighborhood know they have a friend and tireless worker in Charette.

For more than 40 years, Ron Charette has been coming to work helping the people of South Worcester, one person, one family at a time. What keeps him going? The answer is found in a word he has printed on a wall in his office: “Hope.”

Editor’s note: We hope you enjoyed this free preview of Ray’s unique perspective and unmistakable candor. Be sure to check back in coming weeks to find out how you can keep on reading Worcester’s best commentary without becoming a Sun member when the preview ends.

Raymond V. Mariano is a Worcester Sun columnist. He comments on his hometown and global issues that impact it every Sunday in Worcester Sun.

10 thoughts on “Mariano: The invisible man makes forgotten neighborhood of South Worcester a better place to live

  1. Ray,
    Worcester is still a good place to live, work, and raise a family for many reasons…including those you highlight and so many more as you know.
    Thank you again for your continued contributions. Mike

  2. Ray, please stop the nonsense. R. Chareete has been praised by every person who has a keyboard in Worcester, you’re just repeating what others have written. It’s gotten to the point that such praise nowadays is standard page filler.
    Suggest you take a break from your new journalism hobby (btw, you’re not that good at it) and do something worthwhile, roll up your sleeves and help needy families in Worcester – like Ron, get some sweat on your brow, and then write about your personal experiences.
    Or open up a charity, call it “Ray’s Charity” and funded it with all those state pensions you have.
    Jackie Newell

    • I haven’t seen anything written about Ron in a long time. Regardless, he deserves every column inch of praise he gets.

      As for my writing ability, you may be right. But I’m glad to see that you are interested enough to keep reading. Enjoy the rest of your day.

      • Was that sarcasm Ray? Shame on you.
        Sorry, I did not read the article, saw Charette’s name and knew instantly it was another lame piece of recycled local journalism. Did I say journalism? Sorry, meant the meanderings of a retired bureaucrat.
        What, no retort about that pension comment Ray? You’re not ashamed of milking the taxpayers like that – shameful how your kind milk the taxpayers for decades. Oughta be a law against it, don’t you think?
        The idea that you should open a charity to enhance your legacy sounds good right? Sell one of your houses and write-over a pension, make yourself CEO and hire the family a la the Clinton Crime Family. Ray, your legacy would top everyone else’s in Worcester (and Cape Cod). Did I say elite? Meant blowhards.
        Yours truly, Jackie

        • Glad to see not all people are brainwashed lemmings. Mariano was always part of the self-serving system in this city. It all started with him groomed by Buffone many years ago. Carries on to this day with the McGovern clan. Nothing much changes.

        • I did not mention my pension (singular, I only have one) because it is none of your business. And although I am proud of my volunteer work and my charitable giving, that is also none of your business.

          • Volunteer work? Where please? Charitable giving? To who please?
            Oh yes, it is our business when you claim to have done such work/giving.
            You career bureaucrats always claim to have worked for people, when in fact your kind has played the system (Jim McGovern, Joe Petty, Ed Augustus and the city council all come to mind) and done little to nothing to make Worcester a better place to live and work.
            Fact is your kind, after decades of using the system for personal gain, all walk away with fat pensions and inflated opinions about their careers, but Worcester and MA have nothing to show for it. Just mounting pension debt and higher taxes. So, tell us about your career achievements please?

          • Still thin skinned as you were, back when I knew you. When you ran the disco on Highland St. and drove around in a Corvette. Don’t take yourself so seriously, you’ll live longer. On the light side, can you tell me the story about living in the project ? When your friend’s father did not allow him to hang with you. One more time, to make it a even 1000. Calm down, relax.

  3. Please let Mr Charette know to vontact College of the Holy Cross.They have maintained college program of tbe 60’s and 70’s known as SPUD,Student Programs for Urban Development. In the beginning the program had students from Holy Cross..Clark, Becker, Worcester State and Anna Maria Colleges. I was a member from Anna Maria The program is same today but only students of Holy Cross can sign up. Students act as Mentors..take kids out..dinner. enrichment. .alit of football players get involved and bring their child and even families for free to Football games..Former Holy Cross students who volunteered? Supreme Coyrt Justice Clarence Thomas [main south neighborhoid Center]..Stan Grayson, who became under secratary to Mayor Ed Koch and Ted Welles, MBA/Attorney who represented the NFL against Tom Brady. Also Bob Leyton, former vice president of NYSE , cotton commodity who still sees child he met at his site, DYS from 1970-74…

  4. It is far, far better to praise than to condemn. I’ve seen the good work of Ron Charette first hand going back to 1998 when the Dann Clan (Roni, Michelle, Marshall & Steve) moved from Lake Avenue to Lewis Street in the shaddows of Cambridge and Southbridge Streets. Ray, my classmate at Burncoat, makes good points as a 40-plus-year Worcester activist, many year public servant and administrator. It’s not just about who was born in Worcester, who was educated in Worcester, but the spirit of everyone to put the past, present and future hopes and dreams into perspective. Showing the world that residents of New England’s second-largest city can get along does such great things to bring faith and hope to the region. After Lewis Street, my family moved to Hancock Street (2000-10) right around the corner from Bill Breault, yet found (and worked with) hundreds of Worcester professionals to make the city a better place. Worcester (and our previous homes in Auburn and Shrewsbury) motivated Michelle to get her three political science degrees (UConn., AmeriCorps/NCCC, Clark University) and to embark on her current four-year mission with Concern Worldwide in behalf of the United Nations facilitating humanitarian aid in the world’s 30 poorest countries. When the Reverend Dann came to Worcester in 1877 by way of Boston, London and who knows how many countries in Eastern Europe, he focused on getting his job done, one day at a time, and then to vanish into the sunset. Worcester is known as the Heart of Massachusetts for many reasons to me. Hopefully this spirit will be shared and nurtured by other generations. Stephen Dann (Motivator at LinkedIn.com, 49 years in communications starting in 1968 at Burncoat HS in Worcester), currently disabled due to accidents, but not in spirit.

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