By Suzanne Wilson
Do you remember when you were four, five, six, even thirteen? When asked for your age, you proclaimed it to the world with pride. Then as adulthood set in, you may have started to become a bit more reticent. Perhaps there even have been times when you hemmed and hawed, even subtracted a year or three when that question of age came up. Then something interesting happens as youth turns to middle age and full maturity: We get to the point where we once again want to tell the world how old we are. It is, after all, proof of all we have accomplished. What is true for us as people is also true for LAB as an agency. 2013 marks our 90th year! And we plan to make it the best ever!
Recently, our own Jim Barrett sat down with LAB’s Executive Director, Elizabeth Cannon, and with Board of Directors President Bruce Macaulay to chat about this organization that is such an integral part of the fabric of Lowell: its history, its current accomplishments, and the exciting events that we look forward to in this milestone year.
Jim began by getting brief biographies of his two interviewees. Elizabeth, who has held her position at LAB for over 12 years, has worked in the nonprofit sector for most of her career. A native of Lowell, she still lives on the street where she grew up. A lifetime of work and service in Lowell has given her an extensive knowledge of our city.
Bruce Macaulay grew up in Melrose, MA and has spent the past 17 years working at Winchester Hospital. His field of expertise is food services management, and he is directly involved in retail, catering, and large event planning for the institution. He has resided in Lowell for about 15 years and feels very much at home here.
Both Elizabeth and Bruce have inherited a legacy here at LAB that stretches back for nearly a century. The organization was started in 1923 by the Middlesex Women’s Club. Its mission was to assist blind Lowellians and their families by providing transportation to medical appointments and furnishing food and other resources to people with visual impairments and their families. Over the years, LAB changed with the times and with the evolving perceptions of blindness in our society. In due course, it became a professional organization. This transformation can be accredited in large part to a woman named Mary Lou Doherty, a longtime LAB supporter and board member who hired the first Executive Director and grew the organization in countless ways. If her surname rings a bell, it’s because we are proud to have Mary Lou’s daughter, Shelagh, as a valued part-time staff member.
LAB has come a very long way in the past nine decades. We are the only Massachusetts nonprofit agency north of Boston dedicated to serving people who are blind or visually impaired. Our services address the needs of people aged five and up. We offer a youth program for kids aged five to 14, a senior youth program for people aged 15 to 22, mentoring, computer and Braille instruction, and an adult program that meets two days per week. Several of our active participants are in their eighties and nineties. In addition, we are proud to have a legion of volunteers who truly are the beating heart of LAB. Each week, anywhere from 15 to 18 dedicated people read local news articles on our radio station. Last year, we produced over 600 hours of local programming, lovingly brought to the community by volunteers from all walks of life. Other members of our volunteer family assist with the adult program or help us in a myriad of other ways.
The Board of Directors is a diverse group of 18 dedicated and multi-talented men and women who are committed to the on-going success of this vital organization. Once a month, members of the board meet to take care of the business of running this busy nonprofit. Terms are two or three years in duration, although many members have been with us for much longer.
One of these is Bruce, who has been President of the Board for two years now. “I feel that my role is to inspire the talent of the Board,” Bruce commented when asked to describe his role in the success of LAB. “I feel that we have a tremendous diversity of talent that really runs itself. I’m very, very proud of the accomplishments that we’re able to make.” I know when I first started, we started in a bank on Central Street with paneling and a 1960s green shag rug with a leaking roof and power going out and no heat. Today, we’re in this fabulous prime downtown location offering over 3000 square feet of usable space where we’ve been able to expand programs. I’m very, very proud of these accomplishments that we have done together as a team.”
Not to be outdone, Elizabeth quickly added her own words of praise for all of the hard work done by our Board. “We have a very active board. We have people from the banking community, attorneys, we have Michelle Mitchell, who is a former volunteer. We have Ed Hess, who is a client. So we try . . . to have the Board have all different types of skills. Bruce’s skill in food services management is such a big asset to us when we do our annual spring house party. His skills are really pressed into service in the spring . . . and we have other folks who have skills that are used at various times during the year. It’s just a really collegial group that . . . works well together.”
When the Board gathers each month, they have the opportunity to learn firsthand how the organization they are supporting with their time and money is providing vital services to the blind and visually impaired community in the Merrimack Valley. Through the insights of Ed Hess and Michelle Mitchell, our client and volunteer liaisons, the Board gains a unique perspective of how LAB is making a real difference in people’s lives. “Ed has given us terrific stories,” Bruce emphasized. “We are providing a safe zone for those that are dealing with something so difficult in life. And often they refer to Elizabeth as their mother or as their therapist. I think you have so many different roles at lab and that is special.”
It is these personal stories that have encouraged the Board to continue to strive for LAB’s growth and success. When Bruce joined the Board, he was on a committee responsible for exploring how to find a more suitable space that could provide a home to expanded and updated services. Sure enough, just a few years later, that is a reality. Thanks to the support and generous donations of numerous individuals and businesses inLowell, LAB not only survives, it is thriving. Bruce summed it up nicely: “In this day and age, people are getting swallowed up all the time. We stand on our own and Lowell definitely stands behind us.”
What is ahead for LAB? We have certainly jumped into the digital age. Because of the tireless work of our volunteers, we now host a Facebook page, a Youtube channel, and an updated website. A snazzy new logo celebrates our 90th birthday, and we now proudly offer an e-newsletter. But behind all of the glitz and splash, our mission is as steadfast and clear as it has always been: to provide services to the blind and visually impaired community.
One of the best avenues to get the word out about our special organization is an annual event that will soon be upon us. Each spring, the Board of Directors hosts an open house. Held in one of Lowell’s lovely historic homes, it offers the friends and supporters of LAB a place to come together, nibble on appetizers and sip beverages, bid on auction items and participate in raffle drawings, and enjoy live entertainment. The delicious food and drinks are donated by generous members of the community, and the gala provides a terrific way to get together with everyone who is everyone in Lowell, have a good time, and support LAB in the process. In addition, we will be awarding the George Zermas Memorial Scholarship to a deserving blind or visually impaired student or adult learner who is continuing his or her education and to professionals studying to work with the blind. In past years, we have sometimes also helped with the purchase of assistive technology which can help the student to succeed in school. This year, our house party will be held on May 30 from 7:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. at the Andover Street home of State Senator Eileen Donoghue.
As in past years, Janet Lambert Moore will be hand-painting our lovely house party invitations, which are works of art in themselves. If you don’t get one and you want to attend this lovely event, you are more than welcome. Just call us at 978-454-5704 to be added to our mailing list. Tickets cost $90 and will also be available at the door.
If you have ever attended a 90th birthday celebration, you already know just how much fun it will be. And if you have never had the chance to be a part of such a milestone, don’t miss this once in a lifetime opportunity. Here at LAB, we’re 90 and we’re proud of it! We have only just begun to kick up our heels and show the world what we, our Board of Directors, our staff, volunteers and clients can do when we all work together!