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Lawrence Partnership: Charting a course through disaster

by Keith Eddings, Eagle Tribune

On Sept. 13, officials at Groundwork Lawrence were making final preparations for the annual late-summer cleanup of the Spicket River that regularly draws as many as 700 volunteers when sirens began sounding across the city, the first clue of the disaster that was about to strike the region.

As the cause and scope of the disaster became evident – an over-pressurized gas line was causing dozens of buildings in Lawrence and the Andovers to explode and catch fire – the leaders of the environmental nonprofit abruptly switched course. The river cleanup was canceled and the agency instead threw its resources into the relief efforts that were organizing almost organically.

Over the next few days, instead of picking trash from the river, hundreds of Groundwork volunteers and staff showed up at the city's senior center on Haverhill Street to distribute the donations food, clothing and other relief that were flowing in to aid the victims showing up in waves after being forced from their homes or out of their businesses.

Stories like that were shared throughout the Lawrence Partnership's annual luncheon at Pacific Mills on Tuesday, when about 400 civic, business, education and nonprofit leaders met at the Pacific Mills for a year-in-review of their work and a look ahead that, like everything else in the city since Sept. 13, was shaped mostly by the natural gas disaster whose effects still are being felt three months later. More than 1,000 homes and businesses remain without heat and hot water, even after a massive reconstruction effort that is expected to cost nearly $1 billion.

Mostly, the stories they told Tuesday described how one of the poorest communities in Massachusetts – with the help of many of those in the room – imposed calm over catastrophe, turned loss into achievement and charted a course through the disaster that many expected would have a different outcome.

“This crisis gave the commonwealth a chance to see what the core values of culture, community and family look like in Lawrence,” Aixa Beauchamp, a business consultant with a specialty in philanthropy, said in the keynote address, emphasizing the spontaneous ground-up elements of the response. “You showed us how we could shape a new narrative in this city and for Latinos in the commonwealth. You showed us the power of working with others instead of working over others. You didn't limit your leadership to one charismatic person or one powerful organization. You shared the leadership among many.”


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