Tension between police and unruly Burlington youth came to a head in August, 1970.
- First, police broke up a huge party off Blanchard Road, involving about 500 people.
- In suspected retaliation, vandals smashed windows and damaged property in every corner of the town, from service stations to schools.
- Then someone slipped a note to police demanding they back off “sex and beer parties.”
- Then came the flashpoint: An explosion in the temporary police station, now the Burlington Museum. A new station was under construction across the common. It’s now the Town Hall Annex, sporting a second floor. Was it a bomb tossed by a disgruntled teen? A faulty piece of equipment? Improperly stored flammables? It was a mystery.
Bomb or not, this prompted some soul-searching. Were police handling youth unrest the right way? Was the town offering enough activities to keep teenagers occupied? Should the town hold “rap sessions” aimed at closing a generation gap?
Ruth Benishin of Beaverbrook Road became the town’s first drug abuse coordinator. She told the Lowell Sun that Burlington was struggling with the same issues facing the nation:
“The young feel ostracized from the rest of the community because of their different set of values, and their mode of dressing is taken as a sign of physical alienation from the community. But effective communication will not come about until the adult community realizes they are living in a totally different world from their children.”
Benishin started a drug hotline and advertised the phone number in the local paper. Where did the hotline calls go? Her house. Who was the hotline operator? She was. What professional licensure did she have? None.
She’s now 90 years old, and her opinion about professional licensure hasn’t budged an inch. “I don’t think counseling training is worth a lot anyway, whether they got in 1945 or now,” she says. “I’m not terribly impressed.”
She saw a need and tried to help, plain and simple. Ditto the group of young people assembled by Benishin to form the House of Common, a peer counseling effort that won town funding thanks to tenacious effort by Benishin.
The House opened in February 1972. Visitors came right away. Sometimes teenagers, other times parents. Sometimes drugs, sometimes divorce, sometimes domestic abuse. Many cases were referred to state agencies, not handled in the House. It handled 55 cases in May, 79 in June. Suitably impressed with the operation, the town approved funding and staffing by summertime:
The House did employ a few professionals from the region, but Burlington High School students and formed the core. The crew often sat on the floor and role-played incoming crisis hotline calls, then critiqued each other’s responses. The students came up with the name House of Common. It meant common ground among townspeople.
Here are two student leaders at House of Common. Alberghini is now executive vice president of the Housing Partnership Network.
The House gained credibility beyond Burlington. “I got a reputation for knowing about drugs,” says Benishin. The Middlesex County Sheriff stopped by her house, keen on understanding more about handling drug problems, but also keen on scrutinizing the HOC’s strict confidentiality policy, which cloaked the identities of its visitors even if they had illegal drugs. Benishin says that despite the pressure, she never divulged any information to law enforcement.
Student volunteer Pamela Nazzaro became an unofficial counselor at the high school. “After word got around school, people came to me in person with their problems. I never understood it. Instead of being anonymous, they would come to me while I sat in the cafeteria.” And it happened at home. “I had a couple people show up at my house on bad trips. I gave them a multivitamin and said the vitamin B would help. The placebo worked!”
In July 1972, the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health issued $12,000 to the House of Common. It began working closely with Choate Hospital in Woburn and Woburn District Court. It even became a “halfway house” counseling center for inmates discharged from the Billerica House of Correction.
Middle school students, grades five through eight, became a frequent challenge for the House of Common. It won Town Meeting approval in 1973 for $8,000 to hire two counselors just for middle schoolers.
In 1974, the House became the Community Life Center and moved into a section of the Union School building (now the police station) on the corner of Center and Sears Streets.
Here’s a Burlington Community Life Center outing. That’s Paul Fuller hunched over. The girl with the light plaid shirt is Leah Leblanc, and that’s Kim Peters with the dark sweatshirt.
So when did this whole counseling effort fizzle out? It never did. The Community Life Center has now become Burlington’s Youth and Family Services. And it all started with this woman and her home hotline: