The Soul of a City

A community rallies, an organization serves and a city rich in history looks to the future. This is Haverhill.

The Merrimack River flows with history on its banks, an artery that binds once-great cities of industry like Lawrence, Lowell and Manchester, NH together. Haverhill is one of these cities, a one-time booming town that made its name in shoe manufacturing during the height of the Industrial Revolution, earning the nickname “The Queen Slipper City of the World.”

But you know the rest of the story. Like its sister cities, Haverhill took a series of economic body blows over the years. The vibrant shoe industry moved overseas and a fruitful relationship with Western Electric & Lucent Technologies from the late 1940s through 2008 evaporated, eventually leaving Haverhill searching.

For fifty years, Community Action, Inc., a United Way partner agency, has served the people of Haverhill and Essex County, bearing witness to the ebb and flow of the city’s fortunes. Originally founded by local residents in 1964 to work together to address poverty, Community Action has since grown to be a presence in 11 cities and towns throughout the Northeast corner of Massachusetts.

“The departure of those businesses left a demoralized community in many ways,” says John Cuneo, Executive Director of Community Action. “But we, along with other organizations, want to turn the city away from pessimism and more towards an optimistic point of view.”

To accomplish this, Community Action looks to continue what it’s been doing for half a century: strengthening the community by addressing short term needs, while laying the foundation for long-lasting change. It’s a vision shared by United Way and one of the primary reasons the two organizations have maintained such a close relationship over the years.

Two examples of this: the agency’s home heating and nutrition programs. For the former, with the cost of utilities an ongoing challenge for many of Haverhill’s struggling families, Community Action has applied a two-pronged approach to address it. Component one is, as John says, “to help people get through the winter.”

Over 5,000 households annually enroll for heating assistance. Component two kicks in for eligible families with inefficient heating systems. Community Action will work with them to upgrade these systems and help the households about implement weatherization strategies.

Example two: Community Action’s nutrition program brings in local markets to ensure that healthy food is provided to people using EBT cards. Parallel to this, an ongoing education program works to ensure that proper nutrition is a staple in these households; families receive quarterly counseling, kids are weighed, measured and screened to track growth and development and immunizations are tracked.

“You can’t get a child to focus on their school work or someone to focus on their employment or education if their basic needs aren’t met,” John says. “But at the same time we want to make sure families have the right foundation to build economic opportunity.”

When he looks at Haverhill, John sees that foundation, one originally built on pride and hard work. Recently, Community Action joined with other local organizations and businesses for the “Soles of Haverhill Shoe-la-bration,” a community-wide celebration powered by Team Haverhill and featuring the placement of shoe sculptures around the city as a way to spotlight its history producing shoes.

Pentucket Bank, another United Way partner, sponsored the event and co-sponsored Community Action’s own entry, a shoe sculpture measuring six feet from heel to toe and standing four feet high.

To add its own unique spin to the event, Community Action decorated their shoe with footprint from children throughout the community, including kids from their own early childhood programs. Each footprint has the child’s name written on it. The sculpture sits in front of Community Action’s Fox Center location on 75 Elm Street, which, appropriately enough, houses a Head Start program, the family day care program and a suite of family support services.

There is a simple duality to this sculpture, a truth that goes beyond the surface level novelty of a giant shoe. It honors the past, affirming what had made Haverhill great; but those tiny footprints with the names of Haverhill’s next generation illuminate what John Cuneo, Community Action and United Way believe: the city’s best days are a just a few steps away.

Want to read more about the great things happening in the Merrimack Valley? Learn How a $125K Grant Became a $10.2 million Return on Investment and see The Difference a Meal Can Make.