The Advocate Asks: Joseph “Dennis” Gould discusses his envisaging “Healthy Students-Healthy Saugus” to fight hunger in the schools
Editor’s Note: For this week’s interview, we sat down with Joseph “Dennis” Gould of the Saugus United Parish Food Pantry to talk about the new community-wide initiative he helped inspire, “Healthy Students-Healthy Saugus” (also known as “HS²”), which is aimed at eliminating hunger among the schoolchildren of Saugus. Gould, a 1969 Saugus High School graduate, has lived in town most of his life – except for the four years he served in the military. He is a Vietnam War Era Veteran, having served four years with the U.S. Navy. He also served two decades with the U.S. Army National Guard (1976-1997). Gould received his associate’s degree in manufacturing engineering technology in 1976 from North Shore Community College. He also graduated from the GE Apprentice Course that year. He worked 40 years at GE before retiring three and a half years ago. He began an active career in community service in 1979 with the Saugus Knights of Columbus, where he continues. He has been active in many community service projects involving homelessness and hunger, while working at GE and also during his retirement. Currently he volunteers at the local food pantry in Freedom, N.H., where he spends his weekends. Gould’s community service includes membership with the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans, Catholic Charities, North Shore Elder Service Veterans, JFK Assembly Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus, Air Force Association, to name a few organizations. While at GE, he chaired or volunteered for more than 300 GE volunteer projects, including food drives. Gould has been married to Janice Joy (Gianascoli) Gould for 46 years. They have a grown son, Joey Gould, and a granddaughter, Samantha Noelle Gould. They have lived in a house on Serino Way since 1972. Gould has been active in local government of his home town: as a Town Meeting member for four years (2003-20070, chairman of the Cemetery Commission and Secretary of the Disabilities Commission. He also has been a state community access monitor for ADA compliance since 1997. He volunteers as a librarian at Veterans Memorial Elementary School. Some highlights of this week’s interview follow.
Q: Dennis, please tell me a little bit about you being credited, pretty much, as the spark plug for Healthy Students-Healthy Saugus. People are calling you “the inspiration” for it. How did this program develop?
A: I’ve been volunteering at the Veterans Memorial Elementary School as a librarian, so I got a chance to know a lot of the PTO [Parent Teacher Organization] members and some of the teachers. When I heard about kids that are coming into school on a lot of Monday mornings who didn’t get much food over the weekends, it concerned me. I also had been working on homelessness in town for three years and have seen it firsthand in the Saugus area. But when I started hearing from teachers and PTO members that kids didn’t have any food over the weekends, I said, “That’s not what Saugus is about,” so I thought about it for a while and I came up with a vision that I shared with the superintendent of schools.
Q: And when was this?
A: Sometime in April. I shared a vision with him [Saugus Public Schools Superintendent Dr. David DeRuosi, Jr.] in an email and sent a copy to Jeannie Meredith, the School Committee Chairperson. And my vision was basically “Why can’t we give these kids food before they go home for the weekend?” Because nobody in Saugus should be hungry like that. And I sent the email off, not knowing what to expect, and David [DeRuosi] jumped all over it. David was very receptive and Jeannie told him to go ahead and work with me directly. She was receptive, so David called a meeting with me and I went to see him.
Q: And this was still April?
A: It was probably the beginning of May when I sat down with the superintendent, and he got it. I mean, he understood it and was unbelievably supportive. That was our first meeting. Then we had a conversation: “What do we do? How do we do it?” And all that stuff, and basically, what I asked him to do, because I didn’t want to get involved with all the politics … I wanted him to take care of the town issues, with principals, teachers and all of that stuff. I would take care of food being donated. I just didn’t want it to be a political thing nor did I want to be out there in the public on this.
Q: You were sort of working behind the scenes?
A: Yes. I wanted to be kind of low-key, in my own little place.
Q: What was your initial goal or expectation when you went to talk to the superintendent?
A: Just to find out how many kids per school were like that [starving on the weekends] and what does it take to give them a couple of meals per day over the weekend, not knowing how many kids are like that. And to be honest with you, right now we still don’t know as we’re signing kids up. At the time, I knew there was a handful of kids here and there. I didn’t really expect it to get up to 50 or 75 kids, but that’s our expectation now – but I wanted to make sure those kids have food.
Q: So this is just for the kids in the elementary schools of Saugus?
A: Our focus is that, but I’ve told the principals at the Middle and High Schools that if they know of kids there, too, we’ll take care of them. Some of the kids in the elementary schools have siblings in the higher grades, so we’ll take care of them, too.
But, basically, I always wanted to do this on a low-key basis. I want to keep it very respectable for kids. I don’t want any stigma. I don’t want peer pressure on the kids with all of this stuff. When we’re trying to negotiate or navigate, we have to do it without putting any peer pressure on the kids and creating any stigma, so we’re working through that, because there is a stigma at the Food Bank. People don’t realize we want to treat them with respect. Sometimes people who need the help the most don’t want to ask for it.
Q: Now, you have six churches involved with this, which is pretty impressive, so how did you reach out to the churches?
A: I’ve been part of their board meetings [Saugus Faith Community] as part of the Food Bank [United Parish Food Pantry]. I was the representative for the Food Pantry going to the meetings, so I attended their monthly meetings. And when I brought that up to the superintendent, he jumped all over it. We said, “Look at the churches.” And that was part of the plan, and the first meeting we had with the parishes, they all loved it, because that’s what they want to do. They want to take care of the kids and the families in the community who are struggling, so it resonated with them and it was easy to get them involved. Of course, Martha Leahy [pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ of Saugus] is an incredible person with great organizational skills. And I’ve been working with her on the homelessness issue and the food issue for three years. She really knows how to organize and has been working with all the churches, so we’ve been quietly taking care of people who need the help. Some people have medical issues. Some people have two jobs and they lose one and need help. A lot of people in Saugus live paycheck to paycheck, so if you lose a job, pretty much down the line, you are in trouble.
Q: What’s the worst situation you’ve heard about Saugus kids, without violating any confidentiality?
A: Food or homelessness?
A: There is one child that really stimulated this whole thing. The child was starving all weekend long and came to school really famished – this happened at one of the schools – and the child came in starving, so basically, when they went home on Friday, they had no food: from Friday at noontime until Monday morning. It was bad, so I heard about that one, and I interviewed somebody who knew about the situation. And that’s the worst case.
During the week, they seem to be okay, because we offer the breakfast program and the lunch program in the schools. In both of those, they get decent meals, so they may not have a big supper, but at least they get two squares [meals], Monday through Friday.
The other thing we’re looking at, and really haven’t talked about, is summer. Vacations, we will take care of, somehow, and make sure they get food during the vacations, but in the summer, it’s different. Once we get this program going, what happens in the summer with these kids? That’s a concern to us.
Q: So, when will this program begin?
A: Probably the second week in October. I’m going to be meeting with the superintendent this week, and we will be nailing down the date.
Q: You said at last week’s meeting that you probably have enough donations to get through five weeks.
A: Yes. We’ll get through most of November.
Q: You must be getting a lot of support from all of the service agencies and groups in town who want to help out.
A: Yes. They want to help, but they’re waiting. We haven’t appealed to them officially yet. To be honest with you, what they’re waiting for is us to form the 501(c)(3), because a lot of the agencies and a lot of people want to be able to claim this on their taxes and are skeptical about giving unless you are a 501(c)(3). Once that happens, I can send out the letters. The tax ID, I’m supposed to have in a week.
Q: What are you going to be calling the 501(c)(3)?
A: Healthy Students-Healthy Saugus.
Q: Have you chosen officers and directors yet?
A: I have a Board of Directors. Somebody from McDonald’s is on it. Somebody from Wheelabrator is on it. We have Saugus school administrators on it. We have three clergy on it. Myself, of course.
Q: At some point, you will also involve High School kids in this?
A: High School kids are already involved.
Q: I mean as consumers.
A: At some point. Right now we’re focusing on the elementary schools. If they have siblings in the Middle and High Schools, we’ll take care of them, too. And then we will ask the principals of both schools if they find anybody else who needs help, and we’ll take care of them. There may be some High School students who don’t have any siblings in elementary school. The idea of this program is to take care of all kids.
Q: The core of this is the drop-off centers – six drop-off centers at churches in town.
A: Yes. And Whitsons [Whitsons Culinary Group, the food service provider for Saugus Public Schools] is going to be the warehouse. They will gather all of the stuff that we have in donations, and each week Whitsons will take what’s needed. Whitsons is going to be a big part of this.
Q: You said the warehouse. Where is the warehouse going to be?
A: Actually, I think it’s probably going to be at the High School, but they’ll still warehouse it for us. The vision is that every school in the district will have a food drive at some point – not every week. But if you have a drive at different schools – we got four elementary schools, a high school and a middle school – so we can literally have a drive every week some place. The High School cheerleaders are going to help us at the football games. There are other agencies who want to get involved and have drives. The library wants to have a drive, so there will be different people having drives, so if we target the food we need, it’s going to be perfect. If we need to buy anything, we’ll buy that stuff separately from the cash donations we receive and deposit in an account that will be set up. Because there’s some stuff that people won’t donate that much of – that might be a little more expensive – so we may have to supplement once in a while by buying the food.
Q: And as far as the Boston Food Bank, at what point will you have access to them. How does that come into play?
A: Well, once we get our 501(c)(3), then I will submit a request; as part of the United Parish Food Pantry, I’m going to ask for them to set up an account with the Boston Food Bank. So that will be a great food source, because they sell the food much cheaper than Stop & Shop or someplace like that. I don’t know the difference between Whitsons’ prices, because they buy it bulk – vs. Food Pantry – but we’re going to look at that, too.
And another important thing about this program that I want to mention: I don’t want just the kids to sign up. Usually if the kids are in trouble and starving, usually their parents or grandparents or guardians are, so we’re hoping that we can sign up some of the families to the Food Pantry so we can get the whole family food on Fridays. So that’s important and we want to do that. Because if the kids are hungry and don’t have any food on the weekends, probably the parents, grandparents or guardians aren’t getting proper food either.
Q: So, 75 kids are the target right now. How many do you think are out there who are not being served that you need to reach?
A: In dire straits? Seventy-five kids are the ones we know about, but there are a lot of kids who qualify for free or reduced lunches who have food on the weekends, so they probably have no need to take advantage of this program, so there’s a smaller number out there. About 47 percent of the school district qualifies [for free or reduced lunches], but the number is probably much smaller than that for kids who don’t have any food at all over the weekends, so it’s hard to say, really, until we get going.
Q: Are you using any other communities as a model?
A: Yes. I don’t have the information with me. But we had a town out-of-state send us information about their whole program, and we sort of mirrored some of it.
Q: What about in Massachusetts? Are you breaking ground here?
A: There are 30 towns in Massachusetts doing something like this, with a little bit of variation.
Q: So, the big draw here was that you learned about this famished kid coming in on Mondays?
A: Yes, it was this one kid. Although I heard about others, for this one kid it was real bad. The kid was literally starved – coming in on Mondays.
Q: I guess there is a lot of pride out there that gets in the way of people accepting help.
A: While working on homelessness over the last three years, Martha and I saw a lot of this. There was one family where the woman was abused as well as homeless. She was abused by her husband and she had three kids. And when I brought them to a motel to make sure they had shelter, they had no food and they were starving – all three kids – and I went out and shopped with my own money.
Q: Right in Saugus?
A: Right in Saugus – so I went out and brought them food, and you wouldn’t believe these kids hugging me. They were ecstatic just to have food. Plus, they now had a place to sleep.
Q: What do you know about the homeless problem in Saugus? How many people?
A: Well, we’ve had the tent cities, if you want to call it that, in Saugus. We had two of them: One was behind Sears and there was another tent city near the bike path. But those aren’t the ones we’re helping. They didn’t want help. We offered to help them. It’s really the ones who become homeless either because of medical problems – or in the case of the woman who was battered – that we focus on. Or somebody who lost a job. I’ve seen friends down at the Food Pantry, who I treat with total respect, come in for emergency food because they lost a job three months ago. And I see these people – all of a sudden they say, “Hey, I don’t have enough money to do everything.” So they come down to the Food Pantry for free food. I’ve seen it with quite a few families.
Q: And I guess there are a few people out there who end up in Saugus motels, homeless people that Saugus basically inherited from other places in the state.
A: Yeah. A bunch of them. And they do end up in Saugus schools.
Q: So, how many people do you estimate are working on this project?
A: In the churches, we have maybe 40 people; in the schools, we have quite a few. We’re trying to do this as a community. Like I told other people, this might have been my vision, but it’s not about me: It’s about the community. And the more people involved in this, the merrier.
Q: Now, what is the best-case scenario for this program?
A: That we become self-sustaining and that we get enough donations that we have plenty of food for the kids; and if it increases in numbers, that we have enough food for them. That the people who receive the food, feel respected and that there’s no stigma associated with it. And that families that need food also sign up with the Food Pantry so they get food for their families, so we are able to take care of the hungry people in Saugus. That’s our goal.
Q: And you will have a structure in place that lives on.
A: Yes. Once we get the board in place, and the donations coming in and the accounts in place and we’re able to send out letters to potential donors and we have a level of security in place, we’ll be able to receive money. And the money will only be used for the purchase of food. With all this, we should be able to sustain it. David [DeRuosi] will be here another three years, and he’s solidly behind this, so once we get through the first year, I think this will be good.
Q: Anything else that you would like to share about the project?
A: Just that people in Saugus know people who need help, so reach out to us. We’ll be very respectful. We just want to help.
Editor’s Note: For questions about “Healthy Students-Healthy Saugus” or to arrange pick up or drop off of donations, please contact Dennis Gould of the United Parish Food Pantry at 617-257-4847. Check out “Saugus Faith Notes” for listing of days, hours, addresses and telephone numbers of church drop-off sites and ongoing information about the program.