United Way
of Massachusetts Bay
and Merrimack Valley

February 20, 2014

A Perfect Match

What happens when finely-tuned professional skills combine with the drive to make a difference? Big things.

United Way is running point on a unique project, designed to bring together partners to tackle a specific issue in Lynn: the challenge that immigrant children and their families face while trying to achieve academic success. A team of 12 AmeriCorps members have been deployed in Lynn Public Schools and partner agencies, their work spanning the next three years. These are their stories.

Lori Breighner was sitting in the congregation of a Spanish-speaking church in Lynn when clarity struck. She didn’t understand a word of what was being said around her but she can’t remember a point in her life when she had felt more welcomed.

It was a simple, but powerful realization; that no matter the cultural or social or language barriers, there are some things that are universal. And there, in that pew, it was graciousness that trumped all, and Lori knew what she was doing with her life was the exact right thing.

She is part of a team of 12 AmeriCorps staffers, participating in a unique “human services special ops” team, coordinated by United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley. Their mission: to work in the city of Lynn to help immigrant children and their families.

Lori was attracted to the job for two big reasons: 1) it matched her professional chops and 2) the concept of giving back has been hard-wired into her DNA thanks to her family. A Chicago native with a Masters degree in Literature, Lori followed a career trajectory in college admissions to Gordon College in Wenham, MA. She worked for two years in enrollment. Her daily life took her all around the country, meeting new people and honing her recruitment skillset. When she saw the AmeriCorps position, something clicked.

“I was drawn to the project because I liked the mission of making a difference in these kids’ lives,” she says. “I felt my recruiting experience made this a good fit.”

Lori was placed in Big Brothers Big Sisters, charged with finding volunteers to mentor kids in Lynn. She splits her time, working the phones in the agency’s Boston headquarters half the time, and spending the rest of her days pounding the pavement in Lynn. To date, she’s collected over 70 responses from people interested in becoming a “big.”

She’ll cold call businesses, speaking in churches and community organizations and civic clubs, pitching the importance of mentorship in general and the Lynn initiative in particular. It’s a year of service that has reached the quarter-pole already and Lori sees in that brevity of time a perfect illustration of the value of mentorship.

“A year is such a short time in a person’s life,” she says. “Look back to where you were a year ago. That year is gone in the blink of an eye. Being a stable force in a child’s life for one year can change the entire course of their future.”

She knows what she has to do; she figures there are dozens of kids waiting for mentors and the line for volunteers is thin. Her job is to swell that queue, and sell the simple truth to potential difference-makers:

“You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be there.”

Lori is a few years older than the usual AmeriCorps staffer and has already spent a significant time in the professional workforce; she’s kind of doing this thing in reverse. Meanwhile, the personal cost has been substantial: money is tight (she makes ends meet by tutoring), the commute is taxing and the work can be a grind.

“This is a big risk for me,” she says. “But it’s been worth it.”

That’s the lesson that resonated in that church, when she was overwhelmed with a sense of belonging, of acceptance; a pan-cultural embrace. That experience (what she’s dubbed as “the spirit of Lynn”) is intangible and it can’t be quantified and it can’t be bought.

“You can’t put a price on that feeling,” she says. “Moments like that keep you going. They are worth the sacrifice.”