Do-Gooders…BRING IT!

Somerville volunteers share their inspiring stories

By Deb Fraize

Feeling a little alienated?

Well, Somerville has the cure for you: volunteer. Volunteers are a vibrant part of Somerville. And the city gives vitality back to its volunteers.

Darlene Matthews, an eight-year volunteer in the Somerville school system, said it well: “What’s great about Somerville is there are so many people volunteering and so many creative minds and people that have all kinds of talents, and they bring it. They bring it to schools; they bring it to different parts of the city. And it’s nice because the more things I do like this, the more people I know, and then you walk around the city and it feels more like a small town.”


Though Matthews moved to Somerville in 1990, it wasn’t until after her first child was born in 1997 that she got more involved with the city.

She started out reading to a kindergarten class. She has gone on to establish a team of literacy tutors in partnership with the Arthur D. Healey School (5 Meacham Street), Temple B’nai Brith (201 Central Street), and the Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy (126 High Street, Boston). Now in its fifth year, her team works one-on-one with K-2nd graders at the school. Each spring, Matthews also organizes a “book-raiser” night at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, where students, parents, and teachers purchase books to benefit the school library while sharing a love of reading.

Matthews is quick to point out that she is just one of many community members volunteering in the Somerville Public Schools. According to Jen Capuano, Volunteer Coordinator, approximately 175 community members volunteer through the city-run program. Many others give their time informally or through other programs.


Saladin Islam, 18, relished his experience performing community service with the Green Team, a green jobs program for high school students run by Groundwork Somerville. (photo by Andrew Kubica)

Somerville students return the favor by contributing their time and energy to the city. One of the ways they do this is by joining the Green Team, a green jobs program for high school students run by Groundwork Somerville.

This summer, 26 Somerville students participated in the program, which requires three hours a week of community service. You may have seen their bike brigade heading off to tend to a community garden or public landscape project. Or you may have seen them selling their produce at the local farmers’ market.

Now in its third year, the Green Team has become a highly competitive program. Saladin “Sal” Islam feels lucky to have participated this year. His “biggest regret is not getting involved sooner,” he says. “After Groundwork, I was extremely motivated to move forward with my life. But before, well, I really, really slacked in high school.”

Islam, 18, feels that the team gave him a stronger sense of self and community. He tells the story of a young boy from the Clarendon Hill housing complex who befriended the team while they worked on a sustainable landscaping project on the grounds. When other kids from the neighborhood later threatened to destroy the team’s work, the boy was there to defend the work; he shared the story with the team when they returned. “He saved our plants!” Islam exclaims.

The connection with the boy gave Islam hope. He wants to incorporate his newly found passion for sustainable design and the environment into his studies at Bunker Hill Community College this fall.


Volunteering can ignite other passions as well. Heather Kispert Hagerty met her future husband, Somerville native Tom Hagerty, through the Somerville Road Runners club (SRR). “We are just one of several couples” who met through the club, says Kispert Hagerty.

SRR provides a sense of community for running enthusiasts and lots of volunteer opportunities at events and races. The club holds five major races a year and donates the proceeds to local charities. In addition, many club members run marathons to raise funds for their own favorite causes. Kispert Hagerty has run the Boston Marathon 12 times for Dana Farber.

She also serves on the SRR board. She and her husband help organize and staff races and weekly training runs. To organize an average race “takes more than 100 man-hours,” she says. The Gobble Gobble Gobble, the club’s popular Thanksgiving Day four-mile race, attracts 2,400 runners. That means permit applications, insurance policies, traffic and crowd control, public transportation impacts and trash cleanup. Club members work closely with the City of Somerville and local sponsors to make it a great community-wide event. This year’s proceeds go to Project Soup and Somerville Track PAC.


But maybe running isn’t your thing. As community activist Vanessa Rule points out, there is no right issue or activity. “It’s about connecting,” she says.

Rule, who moved to Somerville after college in 1991, is continually making connections – among people, organizations and issues – in order to create a more sustainable city. She is Chair at Somerville Climate Action and cofounder of both GoGreen Somerville and Sustainable Somerville. Rule tackles big issues like climate change and economic collapse.

Surprisingly, Rule describes herself as “pretty shy” at first. She has found her niche as an organizational catalyst, creating and finding opportunities for others to come together and take action. Her activities include working with area businesses on their sustainable practices and helping residents reduce their carbon footprints by weatherizing their homes (or someone else’s). Her work is time-consuming, but she finds it invigorating. “You think you are alone with this idea or yearning, but you talk to people and you find community.”

Rule would be the first to tell you: You don’t need to know the ins and outs of climate change to volunteer in Somerville. You just have to bring it.


Here’s a sampling of ways Somerville residents are contributing to the city – and what you can do to join them.

  • For info on volunteering with the Somerville Public Schools or Darlene Matthews’s literacy team, contact Jennifer Capuano at or x 2032; or simply fill out an application online at following the volunteer links under the “About Us” tab. With 5,000 students in nine schools across the city, volunteers are always in short supply, especially literacy and math tutors. Volunteers are asked to commit to at least one hour per week during the school year.
  • For info on the community revitalization programs run by Groundwork Somerville or applying for a spot on next year’s Green Team, visit or contact at Jennifer Lawrence, executive director, at or .
  • For info on Somerville Road Runners events, membership and volunteer opportunities, visit or email . Runners and running fans of all levels are welcome. Interested runners are encouraged to register early for the Gobble Gobble Gobble. It always fills up before race day.
  • For info on weatherizing homes or participating in the October 24 International Day of Climate Action, contact Vanessa Rule at or check out .
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