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Topic: Profiles

2012 Angels Among Us: Ordinary People Make a Difference

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When Tina Chery lost her son to violence on the streets of Dorchester, she vowed to provide emotional and practical help to other families suffering similar tragedies.

When Tina Chery lost her son to violence on the streets of Dorchester, she vowed to provide emotional and practical help to other families suffering similar tragedies.

Scott Macaulay of Melrose, Massachusetts, celebrates Thanksgiving each year by hosting a dinner for folks who find themselves alone on the holidays.

Scott Macaulay of Melrose, Massachusetts, celebrates Thanksgiving each year by hosting a dinner for folks who find themselves alone on the holidays.

Janet Wendle (with assistance from a fleet of volunteers) of Kennebunk, Maine, operates a rescue service that matches shelter dogs with loving foster families and new owners.

Janet Wendle (with assistance from a fleet of volunteers) of Kennebunk, Maine, operates a rescue service that matches shelter dogs with loving foster families and new owners.

All photos/art by Sean Alonzo Harris

Scott Macaulay | A Thanksgiving Happy Meal

In the fall of 1985, Scott Macaulay faced a dilemma: His parents had just divorced, and things had gotten so tense that he wasn’t sure where he was going to spend Thanksgiving. “I just knew I didn’t want to be alone,” the Melrose, Massachusetts, native says.

Instead, he took out an ad in his local paper and offered to cook a Thanksgiving meal for 12 people and serve them at the fellowship hall at his hometown’s First Baptist Church. He’s been doing it ever since.

Each Thanksgiving, Macaulay starts his day at 4 a.m., cooking four big turkeys, potatoes (two kinds: mashed and sweet), squash, stuffing, peas, and gravy, and getting the fruit cup, bread, and cranberry sauce ready. He buys pies for dessert and puts out cheese, crackers, pickles, and other nibbles. But beyond just preparing the food, Macaulay also transforms the hall into a home, bringing in a faux fireplace, a faux woodstove, rugs, flowers, candles, and furniture the night before. The meal commences around 1 p.m. as each guest says what he or she is thankful for; then the Reverend Veronica Lanier says grace.

“My thing is: You’re not looking at four walls as you eat alone,” Macaulay says. “You may not know the person sitting next to you, but you’re not alone. It’s an occasion.”

Macaulay, who owns a vacuum repair and retail shop, does almost all the work himself and funds the meal, which often exceeds a thousand dollars, largely out of his own pocket. “I start saving the day after Thanksgiving,” he jokes. Last year, Macaulay welcomed 69 guests, some of them staying well into the evening. “The goal is to have nobody show up,” Macaulay says. “That means everybody has a place to go.” Macaulay then lets out a big laugh: “But that hasn’t happened yet.”

Tina Chéry | Healing Hand

Louis Brown was easy to like. Tall, with an easy, infectious smile, Brown wasn’t afraid to dream big: First he’d earn a Ph.D. in aerodynamic engineering, and then, he told his mom, Tina Chéry, he’d be the country’s first black president. His sense of humor made him the life of family get-togethers. During Christmas he loved to play Santa, strapping a pillow beneath his shirt, donning a stocking atop his head, and calling himself “Cool Claus.” In December 1993, the 15-year-old honor student had even started planning his 16th birthday, which was still four months away. It was to be a big party, with a guest list that included both his parents’ friends and his own buddies. “He marched to the beat of a different drummer,” Chéry says.

When Louis Brown was growing up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, the largest section of Boston, lives were being lost and families torn apart by gang violence. Tina Chéry and her husband, Joseph Chéry, believed that their loving home could protect Louis and his two younger siblings from the dangers.

“We can justify why bad things happen to certain people,” Chéry says. “They were in a gang. They were dealing drugs. They have a lengthy criminal record. To many of us whose children aren’t living that lifestyle, it’s: ‘Oh, it’s those people. They’re not talking about me.’ My husband worked, I stayed at home, my son was driven everywhere. We were safe.”

But on December 20, 1993, a mild early-winter afternoon, Louis was walking with friends when he was innocently caught in the crossfire of a gang shootout. The tragedy around his death was compounded because of where Louis was headed: a Christmas party put on by Teens Against Gang Violence, a group he’d joined just three weeks before.

The senselessness of Louis Brown’s death turned a glaring spotlight on Dorchester. Newspaper reporters grabbed hold of the story; Boston’s mayor, Thomas Menino, visited Chéry and her grieving family; the cost of the boy’s funeral services was donated; and neighbors rallied in the way that any good community does when a crisis hits.

But although her son’s killing sent Chéry reeling, it also propelled her into action and got her thinking about the lack of support other families receive when faced with the same situation. Her son’s narrative–good student, stable family, avoided trouble–was an easy one for the media and politicians to grasp. But Chéry knew that not everyone shared her experience.

“What happens in the inner city, if you’re poor, if your child was a part of the problem?” she asks. “Services don’t come to you as easily as they would if you’re white, got caught in the crossfire, or were a teenager who was a straight-A student. How do we provide the same services to all families, regardless of who the victim was?”

The following April, Chéry went ahead and celebrated Louis’ 16th birthday. She rented a hall, just as her son had planned, and invited a robust guest list. But instead of honoring one child, she used the party to honor all children. She sent out fliers and asked parents to bring a list of all the positive things associated with their kids. “The only time our community gets attention is when our violence is high,” Chéry says, “and then we’re knocking our children over the head and not celebrating those who are doing what we want them to do.”

Guests brought food, there was music, and some 100 youths received Louis D. Brown certificates of appreciation. More important, the gathering laid the groundwork for the launch of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, a nonprofit aimed at supporting families of homicide victims.

Without pay, Chéry set up shop in her kitchen. As a stay-at-home mom, Chéry was not your typical nonprofit leader. But her commitment trumped experience. Her work became a mixture of advocacy and compassion. Whenever she’d read a story about a murder in a Boston newspaper, she’d cut out the picture of the victim, laminate it on a button, and mail this small piece of recognition to the reporter to give to the family. As the button project grew, it became Chéry’s roving exhibit with a message: showing the cross-section of lives that had been taken.

“When you’re looking at the faces, you don’t know who was innocent and who was known to police,” Chéry says, “or who was rich and who was poor. You just know that that someone is dead and someone else is suffering.”

By the end of the 1994 school year, Chéry and a small team of volunteers had started working with several Boston schools. They told Louis’s story and consulted educators on how to work with students to discuss difficult themes such as grief, death, and murder. Eventually, a collaboration with the Harvard School of Public Health led to a $5 million federal grant, letting Chéry expand the Institute’s programs.

Today, the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute is a fixture in the Dorchester neighborhood. Bereavement groups, victims’ advocates, even law enforcement officials use the nonprofit’s home, a sprawling office set right in the heart of the community on Dorchester Avenue, as a comforting place to meet with people who have recently lost a loved one to murder. In addition, the Institute has partnered with the Boston public-school system to teach educators how to help students heal from a trauma. There’s support for families navigating the emotional task of making funeral arrangements, and each May, Chéry and her staff lead an annual Mother’s Day Walk for Peace.

Though she was late to discover it about herself, Chéry is a born leader. The Institute’s ability to survive speaks to the power of her message. Her life these past 19 years has been constructed around peace and healing, for herself and for her community. It’s why she can come to work each day and sit in an office that’s just a block from where her son was killed.

“This is my revenge,” Chéry says, sweeping her eyes around her office, past the stacks of paper lining her desk, past a wall calendar, past rows and rows of family photos. “Louis didn’t fulfill his dreams and goals and passions. And yet, they’re being fulfilled because we’re trying to give young people a sense of hope. Louis dared to dream big. You can dream that way only when you have a sense of worth inside you.”

More information at: lldbpeaceinstitute.org

Janet Wendle | Lucky Pups

There are dog lovers, and then there are people like Janet Wendle. In 2007 the Kennebunkport, Maine, resident–a teacher and the owner of three dogs at that time–launched Lucky Pup, a rescue service that places shelter canines with new owners. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” Wendle quips.

After connecting with a large animal shelter in Arkansas, Wendle soon found herself shuttling back and forth between the South and home and meeting with prospective dog owners in New England. Much of her work stems from her mission to be as thorough as possible. In considering a new home for one of its dogs, Lucky Pup requires a detailed application. There are veterinarian and personal references to review and, of course, home visits. “It’s important to us that the dog’s needs are met,” Wendle says.

That’s because the animals come from a mix of stressful circumstances: Some are strays; others have been abandoned; and some have been turned in by short-tempered owners who’ve seen their cute untrained puppy morph into a full-grown untrained dog. Since its start, Lucky Pup–which includes a core team of 10 volunteers and operates through a network of foster families (it’s not a physical shelter)–has found new homes for more than 1,000 dogs, making it one of the biggest dog-rescue services in New England.

“I just love the stories, and I’m just such a sucker for these dogs,” says Wendle, now the owner of five dogs herself. “Seeing these dogs go to a wonderful home with a new owner–it’s really neat to see.”

More information at: luckypuprescue.org

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