Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise Articles


Leominster’s Spanish American Center gets $11,800 grant to address needs

By Peter Jasinski   7/8/16


LEOMINSTER — With the help of an $11,800 grant it recently received from the Community Foundation of North Central Massachusetts, the Spanish American Center will develop a five-year strategic plan to address the changing needs of the center.

“We are pleased to receive this grant from the foundation, as we believe that we are at a critical point in the life of our organization,” said Susan O’Brien, the center’s planner and grant writer. “We are excited that, with this grant, we can hire an experienced consultant who can objectively help us make decisions about our future.”

The consultant will work with a subcommittee comprised of the center’s staff and board of directors with an end goal of determining what the center’s strengths and challenges are, as well as available opportunities within the community.

The subcommittee will develop a list of questions to ask key community stakeholders identified by the consultant. The questions would range from how the community views the center to how the needs of local residents could best be met.

O’Brien said the subcommittee will be organized over the next several months, and she expects the resulting five-year plan to be completed and implemented by the start of next summer.

The most recent grant is not the first time the Community Foundation of North Central Massachusetts has provided the Spanish American Center with funding.

It had previously been part of a two-year joint effort to provide nutritious meals to displaced families living in local hotels. At that time, the foundation had given consecutive grants for the purchase, preparation and dispersal of hot dinners to about 180 people two nights a week.

The foundation also funded one of the center’s previous strategic plans, O’Brien said.

The need to re-evaluate the center’s goals and capabilities is partly due to a continued steady influx of families from the Caribbean, and Central and South America into the Leominster area.

“It is time for us to reassess our mission and our programs, and determine what, if any, changes in direction are warranted at this point in time,” O’Brien said.

The center is seeking the services of an outside consultant that will assist with the planning process.

Follow Peter Jasinski on Twitter and Tout @PeterJasinski53.


Back in high gear for those in need,

Spanish American Center busy at temporary Leominster home

By Cliff Clark,
UPDATED: 03/26/2015 06:32:25 AM EDT0 COMMENTS

LEOMINSTER — The staff of the Spanish American Center, working in temporary downtown office space, is back to offering its clients services from after a burst water pipe forced the center to move last month.

“We’ve been very busy, but it has been a challenge,” said Executive Director Neddy Latimore from her temporary office at 14 Manning Ave.

Those challenges began when a water line on the second floor of the center on Spruce Street burst, causing extensive damage on its first floor.

The temporary space was paid for by an emergency grant from the United Way of North Central Massachusetts and the Community Foundation of North Central Massachusetts.

Peter Bovenzi, owner of the office building on Manning Avenue, offered the space “at extremely reasonable rates,” Phil Grzewinski, president of the United Way of North Central Massachusetts, said at the time of the move.

“They just rescued us,” center board member Jean-Pierre Boissy said about the help offered by the United Way and Bovenzi.

Even with all the publicity and outreach to alert its clients that the Spruce Street location is no longer operational, Latimore said every day those seeking help will arrive at their temporary offices after first visiting Spruce Street.

“Our clients will bring the fliers (about the move) we have on the front door on Spruce after having gone there,” said Latimore.

Since moving in late February, the services its clients have come to expect — tax preparation, legal aid and meals for disadvantaged children and homeless families — have continued as before.

With summer just a few months away, the center is already planning to continue the meal program that it offers to children at 16 sites in the Twin Cities and Gardner.

The program serves about 2,300 meals each day, and a new commercial kitchen annex is now under construction at the center’s Spruce Street location, to make meal preparation more efficient.

It is expected to be operational in the next five weeks.

The kitchen at the Spruce Street location was on its second floor, and Latimore said going up and down the stairs created challenges for the volunteers who help with meal preparation.

“It’s looking good, and we’re making progress,” said Boissy about the kitchen, which is being built by students at the high school’s Center for Technical Excellence innovation.

The pantry at the center is also up and running again, and Latimore made of point of recognizing Sue Chalifoux Zephir, director of Ginny’s Helping Hands, for her help at keeping the pantry stocked.

“They are here every morning with deliveries. She’s really taken care of us,” said Latimore.

The center also has spruced up its website,, and is making an effort each day at uploading announcements and alerts.

The center is also now mailing a quarterly newsletter, which is made possible by Workers’ Credit Union and IC Federal Credit Union, said Latimore.

Repairs at the Spruce Street location have yet to start, said Boissy.

Since the water damage, the lower floor was stripped of all the wet plaster and sheetrock and allowed to dry.

Boissy said an insurance adjuster will visit the center next week to make a final estimate of the costs to make the repairs.

Work on the Spruce Street facility will need to move quickly because the staff is “tentatively” planning to move back in by May 1.

“We’re very appreciative of all the people who have helped and continue to support us. We can’t thank them enough,” said Boissy.

Follow Cliff Clark on Tout and Twitter @cliffcclark.

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Cultural barriers are obstacles to reporting domestic violence for many Latinos

By Michael Hartwell,

LEOMINSTER — Advocates say Latino victims of domestic violence are less likely to seek help, especially those who immigrated to the United States, because of a variety of cultural, legal and practical concerns.

“Maria” is currently living in an apartment in the Fitchburg area. She was physically abused by two previous partners and is trying to start her life over again with the help of social workers.

She requested that specific details of her situation, such as her real name, be left out for her safety. She was interviewed through a translator.

Now in her 20s, Maria said the father of her two children physically abused her for years and she never told police.

“It never crossed my mind,” she said.

Maria said where she grew up outside the United States, the police wouldn’t do anything about domestic-violence reports, so she saw no reason to report him.

After the couple broke up, she dated another man for several years. After they broke up, he visited her home a few years later. While he was there, some male friends from the neighborhood showed up to see her. After they left, her ex became enraged and attacked her.

“When he was hitting me he was asking which one I am with,” said Maria.

After he assaulted her, he caught up with her friends and murdered two of them with a handgun. Their families compelled her to call police and she was moved into a homeless shelter, then moved to Massachusetts for her safety.

Police caught up with her ex, but she fears retribution from his friends.
Fear of police common

Karen Riley-McNary, director for the YWCA of Central Massachusetts’ domestic-violence services program, said Maria’s lack of trust in her home police force is common with many Latinos who come here. While Maria said she does trust American police, Riley-McNary said many immigrants do not and are reluctant to cooperate with authorities. That’s because the judicial system where they grew up may be corrupt and dysfunctional.

Nicolas Formaggia is a community advocate at the Spanish American Center in Leominster, a non-profit social-service agency with a focus on Latinos. He has been working on an anti-domestic violence campaigned called “No Mas,” which translates into English as “No More.”

Formaggia said people who immigrate to America illegally are often reluctant to call police when they are being abused because they fear they could end up being deported.

Stephanie Dondero, the Fitchburg Police Department’s domestic-violence advocate, said federal law protects domestic-violence victims who cooperate with police.

They can apply for a “U Visa” and gain legal residency if they are a victim of certain crimes, including domestic violence, sexual abuse, rape, blackmail and even fraud in foreign-labor contracting.

Formaggia said the Fitchburg Police Department has been very cooperative with the Latino community on this front but cautioned other police departments haven’t.

He said there are real cases where people have been deported after reporting domestic-violence abuse, and protection from deportation may not happen if the victim and abuser are not legally married.

Language barrier a big obstacle

Another issue discouraging some Latinos in America from reporting domestic violence is a language barrier.

“If the perpetrator speaks English and the victim speaks Spanish and the police officer doesn’t understand Spanish … you may get an interpreter, but it’s not as clear as if the person can state what happened directly,” said Formaggia.

He said some victims may fight back and injure their attacker.

In that case, reporting the crime puts them at serious legal risk that is compounded by the language barrier.

He clarified that abuse can take many forms, besides physical violence. It occurs in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships, and happens in couples of all income levels. Men can be abused by women as well.

Some people can be emotionally abused by their partner, such as being told they are worthless so many times that they start to believe it. They can also be economically dependent on an abusive partner. Lacking legal immigration status makes it harder to find good-paying work, so that population is at a heightened risk. Formaggia said that can keep some people stuck in a dangerous situation.

“In theory, it may be very easy to tell that a relationship is unhealthy, but at the end of the day when someone sits down and says, ‘Where will I go, what will I do?’ it doesn’t look so clear,” said Formaggia. He said women with children may decide to stay in an abusive home to avoid running the risk of becoming homeless.

Seeking help does have some serious tradeoffs as well. Formaggia compared going into a domestic-violence shelter to being moved by the Witness Protection Program.

He said people who move into a shelter are always housed outside their community, which costs them their social support network.

“Forget your life as you know it,” he said. “You can’t disclose where you are, you can’t go to the places you used to go. You can’t go to work, back and forth. They could show up at your workplace and follow you to the shelter. That’s a safety concern for the shelter. You pretty much lose everything.”

An unspoken subject

Joana Dos Santos, executive director of the United Neighbors of Fitchburg, a local nonprofit social-service agency that works with the Latino community, said domestic violence has historically been something Latinos don’t talk about.

“Some people don’t want to make the perpetrator look bad, such as if they have kids and don’t want them to hear bad things about their father,” she said.

Pierre R. Berastaín is the spokesman for the National Latin Network for Healthy Families and Communities, a nonprofit group that focuses on domestic-violence issues in the Latino community. He said religious views can also discourage Latinos from seeking help. They may feel that the sanctity of marriage forbids them from getting help, because that may lead to a divorce or separation.

One elusive question is how prevalent domestic violence is within the Latino community, especially compared to other populations.

He said a recent study showed it was 17 percent for recent immigrants, while one a decade ago showed it was 67 percent.

“That range, from 17 (percent) to 67 percent, tells us a number of things,” he said. The way questions are asked change how people answer them. Many surveys are done by the phone, and a victim may not feel comfortable honestly answering an intrusive question from a stranger.

Domestic-violence rates unclear

He said with all of these factors, experts don’t really know for sure how much domestic violence is happening with Latinos.

He said a robust Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released this year reported that the Latino community and the mainstream community have a similar rate of between an estimated 25 percent to 33 percent.

Still, Berastaín said even if prevalence of domestic-violence rates are indeed similar, it’s well documented that Latinos have a lower rate of seeking help, especially recent immigrants.

Formaggia said anyone who is experiencing domestic violence and is not comfortable calling the police can reach out to a community organization such as the Spanish-American Center or domestic-violence support groups, like The YWCA of Central Massachusetts, Jane Doe Inc., which is the state coalition on domestic violence, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which is open 24 hours a day at 1-800 799-7233 or 1-800 787-3224.

Maria, the domestic-violence victim now living in Massachusetts, is getting help from social workers in finding work. She wanted to let other women who are being hurt by their partners know that they don’t have to put up with it.

“Don’t wait for the situation to get worse. Go look for help instead,” she said. “Don’t let your kids suffer through that situation.”

(Nicolas Formaggia is one of the Domestic Violence counselors employed at  at the Leominster Spanish American Center.)