A Q&A with Robert Bilotta, Vice Chair of Worcester’s Disability Commission

WORCESTER – From transportation to education, and accessible housing to employment opportunities, Robert Bilotta and the Worcester Commission on Disability are on a mission to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities in the city.

Since April 2017, Bilotta has worked as an Assistive Technology Regional Center Coordinator for Easter Seals – an organization providing services to children and adults with disabilities and/or special needs. The grand opening for the Worcester Easter Seals office is Friday, Oct. 13 on the sixth floor of the Denholm Building on Main St.

Robert Bilotta with his service dog, Kilroy

In his position at Easter Seals, Bilotta runs workshops, purchases new equipment for the center, and coordinates outreach for the center.

Bilotta, 30, has lived in Worcester his entire life and is a graduate of North High school.

In 2015, Bilotta was elected to the City of Worcester’s Commission on Disability. Last month, he was voted Vice Chair of the Commission.

Over the past year, the Commission on Disability has hosted Wheelchair Tours to give people a taste of what life is like maneuvering around Worcester in a wheelchair. On Wednesday, Oct. 4, the Commission will host a mobility stroll in Webster Square at 5 PM.

Bilotta said, “Because of those strolls, the DPW [Worcester Department of Public Works] is beginning to understand some of the issues we deal with. It’s a slow moving wheel, but I think for us to be able to be out there and meeting people, we are getting the word out and helping the larger community understand what is going on for us in Worcester.”

“If we can be more present in the community and help educate people, and if we can make more noise about certain things, that’s going to go a long way for us,” Bilotta added.

According to Bilotta, there will be a major effort next year to host a week-long program in Worcester filled with events, speakers and community discussions aimed at educating the city’s residents on the American Disabilities Act.

“I think bringing our issues into the mainstream will help the community understand our issues and what it is we deal with,” Bilotta said.

On Thursday, Sept. 21, ThisWeekinWorcester had the opportunity to speak with Bilotta as he shared how he came to be on the Commission on Disability, what he thinks can be done to improve relations with the city and its disabled residents, and the initiatives the Commission and the city are taking together to provide a better quality of life for the people in Worcester living with disabilities.

How did you get involved with the Commission on Disability? Were you recruited or did you apply on your own?

RB: When I worked Center for Living and Working, one of my co-workers was on the Commission and he said ‘Hey you should get involved. They’re looking for people. They have some spots and you should go for it.’ So I started that in May of 2015.

Every year we nominate for Chair and Vice Chair. I nominated Joe Prochilo as Chair this year. He’s done a really great job for us. He’s started a lot of initiatives to improve sidewalk access and safety. He’s really ignited a lot of energy and a sense of passion on the Commission.

What initiatives are the Commission and the City of Worcester working on to improve quality of life for people with disabilities?

RB: Right now, one of our goals for the year is to look into getting more information about accessible housing in the city. There’s a real crunch for accessible housing. The wait list for public housing is one to four years. You’re on there for a long time. Even if you want to rent at market rate, there aren’t many accessible apartments in the city at all.

Even for subsidized housing, there aren’t many options available around the city.

What steps will the Commission take to communicate to those with disabilities where they can find appropriate housing?

RB: We recently met with the City Manager [Edward M. Augustus, Jr.] to see where we could reach out to the proper people in the city to start pushing these issues. Right now, it’s figuring out who we approach with what. We are going to be having meetings with the Economic Development Office to let them know that appropriate housing is an issue and to see what we can do together try to implement different policies to fix the housing issue.

We are hoping that these meetings could lead to change in policies, zoning, and regulations. There could be a lot of opportunities for owners of triple deckers in the city to convert their first floors to be more accessible.

The bottom line is we want to live in the community and be a part of it.

Beyond housing, what’s the single most difficult issue people with disabilities face in Worcester right now?

RB: There are several, actually. It’s housing, transportation and employment. There are 110 registered taxis in the city — only two are accessible. There are no accessible liveries or ride-sharing apps like Uber or Lyft. The WRTA [Worcester Regional Transit Authority] has their paratransit, but you have to call the day before. There’s nothing on demand for people with disabilities.

When it comes to addressing those issues, what is the role of the Commission?

RB: The role of the commission is to advise the city and provide input from our community on certain issues and also to bring issues to the table and push to fix different things like housing and transportation, improving access to businesses, sidewalk improvements, and fixing crosswalks.

In recent studies, Worcester has been named the least “walkable” big city in Massachusetts, and last year one report named Worcester the worst city in America for people with disabilities.

On a scale of one to 10 [1 being the worst, 10 being the best] how would you grade Worcester’s accessibility for people with disabilities?

RB: For someone like me, I’m in a powerchair and it’s gotten better and some sidewalks have improved. That being said, there are still some very bad sidewalks and some really hairy intersections. Overall, I would give it a six out of 10.

For people that push in their wheelchairs, it’s probably a four. For people with walkers, probably a two. For someone that’s visually impaired, I don’t know how they even get from point A to point B in the city.  It’s probably a one out of 10.

Besides hosting the mobility strolls, is there anything else that the Commission and the City are planning on doing to work cooperatively on?

RB: We’re working on ways to develop relationships and connect with business owners in the city. We’re asking for better access to businesses, restaurants, etc. Some of the owners may think it’s impossible, but it’s not.

A lot of people still don’t know what we need and go through because they don’t see us out all the time. And why don’t they see us out? Because it’s hard and it’s challenging. So the Disability Commission is starting to take a lot of these issues on and see what we can do from there.

The Commission on Disability meets once a month. Please visit the City’s boards and commissions page for more information on their October meeting and read the Commission’s brochure. For additional information, visit the City’s Office on Disabilities page.

 

ThisWeekinWorcester.com’s Person of the Week

WORCESTER – Mary Ellen Wessell has mastered the balancing act.

And in doing so, she has managed to bring smiles to the faces of hundreds of children in Worcester.

Wessell is a small business owner, a mother of two daughters, has a part-time job, and is the director of Children’s Smile Coalition — a nonprofit located in Worcester.

Courtesy of Mary Ellen Wessell

Founded in 2012, the Children’s Smile Coalition’s mission is to meet the social and economic needs of underprivileged children and teenagers and, in turn, encourage children to give back to their community.

As the founder and executive director of Children’s Smile Coalition [CSC], Wessell runs two prominent programs — Santa’s Big League and Project KIN – each year aimed at addressing the basic needs of teenagers and kids living in poverty.

A third program, Young Heroes Night — an event honoring children that do exceptional charity work in their respective community — will be held on Saturday, Sept. 30 at The Hanover Theatre in downtown Worcester.

“You see stories in the news about these kids doing amazing things and I think that a lot of times these kids aren’t getting enough attention,” Wessell said in an interview on Wednesday, Sept. 20.

“All of us — me included sometimes — we put our energy where it doesn’t belong. This where I choose to put my energy – making sure these kids get the credit that they should be getting,” she added.

The event, which is in its fifth year, celebrates nine young leaders in the Worcester community — including ThisWeekinWorcester’s Person of the Week last week Simon Eber —  and one guest of honor. This year’s guest of honor is Worcester police officer and cancer survivor Jonathan Daige.

Wessell, 56, of Leicester, is originally from the West Tatnuck area of Worcester, and is the mother of two daughters — Julie, 25, of Worcester and Shelby, 14, a freshman at St. Peter-Marian. She is married to her husband, Jim – who owns a company that provides services for Dell EMC data storage.

Wessell attended St. Peter-Marian and Bay Path University where she earned her degree in human resources last year at the age of 55.

Last Year’s Recipients of Young Heroes Awards/Photo Courtesy of Children’s Smile Coalition

Wessell is also the owner of Bay State Business Solutions, LLC – a consulting business that handles human resources and business services – including bookkeeping and administrative support. Additionally, Wessell works part-time at Tufts University doing payroll administration.

Since Julie and Shelby were born, Wessell has always tried to volunteer. In one volunteer effort, where Wessell was helping a social service agency around Christmas time get gifts for children that were undergoing counseling for behavioral problems and abuse issues.

“There were about 50 kids that needed gifts. When I was delivering all of the gifts, I witnessed one mom was speaking to her social worker and she was crying,” Wessell said.

Being curious, Wessell had to find out what was going on and why the mother was upset. According to Wessell, the mom said that her son was 14-years-old and the age cut-off to receive gifts from the social service agency was 12.

Wessell said, “I asked the agency why they didn’t refer the family somewhere that handles gifts for 13 to 18-year-olds. The social worker said there wasn’t a service that provided gifts for children in that age group. I made some phone calls, went online and did some research and I couldn’t find any agencies or organizations that gave gifts to teenagers.”

“So I started my own. And that’s how [CSC] started,” Wessel continued. “And I knew I wanted to do more than just delivering Christmas gifts, so I called it Children’s Smile Coalition because we are a group of people that puts smiles on kids’ faces.”

The children that benefit from the Santa’s Big League program are mostly from the Boys & Girls Club of Worcester.

Last year, CSC sponsored more than 125 kids living in poverty. Over the course of five years, Wessell estimates that at least 500 children from the Boys & Girls Club have received gifts from the CSC.

“A six-month-old doesn’t know when they’re receiving a gift, but a 13 to 18-year-old kid growing up in the world truly appreciates it,” Wessell said.

Wessell requests shirt and jacket sizes of the kids that receive gifts from the CSC from the Boys & Girls Club and asks for a wishlist from each child so they receive the gifts that they want. Many gifts on the wishlists – especially clothing — are brand-name items that the teens request because they want to fit in with their peers, Wessell said.

Wessell said, “On the lists you will see Under Armour or Nike apparel, but I was always tell the sponsors that they don’t have to get name-brand items in order to fulfill the wishlist. If they want to great, but they shouldn’t ever feel like they have to.”

The wishlists are fulfilled through monetary donations that CSC receives from individual donors and corporate sponsors, as well as individual sponsors that take a wishlist and go out and do the shopping for the items a child wants.

“Every single person never fails to get every single thing on a child’s list, and more. Every single time,” Wessell added.

Although Wessell handles 90 percent of the work that needs to be done for CSC on her own, she does receive help from her daughters, her childhood friend Nancy Barrett [a CSC board member]  and other volunteers in distributing the gifts for Santa’s Big League.

Wessell’s other program, Project KIN [Kids in Need], is designed to give school-aged children and teenagers personal hygiene products such as dental kits, deodorant, toiletries, shoes, and gloves.

Bins are placed in several Worcester schools for public school students to help themselves. The bins are put with the guidance counselor or in the nurse’s’ office for students to access the products in private.

The funding for CSC to obtain these products has come primarily through grants, Wessell said. Other funding comes from a surplus from money raised at the Young Heroes event.

Although CSC is only its fifth year, Wessell sees her organization growing year after year and helping more and more kids and teens. Ultimately, Wessell hopes that CSC starts helping other nonprofits in the future.

Wessell said, “I see this organization morphing into an organization that helps other people start up and run nonprofits or I may even start another nonprofit up to do that. Inevitably, every year there’s at least one of the Young Heroes that I deal with that say ‘We’re not a 501c3 yet, will you help me?’”

No matter what she takes on in the future, or who Wessell helps, the children, teenagers and philanthropists in Worcester will have Wessell as a resource and guide toward success and an inspiration to finding a balance in life between work, family and helping those in need.

To make a donation to the Children’s Smile Coalition, click here.  

WORCESTER – Walking down Shrewsbury Street late last Thursday night, this reporter couldn’t help but notice how quiet it was, how few people were out walking around, and how each bar and restaurant passed was practically empty.

It was a relatively warm night, and college was already back in session — a typical boon for weeknights at the city’s bars following a long summer run of relying on Worcester residents that were actually in the city and not on vacation.

When a Shrewsbury St. restaurant owner — who wished to remain anonymous — was asked if he would answer some questions about Worcester’s nightlife, he responded bluntly.

“What nightlife?,” he asked in return.

For the owner of a well-established restaurant on the city’s famed “Restaurant Row” to answer so candidly speaks volumes about the current state of the city’s bar and restaurant scene.

A major concern for the restaurant and bar owners we interviewed was whether or not the city’s college students have the means to — and desire to  — leave their dorms, apartments and homes to bar hop and dine out on weeknights.

On Tuesday, Sept. 19, staff members from ThisWeekinWorcester.com conducted a survey of more than two dozen restaurant managers, employees and owners from Shrewsbury St., the Canal District, downtown Worcester and Park Ave, as well as sales personnel from local beer and alcohol distributors.

The three questions that were asked of each person were – 1. How has business been since the start of September? 2. Has the return of the college students improved business? And 3. Do you agree with what some of our readers have told us: “There’s no one out in Worcester anymore” and why do you agree with that?

The majority of those surveyed said that business has gotten slower since the summer and deemed it atypical or that the nights that were typically busier no longer were, but other nights have developed foot traffic, and that in comparison to other years, the traffic in their bars and restaurants were down across the board.

“Business is down everywhere,” said a liquor salesman who wished to remain anonymous with sales routes in Worcester. “I couldn’t give you a definitive answer as to why, but I see it in my paycheck every week.”

Shrewsbury St. Worcester

John Richard, co-owner of Parkway Bar and Restaurant on Shrewsbury St, said, “Business typically picks up for us this time of year, mainly on the weekend. I think it has to do more with people not going to the beach for the weekend and getting back into their weekly routines.”

“However,” Richard continued, “I agree with the readers that there is no one out in Worcester anymore because I can see it with my own eyes. I guess Friday and Saturday nights are okay, but if you go out in Worcester during the week after 8 PM it’s become a ghost town. That wasn’t the case a few years ago.”

“It’s funny, but our busiest time of the year is summer. So when September rolls around, I don’t feel it gets better with the college kids coming back,” Vintage Grille owner Robyn Caruso said.

Most notably, only one bar owner — John Rinaldo of The Muse on Main St. — said that business had actually improved during the week since the start of September.

Rinaldo told ThisWeekinWorcester.com, “I really don’t have many customers that are undergrads. That said, I’ve definitely seen an uptick in business post-Labor Day.”

So where is everyone? What happened to “Thirsty Thursdays” for college students? And what factors are playing into the lack of a city’s nightlife?

Many restaurant and bar owners we surveyed listed several reasons that they all agreed on: there are so many restaurants in the city today compared to five years ago that the same nightlife population is spread out across Worcester, there are so many city-wide activities (bar crawls, beer festivals, cookouts) geared to college students and young professionals that are held during the day or immediately after work — leading to many people “calling it a night” early, and — although none of them could pinpoint why — most that were surveyed said it seems as if the young crowd has less money than people of the similar age group did five years ago.

However, the majority’s verdict is: No one is leaving their house.

Most people that were surveyed said — in one way or another — “Everyone is staying at home” and named Netflix, social media, dating apps, sporting events on television, and other activities as more affordable means to stay entertained and social compared to bar hopping and dining out.

In fact, one business has taken off in Worcester because of the large amount of individuals staying in on weeknights and some weekends.

According to Rob Simon, Growth Operations Manager for Foodler, the home food delivery business is thriving because people are staying home and ordering delivery from Worcester’s restaurants.

“We had a great summer [in Worcester] and a definite uptick in business since the start of September,” Simon said.

While people continue to choose to stay home, host parties, binge-watch their favorite series and play board games, the surveyed group of restaurant personnel all said that they would have to think outside the box to continue to pull in customers and hope that their weeknights turnaround quickly, while the city’s bars and restaurants continue to enjoy their busy weekends.

WORCESTER – In what some may call a surprising move, City Councilor At-Large Michael T. Gaffney has decided to not run for Mayor of Worcester during this Fall’s municipal election. 

Councilor Gaffney, who is currently serving in his second two-year term on the council, ran for mayor in 2015 in a much-publicized race against incumbent Mayor Joseph M. Petty.

Gaffney’s withdrawal from the mayor’s race will certainly lead to speculation of his intention to run for higher office in the future.

Fellow At-Large councilor Konstantina B. Lukes will challenge Mayor Petty for mayor in the municipal election. Lukes is currently serving her fourteenth term as a City Councilor. She previously served as mayor for one term from 2007 to 2009.

Stay with ThisWeekinWorcester.com for further coverage of the mayor’s race in the coming days.

Just before noon on Friday, Worcester Police officers were dispatched to the RMV at 611 Main St. for a report of a stabbing.

When the officers arrived, they found a 60-year-old victim bleeding from his forearm. The victim would not cooperate with the police officers and refused to give a description of the suspect. The victim was transported to a hospital. His injuries are not life-threatening.

According to witnesses, they observed a dispute between the victim and a younger male. The suspect chased the victim across Main St. and stabbed the victim in the back and in the hand before fleeing the scene on foot.

Early descriptions of the suspect are a light-skinned male with long, light brown hair.

If anyone has information about this incident they can send an anonymous text to 274637 TIPWPD + your message or send an anonymous web based message at worcesterma.gov/police. Calls can also be made to the Worcester Police Detective Bureau at (508) 799-8651.

After a one year hiatus from bocce, fireworks, live music and filling bellies with Worcester’s best food, the wait will come to an end next summer and the city’s residents can once again celebrate everything Italian.

And twice again celebrate everything Italian.

And…three times.

Photo: Worcester Italian Festival/Facebook

During the summer of 2018, Worcester will play host to not one, not two, but three different Italian festivals to celebrate Italian heritage, culture, and food.

Beginning on July 15, the first festival — Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel — is being run by the Mount Carmel Preservation Society, a group dedicated to preserving and elevating the Italian and Italian-American history, arts, culture and spiritual life in Worcester.

Attempts to reach an organizer of the event weren’t immediately returned on Wednesday, Sept. 13.

The second festival lined up for next summer — and making its return for the first time in ten years — is the Our Lady of Loretto Feast which will take place August 10-12 on the Our Lady of Loretto Church grounds.

Nino Giamei, spokesman for the Loretto Feast, said, “It’s been a long time since the Loretto parishioners have had a festival and our plan is to start small for 2018. Considering what we’re planning, I’m very comfortable where we’re at.”

After the recent closing of Mt. Carmel Church on Mulberry St, the parishioners from Mt. Carmel started a new Mt. Carmel parish inside Our Lady of Loretto.

“We’re going to take a lot of things we did well at the old Loretto festival and the old Mt. Carmel festival. This is our first really ambitious effort as a new parish and we are going to see how it all comes together,” Giamei said.

Giamei said there’s roughly 20 to 25 people helping organize the event to help raise money for the Our Lady of Loretto and new Mt.Carmel parishes.

Photo: Worcester Italian Festival/Facebook

Lastly, the final festival of the summer — the Worcester Italian Festival — will make its return next Aug. 17-19 after taking this summer off. In 2015 and 2016, the Worcester Italian Festival was held at Mt. Carmel to help raise money to keep the church open and help pay for any renovations that were needed to the church itself.

“We have a large group of volunteers returning to make sure that next year’s festival is just as successful as the previous two,” festival co-chair Gina Valentine said in an interview on Sept. 6.

Next year, however, the festival will be held at East Park on Shrewsbury St. According to Valentine, proceeds from that festival will go towards either several local charities or designated to two or three local families that may be in need or suffering a hardship.

In an interview on Wednesday, Sept. 13, Gary Vecchio, the head of the Shrewsbury St. Neighborhood Association, said, “I think if three different groups want to have Italian festivals then they should. I say the more festivals the better, and the fact that there are three of them, one shouldn’t hurt the other. To have a festival in the park, I think it’s wonderful.”

However, Vecchio said that there is talk about closing down a portion of Shrewsbury St for the event, something which he and the neighborhood association would be against it.

“So far, no one has had any communication with me about it, but it’s still early and I’m assuming at some point the people involved will want to have a dialogue about it with the neighborhood association to go over whatever their plans are,” Vecchio added.

According to Giamei, who was involved in the Worcester Italian Festival last year, last year’s festival saw around 30,000 people over the course of four days.

Even with those large attendance numbers, is there room for all three festivals to make money?

“We’re all going to have our festivals and it’s going to be a ‘I’ll go to yours, you go to mine’ situation,” Valentine said.

“We are going to find out [if there’s room]. I would think there is and I hope there is. I think the appeal of Italian food and Italian culture is big enough. I would like to think the second largest city in New England can handle three weekends of Italian festivals,” Giamei said.

WORCESTER – Beginning on Thursday, Sept. 14, qFLIX Worcester — New England’s LGBTQ Film Festival — will take place at Hanover Theater over four days and present more than a dozen films aimed at encouraging diversity, discovery and acceptance in the Worcester area.

On Friday, Worcester’s own Dale Lepage — creator and host of New England Pride TV — will be awarded qFLIX Worcester’s “Community Spotlight Award.”

James Duggan, left, and Dale Lepage

According to James Duggan, president of qFLIX USA, Lepage “personifies the spirit of this award” because of his work with New England Pride TV and referred to Lepage as “ a tireless performer, and fierce advocate for LGBTQ+ people.”

In a statement released to ThisWeekinWorcester.com on Friday, Sept. 8, Duggan said the award “is presented to a local LGBTQ+ person whose unparalleled commitment and dedication to the advancement of our community is clearly evident in their daily lives.”

“I was surprised by it. It’s a great honor. I hardly ever thought any of this would come my way when I moved to Worcester in 1979. I lived in my car, I was homeless and for this nerd to start out like that and end up getting awards for working the LGBTQ community is pretty awesome,” Lepage said in an interview on Monday, Sept. 11.

According to Duggan, Worcester was selected as the best city to expand the qFLIX brand — which began in Philadelphia — due to its central location in New England and its population of 185,000 LGBTQ individuals and families.

Lepage said he was informed last week that he would be receiving the award. “It’s an honor to be living in a city that’s so inclusive and supportive,” Lepage said.

Lepage will receive his award Friday evening following the presentation of the  film Fair Haven.

For tickets to qFLIX Worcester, click here. For more information, visit qFLIX Worcester.

ThisWeekinWorcester.com’s Person of the Week

WORCESTER – When you’re in the midst of the first weeks of your freshman year in high school, trying to learn Mandarin, and jamming out as the lead guitarist in a rock band, there’s probably not much time left in the day to run a nonprofit organization.

But, somehow, 14-year-old Simon Eber manages to find the time to help Worcester elementary students in need get their backpacks and school supplies before they enter middle school.

Simon Eber/Photo by Matt Wright

Simon, a freshman at St. John’s high school in Shrewsbury, is the founder and president of Simon Says Give – Worcester — a kid-founded and kid-led nonprofit based out of Minnesota.

In order to launch the Worcester branch of Simon Says Give, Simon raised nearly $7,000 to kickstart his efforts for his first initiative: High Five for Supplies – an annual school supply drive with the goal of providing as many graduating elementary school students as possible in Worcester with backpacks and supplies before entering middle school.

With that funding, Simon has been able to provide more than 160 backpacks filled with school supplies to students in need at six of Worcester’s elementary schools and middle schools.

Additionally, Simon’s work has provided in-classroom birthday parties for two at-need students and Simon Says Give has recently partnered with C.C. Lowell Art Supply Co. and The Learning Hub to host a birthday party once a month beginning in October.

In a statement released to ThisWeekinWorcester.com, Giselle Rivera-Flores, owner of The Learning Hub, said, “One Birthday a month will be donated to a child who would otherwise not have a birthday due to family financial hardships.”

“We want to make sure that we provide quality birthdays and ensure a great experience without cutting corners and making it feel like a donation. Every kid deserves a birthday, even if it’s only once,” Rivera-Flores added. 

 

 

Simon lives with his mother, Amy Richter — an associate professor in the history department at Clark University —  and father Jim Eber, a professional writer and local contributor to MassFoodies.com — in the Newton Square area of Worcester with their two rescue dogs, Daisy and Milly.

Jim — who serves as the Adult Leader for Simon Says Give – Worcester — said that more than just being proud of his son, he’s touched by how much Simon cares about those less fortunate than himself.

“Proud doesn’t really encompass it. I’m touched by what he’s done and been able to accomplish. I’m very proud of him, but I never really knew just how much he cared about things that it’s tough care about. You have to be completely selfless and you have to care about your community and the work that you put into it,” Jim said in an interview on Monday, Sept. 11.

His parents aren’t the only one noticing his hardwork. On Saturday, Sept. 30, Simon will be one of 10 recipients of the Children’s Smile Coalition Young Hero Award for his work with Simon Says Give.

So how does a 14-year-old start a local chapter of a national non-profit organization?

Simon said, “My bar mitzvah was coming up and a lot of bar mitzvahs have a charitable aspect to them. I knew my family would be really generous no matter what charity I decided to give the money to.”

Jim approached Simon with the idea of starting a Worcester chapter of Simon Says Give when Jim returned home from a June 2015 conference that featured Dina Simon as the guest speaker.

Dina Simon – is the president and chairman of the board for Simon Says Give® in Minnesota — and  is the mother of Mandi Simon — who founded Simon Says Give® at the age of seven.

“The first time I brought this back to Simon, he wasn’t interested,” Jim said. “He didn’t understand it. At that age, it’s hard to understand what it is and what you can do. It wasn’t until a year later, that he told me he was thinking about giving back and doing something good and asked ‘Do you think we can still do the Simon Says Give thing?’”

“You can be the change you want to see, or wait for someone else to do it.  I decided not to wait. I decided I really want to do this and see the kids I’m affecting. I don’t just want to donate by clicking a button on the screen. And I knew I was ready to start this kind of work,” Simon said.

“We called up [the Minnesota Simon Says Give chapter] and they explained it to him and he just latched right on,” Jim added.

From L to R: Carmelo Feliciano, Jayna Diaz, Simon Eber and Erick Arevalo/Photo by Matt Wright

At Simon’s bar mitzvah earlier this year he officially announced he would be launching the Worcester chapter of the nonprofit.

The work began right away for the Eber’s and they were surprised how quickly things developed and came together.

“We thought that the first year would be filling out boring forms, getting the lay of the community, putting our name out there and start to fundraise,” Simon said. “But right away, things started happening.”

According to the Ebers, they ran into Columbus Park Preparatory School principal Siohban Dennis at a pizza parlor in Worcester. Dennis — a family friend of the Ebers — said that at Columbus Park there’s a large refugee population and are nearly all considered “in need” by the public school system.

Dennis went on to tell the Ebers that teachers at Columbus Park had to take money out of their own salaries to throw birthday parties for the kids in their classroom.

“We said, ‘We have an answer for that,’” Simon said. “Within a few months, we got our act together and we threw a birthday party for a girl named Eunice — a refugee from the Congo. Since then, we’ve been coasting.”

When he’s not throwing birthday parties or gathering school supplies for kids in need, Simon spends his time playing the guitar, trying his hand at cooking, and playing soccer.

Simon has been playing the guitar since he was eight-years-old. He currently attends School of Rock in Watertown where he has joined a rock band. Although the five-man band is currently unnamed, he has played in bands great band names like Feedback, and – his personal favorite – Symptoms of a Wet Guitar.

Watch: Simon Rocks Out Alice in Chains’ ‘Man in the Box’ at Hard Rock in Boston

In his first year at St. John’s, as if he wasn’t busy enough, Simon is taking a course in Mandarin — what he calls “a fun, but tough class.” All in all, he’s enjoying his first few weeks of high school.

“The food is really good. There’s a great cafeteria. It’s a beautiful campus and everyone seems really nice so far,” Simon said.

Next year, Simon hopes to add two more schools to the High Five for Supplies program and hopes to throw at least one birthday party a month.

“We’re also working on a new project called the Backpack Bank. It’s a kind of play on words from a food bank. The project allows any student in middle school or higher to reach out to us and we will provide a backpack with all the supplies they need. The project will let us meet individual needs right away,” Simon said, who’s currently writing a grant to get the project funded.

Five years from now, when Simon is attending college, he sees Simon Says Give with a new kid president, kids doing as much of the work as possible, having partnerships with local colleges and businesses, and have every student in every sixth grade class in Worcester prepared with backpacks and school supplies before they enter middle school.

“In five years, what’s going to matter is the commitment and how fast we are able get those three or four birthday parties going right now and how fast the rest of the small steps we make at the beginning move,” Simon said.

Eventually, Simon believes the chapter will become Simon Says Give – Massachusetts, but for now the Ebers are focusing strictly on Worcester.

If you would like to donate a backpack and supplies to Simon Says Give please click hereA $50 donation will provide one student with a backpack and supplies.

To donate a birthday party, click here. A $150 donation provides one birthday party for a Worcester elementary school student. 

WORCESTER – The former Price Chopper supermarket on Mill St. in Worcester has been vacant for nearly 15 years and since then has been a blemish to the area — especially in light of recent developments at Coes Pond across the street.

The building, which is owned by Worcester Mill LLC, was built in 1970 an has been empty since 2004.  It has long been a source of residents’ complaints that want to see the property razed and developed.

Overhead View of Former Price Chopper Supermarket on Mill St/Photo by Matt Wright

“After all these years, the empty market on Mill St. is definitely a neighborhood eyesore,” District 5 city councilor Gary Rosen said.

“Many individuals, businesses and organizations have worked so hard to make the Coes Pond area of Mill St. cleaner, safer, more welcoming and popular,” Rosen added.

The property and the land it sits on is valued at $1.2 million, according to a 2017 assessment by the City of Worcester.

Rosen said, “Ironically, all those improvements [at Coes Pond] have raised the value of the former market property. While the family that owns it has it on the market, they are unwilling to sell it at a reasonable price. I understand that a few developers have made offers, but the asking price is simply too high.”

Worcester Mill LLC purchased the building in 2005 and, according to a 2007 Telegram & Gazette story, had plans for several hundred townhouses to be built there.

Those plans never came to fruition and the 32,000 square foot building remains empty. Attempts to contact a representative at Worcester Mill LLC were unsuccessful.

Aerial view of Price Chopper property/Photo: loopnet.com

Rosen — who is giving up his district council seat and running for an At-Large city council seat this fall — said that the property owner’s previous idea of building townhouses or apartments there would be the best bet for that area, noting that the beach at Coes Pond and the new Coes Park would be welcome amenities for families interested in residences on the property.

District 5 city council candidate Matt E. Wally agrees that there are many advantages of the Price Chopper site and options for potential development would be many. However, Wally said, the city’s hands are tied unless the property owner decides to sell.

Wally said, “The parcel is tremendously large, it is located on an extremely busy street, and it is across from a beautiful body of water.  Unfortunately, the site is owned by a private individual who has shown no initiative to develop the property or to actively sell the site.”

In an interview last month with ThisWeekinWorcester.com, Doug F. Arbetter — one of Wally’s opponents in Tuesday’s preliminary election – said he would like to see a public market with a combination of several small local businesses and housing.

Arbetter also mentioned that it would be a great location for a Trader Joe’s grocery store.

“I think to accomplish these improvements we need to be vigilant in reaching out to potential developers and getting the community involved in putting pressure on City Hall to become active on getting conversations started [with the property owner],” Arbetter said.

He added, ‘My understanding from speaking with some people is that the property is also overpriced. As a last resort I would not be opposed to conversations related to eminent domain.”

Rosen said, “The city has no money available to take by eminent domain this and several other longtime stagnant properties. And we need to make sure that this property stays on the tax roles.”

“In any case, appointed and elected officials must put even more pressure on the family that owns this property to price it fairly so that a developer can be found who is willing to make it into something that the neighborhood needs and will appreciate,” Rosen added.

Front Facade of Former Price Chopper Property/Photo by Matt Wright

Wally said the property owner should be aggressively pushed to develop or sell the property “in order to ensure its highest and best use.” One possible use for the site, Wally said, is for healthcare services.

“Efficiently delivered healthcare in modern and conveniently situated facilities is becoming more common.  The neighborhood’s senior citizens and busy families would certainly benefit from this type of development,” Wally said.

Fellow District 5 City Council candidate, Paul J. Franco didn’t have any specific notions as to what to develop on the site, but listed the Price Chopper property, and the vacant Diamond Chevrolet and Bradley and Richardson properties on Park Ave, as three sites the city needs to fix and develop in District 5.

“In a nutshell, we want to see the City use the same effort at renovating downtown to the properties in our district,” Franco said.

Clockwise From Top Left: Ed Moynihan, Sean Rose, Gerardo Schiano, Bill Coleman/ Photos by Matthew Wright

On Tuesday, Sept. 12, four candidates will make a play for Worcester’s District 1 City Council seat in a preliminary election.

There are four candidates running – Bill Coleman, Ed Moynihan, Sean Rose, and Gerardo Schiano.

The two candidates from each district with the most votes in next week’s preliminary election will move onto the municipal election in November.

Click on the names below to read our profiles on the D1 candidates.

District 1 Candidates

Bill Coleman

Sean Rose

Gerardo Schiano

Ed Moynihan

Voting in the preliminary election is for Worcester residents living in District 1 or 5 only. Polls will be open from 7 AM to 8 PM. If you’re unsure of where to vote, please visit the City of Worcester Voter Search.

The last day to register to vote for Worcester’s municipal election is Wednesday, October 18. To register, visit the Massachusetts Online Voter Registration.