Plan for old post office: A vital link to community

Plan for old post office: A vital link to community

The dream for the old post office, shown here next to Cumberland Town Hall, is to turn it into a community resource for residents.

CUMBERLAND – Plans to create a community resource center in the long-vacant former Valley Falls Post Office/Valley Falls Free Library next to Town Hall are centered on an innovative new initiative that would tackle some of the deeper issues many town residents face that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Mayor Jeff Mutter said the ideas surrounding the old building are largely focused on the issues that Community Outreach Coordinator Sarah King has a strong interest in, including services on mental health, homelessness, veteran services, and others.

Cumberland is not immune to these types of issues, said Mutter, and the town isn’t always doing everything it can to address them. A community center would be a sort of one-stop shop for someone to come, get warm, have a bite to eat, and talk to people who care about their problems, he said, hopefully being pointed toward social service or counseling resources that can help them.

The Valley Breeze reported last month that the town is seeking a $10,000 Certified Local Government grant to hire an architect to assess and determine options at the former Valley Falls Company store at 16 Mill St., which was once occupied by the Valley Falls Free Library and post office from the 1890s until about 1920. Portuguese immigrants Seraphim C. Cardanha and Ezequiel A. Pires purchased the property and installed a grocery store on the first floor and living quarters above. Joaquim and Maria Amaral owned and operated the store from the early 1940s until 1988, and the town acquired it in 2007.

The Breeze reported in November 2019 on Cumberland’s Town Hall Historic District, including the old post office, being listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Mutter said he and staffers aren’t just going on what they hear is happening, but they see tangible evidence of the struggles people are going through as they interact with the homeless citizens who stay around Town Hall.

“People are struggling so much,” said King.

King and Mutter said they’ve been having numerous conversations about what it means to be a healthy community, and they believe that a vital component of that involves reaching out to the town’s more vulnerable populations. King has done a great job developing relationships with various people in different areas of service, said Mutter, and the idea would be to partner with the organizations they represent on this effort.

King said these initiatives, particularly around mental health efforts, are really important to her and the mayor, and as their discussions continued, the ideas kept getting bigger and bigger. One of the questions that kept coming up is on “what actually makes a healthy community, what does that look like?”

Overall health relates to one’s environment, whether related to personal spaces or geographic location, she said, and it’s become abundantly clear to them in talking with various service providers and other experts who are doing such great work that you can’t address mental health unless you address the stressors people are under, which have worsened during COVID-19.

Those stressors are related to housing, food insecurity, rising domestic violence, substance use disorders, veteran issues, etc., she said. They realized that if they wanted to tackle the issue of community health, they had to “take a good hard look at all the stuff that really plays into that,” and these aren’t the simple issues some make them out to be.

Neither she nor Mutter are “anywhere near experts on any of these things,” King said, but their realization that the town could leverage the good work already happening through nonprofits and service providers morphed into the larger goal of doing it in a physical space, such as the empty one next to Town Hall.

The hope, said King, is to staff the community center with people who are “experts in the various stressors that are impacting our community.” How cool would it be, say she and Mutter, if the town could turn that building, which is so close to Town Hall and connected to public busing, into a space to make such a difference.

Knowing that the town is still a good way off from actually bringing a community center online, said King, staffers are hoping to start a sort of pilot program, and are currently focused on housing it in a vacant home purchased as part of the Pascale property off Mendon Road, previously purchased for a new highway garage. It may not be a perfect location, she said, but “it serves a lot of the goals we’re trying to meet,” including maybe getting someone a meal or hot shower.

There were pre-COVID-19 conversations with some of the town’s potential partners on creating an ideal partnership, she said, but the pandemic for those partners brought the focus more to just trying to meet immediate needs. The idea is to reach back out to those people to see how they might use the Pascale space immediately to start addressing needs, she said.

“It’s a really exciting first step,” she said.

This pilot effort isn’t just about implementing the ideas they want or think people need help with, but they may realize that what people are looking for is not really what they thought and then readjust, King added. Perhaps they can’t meet every need, she said, but they can connect people with someone who can and “do our darndest” to hear them and help them.

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King said it makes her really proud to have Cumberland leading this conversation on topics that aren’t always easy to deal with. She said she realizes that it can’t just be talk, but that if the town is going to tackle these difficult issues with something new, with nothing really to model it after, she’s going to have to put herself out there a bit. It won’t always be perfect, she said, but she sure is going to try.

King said Chief of Emergency Medical Services John Pliakas is passionate about community paramedicine and has indicated an interest in having an EMS paramedic be the community paramedic representative at the community center, conducting wellness screenings or running blood pressure or cholesterol tests, among other offerings.

Many times, said King, referring people to services or agencies can come across as preachy, such as declaring “what you need to do and this will make everything better,” but the town would like to set a better standard of engaging and empowering. Many times people don’t feel engaged enough in their community to say something or don’t feel empowered enough to do something about it, she said, and while this service-based community center wouldn’t solve all of their problems, it would create that designated space where they know they can get professional and compassionate service. Beyond making sure that every service is provided with compassion and professionalism, she said, the goal would be to ensure reaching the most vulnerable people who need help the most.

The eventual physical space will be fantastic, she said, but the mechanism for reaching those vulnerable people won’t happen there. It will involve committed outreach to explain to them why they might want to “come to this place for X, Y and Z reasons.”