By: Katie Stinchon
It’s been three years since the Americans with Disabilities Act celebrated its 20th Anniversary on the Boston Common, an event that Teak was hired to promote through a short-term campaign.
At the time that I was assigned the account, I had general knowledge of the ADA and its impact on the country: creating rights for people with disabilities and ensuring accessibility to public buildings such as restaurants, stores, and hotels for all citizens. What I didn’t realize was how much I was about to learn and that those lessons would stay with me forever. As with many of the nonprofits and organizations with which Teak partners, their stories, missions and lessons stay with me well beyond the last press release or conference call.
Thus, the important work of the ADA came flooding back to me as I trudged through 30 inches of snow two weekends ago after Nemo rocked New England. The snow drifts were waist high in some areas and the walkways that were shoveled out were often so narrow that the path was only large enough for one person, single-file, at a time. I had to turn to my side on more than one occasion to let another walker pass.
Every street corner became a dumping station for plows, burying curb cuts under mounds of snow, not to be seen again until early April. I couldn’t help but think – how could anyone with a wheelchair even get outside of their door?
In the past this issue would not have even crossed my mind. Why would it? I don’t have a mobility issue, nor does anyone I love. Heck, I was only 7 when the ADA passed! I grew up with handicap spaces in parking lots, seats in movie theatres, on trains and planes, and bathrooms dedicated to those who need a larger stall. Today we see ramps and chair rails and curb cuts on all street corners. I thought businesses and cities were doing their due diligence. I mean, they are required to by law, right?
Twenty minutes into my first meeting with the leaders and experts from the New England ADA Center, I realized how incredibly blind I was. I learned that something as simple as going out to eat with friends can take days of research — that for someone with a disability there is no such thing as “popping into a restaurant for a quick bite.” Those quaint 10-table restaurants in the charming part of town you go to for a romantic dinner? You can be sure that people who use wheelchairs have never seen their insides.
I listened intently to the heartbreaking stories of ramps being too steep; being trapped in bathrooms and on sidewalks; aisles being too narrow and showing up to establishments after promises of accessibility, only to be let in through a backdoor, by the dumpsters, or not at all.
After remembering these stories, my initial frustrations toward the driving and parking bans faded. My sore back and shoulders from my three hours of shoveling seemed laughable, because despite my cabin fever, I was walking to meet friends at a restaurant nearby and I didn’t need to call ahead to make sure they cleared their walkway.
Days after the storm, many sidewalks were still impassable for even the most able bodied travelers. I wondered about the older gentleman in my neighborhood who uses a scooter to walk his Yorkie around the block and wished I knew where he lived so I could help.
What’s worse is that winter is far from over and Mother Nature is promising another foot of snow to be delivered this weekend.
As you stock up on bread, milk and board games and gas up the snow blower for round two, think of others who could benefit from a little extra time spent making the areas around your home accessible, and know that your extra work is benefiting your neighbors who might not be as fortunate as you.
We’re all in this together. We are New Englanders after all.
A cultural lesson on getting fit in 2013
By: Allison Epstein
Recently, I took a trip to Chinatown to visit the Wang YMCA. I was there to observe one of the health and wellness workshops that is part of the YMCA of Greater Boston program, Get Fit, Stay Fit for Life, a comprehensive exercise and nutritional education regimen for seniors that focuses on building healthy lifestyles.
When I arrived, I quickly felt as though I needed a passport to be there. It was like your typical community center with shrieking children racing each other up the stairs. Clusters of adults were scurrying through the front door, rushing to avoid the harsh winter wind. The smell of sweat and the sounds of grunts and screeches from the nearby basketball court filled the air. For me, it was fascinating to be a witness to the city’s vibrant Asian culture.
The majority of Wang YMCA patrons speak one of two Chinese dialects: Mandarin and Cantonese. Some patrons use peasant or slang versions of their own language. Luckily, there is always a translator on-site to help communicate with English-as-a first-language visitors like myself.
I was there to interview a Wang YMCA patron who was gracious enough to share her senior fitness program success story.
An elderly woman in her late 70’s, she takes the train from Quincy to Boston nearly every day to exercise at the Wang YMCA in Chinatown. Before the translator arrived, we humored one another, communicating with our body language (think: charades). Soon, a Wang YMCA program coordinator stepped in, and we were able to run through a list of questions, translated from English to Taishanese, a peasant dialect of Cantonese.
Before joining the Wang YMCA, my new acquaintance experienced back and leg pain. She was unable to sleep at night and felt mildly depressed. After six months in the senior fitness program, she sleeps better, walks longer distances and regularly goes out for dim sum with a new group of friends.
Culturally, it was an eye-opening experience for me as well. I was told it is uncommon for elderly Asian women to exercise. Not only do they rarely hit the gym, but, many live alone in their nearby apartments, afraid to leave their homes for a fear of falling outside. As a result, many feel isolated and develop some form of depression.
At the Wang YMCA, the program coordinators understand that Chinatown is its own community. Not only is the health and nutrition curriculum designed to address issues of concern for the Asian population but the staff also help to organize social events to ease that feeling of isolation.
Looking back, it felt like I really did have a passport to travel into another corner of this city and see how the YMCA is so effective at inspiring committed people of all cultural and socio-economic backgrounds to get healthy every single day in so many ways.
By Andrea D’Iorio
Poverty is hard.
This is the common phrase I heard repeatedly over the last several months while working to promote Compass Working Capital, a non-profit that helps the working poor save toward a first-time home, a college education, or a small business. Compass offers financial education and incentive-based savings programs to help families achieve their financial goals and break the cycle of welfare dependence and generational poverty.
I learned shocking statistics:
-The poverty line in America is $23,050 a year – for a family of four. That seems impossibly difficult for even one person to live on in the Boston area.
-In Mass., subsidized housing residents must pay 30 percent of their income toward rent. By comparison, it is recommended that the middle class spend 25 percent of their income toward housing. So, when subsidized housing residents’ incomes rise, so does their rent.
-And, more often than not, families are afraid of saving money for fear of losing their benefits. Take welfare, for example. Families lose their benefits if their savings exceed $2,500 – a threshold that keeps families trapped in poverty.
These stats don’t seem right to me. How are the working poor supposed to get ahead?
I had the honor of meeting a few Compass clients during two fall workshops and learned more about their struggles and successes with poverty.
The class was filled with primarily single mothers whom society often refers to as “lazy welfare mothers.” Let me tell you, they are far from lazy. They’re some of the most determined, smart, hard-working group of women I’ve ever met. These women are motivated to move off public assistance, a complex system set-up to keep people poor and only the savvy can really navigate.
During the workshops, the women went around the room and shared the financial goals they hope to achieve by working with Compass and the obstacles they face to achieving financial freedom.
As the women introduced themselves, some mentioned their four-year college degrees. I thought to myself that so many people do not realize that poverty can happen to anyone, including those who work hard to obtain an education. Some of the women found good-paying jobs. But then they faced setbacks with layoffs or injuries. Many had low-paying jobs. All of them were living paycheck to paycheck. They had nothing in savings because there was nothing to save at the end of each month. One woman didn’t even have enough to contribute the minimum to her employer-sponsored retirement plan.
Due to their low-incomes, everyone faced challenges making ends meet. It was harder and harder to get ahead. Unexpected expenses kept popping up. One woman struggled with a flat tire on her way to work while others faced steep health and childcare expenses.
They all shared a common goal: to get out of poverty. The women had dreams of owning homes, starting small businesses and going back to college. And, thanks to Compass, they’re now on a path to achieving economic mobility, even with all those odds stacked against them. It is so inspiring to witness!
Compass has a unique way of helping families living in subsidized housing achieve their financial goals. Through a public-private partnership with the Lynn and Cambridge, Mass. Housing Authorities, the families enrolled in Compass are able to increase their incomes without fear of paying more in rent or losing their benefits. The women save their increased savings in escrow accounts. Compass gives them one-on-one financial coaching sessions that teach how to budget, pay down debt, repair credit, slash utility bills, and other expenses, and save toward a down payment on a home, start a small business, obtain an education or fund a retirement plan. That is the hard-earned secret to climbing up and out of poverty, and the women are doing it one step at a time!
In one year, 63 percent of participants increased their income, 65 percent reduced their debt, 64 percent improved their credit score and 68 percent saved an average of $1,042.
Everyone needs extra help at times. Sometimes the aid comes in the form of public assistance until families can get on their feet again. Single mothers face a particularly daunting struggle because they are trying the break the cycle of poverty so they can better themselves for the sake of their children. If public and private entities, and sometimes in tandem like Compass and the housing authorities, help out the families until they get ahead, it will enable families to become productive members of society, making America a better place for everyone. I have been so privileged to witness this transformation and to get the word out about Compass’ inspiring and empowering work.
By: Allison Epstein
I was never that little girl who dreamt about her wedding. In fact, thoughts of other people’s weddings, let alone my own, didn’t even cross my mind until I went to college in the south where it is common for people to get married at an earlier age.
My sister got married in June 2010. This was the first wedding I attended as an adult. This was also the first time I was involved in any kind of event planning for the nuptials of a loved one. Every detail from the colors and fabrics to the lighting and shape of the dinner tables fascinated me and after much research I instantly knew what I want for my own special day. The problem, as my dad likes to point out, is that I still need to find a husband – a minor detail, thanks dad!
When I started working at Teak, I knew I would have the opportunity to plan, promote and execute special events for clients. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be interviewing brides and writing about city weddings at the New England Aquarium, a unique and playful space with access to animal exhibits and unrivaled views of the Boston Harbor.
My job is to convey the wedding experiences of those who chose the Aquarium as the venue for their special day through the media. I write up each bride’s unique story and then ask members of the media to share these stories with their audiences.
Beyond the obvious question everyone asks when learning of a wedding held at the Aquarium – “Did you serve fish?” – I discuss personal details about the relationship, the engagement, the wedding planning and finally the big day with each bride I interview. Their words coupled with photographs from the events help me to envision the look and feel of their ceremonies and receptions. The passion and happiness exuded through the phone when I speak with these women excites me and fills me with the desire to do their weddings justice in my write-ups. They inspire me to ensure that my friends and family members get everything they want and need on their special day.
To say I was “engaged,” by the assignment would be an understatement. In fact, I got so wrapped up in each story, my boss had to tell me to cut my pitches, which she referred to as novellas, in half.
As my friends begin to get engaged within the coming years, I hope to lend my new found expertise to their special day. Thanks to the brides from the Aquarium, I feel confident that I will be able to share lessons learned from their memorable experiences to the people I love the most. And then, one day, of course, there will be my own big day!
By Katie Stinchon
Is there a tougher, more callus group of people than New England commuters in the winter?
We resemble a pack of bundled up zombies. Jammed into MBTA trains and stations, plugged into our electronic devices or locked into reading material, (sometimes both) doing anything possible to avoid making eye-contact or interacting with the people around us.
I’ll confess, I’ve been this Charlie Card holder — head down and checked out.
Sometimes it’s hard enough to get out of bed knowing that you have an hour commute ahead of you, then an eight hour work day, just to turn around and do the whole thing again. Add in a five layers of clothing and drop the temperature to 15 degrees and it’s easy to see why Boston is often voted one of the most unfriendly and unhappy places to live in the country. City life is not an easy one.
It’s this scene and way of life that prompted Boston’s branding geniuses, Hill Holliday to create a pro bono advertising campaign entitled “Happier Boston” for local suicide prevention organization the Samaritans that would reach its audience, not through traditional media, but live and in-person on the city streets where people need it most.
The Happier Boston Campaign aims to do just what it says, make Bostonians happier. Through grassroots, pop-up social experiments, its goal is to wake people up to their surroundings and create positive change by offering kindness and smiles. It also shines light on the fact that the Samaritans are always there to offer support and a listening ear through their 24-hour hotlines for those in need.
I stood at Back Bay Station this week and watched Samaritans volunteers conduct an “Orange you Happy” welcome committee. A social experiment of sorts, they cheered in brightly colored shirts holding signs, wishing commuters a great day while passing out sunny sweet oranges.
Before arriving I imagined the pack of angry commuters buzzing by them, muttering to themselves, “I don’t’ have time for this.” Instead, and to my surprise 280 oranges disappeared in less than 15 minutes. Every person who accepted an orange smiled.
As the commuters walked away I watched how they reacted to their prize. Some of them would hold the fruit to their nose, grinning from ear to ear, taking in that sweet citrus smell, and others would give the orange a light toss in the air, shifting the ball from hand to hand. Immediately after accepting the gift from a Samaritan volunteer their body language changed.
I also saw one zealous college student toss her orange up in the air and yell out, YES! fist pumping her fruit as if it was a major score. This of course made me laugh. I was just a bystander, but I too was effected by all of the feel-good vibes swirling around that T station.
It made me think, an orange and a good morning – is that all it takes? Apparently, yes! For that brief half hour the domino effect of smiles was contagious and I thought about it all day.
A lot of little things can add up to something great and this is what the Samaritans hopes to accomplish through its series of surprise social experiments throughout the city, blanketing Boston with pop-up musical blues events, A capella groups in elevators, welcoming committees, photos of Boston’s happy spots and changing the radio air-waves with satirical blues songs by Mayor Menino and David Ortiz about what makes them blue. For the Mayor it’s potholes.
What I learned: A little bit of human connection goes a long way; I saw it firsthand.