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