Our Frontline Heroes series uplifts the stories of local community members and resident-led organizations transforming our region.
Gloria West is an active participant in United Way’s Housing & Education Learning Community. This is a space for staff at nonprofits serving families experiencing housing instability to gather, explore, and hone their capacity to support positive outcomes for children and families experiencing housing instability or homelessness. As we work toward equity in education and housing justice, we recognize children and families experiencing housing instability or homelessness are among the most vulnerable members of our community. Change will require new thinking and new practice across systems. United Way makes this space to support learning, networking, and collaboration and we are honored to have Gloria share in this community.
When Gloria West thinks of a great day at work, she remembers standing in her dining room with her children assembling care packages to deliver to their neighbors in Greater Grove Hall (North Dorchester/Roxbury).
“Making sure that we give back fulfills the circle. Involving my entire family is priceless. I can’t ever say that it’s just me doing this work because they have embodied the work that I do 110%.”
Mother to eight (five biological and three adopted) and a survivor of domestic violence, Gloria has dedicated her life to building more resilient communities using her experience as a guiding light. In her current role, Village in Progress (VIP)/Family Advocate and Community Organizer at Project R.I.G.H.T. Inc., Gloria oversees a collaborative of 40 North Dorchester and Roxbury organizations fostering resident involvement in economic development and community building. While Gloria has worn many hats at home and in the community, each was grounded in her core skills of strength and compassion.
“Doing this work is about making sure that families don’t go without. As a single mom raising eight kids, I wasn’t aware that there were so many resources right here in the community. I never want another family to feel like that.”
This is what enables her to build such powerful, lasting relationships with families and students alike. Once those connections have been established, people feel comfortable coming to Gloria for support – the first step toward growth and opportunity.
A personal connection
When Gloria began her job at Project R.I.G.H.T. Inc., there were few community-based-organizations in her neighborhood working directly with students and their families through school. Families’ concerns range from: “where can I get a winter coat” to “we’re about to be evicted, what should we do?” And often, these questions go with children to school.
To paint the picture, she shares the story of a middle school–aged boy, who presented in school with severe behavioral and health problems. Though teachers were a challenging relationship for him at the time, he formed a connection with Gloria, and she invited his mother to a homework support workshop. By the end of the night, his mother shared that she and her two children were sleeping in her car after a recent divorce left them with no place to stay. No one at school knew. That was all Gloria needed to act.
The next day, they sat down to map out a plan. Before the end of the week, they were into a room of their own. Not long after that, the family moved into an apartment in Mattapan. Throughout this time, the mother attended regular workshops ranging in topics from communication to boundary-setting to time-management to building a web of community support. All of this transformed her dialogue with her children, which had ripple effects in their lives as well. Today the young man is thriving, healthy and happy, in high school.
“This family thrives today because of the trust they placed in Gloria,” says Senior Director Community Impact at United Way Sarah Bartley, “she is a gift to our community.”
Before the pandemic, Gloria worked with about 100 families just like this one. Now, she is connecting with more like 100 families each week. But her approach hasn’t changed; by creating a connection where students already feel comfortable sharing, Gloria can get through to an entire family. Her relational, meet-people-where-they-are approach overcomes two big barriers — knowing what kind of services are available and navigating them. Her work bears witness to the power of empowering families to transform a community.
“I don’t think I would be able to do this work had I not gone through the things that I’ve gone through in my own life to help me to stay true to myself. Because it’s helped me to help others.”
While social distancing has strained many relationships, Gloria’s connection to her family remains strong. In the past, students were often the ones to make the first contact with her, now more and more single fathers come to seek support. She says she knows they’re ready to do the work when they ask her where to start, “that tells you they are ready to do whatever it takes to build a foundation that will sustain their family.”
A thriving community
The weekend before this interview, Gloria and her team (including her kids) delivered food to over 300 local families. The drop-off included time to check-in and find out how the families were doing, ask if their students needed school support, give parents items that support self-care, and let everyone know they were seen, heard, and listened to.
In addition to regular visits, Gloria and Project R.I.G.H.T. Inc also offer a wide range of touchpoints to make sure families remain connected to the community. These include online meetings like Sister to Sister and Kings and Queens, movie nights for the kids and little challenges to make chores and homework fun. “The community is so vibrant,” she shares. “You’ve got all ethnicities coming together for the greater good of the community.”
The one thing she asks? “If I do for you, I now ask that you go and empower one other person, because that’s how we build the village.”