By Seth Daniel
For the Transcript
The Pledge Furniture Polish sprayed out of the can with a fine mist on the dining room table as Maryann Lounsbury wiped down the family table one day many years ago. Busy, yes, but like most good mothers, she was going about her business with one ear open to the conversation occurring in the kitchen between her son and his friends.
They were talking about all of the kids who had come to school with hangovers, who had been high at school and who were – basically – engaging in very risky behavior without any adult or community opposition.
“My son and his friends were talking about who staggered into school, who fell asleep in their schoolbook and who was probably on what,” said Lounsbury. “I went in the kitchen and asked them about what percentage of kids at school were in this situation, and they told me. I can’t remember what it was, but it was overwhelming. I called the principal at the high school and wanted to do something immediately.”
And do something she did.
Enlisting the help of her longtime friend and neighbor, Brenda Curry, Lounsbury started the group now known as Winthrop Community Against Substance Abuse (CASA), a grass roots group that has grown into a potent network of parents and community members fighting substance abuse in the town’s young people.
That start came in 1997, and now CASA has grown into one of the town’s most respected organizations for parents and youths, helping to rewrite the community standards around alcohol and drugs, and, last year, opening Winthrop’s first Youth Center on Putnam Street.
For that work, the state’s Commission on the Status of Women awarded Lounsbury the 2009 Winthrop Unsung Heroine Award, which she insists on sharing with Curry and others who brought CASA from a dream to reality. The award is bestowed annually on a local resident, and Lounsbury was recommended this year by House Speaker Bob DeLeo. She accepted the award at a State House ceremony last month.
“I was overwhelmed; I really didn’t expect it,” she said. “I just feel as though I want to share the award with others, especially Brenda, because everyone worked so hard. Brenda and I never had any disagreements or setbacks. We worked very well together, and I’m proud to be a resident of Winthrop.”
Lounsbury came to Winthrop from East Boston when she was 12, attending Catholic schools.
“I thought I was coming to the country when we moved here,” she said.
She married David Lounsbury, and they made their home on Washington Avenue. Lounsbury balanced her career as an Alzheimer’s Unit nurse in Marblehead with raising three boys. Lounsbury retired from her job in 2006 after being diagnosed with lymphoma (cancer), eventually beating it.
Her youngest and last son had an 11-year gap from his siblings. That’s primarily what opened Lounsbury’s eyes to the problems for youth in Winthrop. Though she said those same problems probably existed when her older sons were in school, it stoked a fire within her when she heard it from her youngest son.
Her first call was to Curry, who had just retired as a tough probation officer in the East Boston Courthouse. They had a lot of dreams for the organization, but they were also fighting an uphill battle – which was quickly apparent.
“People who got involved didn’t want their identity known,” said Lounsbury. “Many also felt that if they came to a meeting, they could be labeled. It’s still that way, but maybe it’s lessened now. There definitely was resistance. People didn’t want their names attributed to it or identified with CASA.”
Added Curry, “It would be helpful if people were open to these problems and came forth and put it all on the table so we can deal with it. Everyone thinks their neighbor has no problems. Many times, they do…It looks like we have it all here. Everything looks good, but it isn’t.”
Nevertheless, both women pushed forward with education and training for parents, teachers and community members. One of their first events was at the Elks Club, in conjunction with the police department. That meeting was one example of many of the small efforts that led to collaborations with the schools, with similar organizations in Revere, with Mass General and with the local police.
The breakthrough, though, came in 2006, when they began to receive large grants to conduct training and to hire a staff member. Now, they have more than $1 million in grants to be used over the next seven years. They have a director, Pat Milano, and a core group of about 10 diehard volunteers. Their big score was opening the new Youth Center last fall.
“That was a dream come true,” said Lounsbury.
“We never, ever thought that could happen,” added Curry.
More important than the Youth Center, though, is that they have begun to win the respect of numerous parents and have brought the town’s substance abuse problems into the light, where they can be more properly dealt with.
“There are a lot of people who open up and come out and talk about it now,” said Lounsbury. “Before, you only had gossip about so-and-so’s son and what they were doing wrong. Now, people are willing to talk seriously about how to fight this problem.”
Meanwhile, the fight isn’t over, and Lounsbury and Curry said they wish there were a pill that could be administered to kids that would automatically steer them away from drugs and alcohol. While there seems to be a pill for everything else these days, there is no such pill to keep kids away from risky behavior. So the onus falls upon parents and groups like CASA to wage that fight for each and every young person in Winthrop.
“What has come true is the Youth Center and educating the teachers and parents,” said Curry. “There’s still more education needed. The key will be getting the town to come together and talk about it and have more parent support groups. We want to really continue with that, and that’s something that we really want to do now. We need to get all the parents together and on the same page.”
Lounsbury said it is a parental support network that will make the most difference – a network where everyone is watching each other’s children and casual attitudes towards youth substance abuse (including alcohol) are not tolerated.
“It can happen in your own home and you won’t even know it,” said Lounsbury. “Kids are dying because of this. It hit home with me recently as a friend of mine lost her daughter to drugs. You might like to say the behavior is because he or she just broke up with their boyfriend or girlfriend. Mothers will make any excuse. You’ll pick up on it in other kids, but not in your own kids. That’s where this kind of help and support is needed.”
And as long as Lounsbury and Curry and their web of volunteers and coordinators from CASA are around, that support will be there. That’s why Lounsbury was chosen as this year’s Unsung Heroine of the Year.