The Elizabeth Peabody House (EPH), one of Boston’s first settlement houses, was founded in 1896. Now, it has two new leaders who are focused on today’s challenges and opportunities.
Matthew Caughey has been the executive director since November. And Sheri Graziano, who has worked at EPH for 23 years, is the new chief of staff.
Together, they are managing the pandemic’s aftermath and planning how to expand to become a richer resource for Somerville, EPH’s home, as well as for neighboring cities.
For Caughey, a key part of this work is investing in people.
“Hope allows people to aspire for better,” Caughey says. “If you have no hope, you have no aspirations. But being in a community of support and comradery allows people — particularly people with limited means or people who have been marginalized – allows people to have hope.”
Caughey grew up in Belfast in Northern Ireland in what he calls “a post-conflict society.” The Good Friday Agreement was signed when Caughey was a kid, bringing thirty years of community violence to an end and offering his generation hope for the future. Still, Caughey says, “There was a lot of legacy trauma, intergenerational trauma. And I grew up in a single parent household in a working class area with a lot of deprivation.”
Graziano’s path is local. After working at EPH as a preschool assistant, a teacher, a lead teacher, and the preschool director, she has a long view of the organization.
“There’s a generational, family environment here,” she says. “Two of our staff attended our after school program as children, and now they’re preschool teachers here. A young man who is interviewing to be a junior counselor attended our preschool program and our afterschool program. Families feel how connected people are here, and they refer their cousins and grandchildren.”
A key part of EPH’s work is its commitment to children, which has meant paying more attention in the aftermath of the pandemic. Some young children in EPH’s programs are struggling with anxiety. A handful have talked about wanting to hurt themselves.
“Social-emotional learning has always been a part of EPH, but now we focus on it even more,” Graziano says.
EPH is designing a new strategic plan, a blueprint for expansion and for providing more help. This process has included asking families a simple question: What do you want or need? Staff and community partners have also provided feedback. Drawing on this information, Caughey and Graziano are thinking about the continuum of care for children.
“We’re looking at whether there’s a way for us to work with children from zero to 16 or zero to 18,” Caughey says, “to really support families for the lifespan of their kids’ journey through adulthood.
“We want to make sure that our preschool has the appropriate balance of social-emotional and academic content, and that our afterschool program is meeting the needs of 5 to 13-year-olds. And we’re looking at how we can do more STEM activities and more community building. How do we increase the academic support we provide? How can we better connect kids to the community? And are we providing enough enrichment opportunities?”
“Something that has always been in my heart,” Graziano adds, “is having an afterschool program for 13- to 16-year-olds. I think it’s not a good idea to leave 13-year-olds at home to troll the interwebs.”
Among their goals is being able to meet each child wherever they are at, help them make progress, and then be able to show parents and funders what an individual child’s progress looks like. In some cases that will be academic readiness. In others it will be stronger emotional management skills.
And both Caughey and Graziano are extremely proud that children in their programs were able to perform at the Harvard Club of Boston for EPH’s 125th anniversary. It’s important, they say, for these children to realize that they also belong at the Harvard Club.
Anothe priority for EPH is addressing families’ basic needs. Thanks to funding from the city of Somerville, EPH’s food pantry will be open on Wednesday evenings, Thursday mornings and Sundays, filling times when no other nearby food pantries are open.
Caughey has additional aspirations, explaining “I want us to be at a point where we have individual connections with the right people so I can call up and ask about a family we’ve sent for services and find out if they’ve gotten what they need — and so we can also track what’s been done and make sure that we are a trusted partner for families, and that we’re aware of whether they’re getting the help they need.”
“We want to provide support with language,” Graziano says. “We have families for whom writing English is a challenge. We also have to help families with uploading information on the computer. It’s all work that we’ve been doing, but we want to do it in a more formal way.”
The formal name of this effort might be Family Assistance or Community Resources, but the most important thing is that people will be able to freely and without shame ask for help.
“One thing I’ve noticed is that no matter what the work is, it’s all about relationships and connection,” Caughey says. “I think when you have a genuine relationship with kids, parents, families, neighbors, people are willing to open up and ask for help. That’s the piece that really allows people to feel comfortable asking. And across the board, that’s what EPH does incredibly well, build genuine, authentic relationships with people.”
“And it’s consistency,” Graziano says. “In some cases, it has taken me years of showing parents that I’m not fake. I grew up here. I was in foster homes. I was in a lower socioeconomic class. I had a parent say to me the other day, Do you know how I knew you were down? Because of your car! I drive an old Honda.”
On its website, The Elizabeth Peabody House describes itself as “a modern nonprofit with historical roots,” but talk to Caughey and Graziano and it’s clear that this is a modern nonprofit with historical roots and a very generous heart.