With renovations almost complete, the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute has set June 1 for its move into its new quarters at 15 Christopher St. in Fields Corner, two blocks from its present home and half a block from Town Field, home base for the organization’s annual Mother’s Day Walk for Peace.
“We’re on schedule,” said LDB founder and director Tina Chery, noting that it was by accident that she learned last October that the institute would have to move. “Someone at Fields Corner Main Streets just mentioned in passing that the building we are in now was being sold,” Chery said.
“We knew we were welcome to stay, but we would have had to share the floor with another tenant,” she said. This raised security and privacy issues for the families the institute serves, so Chery promptly began looking for another location.
Her first concern was to find space in the same neighborhood from which the institute could provide immediate services to survivors following a homicide. Another priority was finding space to continue LDB’s innovative therapies for children and adults. This meant private offices where families could consult with clinicians and social workers and open areas for music and expressive movement, including an area where children could create miniature worlds in sand. The institute would also need space for volunteers, interns, and the administrative team.
“Our present space evolved as our services evolved,” Chery said. “I didn’t know if we could find another location that could accommodate so many different kinds of activities.” However, a few weeks, later the realtor Alan Issokson suggested that Chery take a look at a vacant house nearby. His company, Levenbaum-Issokson Realty, Inc., had purchased the house at 15 Christopher St. ten years earlier from Action for Boston Community Development. ABCD had been using it as an educational center, according to Issokson. His first tenant was a medical billing company. A children’s agency, the New England Home For Little Wanderers, then occupied the house for several years. At the time, it had been vacant for more than a year. Although it afforded only 3,000 sq. ft. in total, Chery decided to investigate. “As soon as I walked through, I knew we could make it work,” she said.
A long-time supporter of the LDB Peace Institute, Issokson offered the group a below-market rate per square foot. ”When you are a non-profit, money is always tight,” he said. He also gave the institute a five-year lease, fixing the rent for the full five years. “I know how much it helps with budgeting and fund-raising when you can predict that part of your expenses,” Issokson said.
But the house needed renovations and that would take money; so the institute launched a year-end fundraising appeal using a picture of the house. In just weeks, $44,000 was in the kitty. “We were shocked,” said Chery. Not only was the goal reached quickly, but many donors were new, previously unknown supporters. “We were actually surprised at how much awareness there is for our work,” said Chery.
Her next step was to look for a general contractor. One of the first people she contacted was Kate Lowenstein, a fellow activist she had worked with on issues of gun violence. Chery knew that Lowenstein’s husband, Doug Bellow, was a general contractor. Bellow, a partner with Gilman, Guidelli and Bellow in Somerville, quickly volunteered his services.
“When Tina called, I thought it was a great fit,” said Bellow. “The organization’s needs and my skills matched really well.” Bellow looked over a basic sketch of the proposed layout prepared by architect Edward Cassidy. Then he walked through the house with Chery and LDB operations manager Milton Jones, who would be helping to coordinate the project. “When I saw it, I thought it would make a great home for the Peace Institute,” Bellow said. “It felt more homey, more welcoming than the third floor of an office building.”
Bellow prepared a budget based on the scope of work in the drawings ($150,000) that far exceeded the goal Chery had set. A keen-eyed search for ways to cut reduced the total to $68,000. The fact that Bellow was going to donate his time and the time of his carpenters resulted in a major saving.
According to Jones, re-used and donated materials, including in-kind donations from Home Depot and Sherwin Williams, have also helped significantly. Jones is on site daily. He has been recruiting volunteer labor, bringing volunteers to the site, and working with the supervisor from Bellow’s crew to identify their skills and fit them in. “That has saved us a lot of money,” Jones said.
A two-story house has advantages, Chery said. Administrative offices can be confined to the second floor, leaving the entire first floor available for client services. “Most important, having our own address strengthens our independent identity,” Chery said.
“If we were a typical non-profit, we would have been out of business ten years ago,” said Chery. Instead, the organization is about to move into a permanent home. “It shows what a survivor-led, community-led organization can do,” Chery said.