Reflecting on big changes & eyeing bright future

By Darrell Halen
MethuenLife Writer

MAN Inc., has made tremendous progress over the past 3 decades. Once plagued by drugs and prostitution, the low-income neighborhood is proud to now be known for its youth education and recreation programs, food pantry and other support systems, home-ownership boost, etc. Last year, neighborhood kids experienced a field trip on a Boston Duck Boat.

Since a concerted effort to improve the lives of the residents of Methuen’s Arlington Neighborhood began more than three decades ago, leaders of the effort have seen success: a large turnout of youths participating in recreation programs, a boost in local home ownership, students headed to college, bonds formed between children and the police, just to name a few.
And now, as the Methuen Arlington Neighborhood Inc. organization moves beyond its 30-year milestone, organizers want to continue to build on those successes.
“The difference in the Arlington Neighborhood from when I started 25 years ago is night and day,” said Sgt. Kevin Dzioba, one of the Methuen police officers who have interacted with neighborhood kids over the years.

FED UP WITH CRIME
According to Linda Soucy, a neighborhood resident and founding member of the non-profit organization, MAN held its first meeting, as a crime watch meeting, in January 1992 for the purpose of eradicating drug houses and prostitution in the neighborhood. Soucy and others worked with police in Lawrence and Methuen and the sheriff’s office to address problems confronting the neighborhood, which borders Lawrence, and they videotaped people coming into their neighborhood to deal drugs and pick up prostitutes.
“When I started, gangs, drugs and prostitution in the Arlington neighborhood was a norm and now it is non-existent,” Dzioba said. “I believe the change is because of MAN Inc., and work they do with the children.”
The organization was officially incorporated in March 1995. Approximately 5,500 people live in the 14-street neighborhood.

BEGINNING OF CHANGE
Initially located in a small building at 1 Broadway, the organization began a homework center in the early 1990s. They worked with Dunkin’ Donuts to obtain a couple of computers.
“A lot of the issues were that the children didn’t have the school supplies that they needed in order to do their homework,” Soucy recalled. “We would provide the necessary school supplies, reference books for them, to do their homework.”
Soucy credits several people for working diligently in 1992 to make the neighborhood a better place to live in: Richard Dewhirst, Cathy Ball, Vincent Graziano, Jose Cruz, Carmen Cruz, Mary Ruth Roby, Robert Redfern, Gina Garofalo, Mayor Dennis DiZoglio and then-City Councilor William M. Manzi III.
Today, the organization, which in 2007 moved to 141 Tenney Street, next to Tenney Street Park, helps approximately 75 kids every week.
Their Lena Lahey Community Center also offers karate, yoga, after-school programs, movies, and crafts programs.
“What we’re trying to do is put them on a level playing field with the rest of the children in Methuen because this is a low-income neighborhood,” Soucy said. “They can’t afford what the other children in Methuen can afford.”
Soucy and others want to ensure school supplies are available to students at no charge and mentors are also available. They want to make sure youths can go on cultural field trips and have a place to go to during summers.
The organization also has an employment program, providing jobs to 25 to 35 young people, to work in the neighborhood – it’s important that they be able to walk to work every day.
“The kids who do well are going to do well anyway. Kids who are struggling and don’t have the support, whether it be at school or whether it be with their family, they are the ones we’re making a difference (for),” Soucy said. “I believe that they are able to understand how important their education is, and we can get them extra help in the different programs they need help in so they’re not so frustrated that they stop doing their homework or stop going to school.”
“I think we’ve had several children who might have slipped through the cracks, and we’ve been able to bring them full circle, to make sure that they like school, that it’s not a frustrating experience for them,” she added. “Just give them that extra love they need in order to thrive.”

SUCCESS STORIES
As an example of their organization’s success, Soucy points to a young man who is an engineering student at UMass Lowell, someone who also comes back and volunteers for the organization.
Several people who have participated in MAN activities have shared their thoughts on how meaningful the experience has been for them. One recalled feeling isolation and loneliness after immigrating to the United States, but being introduced to MAN’s program allowed this person to build friendships and come out of their shell. Impressed with its mentors, the resident promised themselves they would be a “rock” for other children, too, and became a youth worker for the group.
Another credits MAN for helping them academically, socially and financially.
According to Dzioba, Community Outreach Officers Mark Aiello and Brandon LaFlamme work closely with MAN. They stop in during after-school hours to interact with kids while they do their homework.
“Working with the police department, and having them stop by on a regular basis, it makes a difference,” Soucy noted. “They know who the kids are. They stop in at the homework center every now and then and talk to the kids. ‘What’s going on with you?’ It’s all beneficial to everybody.”
MAN, which has an annual budget of $250,000 to $300,000, works with more than 200 families throughout the year, and enjoys support from the state and federal government, private organizations and foundations.
Some of the support comes in school supplies, and a “adopt a family” program during the holidays.
“Much of it is warm winter clothing. Boots, shoes, coats, that type of thing. It brings joy to the families Christmas morning, families that are struggling financially,” Soucy said.
Soucy hopes to start an art therapy course and a Hip Hop dance program. Dzioba would like to do a car-seat checkpoint in the near future to help parents safely install car seats.
“MAN Inc. is the backbone and we try to assist in any way possible,” Dzioba said.
Currently, officers partner with MAN for its summer basketball league. Officers are referees, while other officers, in uniform, interact with the kids. And officers stop in during the week at the organization’s summer program in the park.
“It takes a village to help these children,” Soucy said. “We’re happy to be a partner with so many people and organizations to make this work, to make sure the struggling families have the resources that they need and just put these kids on a level playing field with the rest of the kids in Methuen.”
Tenney Street has experienced a large boost in home ownership. Some of the properties were purchased by tenants living there, while others were bought by people who were renting somewhere else, as housing costs were low.

PUSH FOR HOME OWNERSHIP
Soucy credits the change to an action plan intended to address all the issues in the neighborhood. According to statistical information, Tenney Street home ownership increased from 16 percent to 78 percent over the course of implementing a Model Block by Block Program. This was a document, according to Soucy, that had a vision, strategic options and an action plan.
The vision was to improve housing conditions, increase home ownership, re-design the playground at Tenney Park, increase police presence, and manage traffic.
“By upgrading properties that were in fair to poor condition this would improve the neighborhood image,” Soucy said.
Part of the action plan, according to Soucy, was to increase the maximum per unit rehab cost allowable, redevelop vacant lots into new housing, and decrease density.
The Model Block by Block Program, according to Soucy, included police participation and the support and involvement of the police chief and police department, including providing a police presence, having a police substation in the neighborhood and managing traffic.
“The best part of the action plan was … to improve the visual quality of Tenney Street,” Soucy said. “All of these changes led to the redevelopment of the neighborhood so people started investing their own funds to make their property and the neighborhood visually appealing. This led to a dramatic increase in home ownership.”