Celebrating 20 years…laughing at lunch
Sue Johnson and Emilie Kaden came on board at Maloney Properties and at Bethany Hill School on the same day, August 1, 1995. Recently they met for lunch to share memories of their experiences during BHS’s formative early years. Here’s some of that conversation:
SJ: Well, we walked into housing that had been operating for a year, but under an entirely different model. We knew that big challenges lay ahead and that it would take time and attention and energy to address the issues that were on the table.
EK: It was both very exciting and very stressful—there were so many different kinds of housing programs being conducted in the building, so many different sizes of apartments, and we felt so far away from the action, at first, down in our basement office! It was so important to be present on-site, and we also needed to attend many meetings off-site, with community groups, the Board and the Executive Committee to get the right policies in place.
SJ: Fortunately we had the inspiration and the sustained support of the Sisters’ vision for “a living and learning community”. I remember the hard work that went into developing our rental agreement and guidelines. I don’t know of any other lease agreement like it.
EK: I still feel it’s that lease that makes it possible for BHS to fulfill its mission, by accepting residents who do have educational goals and by providing the tools to assure residents’ commitment to progress.
SJ: Right, but it took more than the lease, as you’ll recall. Remember the weekly, then bi-weekly resident meetings to build community, to discuss the terms of the guidelines, to focus on various educational topics—
EK: —AIDS education, sign language for the deaf community, Martin Luther King Day celebration, and visits from the Fire and Police Departments to promote fire safety, bike safety and domestic violence prevention—
SJ: —and of course, the meetings to respond to complaints from neighbors who felt their safety was jeopardized by our very existence. And there were some incidents during those early years that brought BHS negative media attention, and that required a lot of sustained attention by the Board, all the staff and resident leaders.
EK: The Open House in 1996 helped, and the televised meeting with the Board of Selectmen earned BHS some friends. Prompt attention to complaints and some personal visits to neighbors, not to mention raising the consciousness of BHS residents about neighborhood issues, eventually brought peace. I remember you said early on that it would take five years for BHS to become accepted by the town community, and that was about right.
SJ: That’s all true, but if we hadn’t been able to restructure the rents—through agreements with SMOC for programs like New Beginnings Scattered Sites, and eventually the Project-Based Subsidies, and by pursuing mobile vouchers with JRI and various housing authorities—BHS would certainly not have survived to celebrate this 20th Anniversary!
EK: And if we hadn’t met the safety and security issues of those first years, BHS would not be able to provide decent affordable housing with so many attractive amenities. I’m thinking of not only the basics—reworking the heating system apartment by apartment, developing a complex master key system and installing surveillance cameras at key locations—but also some great value added features.
SJ: Especially that fabulous play structure with the fort, donated by a friend of the CSJ’s—I remember it took 3 flatbed trucks and a Maloney Properties Carpentry crew to move and install it!
EK: And I remember the swimming pool behind Bethany Health Care, and how wonderful it was to be able to open the pool to BHS residents several days a week during the summer months, including kids’ swimming lessons, family swims and cookouts.
SJ: That was great while it lasted and it brought the whole building together in a fun way. I think it helped lay the groundwork for other residential community enthusiasms, such as today’s community garden.
EK: You know, when I think about the garden, I DO think about the whole BHS community, both staff and residents. It reminds me that our challenges of those early years were met because all of us, from all the various programs came to understand and respect each other’s roles and gifts. From a staff point of view I credit, more than any other one thing, the camaraderie that had us laughing at lunch.