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Local heroes
5 people and organizations who are doing exceptionally good work
BY PROVIDENCE PHOENIX STAFF

Newspapers often use up a lot of ink and paper (or pixels and Web sites, as the case may be) telling their readers who and what’s gone wrong. In this, the eighth annual edition of the Providence Phoenix’s "Best" issue, we instead highlight five people and organizations who are doing exceptionally good work. These are local heroes who often labor behind the scenes. Yet they are changing the communities in which they’re based for the better. Regardless of what neighborhood you live in, all of us in Rhode Island are in their debt.

Grab a cup of coffee, settle in, and prepare yourself to be inspired.

CAROLYN PELLEGRINO: COMFORTING THE EVACUEES

Carolyn Pellegrino didn’t know what to expect when her staff was enlisted to help the Hurricane Katrina evacuees who landed in Middletown. And when she finished that first 13-hour day in September — in a large tent surrounded by 28 case workers and dozens of evacuees — she realized she’d never once looked at her watch. More than a month into her job as the case management supervisor for 200 people at the Anchorage Apartments, she’s still not aware of time passing.

Pellegrino, 61, is the family development director for the East Bay Community Action Program (EBCAP), a nonprofit whose consumers reside in the communities from East Providence to Newport. She has worked at this agency (formerly Self Help) for 32 years. Although Pellegrino had also done weekend coverage for the Red Cross when her two sons were small, she’d never dealt with so many people with so many immediate needs. "Here they were, working at a normal life and now they have absolutely nothing," she reflects. "I’ve been amazed at their ability to be moved to Rhode Island, and to make the best of it. These people have been so gracious and polite, so kind, so thankful. And what a sense of humor they have!"

That is certainly something Pellegrino herself has used as a coping mechanism: as a child in West Barrington, when she helped care for a wheelchair-bound grandmother; as a teenager, when family circumstances required her to look after her two younger sisters; as a young wife and mother, when her first son was born blind, deaf, and severely developmentally delayed; and as a woman in her early 50s who lost her husband and her younger son to serious illness. After graduating from URI as a psychology major, Pellegrino learned first-hand how difficult it can be to navigate "the system."

"There were so many ropes to climb," she recalls, about the years when she tried to get services for her disabled son. "You had to practically become your own doctor and lawyer. I got very involved with the parents’ groups, and by the time he was four, we realized he’d never be independent. So I became a big advocate of group homes, where he moved when he was 18."

Pellegrino started her career in East Bay social work as a part-time food stamp advocate in December 1974. Later, she directed elderly services in the area for 12 years, with frequent statewide recognition of her program’s caring and effective case management. Next, she became deputy director of East Bay Community Action’s upper East Bay region, often filling in for the CEO. Two years ago, she became family development director, overseeing social workers in all of the agency’s many departments: senior services; an adolescent pregnancy program; early childhood education (Head Start); family development; the East Bay Coalition for the Homeless; and a federally subsidized nutrition program for women, infants, and children (WIC).

This background made her more than qualified to jump in and coordinate the delivery of services to the Katrina survivors in Rhode Island. Each person who arrived was assigned a social worker and will continue to have contact with a staff member for as long as EBCAP is involved with the individuals and families in Middletown (most likely, the next six months). The social workers conducted a two-hour assessment with each evacuee, linking them with health, nutrition, education, financial, and job-related resources. They handed out clothing, personal hygiene items, RIPTA bus maps, free bus passes, and gift cards donated by local merchants.

One 94-year-old gent wanted a pillow so he could sit on his porch steps, so a social worker went out and got him a bright purple plush one. "I can’t say enough for the social workers," Pellegrino says. "They’re so compassionate and so excellent at what they’re doing. No training I could ever do would mimic what they’ve learned here."

And whenever the social work team has been short-handed, Pellegrino has stepped right in to directly work with the New Orleans folk, even babysitting a couple of hours for a family with five children under five. "I would not have wanted to be any place else," she notes, a smile spreading across her face. "I can’t imagine doing anything else."

By Johnette Rodriguez

DON MAYS: A CREATIVE ROLE MODEL

It was only when Don Mays overheard a phone conversation about himself that he realized how he has come to be seen. He was in the office of Steven Feinberg, the head of the Rhode Island Film & Television Office. When Mays heard himself being described as a "socially conscious filmmaker," the implied praise took him back for a beat, but then he had to agree.

Born and bred in St. Louis, the 12th of 13 children, he learned early that initiative is necessary for accomplishment. Mays, 36, has made the 1999 shoestring-budget feature film Same Difference, plus three shorts, and a common aspect has been social concern, usually fostering awareness about AIDS. Just as significantly, he has steadily shared his interest — and professional techniques — with young people.

Mays, who felt he couldn’t survive a conventional 9-to-5 job, wanted work that made a difference, so he started doing projects with high schools and community organizations involving youth in theater and video. He would put a camera in teenagers’ hands, or teach them how to write a film or play script to express themselves. "I needed to be somewhere where I felt that I was accomplishing something, making a difference," Mays says. "That is where I put myself into working with young people. I’ve always used theater and film as a vehicle to teach and reach young people in ways that they aren’t being reached otherwise."

In 1995, Mays established AFRI Films, and he is a founding member of Momma’s Reel Black Market Films, a New York City collective of African-American film professionals. Set aside for the moment is a New York film project about Amadou Diallo, the young African immigrant gunned down by police in that city in 1999, based on a short play by Aishah Rahman. Mays’s day job these days is running the teen center at the Martin Luther King Center in Newport. "It’s never too early to make a difference," he says. "You don’t have to wait until you’re an adult to affect the world. People say that young people are the future, and I totally agree with that. But young people are also the present, and the future depends on what they do with their lives."

As an aspiring actor, Mays got a BFA in theater from Drake University, and went on to two years of classical acting and directing training at the National Shakespeare Conservatory in Manhattan. Eventually, he realized that he preferred writing, and New York proved far too distracting to buckle down over a keyboard. Newport, which Mays had visited and liked, was conveniently located, so he moved here. His first screenplay, Jumping, won highest honors at the 1989 Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame screenwriters’ competition.

All this gives him a broad spectrum of skills to draw upon when teaching and counseling young people.

"I think the biggest thing is that I’ve learned is how capable they are when given the opportunity," Mays says. "Most often adults are saying, ‘Here’s a script or set curriculum I want you to do.’ Whereas I step back and say, ‘What do you want to do? What change you want to see happen?’ Once they see that, we figure out a road to get there. Sometimes it’s use of media. Sometimes it’s use of backbone — just grabbing the bull by the horns and getting out there and doing it, making a change. So providing opportunities is the biggest thing."

The latest opportunity for some talent teenagers has been his most extensive yet: spending three weeks in Uganda in August, creating a portrait of the village of Nyaloko, near the Kenyan border. With a background in AIDS education and working with young people, Mays was an obvious choice for the interview, photography, and video project funded by Plan International, the child-focused humanitarian development organization. He accompanied 10 teenagers, four from the US, one from Canada, four from Uganda, and one from the Rwanda, and conducted interviewing and photojournalism workshops with them.

A documentary film will be made, and a virtual tour of the village will be posted online in February. Still, one of the most important results was more immediate. "The kids just blossomed so phenomenally to get the job done," Mays says, "to work well with each other, to get an understanding of each other and how our lives are different and similar."

By Bill Rodriguez

JULIAN DASH: HEART OF THE COMMUNITY

For many a grizzled politician, the finest tribute imaginable is recognition for having remembered their roots. As a 27-year-old Providence native, Julian Dash’s future in politics is yet to be written, but his signature — bridging the realms of community activism and affordable development — represents a direct link to the best formative values of his childhood on the South Side.

"The key thing that’s always been important to me has been family and community," says Dash, whose mother, Suzanne, worked as paralegal while raising, as a single parent, four children who each went on to college and graduate school. To this day, he attributes his ability to juggle a busy, multi-faceted schedule to his mom’s influence in pushing him forward, whether into a chess club or a three-day-a-week internship at A.G. Edwards during his days at Hope High School. In recognizing the importance of giving back, Dash also notes such positive role models as Tom Spann and Kevin Jackson, who coached him on the Providence Cobras, an independent track club. Summing it up, he says, "That sense of community and helping has always stuck with us."

After graduating with a degree in international finance from Morgan State University, a traditionally black college in Baltimore, Dash worked for Metro Ventures, a medium-sized firm in the same city, where he learned the ropes of housing, finance, and community development. After obtaining an MBA at Babson College, he joined TAG Associates, a national affordable housing consultancy based outside Boston, before returning his focus to Providence.

Nowadays, Dash is the real estate manager for the Plant, a collaboration with Baltimore-based Struever Brothers Eccles & Rouse near the Rising Sun mill redevelopment in Olneyville, that includes plans for 30 affordable live-work units for artists, and 31,000 square feet of commercial and retail space. The Plant’s innovative slant can be seen in the inclusion of such things as Dough Rising, an urban kitchen incubator project of the Olneyville Housing Corporation, which is meant to aid low-income Rhode Islanders who want to start or expand a food-related business. (For more details, visit www.theplantprovidence.com.) Although some critics have rapped Rising Sun as a specter of gentrification, Dash perceives it as a spur for positive growth and a harbinger of more opportunities for affordable and sustainable projects.

With his brother Gordon, Dash is also a partner in a development company that is charting a novel combination of affordable housing, for-sale retail space, and renewable energy at 1040 Broad St. in Providence. The development, the units for which are slated to hit the market next spring, will include three solar-powered single-family homes, and five two-story retail spaces that will enable the buyers to own, rather than rent, their own commercial space. The inclusion of renewable energy components — a particular interest of Gordon’s — is costly, "but we’re trying to show that these projects can be done," Dash says, and the solar-based approach holds the promise of eliminating utility bills for the residents.

Dash has also been appointed director of diversity for a new statewide organization of young Democrats, and he is working to invigorate the Black PAC. Citing familiar concerns about political divisions between blacks and the state’s growing Latino community, the activist says, "We need to work with the Latinos in creating a more unified political organization." And although Dash hasn’t run for office since serving as student government president at Morgan State, the experience elevated his interest in politics and activism. With a glimmer in his eye, he describes serving in elective office as the highest honor he could envision, and he hopes to run for an as-yet-unidentified post some time in the future.

In terms of wearing different hats and keeping a schedule that might leave some people dizzy, Dash traces it back to the discipline and sense of purpose instilled by his mom. "A lot of people look at work as a nine-to-five thing," he says, adding that his professional and personal interests are "not separate to me." Moreover, "When I have too much time, I get bored. I like to keep my time occupied."

Bringing things full circle from the time when he was inculcated with a strong sense of community on the South Side, Dash resides on Autumn Street, not far from where he proudly recalls his days as a "club kid" — a young person actively involved with the local Boys & Girls Club.

By Ian Donnis

 

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Issue Date: October 28 - November 3, 2005
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