photography by Ken Richardson (Zakim), Jamie Emmerman (Avellani); Jamie Emmerman (Andrade), Michael Blanchard (Casino Night), Ken Richardson (Student) | February 25, 2013 | People
Dominic Avellani founded the East Boston Adult Education Center, an organization supported by The Lenny Zakim Fund.
Miguel Andrade, shown in front of his East Boston shop, Jaqueline Grocery Store, took English and GED classes at the East Boston Adult Education Center.
Guests try their hand at roulette, blackjack, and other games at the Young Leaders’ Casino Night. Last year the event raised more than $165,000.
Josh with Amy Belkin and a proud student of Youth and Family Enrichment Services.
Josh Zakim first visited the East Boston Adult Education Center with his father, the late Leonard Zakim, and still works closely with the school.
At the age of 16, Saul Perlera arrived in Boston from El Salvador after a harrowing childhood. “I was going to be drafted into the guerrilla military against my will. I really did not understand the war at all, and I did not want any part of it,” says Perlera. “El Salvador was in turmoil and very unsafe, and there were no opportunities for a better life.” His father was killed when he was 7, and his three brothers and his sister were raised by his widowed mother. After making the difficult decision to leave his mother and siblings behind, Perlera immigrated to the United States, settling in East Boston. He lived with his uncle, who helped him find a full-time job at a factory. He also worked part-time as a janitor, making $3.65 an hour. A few years later, Perlera enrolled in English as a second language (ESL) classes at the East Boston Adult Education Center. He didn’t want to work the long, arduous hours at the factory for the rest of his life, and he knew that improving his English was his key to a better life. At the Center he completed his ESL coursework and then obtained a GED. His experience there gave him the knowledge and confidence to enroll in college and years later to open Perlera Real Estate, a profitable firm in East Boston—and to secure the better life he’d dreamed of when he immigrated to the city.
Perlera’s success was partly fueled by philanthropist Leonard Zakim, though Perlera didn’t know it at the time. A lawyer, the executive director of the New England Anti-Defamation League, and a tireless champion for civil rights, especially those of people stricken with poverty, Zakim established a fund that helps support nearly 50 grassroots organizations each year with grants of $5,000 to $15,000. One of those groups has long been the East Boston Adult Education Center. The fund has grown since Perlera started his journey, and since Zakim’s death in 1999 its work has been carried on by Zakim’s family. This year The Lenny Zakim Fund gave out $500,000, its largest sum yet, to a variety of organizations helmed by people like Dominic Avellani, founder and executive director of the Center.
Avellani’s story echoes those of many of his students. He was born in the mountains of Abruzzi, east of Rome, where he lived with no running water and little food. In 1958, at the age of 10, he immigrated to the US with his family and settled in the North End. He went on to earn two master’s degrees and work as a guidance counselor in the Boston public schools for 33 years. His idea for the Center came after watching his 70-year-old father struggle, and ultimately fail, to become an American citizen because of his poor knowledge of the English language and US history. Avellani vowed to help others succeed and did so by opening the East Boston Adult Education Center, assisting people like Perlera and later Miguel Andrade, who came to the Center with his wife to learn English and study for their citizenship tests. Avellani remained involved in the couple’s lives even after they had gained citizenship and opened a profitable grocery store. When he saw that their two daughters weren’t in school, he encouraged them to earn their GEDs at the Center.
When Avellani first met Lenny Zakim in 1995, Zakim was impressed by how the school was able to cater to many nationalities and stay open without taking money from the city, state, or federal government. The grassroots nature of the school, with its small budget, volunteer teachers, and storefront facility, inspired Zakim to help fund the Center.
“I am always impressed by the hard work of the students during my visits and have been lucky to speak at several of their graduation ceremonies,” says Josh Zakim, who now helps run his late father’s fund. “It is always an incredibly moving experience to see how the staff and students have achieved so much, and it is very important to me to be in the same place that my dad visited more than 15 years ago. Witnessing my father’s dedication to the pursuit of economic justice has always inspired me.”
Much of The Lenny Zakim Fund’s grant money comes from the annual Young Leaders’ Casino Night, cochaired by Josh Zakim, Sam Slater, and Amy Belkin. The Slater and Belkin families pay for most of the event’s cost, allowing all the proceeds to go directly to the Fund. In the last few years, the Fund has focused on violence prevention and job training. This often means working with nonprofit youth groups such as Youth and Family Enrichment Services, Dorchester Youth Collaborative, Journeys of Hope, and Venturing Out. While the money is critical for keeping these organizations running, the Fund also provides staff resources and training to help them assist their communities. It holds seminars and institutes for grantees on management, fundraising, and networking, as well as offering professional counseling in various fields. “We want to be able to give everyone the chance to learn English and become a citizen,” says Avellani. “The Lenny Zakim Fund is one of the few that helps small organizations, and in doing that it allows us to give our students the opportunity to fulfill their dreams.”
The fourth annual Lenny Zakim Fund Young Leaders’ Casino Night will be held on March 2 at 8 pm at the Four Seasons Hotel. For information on tickets, visit thelennyzakimfund.org.
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