United Way’s ‘Homeless Connect’ Helps Families in Need

Families and individuals looking for backpacks, new clothing, job opportunities and on-the-spot dental exams free of charge attended United Way’s “Project Homeless Connect,” an open resource fair held at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury on Friday, August 11.

Over 350 volunteers guided more than 200 families through the resource and service fair, which included financial check-ups, eye exams provided by Mass Eye and Ear, legal advice from Greater Boston Legal Services and Harvard Legal Aid and healthy eating and resume sessions.

Brigid Boyd, United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley’s communications and public affairs vice president, said families surveyed for the event were most interested in getting backpacks for their children.

“In addition, employment opportunities and some kind of career coaching was high on the list,” Boyd said.

Many of the volunteers aiding families were given a pep talk at the beginning of the event before it opened to the public.

“What you’re going to do today is help give people a chance,” Steve Krichmar, United Way’s board of directors chairman, told volunteers.

Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defenders agency, told the crowd of volunteers that they were going to have a “tangible impact” on people’s lives.

“These are people who can be invisible to society,” Benedetti said, “but they are not invisible to us. Often they are our clients.”

After speeches were given, families and individuals came pouring in and were assigned to volunteers from different companies, such as Michelle Christian, a benefit analyst for Sun Life Financial.

Christian met with a mother of three from Chelsea who had two of her children with her. She’d brought the family to get their eyes examined before leading them to a session on healthy eating led by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) staff.

Christian said the son was entering seventh grade and that the daughter was entering fifth grade at the Clark Avenue School.

“It looks like the son will need glasses, so they will be able to go to MGH to get them,” Christian said. “So they’re getting the services they need here, which could have been two to three transports to get everything, not to mention the transportation costs.”

Christian led the mother and children to the Back to School station as soon as the family walked into the building. She said the kids were happy and filled their brand new backpacks to the brim. The backpacks were provided by Vital Source, Related Beal and Eze Software.

“I do believe every child should have a backpack and school supplies. What it does to a child’s self-esteem not to have that … at least you know you’re starting your day prepared,” Christian said. “You don’t want to be that child that doesn’t have it, and there are so many in that situation.”

Sandie Lau, another volunteer, walked around the Reggie Lewis Center with 31-year-old Chris Simmons who was accompanied by her 11-year-old son.

Simmons learned about “Project Homeless Connect” through a contact at Rosie’s Place in the South End, the neighborhood she lives in and where she rents a low-income apartment with her son Richard.

Richard was given a tie he wore all day from Tailored For Success, Inc., a non-profit organization and boutique located in Malden.

“This is awesome,” Simmons said. “There are so many resources I didn’t know about like the WIC, the whole information about the schools, the GEDs, the resources, the housing stuff over there, everything,” she said.

She continued, “I’m going to look over everything and see what’s most needed in my life.”

Lau, an admin for research and development at Procter & Gamble, was humbled by the family she got to know throughout the day.

“I think United Way really did a great job with this one-stop shopping, and I’d really like to see it often,” Lau said. “It’s a great time for the families.”

When Richard was asked what he was looking forward to most, he said the clothing.

“Because sometimes you need a new style to get ready for news things,” Richard said.

“Dress for success, that’s what it is,” his mother said.

“How they dress is really important,” Lau said, “for them going out for interviews and church, and they did pick up a lot of stuff.”

Sandie Lau poses with Chris Simmons and her son, Richard.

Lau added that United Way’s first ever Project Homeless Connect has been an eye-opening experience.

“I hope this will happen annually,” she said. “I think this is a great opportunity, and I think they appreciate it a lot.”

Jordan Frias

Jordan Frias is an editorial assistant at Boston Herald and a contributor of Spare Change News. He is vice president of the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a graduate of Northeastern University's School of Journalism.