Topic: Today

Angels Among Us

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Dick Cyr

Dick Cyr

Susan Rodgerson

Susan Rodgerson

All photos/art by Alex Gagne

These dedicated New Englanders are making an extraordinary difference in the communities around them.

The Home Maker

In the midst of a crisis, even unbearable tragedy, some people are capable of extraordinary things. Dick Cyr is an example of that. In the summer of 1984, he and his then wife, Gerry, were dealing with unspeakable sadness. After three and a half years of treatment, hope, and pain, their five-year-old boy, David, was dying of leukemia.

They’d been shuttling back and forth between their home in Hartland, Vermont, and the old Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital in Hanover, New Hampshire, 25 minutes away, but many families they’d met had traveled hundreds, even thousands, of miles for care. Normalcy had been suspended; they were living out of cars or in waiting rooms. Parents missed work; bills went unpaid. And the struggle to maintain some semblance of a home life for their other kids was often overwhelming. Their situations weighed even on David, who, after being released from the pediatric ward, would implore his dad to bring all the other kids he’d met home with them.

“When your kid is sick, you’re not thinking about eating or sleeping,” Cyr says. “Then three days go by and you realize you need a shower, you need to wash some clothes, you need a rest. Often there isn’t any place to do that. It’s a nightmare.”

Which is why in July of ’84, just two months before David’s passing, a tearful but resolute Dick Cyr told his son’s oncologist, “We’re going to build a home for these families and call it David’s House.”

The idea was as new to Cyr as it was to David’s doctor: “The words just tumbled out of me,” he would later explain. There was no grand plan, and the Cyrs, who had two grown sons and had adopted David when he was an infant, weren’t wealthy. But Cyr was determined to help other families like his as a tribute to his boy’s life. “In 1985 I didn’t have a weekend when I wasn’t speaking somewhere,” he says. “And three or four nights a week, I’d be at a Rotary Club or a Lions Club.”

On January 20, 1986, David’s House opened its doors in a renovated Victorian in downtown Hanover. The house was as Dick had envisioned it: a place that felt more homey than institutional, with inviting spaces with names such as the Bear Room and the Sheep Room. There were private baths, a laundry, and a big kitchen where guests could make a meal after a long day. Families paid what they could to stay there–some paid nothing at all–and were welcome to stay as long as their children needed care. That first night, six families came to David’s House. It’s been full ever since.

Today, David’s House has a newer home, just a half-mile walk from Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s new medical center in Lebanon, New Hampshire. There’s room for 15 families now, with a couple of expansive kitchens, several lounge areas, a screened-in porch, an outdoor playground, and even a teen room complete with bean-bag chairs, a large flat-screen TV, and video games. There’s also a full-time staff and a small army of volunteers who clean, cook, and welcome guests night and day.

Dick Cyr, at 74, is still very much a part of the place, too. He heads up fundraisers (there are plans for another addition in the spring), tells his story, and meets the families who’ve found solace at David’s House.

On one recent Thursday, Dick is giving a tour of the place to a friend. Halfway through, he stops to talk to a young father named Benjamin from Concord, New Hampshire, whose 36-day-old son, Brendin, hasn’t been able to breathe on his own. Benjamin and his wife, Jody, have been here a month. “He okay?” Dick asks.

“Not really,” Benjamin says. “Up and down. It’s been stressful. I’ve been drinking a lot of coffee,” he adds, directing his eyes toward the cup in his right hand. “But I’d be living in my car if it weren’t for this place. Everybody here is amazing. It’s felt like home. In fact, that’s what my wife and I call it. At the end of the day, we say, ‘Let’s go home.'”

For more on David’s House, visit: davids-house.org

The Artist’s Touch

In the mid-1980s, Susan Rodgerson, a painter living in Massachusetts’ South Shore region, had what a lot of artists crave. She had name recognition, she could support herself with her work, and she even had a local gallery fronting the rent for her Boston studio as she prepared for an upcoming exhibition. But Rodgerson needed a change.

“Making art is about learning who you are, and I was tired of myself,” she says. “I was tired of seeing what I was about. I wanted to know about other people and build a community around creating things.”

Through a part-time teaching stint, Rodgerson saw an opportunity to bridge some important gaps: between urban students and the art world, between Boston’s youth and the business community, between how things are made and how stuff gets sold. The idea centered on creating collaborative art projects with students, works that could then be sold to Boston businesses. “Their voices would be on the walls of big banks and law offices,” she explains. And the program would be self-funded; the sale of one project would cover the costs of the next one. It was bold and unique and not entirely understood. Rodgerson approached several Boston middle schools about her plan. On her 14th try, she finally got a yes.

In May 1991 Artists for Humanity (AFH) launched in the cramped library space of a Dorchester middle school. A small group of eighth-graders turned out for the program, and over the course of three intense weeks met every day after classes to create a 4×12-inch oil painting, the rights to which were eventually sold to Nellie Mae, the national student-loan program, for use on the cover of its annual report. When it was over and the summer break hit, Rodgerson’s students asked what was next.

They still are. Now in its 21st year, AFH serves 225 Boston youth, ages 14 to 20, here each year, and another 2,000 through adjunct programming. Every day at around 3:00, young people descend on AFH’s South Boston headquarters, an airy, light-filled LEED Platinum building (dubbed the “EpiCenter”) designed by one of Rodgerson’s former students and filled with studio and woodshop space for painting, video, graphic design, silk screening, photography, Web design, and sculpture.

Besides art instruction, students are immersed in the business side of the creative process, meeting with clients– which have ranged from commercial developers to Suffolk University Law School to Logan International Airport–and developing goods (logos, art installations, T-shirts, bike racks, and other custom product lines) for them. Students are paid to be at AFH, and they’re paid for the work they produce and sell. For 2011, AFH is projected to generate some $1.2 million in revenue, half of which has gone back to the artists in the form of commissions and wages.

“We’re giving kids an opportunity to earn the respect they’re looking for,” says Rodgerson, whose staff of 31 includes several of her original students who’ve returned to AFH as instructors. “They’re doing a job that’s valuable and important. They’re meeting with the captains of industry, and they’re in the driver’s seat. It changes their sense of self, and that was my goal. I wanted kids to feel that change of self that I discovered through art.”

Jason Talbot found exactly that. An AFH co-founder, the 34-year-old was one of Rodgerson’s original students; today he’s an instructor and mentor. He knows firsthand the importance of the organization and its power to change lives. “[Before AFH] I didn’t know who I was or where I was going,” he says. “But hanging out with Susan, I became an artist. That’s me. That’s who I am. It defined a path and helped me find success.”

For more on Artists for Humanity, visit: afhboston.com


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