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Innovative program helps Lawrence, MA, get off the mat

Murphy’s Law can apply to cities: witness Lawrence, Mass. Over the past half-century or so, almost everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong: mill closures, disinvestment, arson and other crimes, the crippling 2008 recession.

Such were the string of calamities that a 2012 Boston Magazine article called Lawrence “the most godforsaken place in Massachusetts,” adding that the city “has never been in worse shape.”

And that was before the city was rocked with a massive series of gas explosions and fires in 2018 and then took a devastating hit from the COVID-19 pandemic this year.

So perhaps you had to look closely, but Lawrence was turning the corner. Though still one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts, the poverty level was dropping and family incomes rising. Leaders expect to get through the pandemic and continue the progress.

“I feel pretty hopeful,” said Jessica Andors, executive director of Lawrence CommunityWorks, a well-regarded 35-year-old nonprofit community development organization. There has been suffering, to be sure, but “people here are very hardworking and incredibly resilient,” she said in a recent telephone interview.

Keys to the pre-COVID comeback included an effective community policing program, a better business climate and an innovative program, run by Andors’ organization and the Lawrence public schools, which supports schoolchildren and their parents at the same time. Before the pandemic struck, the program, called the Lawrence Working Families Initiative, had gotten hundreds of residents into the workforce.

Andors and her partners have mostly kept it going during the pandemic, sometimes online or by phone, and in the fall they hope to broaden it.

“We’re not giving up – we’re doubling down,” she said.


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