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Hopkinton lends hand to region during state migrant crisis

by | Jan 10, 2024 | Featured: News, News

The Hopkinton Health Department and Project Just Because have combined their efforts to help those in need locally as well as to assist migrants who have come to the region in recent months.

Health Department Director Shaun McAuliffe has worked to help refugees entering the MetroWest region since late August, shortly after Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency regarding the overextended shelter system. He expanded upon this effort with Project Just Because, a Hopkinton nonprofit that helps struggling Massachusetts residents on a local and statewide scale.

“For the refugees, my intern and I have collected a needs list from the 18 communities in our Public Health Emergency Preparedness Group,” explained McAuliffe. “Project Just Because became involved by offering to provide clothing, shoes, socks and toiletries to the communities of Northborough and Southborough,” according to McAuliffe, “by distributing desperately needed supplies not provided by the state agencies.”

PJB also organized a regional shoe drive during the same time frame. The nonprofit shared the shoes with other locations after meeting local needs.

PJB assists residents as well as migrants

In a Dec. 14  interview with the Independent, PJB president Cherylann Lambert Walsh explained how her desire to help others blossomed from a food pantry in her basement 26 years ago into a warehouse on 77 South Street where those experiencing difficult circumstances can get resources in a compassionate environment. She previously served as an outreach worker to homeless individuals, and she has heard the chilling stories of migrants firsthand.

“Many people, because of the population turnover here, don’t even realize that there is a food pantry in Hopkinton,” she stressed, “We also serve as a state food pantry, allowing any Massachusetts resident to come and pick out what they need.”

The food pantry is open Monday through Thursday from 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. She recently extended the Wednesday hours until 6:30 p.m. to meet community needs.

Walsh noted that Hopkinton residents may not realize that migrants are staying in town in the homes of relatives or volunteers. She described how she met a woman with four kids who was living in a donated old car, moving from parking lot to parking lot.

“She was the kindest mother,” Walsh said. “She had been displaced and was looking for an extra blanket and some food for her kids. The only thing she knew when she was dropped off here in town was that Hopkinton is safe.”

Walsh immediately supplied pillows, blankets and food. More importantly, she said, she treated this woman — as she does all who come to PJB — with dignity and empathy.

“These people come here and wait patiently in line,” Walsh said. “I have heard stories about how hard it was where they were, and each one has a unique story. They are appreciative and kind, but they are also very scared to say anything wrong. Privacy is our utmost concern.”

Added Walsh: “There is no judgment here. And everyone gets a hug who wants one.”

She noted that many of the migrants come wearing flip-flops, never having experienced the area’s harsh temperatures or snow. One woman didn’t have a coat as the temperature veered toward 20 degrees.

Said Walsh: “She just sat at the bus stop across the street, holding onto those gifts we gave her for dear life.

“But it goes beyond that,” Walsh stressed. “New England has four seasons, and people need continued support. It’s not a one-time thing.”

During the holiday season, she tends to encounter more local families who have suffered domestic abuse.

Because of McAuliffe’s extensive connections with other health directors and with the state, she has been able to share resources with other communities and fill Hopkinton’s needs. She noted that she tries to individualize requests for people whom she knows need specific items.

Volunteers and donations are always welcome and “are our lifeline,” she stressed, praising the volunteers who have helped her through the years. For more information, visit PJB’s website. People also can reach out by calling 211 if they know a family in need.

“We need volunteers every single day,” Walsh said. “We don’t have big sponsors and run on a tight budget. Even one donated item would matter.”

Health Department expands its effort

McAuliffe subsequently reached out to the rest of the 62 communities in the PHEB group, which extends to MetroWest and the South Shore, asking them “to assist the 18 communities in any way that they can.”

“It is worth noting that these items were shipped out after the needs of the local/regional public were addressed,” stressed McAuliffe, which included people who frequent PJB on a weekly or monthly basis.

Said McAuliffe: “PJB is doing such an amazing job at securing goods and meeting the needs of the immediate region that there is surplus.”

After coats and other winter items were donated to Northborough, McAuliffe discovered that similar needs may exist in other communities that support food pantries. He is hopeful that the program he instituted in Hopkinton can spread on a regional level.

“My intern and I realized that we could develop [a program] that would facilitate the distribution of goods from the municipalities and pantries that were well stocked to those that were in need,” he stated. “We also informed the communities that they could stock their pantries with recovered foods from the free school breakfast and lunch program that had been enacted. We instructed them to reach out to their local supermarkets and large retailers to see if they could recover safe food that would otherwise be discarded.”

His next goal is to create a weekly message board so that PHEP group communities can share and solve each other’s needs.

Added McAuliffe: “We have many communities that are willing to step up and assist.”

McAuliffe: ‘Leading by example’

McAuliffe also devoted his personal time to locating strollers after learning that there was a need in Hopkinton and surrounding communities.

“I believe in leading by example, and I will not ask of someone that I’m not willing to do myself,” McAuliffe stressed. “While watching the Patriots defeat Pittsburgh, I surveyed the Facebook Marketplace, found free strollers advertised in Framingham, picked them up and delivered them to PJB for distribution. We are encouraging other health departments and pantries to do the same, to take an active role in the support of our most vulnerable.”

Said Walsh: “Shaun has the biggest heart.”

McAuliffe also applauded the efforts of Hopkinton High School and Elmwood School students who delivered winter clothing and other items to PJB in December. Local Scouts also are assisting.

“I’d like to see the PJB model replicated across the commonwealth,” McAuliffe stressed. “Cherylann, her staff and her volunteers do an excellent job at meeting the needs of the most vulnerable in Hopkinton and the region. They should be commended for their unselfish work and supported annually.”

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