Taking a step toward success
Pine Street Inn graduates celebrate idea that "life can be better"
On Wednesday June 8, a group of people of different ages, from a variety of backgrounds, and with different expertise came together dressed in traditional caps and gowns. Behind them sat friends and family, whooping and cheering as each name was called. The enthusiasm was palpable, for the Pine Street Inn Job Training Graduation and Celebration of Housing commemorates not only a significant accomplishment, but a second chance at life.
As president and executive director Lyndia Downey put it to the graduates and their supporters, "[Pine Street Inn is] about two things: housing and jobs." While street outreach and emergency housing are important parts of the equation, what happens after can determine whether an individual will prove victorious in their fight against homelessness.
"What we’re really about is hope: hope that life can be better, hope that hard work pays off and hope that life inside the tent is dramatically better than life outside the tent," Downey said during her opening speech.
Pine Street’s overarching goal is to work toward ending homelessness with a comprehensive strategy including job training and permanent housing. Graduation was all about those that have used Pine Street’s resources in the ideal way, taking advantage of job training programs to learn skills that will allow them to integrate back into society as members of the workforce. The four programs - food preparation training, cafeteria operations training, building maintenance training, and a new housekeeping training program - saw a combined total of 88 graduates, with one diploma given in memory of Pine Street’s Troy Smith. In addition, 93 were honored for their transition from the shelter into permanent Pine Street housing, standing proudly with lanyards holding their house keys.
From speaker to speaker and graduate to graduate, emotions - particularly joy - ran high.
"My son was an extraordinary human being, and I just want to thank the people at Pine Street for giving him a chance, for loving him, for embracing him," Smith’s mother said as she took the podium to accept her late son’s diploma. "He made it ... the sky is the limit."
The ceremony included plenty of time to honor those who made it possible. Ashley Stanley of nonprofit Lovin’ Spoonfuls and Tom Corcoran, whose family has supported the Pine Street Inn financially for 30 years, were both awarded with certificates of appreciation. Third Suffolk State representative Aaron Michlewitz and District 4 Police Captain Paul Ivens also stopped by the ceremony, earning recognition from Downey for their work to keep Pine Street running successfully.
Keynote speaker Thomas Matlack, writer and co-founder of The Good Men Project, has spoken at the Pine Street Inn before on the subject of what it means to be a good man in today’s society. At the ceremony, he spoke of his life several decades ago, when he enjoyed huge success as a businessman but abandoned his family in his struggle with alcoholism.
"There was a time not so long ago I was honored on the front page of the Wall St. Journal ... that very same week I found myself in my car in a church parking lot with nothing but the clothes on my back, alone with the crushing knowledge ... that I had failed miserably as a father and as a husband."
"Each and every one of you are heroes to me," Matlack added. "That’s why I’m here. You inspire me to keep going on my journey, although not every day is easy."
One of two graduate speakers, Rachel Davies-Maher told a similar story of a slow slump into alcoholism, which left her a stagnant resident of Pine Street’s shelter, drinking away her days. When a friend approached her in the park and said simply, "Is this as good as it gets?" it was the impetus Davies-Maher needed to turn her life around.
"I can’t say it was easy going after that, but from then on I tried to do something positive for myself every day," she said. "Often, that involved sitting at a table at the women’s inn filling out applications and paperwork for housing."
Speakers Rose Blanchard and Davies-Maher received raucous applause from their fellow graduates, evidence of the supportive community Pine Street Inn fosters. Excitement also buzzed in the air for graduate Daniel Downs, who received a scholarship to attend Bunker Hill Community College. Yet beside the common themes of pride and inspiration in each address given that day, speakers sought to impart that success does not come without hard work. The job-training programs are rigorous and the application process for housing is extensive, with long waiting lists resulting from more demand than units.
Linda Bohondoney, who graduated from the food preparation program in 2008, has waited three years for her permanent residence with Pine Street. At the ceremony, she was proud of her status as a new tenant, and of what was a welcome stop on her arduous road.
"[Pine Street’s] goals are great and we can all reach them," she said, "but you have to have professionalism, you just have to learn that."