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The Boston Globe

3 Who Toiled For Women


May 2, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

For Alice Hennessey, the epiphany came when she was mistaken for a homeless woman while dropping off a donation at rosie's place.

For Isabel Melendez, it was when she saw the "no Puerto Ricans wanted" sign posted by a Lawrence businessman.

For Gloria Torres, it was when she accepted her first housecleaning job after fleeing Peru where antigovernment guerrillas had gunned down her husband, a high-ranking military official.

As moments of clarity go, the experiences of the women honored last week by the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women could hardly be more different. But, as exemplars of a commitment to social justice, recipients of the first Eleanor Roosevelt Unsung Heroine Awards are more alike than not.

For one thing, you probably have never heard of them.

"Unsung" is something of an understatement to describe the anonymity in which these women toil. Little attention is paid to the work of stocking pantry shelves in a homeless shelter, guiding domestic violence victims through the judicial system, or helping Spanish-speaking immigrants negotiate the bureaucracies that stand between them and work, shelter, health care, and an education for their children.

It was not some missionary zeal but an old pair of sweats that prompted Hennessey to begin the West Roxbury Friends of Rosie's Place. That's what she was wearing the morning in 1981 when she was taken to be a resident, rather than a benefactor. She laughs at the impression she made but says she began to wonder, "What separates me from my sisters at Rosie's?"

Deciding that the answer had more to do with circumstance than character, Alice and her friends Helen Haley and Ellen O'Brien set out to expand their efforts on behalf of Rosie's Place. Kip Tiernan, the shelter's founder, christened them her "band of merry makers" after the women took it upon themselves to prepare and serve meals, be the host for backyard fund-raisers, and send homeless children to summer camp. There are 400 members now, and their work has inspired the participation of school and church groups across West Roxbury.

Isabel Melendez had more in common with guests at Rosie's Place when she arrived in Lawrence as a young bride in 1959 from Puerto Rico. She worked in the shoe factories and lived in an apartment that had no bath.

Forty-five years later, Isabel is known in the immigrant community as "the Mother of Lawrence" for her work as a political activist and civil rights advocate. Confronted with racial prejudice reminiscent of the "No Irish Need Apply" signs of an earlier era, she organized demonstrations against a local businessman and a School Committee member who spoke disparagingly of Puerto Ricans.

She established a multiservice center within the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council to provide translation for Spanish- speaking women seeking basic services. In 2001, she became the first Latina in Massachusetts to run for mayor. She lost, but democracy won. Her campaign attracted hundreds of new voters to the polls.

That was the kind of freedom Gloria Torres was seeking when she fled Peru with her 2-year-old daughter, Greta, and her 28-day-old son, Diego, after witnessing her husband's assassination. From work as a housekeeper, Torres found her passion in the Probation Department in Springfield District Court. Having suffered the consequences of violence herself, she has pioneered programs to combat domestic violence and abusive dating relationships and to provide counseling to children who witness violence in their homes and to men who perpetrate it.

Her children, who are now college students, and her parents, who followed her here from Peru, were tearful as Gloria accepted applause she insisted she did not deserve. "I feel lucky to do the work I do," she said, to the nods of her equally modest sister honorees.

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