“I try to over-achieve in life in general so going to college was the first thing I wanted to do right out of high school. My family, like me is very over achieving and we tend to push ourselves to be better than who we are. To be as I am today I can attribute that to my dad and my papa because my papa is 80 and he does the things he wants to every day. He recently just went sky diving so I figured if he could do that I can do anything.”
"I used to run a soup kitchen here in Amherst and I started in 1996 and by the time I finished it was 2009. During those 13 years I would cook up a storm and feed people, whoever came to the soup kitchen, which is located at first congregational church in downtown Amherst. We had 60-80 people coming and we would just have a good time. I love to cook and I’m very good at cooking, I love to entertain, and I get great satisfaction out of feeding people. But as I worked at the soup kitchen we had a lot of people who were homeless, or housing-insecure, or couch surfing, or involved in an abusive relationship. At the end of the day I realized they are going to walk out this door and into the elements - the cold, knowing they are homeless and not have a place to go back to. Seeing people who have a full tummy but don’t have a place to call home, I thought a service would be more needed if it were an agency that focused strictly on housing. I had the passion and I had the desire because of...seeing people day in and day out with no place to call home, so I made up my mind this would be my life’s work.”
“The most important thing is that we need to look out for each other no matter who we are, or where we come from, or what our background is, the only thing that matters is that we find love in our hearts. And guess what life will be a lot easier. We are mentally killing each other because of the simple fact that we are putting each other down. And what we need to do is rebuild each other and lift each other. We need to learn how to interact with each other and stop letting other people separate us because we are all here together. The right thing is to learn how to expand your mind. And the way you expand your mind is to subject yourself to new and different things, not only about what’s going on in the world but about peoples in the world. We have to put our best effort because when you put your best effort, you are guaranteed to succeed, aint no way you can go wrong unless you give up. Also, Happiness is the key to a good life, cause no matter what obstacles or trials you have to deal with you can do it being happy. Do everything according to your satisfaction.”
"I lived in the valley for almost 20 years after college, I instantly was drawn to it due to its beauty and vercitility. I have recetly moved out of the area but I still look forward to coming back to visit to see my kids. When my kids were young I loved the feeling that I was close to everything, in less than two hours you can be in the city, at the beach, or in a really rural area. Northampton was the best place I could think of to rasie my children. My daughter goes to Amherst College and loves it, I am happy that she is part of such a wonderful community. I have traveld a lot in my life and there is truly something very unique about the pioneer valley and the people that live here. I have supported my children as they venture to other areas, and encourage them to do so….but I have always hoped atleast one will stick around in this area, or come back here, so I keep having more reasonos to visit!"
"Since I haven’t had the opportunity to take any writing classes since freshman year, I decided to take a poetry class at Hampshire College, and so far it’s been interesting. It is unlike anything I’ve ever taken at UMass, which is no surprise considering Hampshire College is so funky and different from the other 5 Colleges. Did you know that they describe themselves by Division instead of actual grade levels? It confused me so much on the first day of my class. Another different but cool part is that the course starts every day with 10 minutes of meditation. It’s weird thinking about spending 10 minutes trying to not think or do anything, but my mom is always encouraging me to meditate, so I thought my course would motivate me. We only did 2 minutes on the first day, and by the end of those two minutes I felt relaxed. It’s different, but I think I’m going to like it."
"The one thing I’ve always known is that I wanted to go to college, both my parents are college educated and they both have advanced degrees. So that’s always been the plan, I just always wanted to go. Looking at myself today, I don’t really know who I am, or what I want to be, or what I want to do and I feel like the options are all still wide open. Maybe in 5 years from now I will know who I am, but right now I don’t.”
"Since I started at UMass or I would even say that when I first started college in general, or maybe even since before my senior year of high school, I had primary goals of living such a luxurious life. I just wanted money and I often thought about, and fanaticized about how nice it would be to be rich, which I am sure most people probably do think about at some point, but then once I started attending UMASS I realized that my goals were beginning to shift a lot, and I discovered I wanted to work with addressing issues of social inequality and really start to focus on making an impact and difference in the world. Keeping up with the Kardashians used to be one of my favorite shows as well as Real House Wife’s New Jersey and Orange County. Now, I want to join the Peace Corp. instead of striving to live life like the Kardashians do, my mantra in life has become do the best you can until you know better, and when you know better do better."
“I am so excited, I don’t ever have so many interns in the agency’s history, but this semester at Amherst Community Connections we are having nine interns. They are all going to be doing projects and things will get done, and every day when I come to work I always can learn something from all of my wonderful interns. And what I just can’t believe is how savvy they are when it comes to technology. You know, just imagine it’s hard for me and I have so much fear for how to do things, but they seem to have no fear. When I have some tech questions, they just say “Oh! I’ll figure it out!” I was born in 1958 and I just found out that one of my interns, she was born in 1998! That’s really a 40-year difference! I think that might explain, I was born at the wrong time! The wrong place! But they were born at the right time, so I really have the fortune to have interns in this organization, helping people who need help.”
"If you don’t love yourself first and you’re telling me you love me – you’re lying"
…I’d start with something to let them know what needed to be done in their lives. Because a lot of student’s parents disagree with them and now they don’t care about anything. They don’t know how to care about nothin'. Because they never was taught or had to care about nothin’. Now I like to get a chance to teach them how to learn how to fend for themselves.
Not even colleges that y’all payin all this money for don’t even know how to teach you how to do that. They teach y’all about education to look forward to making a lot of money. That’s not living. And that’s definitely not life. That’s torture. Cause you see, soon as you make all that money, you starts torturing yourself because you become selfish, you become arrogant, you become self-centered, and the most important thing – you become lonely. Because nobody want to be around you. And that’s where a lotta students gon wind up if somebody don’ open their minds. And let their minds – so they can learn so they can expand their minds, cause right now theirs minds is in like a closed setting. Where is “This is all I know. This all I want to do. I don’t care bout nothin.” That’s their mind setting right now. So somebody needs to change that setting in their brain. And that’s what I wanna do. Talk to kids about stuff like that because it’s very important in y’all life. Because y’alls had came a long way, just as well as some of us who’s struggling in the streets today. Y’all came a long way too. Because having these particular things drilled into your heads just constantly. “Education. Make money. You wanna be rich one day.” But what good is all that if you’re not happy?
That's not living. And that'd definitely not life. That's torture.
See, in order for rich people to be happy, you hafta have love in your heart. Love conquers all. And a lotta these kids don’t have that. See, they say they love you. But what do love mean to them? You know, that’s a question that’s up in the air for them. What do love means to you? Do it means that I love you because of your upbringing and you do what I want I want you to do and how I want you to do it? Or do you love me because you love me from your heart? So, think about your answer before you answer it because no one – and I do mean no one – is able to love nobody if they don’t love themselves first. So, if you don’t love yourself first and you’re telling me you love me – you’re lying. You’re getting the two mixed up. You’re getting it mixed up where you saying’ you love me because of how close friends we are and because if I do what you want me to do, you know what I’m saying. Or do you love me because you care – and I mean because you care – about me? Not about the things I do. See, that’s two different kinds of love. And some people can love you just because you’re pretty. Or just because you’re smart. There’s more than one reason that somebody can say they love you. But none of them reasons mean nothin’ if it ain’t from the heart. If that love ain’t sincerely from the heart, then it’s not real love, because love, passion, sympathy, caring, kindness, all that comes from within. That’s not from the mind. That comes from the heart.
“How do you grow that in your heart? How does that happen?”
First you have to learn how to deal with things. You know, like, feel for things where it’s more about the emotions than sympathy. See, for instance, instead of you feeling sorry for them out of sympathy, you feel bad for them outta love. You know, my heart really loved that person because it really touched me to see them that way. So, you have to first learn how to teach yourself to feel those emotions. And a lotta y’all have some hidden emotions that y’all never experienced before. And the only way that y’all can have a good life is to expand your mind. Interact with different people from your race. Don’t worry about people telling you not to associate yourself with these people, not to associate with them people, because they’re misleading you. They’re keeping you from experiencing things and seeing things in life that they didn’t see or experience. So, don’t let your family or nobody else cause you to deprive yourself of that opportunity. That’s an opportunity that you’re entitled to. That’s why God gave it to you. He gave us these opportunities to interact with each other to make our society a better society, not to segregate everybody. Then, you got this section over here and that section over there. Yet still, in all reality, it’s just ruining your lives. Because, just think about it, how great of a life you can have more than a life you striving for if you just imagine it. If I was to expand my mind and learn all these new and better things that I never learned or heard before, where would my life be? Imagine that. I would have the most phenomenal life I could ever have, why? Because I expanded my mind to the point that so many beautiful people that I was misled about. And on top of that, they done show me so many different things. Open so many different doors for me.
So, guess what? Now I can take my experiences and give to the other sisters and brothers around me. So that now they will be able to live a good life. Instead of a miserable life. Just like kids a lotta kids these days are miserable. That’s why a lotta of them drink. And do drugs. Because theys miserable. Because of the simple fact that they are under so much pressure. I tell kids what they did with their lives and I never met’um before. I tell them what happened to them in their lives and never met them before. And they’re be like – wow, that’s amazin. How did you know this stuff? All the stuff I know is by the grace of God.
I can take my experiences and give to the other sisters and brothers around me. So that now they will be able to live a good life.
My education level is the seventh grade. But people be like, you lying. See, I do my best to teach people about God because it’s all by His grace and mercy. It’s kinda like self-explanatory to me, because of the fact that if people knew my testament, they’d be like wow. You gotta be lying. That can’t be real.
I almost died three times in my life. But I lived. I got stabbed in my neck. Missed my jugular by an inch and the knife went through my there. But I still didn’t give up.
You know the thing about it is this: I wanted something much more than what I was getting. Because I had money, I had womens, I had cars, I had a place, but I got it all from drug money. But God didn’t want me to have it that way. So all of that was stripped from me. I wasn’t upset, you know. I wasn’t mad. Because of the simple fact that God got something much greater than myself. And I’m gonna get what He got for me."
"I’ve lived in and around Amherst for nearly 50 years. Pretty much my entire adult life. I’m from the area – I spent most of my young adult life here as well. I found Amherst Community Connections when I was doing a google search for HCV, portable housing voucher acceptance in the valley. I believe the search terms I used were either “Section 8 housing Amherst, MA” or “affordable housing Massachusetts.” That brought me around, eventually, to the ACC website. As a long-time resident of Amherst, I was aware of Ms. Greeney’s existence and her work in the community. Everybody I know mentioned she was good to work with. So, when I was walking by the other day, I happened to notice the Amherst Community Connections sign out in front and I decided then to come inside to seek assistance here.
That’s about it. I was looking for assistance. I found her website. And because of both Ms. Greeney’s reputation and the fact that I’ve had friends who have come here in the past, I was aware of the place already tangentially. I knew that you guys existed, but just had never really availed myself of assistance here or sought any kind of help."
On writing and his life:
"…It’s the fact that here is an incredibly literate community. It’s the fact that my mother read to me from day one in her arms. Every single day of my young life. I started reading at three. Because of that I had a life-long of books and learning. I’ve kept up with continuing my own education despite the fact that I didn’t complete high school and didn’t complete college. Two very different things happened. When I was young I was living in West Springfield and going to the high school there at a group home. And I got so tired of it that I basically ran away and went on tour with the Grateful Dead for four years. And then in college I availed myself of Mass Rehab and got into UMASS. Spent a year and a half there. And then my grandmother passed away… And everything just crumbled. And so, you know, that was the end what I very much enjoyed as a college career. I mean I took classes not necessarily leading up to a degree, but the ones that interested me and the ones that I had some attraction to. So, I ended up taking a lot of the survey courses and some of the more esoteric stuff. Couple of Archeology classes, Anthropology, and Greek and Latin elements in English. Also - wordplay and the words and the language. That’s always fascinated me too. And believe it or not – I don’t write."
“What? That shocks me”
"Well, here’s the thing. Writing is taking something that seems to me naturally fluid – thought – and trying to petrify it. And it loses all of its life when you do that. Also, I am a compulsive perfectionist and I absolutely hate everything that I write. And so I go back and revise and erase until in the end there’s nothing left. And I’m like, you know, I could put this so much more succinctly. But then the words fail. It’s so frustrating. And as somebody who does express myself through verbiage all the time and primarily it’s very frustrating to not be able to get it into a more permanent format. Of course there’s also, in my opinion, something not necessarily arrogant, but perhaps presumptive about writing. I know that we all have our little chapter in the human story and everybody’s story is worth telling and all that. But it seems to be presumptuous that my thoughts are so important that I’m going to put them out for everybody else to read. I found myself in conversation that my thoughts are generally only interesting to me. It’s just perhaps my own hang-ups. When I read something, especially autobiographical, it just seems like the height of arrogance to me. Who cares about you and your blabbering? You’re no Shakespeare – get outta here.
And also, there’s a bit of it that’s I guess you could characterize it best as… a chronic ongoing case of writer’s block. In that when I try to express a thought in writing it never goes as I hoped that it would. And I can never go: introduction, point, point, conclusion. It never goes there. I always end up getting sidetracked onto some little detail and then I write paragraphs and paragraphs and paragraphs about stupid things that’ll get taken out anyway. It’s an immensely frustrating thing. Also, there’s the fact that my mind goes at about 50 miles per minute. Just spinning and all the ideas come up. So, it’s hard to really focus on one to get it down – there’s a bit of impatience too I suspect involved with that as well. Because I’m very impatient… So, I don’t know. It’s tough. It’s tough being I suppose a frustrated writer who doesn’t write. I suppose that just makes me frustrated."
“Have you thought about poetry?”
"Endlessly. And I can make some recommendations of poets who I don’t think suck if you’d like. My own poetry ends up really pretentious. And lofty and vaulted and effusive and florid… And turgid. And uncompromising… And I don’t like my own poetry. My own poetry pisses me off. Cus if anyone had read it, they’d be like – this guy’s an asshole. Well, I’m also somewhat of a misanthrope. So my poetry usually goes like [drops down to whisper] “I fucking hate everybody… And this is why.”
“Turn them into song lyrics and go on tour again”
"Don’t think that hasn’t occurred to me. Unfortunately, I’m not an accomplished enough instrumentalist to really be able to. I mean I can come up with melodies but music theory isn’t my thing. And my singing voice was high and clear and delightful while I was a young man. It’s no longer there. My top range is gone and my bottom range is still pretty good. I can get low and gravelly. Maybe start doing something like…Leonard Cohen. Or a Tom Waits kinda thing. [Growls out impersonation]"
"My first impression of Amherst was like, a big breath of fresh air. Me being from New York City, The Bronx, they had different cultures there, but to come to Amherst to see another multi-culture area-- coming from a big city to come Amherst, a small town, it’s a beautiful thing. Different faces, different people, and different things…I could never imagine being in a place that isn’t diverse. Diversity is key to everything--I think it is. I think it’s important. I think people should try it. What I love too is the multicultural food, the different variety of food that you can taste, which you can’t experience everywhere. Friendly environment, everybody’s friendly. When we talk about the racism, I remember someone posting saying “I’m glad I grew up in Amherst, because of the diversity.” And he hit it right on point; it’s a nice place to raise your child. When you’re walking around, people don’t look at your color. I think people should grow up with diversity, different cultures, learning about them, because if you do you’ll know more. Instead of listening, try to experience. I’ve met everybody across the board.”
Before I came to Amherst, I lived in Holyoke, and I was a terrible alcoholic by that point-- at 43 years old-- I was finally sent to detox, and they determined that I probably needed a little more time for my sobriety, so they offered me to be manager of this halfway house in Holyoke, on Beach Street. I’m not sure wether it’s still there or not… But I was manager of that house for three years, and I only lost one person. My unorthodox way of doing it was every guy that wanted to smoke marijuana, and did anyway-- uh, whenever they wanted a drink, I would tell them to go down to the cellar and smoke a joint and pretend that was their shot, or their drink. So they did that, that lasted for three years, and I only lost one person who was a reporter for the Gazette who found out we were smoking pot and tried to report us! But he couldn’t, because he was alcoholic. However, the manager of the program that hired me to run the halfway house came to inspect the house one day, and found a joint of my assistant manager’s on the basement floor, and me, stupidly, opened my mouth and said “Tommy! What did you do?” He was like, “I didn’t do anything, Dave!” and it was so funny, but I was so embarrassed after that that I left that job. So, I came to Amherst, fortunately, and the Methodist church kept me sober by giving me a job, and sent me to the university. After three years at the university, I became a professional pipe organist and got a job at St. Brigid’s, which lasted for 40 years, and now I’m retired. Again, I’m working on the streets with alcoholics. But it’s not the same as the halfway house was, that was a great experience. After I went to the university and got the organist choir director job at St. Brigid’s, I totally forgot about my alcoholic experience because I just… I just didn’t think about drinking anymore at all. For 40 years. It wasn’t until after I retired from the church that I didn’t know what to do with my life, ‘cause I’m used to working. And I thought in my mind, well, what did Jesus do? He had these same problems in his time-- he helped the homeless, he fed the poor; I just try to follow that for the rest of my life to make up for the first part of my life that was, uh, pretty bad because I was so alcoholic. After I sobered up, now-- finally, after retirement-- I can go back to what I’m really supposed to be doing.
I moved to the area August 21st, 2017, and before that I lived in Connecticut. I like living in this area a lot. Where I used to live, it was nice but I didn’t really have access to go anywhere– I couldn’t just walk anywhere. Living in my apartment here, I have access to Downtown and the bus route. Amherst as a town is really nice; every time I go out I see someone really friendly and kind. It seems like a nice, peaceful community. I definitely want to stay here for a few years, but I don’t know if I would stay forever because it’s such a college town, but even that has been nice because I get to meet people in my age group. I love Massachusetts as a whole; I’m never going back to Connecticut!
I was teaching 5- to 7-year-olds who were beginners in school. They had no idea how to write their names, no idea what the alphabet was, didn’t really even know Spanish, or grammar, or anything. I had one student named Ronaldo who was 8 years old but was in my class of 5- to 7- year-olds because he had the cognitive ability of a 4- or 5-year-old. He didn't know how to write his name, he didn't know how to write anything, didn't know what ABC was, nothing. He was really embarrassed-- and you could tell he was embarrassed-- that he didn’t know how to write his name. Whenever we asked the class to write their names on their papers, he would just, like, shrug because he didn't know how to do it. He would have this smirk on his face because that was his way of showing that he was embarrassed- putting a front on. He would say, “I can’t do it; I can’t-- in Spanish, no puedo.” And every day during that month or those few weeks I would show him how to write his name. I would write it at the top of his paper and he would copy it down and all that stuff. And then there was one day towards the middle of the program that he came back from home and he showed me his notebook, and he had written his name. He said, “I did it by myself!” with a huge smile on his face and he showed me he had did it by himself. And later on I spoke with his older siblings and they said “Yeah, Ronaldo has been practicing, like, all day and all night trying to write his name so he could perfect it,” and it was-- it was perfect. Although he learned by just copying, the fact that he practiced it every day until he could write his name is something that has just always stuck with me for a really long time; and through Ronaldo I feel I truly understood just how powerful education is, and just how powerful even, like, being able to write your own name is something to take pride in-- we take advantage of that, I mean, we take that for granted so many times. And ever since then, I’ve been, like, really thinking about what education means and pursuing that even in the future, after I graduate.
It is interesting to have occupied both spaces. I feel like when I was at Amherst College, I was in a bubble because it was just comfortable to be; I’ve never even known some of the other bus routes because I only used those for the Five Colleges. After graduating, I lived off campus for the first time and an entire new side of Amherst came alive for me. I didn’t know we had such a big immigrant population at Amherst, which is fascinating because being in college you never get exposed to the community unless you go out looking for it. I guess for me I am looking forward to connecting more with different parts of the town and community at large, and since I am working at Amherst College now, potentially encouraging students to do the same in their four years because that is really what makes Amherst a beautiful place.
"I’m very proud of all my children. Chantelle is 10, she does soccer, 4H, stuff like that. Hannah will graduate this year from the homeschooling program and hopefully go to college. She works at Applewood. Mary is in her junior year, she’s got one more year, and she is working in the UMass Dining Commons. I love my dog and my cat more than my family sometimes, because they come to me, they cuddle with me, they sit with me, they don’t complain, they don’t argue about the house…. The cat is Kanye West-- well, Kanye, but I call him Kanye West-- and Ariel is the dog. We have a ferret and fish. The ferret is Kitty-- that’s Mary’s ferret, he’s a little dirty. I really don’t know what kind of dog and cat, they’re white and grey, kind of? Chubby cat. Ariel has long tail, long ears, black, brown, and white, real cute! Thank God for them. We had another little dog unfortunately who got killed by a car. We had the dog for a long time. The cat's, I think, a year old; the ferret, a year or two, the fish I’m not sure."
"This bracelet my mom gave to me when I was young. I don’t even remember what age. I was like, very young, like as soon as my wrist was big enough that it wouldn’t fall off. And now it’s very hard to take off. My mom had, like, 6 of them, and my grandma gave my mom a section of her collection when my mom was a kid. And then my mom gave me one of them when I was little. She’ll give me more and more, and then I’ll give them to my kids… My mom’s sister has the same bracelets, too, and she’ll give them to my little cousin. So it’s kind of like a nice tradition in my family. We’re the only females in the family-- it's my mom, me, my grandma, my aunt, and my cousin. After that it’s a pretty male-dominated family, in terms of numbers. We actually… we hold the power, for sure. We’re a matriarchal, female-centered family. But it’s just a nice symbol of femininity and solidarity between the females in our family. I feel like you can’t really do this if you have a lot of women in your family-- it’d be a hard tradition to uphold, and it kinda loses meaning if there’s so many. It’s nice. I think it’s a really pretty bracelet! But I actually never really think about it: because i’ve had it for so long, it’s like a part of me. It’s the most meaningful-- this one is from my boyfriend, and this one my parents gave to me for christmas-- but this one definitely is the most meaningful and special. We’re all really close. What’s nice is... Well, now that I’m in college, I don’t see them that often. I mean, I see them a good amount, but family is so important to me, it feels like a long time passes before I get to see them, so it’s nice to carry them with me all the time. It’s as if I’m there with everyone. It’s a symbol of our closeness."
"My story is real simple. I grew up in Amherst, MA, over here. And I got married, and I went to live in Springfield. And my stuff, after 18 years, it didn’t come out the way it was supposed to be. In that time, I was living middle class. I was working, making good money, I had a house, got everything. But something went wrong... And my son noticed, and his mother knew Hwei-Ling. He said, 'There's a lady I want you to meet. She can help you out.' And I met her! And she helped me out, she introduced me to people, those people gave me information…. Now, I’m back the way I was. The thing is that we, the people who need help, need to go forward, we need to follow the steps. Sometimes we criticize people or something, but if you really think about it, the way you was and the way you wanna be-- you have to work hard for it. And I did. It was hard in the beginning, to be quite honest. I had never been like that. I was shocked that it happened to me. I came out of it, and I’m doing pretty good. If I wasn’t set, I’d tell you! But I’m ok. It took time, but I’m in Amherst now, and I’m happy."
"First off, when you don’t have a phone you start seeing them with a fresh perspective. And you start to realize that people really are too attached to their phone, you know, and they get anxious when they don’t have it with them or don’t know where it is, they stay up late at night scrolling through it and it’s the first thing they check in the morning. Multiple people have told me, 'I couldn’t survive without my phone' or, 'how could you possibly live without it?' It’s just funny. And in my personal experience, for example when waiting for a bus, instead of checking my phone, or like, waiting for a lecture, or in class, or all those spare moments of time I just kind of hang out instead, and relax, or look around, or pick up a student newspaper. I don’t know, I just do other things… I definitely think there’s something lost when you fill all the spare moments of your life with checking your phone or doing something distracting like that. I heard a quote recently, I think from Simon Sinek or something, who said that a lot of the greatest ideas are from when you let your mind rest for a while. And it’s in those moments where you’re not actively doing whatever it is you’re doing where you have that 'aha!' moment, and you really make a breakthrough on something. So I think it’s a problem that not a lot of people don’t take that time to just not think or be engaged, or let their minds rest or take a mini break during a day. I think a lot of people could benefit from that. And I think it would help a lot of people relax and be less anxious because you’re just giving yourself a minute to breath, and you’re not worried about other people, you’re just kind of having a moment to yourself. And I think that’s definitely been lost to a certain extent thanks to smartphones. So if you’re reading this, try going a day without your smartphone, and see how that goes. Because I went for three weeks, and I’m gonna tell you, it’s not as bad as you’d think."
Often people who have been oriented to meditation and gotten instruction start out very eager to practice it to feel more present, calm their mind, be more compassionate – but they stop and don’t continue because of these three most common reasons: they have no time, they think their mind is too crazy and meditation won’t work for them, or they feel like it is boring. The nature of the practice is boring compared to checking email or something, but it is important to go past these initial barriers, and that’s what I discuss in my talk ‘3 Reasons Not to Meditate’. Basic mindfulness practice is not focused on accomplishing things, it’s just giving your mind space to relax and ‘take the needle off of the record’ so to speak, so you see your own patters of thought, desire, anger, and you are empowered to change the way you relate to your thoughts; you identify less with whoever you think you are or are supposed to be and feel lighter. When asked about how often you need to meditate in order for it to be effective, I use the metaphor of mental hygiene and compare it to oral hygiene; if you’re brushing your teeth you need to do it in a consistent and regular way. You don’t just brush your teeth really hard on the weekends and say that’ll do it for the week. I would caution beginners to not think of meditation practice like you might going to the gym and building muscle mass – with a ‘gaining’ attitude - that attitude is counter to what you’re trying to do through meditation and mindfulness.
As I went to meet Marta, I overheard her listing several new resources in town to Amherst Community Connections’ (ACC) director, Hwei-Ling Greeney. Hwei-Ling has been a community advocate in this area for quite some time now, so I am always impressed by anyone who is able to inform her about resources. Marta and Hwei-Ling met after one of Marta’s friends and neighbors was having difficulties with rent payment. Determined to help her friend, Marta took to the internet to research different resources and came across ACC. She referred her friend and eventually connected with Hwei-Ling over their shared resolve to make their communities healthier, safer, and happier. Marta recognizes that, “We all struggle, we all go through that,” but she chooses to focus her energy on helping others rather than just her own challenges, and she has faced some formidable ones in her life, including a failed kidney and 15 years of dialysis.
After she experienced kidney failure, Marta qualified as disabled by the government and received SSDI benefits, but she longed to be active and work. No stranger to researching resources, she once again searched for more information about working while receiving disability benefits and discovered the Ticket To Work program. Ticket To Work affords Marta and others like her the independence of being able to work and earn an income, while still receiving federal benefits like SSDI and MassHealth as long as the income follows the program’s guidelines. She is passionate about encouraging other people with disabilities to reclaim their agency and independence, two things she feels they are often stripped of. “I understand that I have a disability and need treatment for it, but that has never stopped me from doing anything I want. There’s life after treatment! Sure, it takes 12 hours each week, but there are so many more hours in the week than that. Focus on what you can do and find your support systems.”
For Marta, support has come from her loving family and her housing complex. She shared a story about an event in the complex that brought everyone together for a day of food and frolicking outdoors. She also shared that she is very close with her neighbors, and they can usually be found spending time in her home as she cooks for them. Her story reminds us that housing is not just a place to rest one’s head, but can also be a space of empowerment, community, and support. When I asked her about the future, Marta said she would continue to enjoy her part time job as a grandmother while she continues to apply for other jobs through the Ticket To Work program. In addition to striving for financial stability, she is awaiting a kidney transplant and will continue empowering communities with resources and information. “I want people, especially disabled people, to stay motivated. Disabled people feel so defeated sometimes, but it is important to stay aware of resources like this program that give you independence. Tell yourself, ‘things are going to get better! I overcame a lot so I know I am going to overcome this!’”
Connecticut-born Thomas was raised in the Pioneer Valley and he attended Amherst Regional Middle and High Schools growing up. He has experienced some difficult times in recent years, but he specifically recalls this past summer as a rock-bottom moment for himself: he was struggling to keep his job, lost his apartment, and was dealing with some personal challenges. When he wasn’t staying on friends’ couches, he was sleeping outside of an abandoned gas station in a makeshift bed. What followed was he described as months of the day-to-day grind of searching for food and shelter and trying to stay afloat. Thomas cited resources like Amherst Community Connections and the Amherst Survival Center as having been critical in that time, with ACC helping him get the bus passes he needed to get around each day. He later found a part time job and began the routine of working and saving all of his money, all while not having a place to call home. Even with all of his progress, Thomas said that ultimately, “when you don’t have a secure place to sleep at night, everything else is just so much harder.”
After about 3 weeks of making countless phone calls to try to obtain stable housing, Thomas finally got a call back for an RSO house and was accepted on September 3rd. Thomas shared that it has become increasingly challenging to find affordable housing in the area as a local or low-income individual, as landlords spike rent prices for incoming students of the Five College Consortium – he feels lucky to have even come across the room he found. “It was so tough and I just had to look for myself. I can’t even imagine looking for housing as a family.” Resources like Amherst Community Connections are now more important than ever in providing support and access to resources like housing for the community.
Thomas came into ACC after seeing a sign on the street that offered various resources, like help finding permanent housing. Since his first visit, he has stopped by at least once or twice every week to follow up on other applications and goals he has set for himself. When asked about where he found the strength and courage to push onwards even in his most challenging of times, Thomas said he kept in mind everything he had lost and how much he wanted it all back. “It can and will get better – maybe not today or tomorrow, but it will.” He also spoke on the importance of honesty in his journey, with himself and especially with others who are in a position to help. He had to confront his needs and acknowledge that nobody can do it all by themselves. Thomas plans to continue working two jobs this year to save up enough to buy a car, and eventually aims to finish his Associate’s Degree and go on to study journalism and pursue his passion of writing. Thomas is thankful for all of the support groups like ACC have provided, and is excited to see what the future holds for him as he continues to take it one day at a time.
If you’ve ever walked around downtown Amherst, chances are that you’ve heard Mr. Gregory crooning down by the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst. The talented Baltimore native stopped by the ACC office one morning to share his journey out of the iron grasp of the streets and into the warm embrace of spirituality, community, and music. Greg recognized at an early age that he would eventually turn to the streets to hustle. “Seeing my mom struggle all the time made me want money. Selling drugs just became my way of life.” After some time passed, he did grow tired of hustling and looked to Boston for a fresh start. However, he found that it was easier to hustle and use without his mother close by.
Eventually Gregory connected with a young man who got him involved with a church’s Teen Challenge program, which helps people recover from various addictions through faith. "That program gave me a sense of direction. They didn’t medicate us with medicine; they gave us spiritual medicine.” It was here that he developed the clarity and spirituality he needed to become the mentor, leader, and advocate he feels he was always meant to be.
Greg discovered another part of his own system of support at ACC, having received help writing a résumé at the office last week and gotten a job the next day. Greg has lived substance-free for over 20 years, is holding down two jobs, and continues to grow in his faith and passions: music and poetry. Not only does singing help Greg relax, but he loves seeing the joy it brings others. Poetry allows him to tell his story, and helps him process the things going on in the world around him. Greg hopes that his testimony encourages others to find the strength, peace, and passions to move the mountains within their own lives.
“I work about a 10-hour day-- 8 to 6, every day. I used to love to cook. When I had four kids at home and a husband, I’d cook up a storm; I’d cook every night. When people ask me, “How did your kids do it? Two of the four, they went to Harvard, and the other ones, they went to pretty good schools too.” My invariable answer was, “Oh, I think it’s because I have supper out every night at six o’clock. They have to show up.” But now I don’t have the kids at home. So, what do I do? I work long hours and I enjoy good food. So, as an alum of UMass, I have the dining privilege. I can buy a meal plan and go to UMass. Whenever I don’t feel like cooking, I just go and enjoy the array of food. My favorite food there is sushi. And, their daily, ever-changing noodle soup. Those are my two favorite spots at Berkshire Dining Common. And, of course, I love their beer-battered fish. Deep fried fish? That comes with tartar sauce chopped with sweet relishes. That’s the best thing in the world! I can enjoy myself without doing dishes; without having to lift a finger. And that’s my way of unwinding at the end of a long day-- it's my splurge.”
I grew up on the reservation in Phoenix Arizona, in a small little village in a community called Hell’s Canyon. The Indians and tradesmen would ride their horses and wagons into town and that’s where they did their trading. Kinda like people in town go to Trader Joe’s or something—they had a trading camp there.
The first time I went to the Trading Post, I was about 9 years old. My mother told me to get on my Indian pony, which all the kids on the reservation had their own horses, and I had a paint, it was black and white spotted, a beautiful little animal. I went down to the store because my mother wanted me to get some shells for the weapons we had for hunting, and I had to get new rosin for my bow anyway, my hunting bow. So I took a trip down there in my horse and it was about 20 miles from my village. When I got there, they were out of Winchester 30/30 lever action shells for the rifle, and I knew my mom would be upset about that because we brought down deer with that particular weapon. I was able to get the 45 shells, and I made sure the store manager wrote a note to my mother because I knew she was going to be mad, and I got rosin for my hunting bow. It was a real nice recurve, called a bear bow. I rode all the way back home, gave my mother the note that they were sold out of shells and we would have to wait until next week. Well, my mother practically went on the warpath. I was surprised she didn’t skin me and take my head! But yeah, she was up in arms on that one and for the next month and a half, she made me going hunting with my bow. She took away my 45 which really pissed me off, because I liked to use it for raccoons and rabbits and things like that; and wolves! But she actually did me a favor because I started using the recurve.
I was going hunting late in that afternoon, about 4 o’clock, and I saw this 3 point buck— a beautiful buck, and all I had was my bow and arrow. I made sure that my mother, a year before that, got me diamond point arrows— they had 3 sharp blades so when you fire it off, the arrow would twist and turn; and the animal it would hit, it would grind a circular shape into the animal and bleed it out and drop it pretty quick. You wouldn’t have to follow it far, just follow the blood trail. I got the buck, made sure it bled out real good and I gutted it, and I brought my buck back... I was the talk of the tribe for the next week or two because I caught the biggest buck and I was only 11 and a half years old. I gave the Chief of the tribe the skin, they made beautiful things with it like saddlebags or clothing, and I gave my mother the horns, which was pretty cool.”
I’m a big boy scout-- an eagle scout. I guess that’s something. Once an eagle, always an eagle. I was involved in scouting since I was eleven…. Until eighteen, that’s when you age out of it. And I worked at a camp for seven years; seven summers consecutively. My dad got me into it. It’s a family thing. There are 5-- my dad’s the oldest of 9 boys, there are 5 eagle scouts in my family, so it’s kind of a big legacy now. Or I guess 6, now! My brother just got it. My first badge was the basket weaving badge. I wanted to do it because it only had three requirements, it looked really easy, but I cried because it was so hard! I was eleven years old, and I’m sitting here trying to make a basket, I’m thinking the whole thing is gonna be so easy, I’ll bust it out, and…. It was not easy. My favorite thing about being a scout is probably the network, the community, that has developed around that, you know?. My friends that I worked at camp with will be my closest friends until I die, probably. So it’s just a very intense bonding experience. Like, I consider those people my brothers, basically. They’re like family.