“The potential loss of an institution” by Jim Peters

Frequent contributor Jim Peters shares his thoughts on the departure of Ken Powers from Lowell House:

Sometimes things happen that convince me that the Stoic Movement of the 4th. century might have been right. Basically, they believed that government was not necessary because it was riddled with incompetence. That leads me to a story about a friend. I have many good friends, but one of my favorites is Ken Powers of Pawtucketville. When I am having a problem, I can always count on Ken to listen and come up with a solution. I may not like the solution, but sometimes “a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

Now, as of this moment, Ken is unemployed, which is a surprise because, as my wife said when she found out, “Ken Powers is Lowell House.” Ken was, in my experience with him, a person who always was testing the “outside of the envelope.” One of his final projects at Lowell House was an effort to bring the parents of a child who died of a heroin overdose and the person who sold their child the heroin, into the schools of middle Massachusetts to talk about the dangers, and the appeal of, drugs to the average teenager. It was literally an effort to scare some kids straight and was probably the first program that had both the parents of the victim and the seller on the same stage with the same message. This is the kind of work that Ken could do, making you feel that you were right there.

When Ken was first hired by Lowell House in the early 1980’s, it was a small, all men’s treatment center with a combined yearly income of roughly forty thousand dollars. By the time he left, it was channeling close to three million dollars per year in revenue into Lowell’s social services economy. I do not even know what percentage increase that is, but I do know that virtually all of that income was coming from Ken’s computer as he wrote successful grant after successful grant to sustain his life’s work.

I had an opportunity to talk to a former advocate of Lowell House, who allegedly asked a person at Lowell House why Ken was let go, and he stated that the answer was that Lowell House was headed in a new direction. When he, it was claimed to me, asked what that direction would be he was simply told that they had not progressed that far yet.

I remember the first time I heard of Ken Powers. He was a PTO member at his daughter’s school who met my brother-in-law, Paul Tsongas, at a meeting of fellow activists at Dr. Mary Anna Sullivan’s house on Mansur Street. Ken did not notice Paul was there because Paul was seated behind Ken. When they finally made eye contact, Paul looked at him and told Ken that he wanted to see him on the Lowell School Committee. Ken was puzzled because basically Paul just heard of him and this was a major bump in Ken’s life, to be recognized by a sitting United States Senator as a potential candidate for the Lowell School Committee. But, I like to think that Paul was a good peruser of talent, and, a few years later, when Paul needed assistance with the writing of his campaign booklet for the Presidential campaign of 1992, he called Ken for information on treatment for addiction and alcoholism. “A Call to Economic Arms,” which is still in use as a guide for our serious problems by groups like the “Concord Coalition,” was the result.

Ken thought long and hard about Paul’s expressed wish, and concluded, after talking it over with his family, that he could do just that. His family was very supportive and, while he did not get onto the school committee on his first try, he did eventually make it. While there, he and Kathryn Philbin Stoklosa came to the realization that they were cousins. That little-known fact concreted a friendship that sometimes saw both members voting on an issue in the same way their cousin did, according to Ken. He enjoyed the issues and demands of his short School Committee career and tried very hard to win a successive term. He did not win it, however, and his attention was again cemented with the success of Lowell House.

Lowell House was established to provide services to people addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. In 1983, when Ken started there, the budget was less, as stated, than 40,000 dollars. By 1990, it was in excess of one million dollars. That was one million dollars brought into downtown Lowell to help the helpless. It was alot of money, and if we had a store, for example, with one million dollars in revenue, downtown Lowell would take good care of that facility. By 2010, Lowell House was worth three million dollars per annum. That, in my opinion, is phenomenal success.

Paul Tsongas did talk to me about Ken on a number of occasions. The first time was to ask me to politically support this political neophyte because, Paul felt, he could use the help. Then, in the next term’s elections, he asked me to distribute 5,000 pieces of literature from Ken which had not been passed out until the last day of the campaign. I got my niece, Paul’s daughter, Ashley Tsongas and my sister Margaret to help out and we got the literature in 5,000 voter’s hands that day. We were not done until it was very late. But, the next day, Ken came in seventh and was able to assume a post on the School Committee when another member stepped down. Thus began his time on the Lowell School Committee. And, it was because of Paul Tsongas’ unrelenting faith in his ability to succeed.

Now, back to Lowell House. Ken and the establishment were solidly working in tandem. The corporation had a Board of Directors, an outreach establishment, and a forty bed unit in Tewksbury specifically designed by Ken Powers to help middle-aged and elderly women to overcome their addictions and work themselves back into a position that are more accepted by society. The program is so popular, that it has other programs that have emulated it in Washington State, Oregon, and Texas. Prior to Lowell House and this program, women were looked at as secondary citizens in the world they inhabited. Through this program they can find out why they are living addictive life-styles and take steps to right them.

So, what can be done? Well, according to Ken, not much. His hands are tied and his lips are sealed by an incredibly complex resignation document that he signed but did not write. Lowell House, which lives off of grants, has no major grant-writer anymore. The people deigned to replace him have, according to a source who is leaving the employ of the corporation, does not have anyone with Ken’s level of expertise in grant-writing. It is feared by some that there will be no grants successfully implemented without Ken’s experience in writing them. Millions of dollars, slated for downtown usage, will potentially dry up. People who work at Lowell House will have to leave downtown Lowell with their salaries and shopping habits and generate revenue in other locations. People who have gotten used to working at Lowell House will simply take their salaries elsewhere. Lowell would lose yet another revenue-generating industry.

I believe that Ken Powers was Lowell House. Many people agree with me. I, for one, would like to see him reinstated. When I asked Ken for his reaction, all he said was that he could not comment on the issue, I hope someday that he can. I am sure it is an entertaining story. And, for those of you who did not know this, Ken wrote the grant that created the Middlesex Shelter, the home for the homeless on Middlesex Street. It was designed to have no ties to Lowell House, and works as a totally separate entity. I believe that, a man who was interested in his legacy would name his accomplishments after himself? Ken has named his greatest accomplishments after Lowell, their directors, and Middlesex Street. That hardly seems like hubris to me.