Peggy Smith
It is perhaps ironic that a Homework Help Center founded with stimulus funds in the middle of a public housing project is helping a community coalesce and reclaim its space.

But according to Peggy Smith, a single mother of four and a resident of the Green Acres housing project in Fitchburg for nearly four years, that is just what is happening.

Smith moved to Green Acres through a shelter housing program. She had recently been laid off from her job and had to vacate her apartment. At the time, she was pregnant with her fourth child. "I didn't have anywhere to go," she said.

Eventually Smith was able to sign a lease at Green Acres but the housing project was a hard place to raise her children. There were gangs and drugs and she couldn't let her kids play outside. Her son saw a neighbor get shot and killed.

Recovery Act Impact: Green Acres Housing Project

  • Homework Center funded through Community Services Block Grant

  • Daily afterschool homework help

  • Community-based activities

  • Serves families in 160 units

  • Provides parental support

  • Outdoor games

The situation was so bad that the police set up a sub-unit in the housing project. But the Montachusett Opportunity Council (MOC), the region's anti-poverty agency, had other ideas. The agency received a total of $5.2 million in stimulus funds in the summer of 2009 - with $634K as a Community Services Block Grant.

Kim St. Laurent, MOC's Youth Services Coordinator, took some of that grant and set up a neighborhood-based Homework Help Center right in the middle of the project. She started it, she said, for kids in grades 5 through 8 and started knocking on the doors of each of the project's 160 units to recruit participants. St. Laurent quickly expanded the program to include any kid in the housing project who wanted to participate.

Kim St. Laurent and Peggy Smith

"We didn't want to turn anyone away," said St. Laurent. "Many of these kids want a quiet place to concentrate and access help. When the time comes to close, we need to tell many of the kids to go."

What began to happen, according to St. Laurent, is that kids in the project started to get to know each other through the Center and their parents began to connect. "It tied the community together," said St. Laurent.

Smith confirms that. "This Center has helped our community so much," she said. "It turned our community around." St. Laurent, added Smith, insists that the parents get involved, recruiting them to help in activities she runs for the project, like Family Day and often taking the kids outside to play. "She reaches out to the kids and the parents," said Smith.

Kim St. Laurent and Peggy Smith

Kathleen McDermott, the executive director of MOC, noted that the Center was an effort on the part of MOC to help Green Acres. "It's surpassed our expectations," she said. "The residents' participation shows what you can do when people come together."

Indeed, Smith is a full time nursing student, who needs communal support in order to get back on her feet. The Homework Center is providing that. "I'm trying to build myself up," said Smith. "This really helps."