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Taking Risks To Volunteer In City

Commentary by Helen Ubiñas
June 21, 2005

She knew it was coming even before she went downstairs for her morning coffee.

So she wasn't surprised to find her husband sitting in their West Simsbury kitchen, waiting to calmly hand her an article about a shooting that occurred in Hartford the day before.

Hadn't she been less than a mile from there at the time? Wasn't this exactly what he and the kids worried about when she announced a couple of years ago that she wanted to volunteer in the city?

Of course he didn't say any of that. He just looked at her.

And really, that's all he needed to do. "I could read his thoughts," Maureen Chapdelaine wrote in an e-mail a few days later. "I'm a mother and I know what 'worry' is."

"I don't like making my family worry."

So, she's questioning her decision to volunteer in a city that has seen homicides almost double this year over last and shootings rise more than 50 percent. She hasn't made a decision yet, she said, but she knows she'll have to soon.

Chapdelaine isn't the first person I've heard from who is reluctantly reassessing her commitment to the city.

There was the woman I wrote about a week ago who packed up her family and moved to Florida. She didn't know anyone there, but figured it had to be better than fearing one of the endless funerals she was attending would one day be for one of her own children.

And the mother who wrote me just the other day to say that since the recent rash of violence she has pretty much holed herself and her 7-year-old son in their Park Street apartment in fear.

"It's not really living. You can't leave your house except to get your essentials," she said.

In the decade or so that I've been here, I've noticed Hartford often acts a lot like a self-conscious junior high school kid desperate to be in with the prettier (Boston) and cooler (New York) crowd. It doesn't care what those closest to it thinks of it. It doesn't much care about making a good impression on them either - how else to explain city officials' responding to the spike in violence and death by proudly trotting out statistics that say crime is down?

But let an outsider point out its flaws, and they're tripping all over themselves to fix them.

So in the hopes that maybe this will convince the folks in charge that we have ourselves a problem of, at the very least, perception, I asked a very hesitant Chapdelaine to share her story.

When we met at Elizabeth Park on Monday, she said she wanted to clarify a couple of things. She's not some do-gooder. She's not a bleeding-heart liberal who just wants to give back, either.

Truth is, she said, she gets a lot more out of volunteering than the refugees at Catholic Charities to whom she teaches English or the Hartford High School students she tutors in math.

Volunteering, she assures me, isn't some way to fill the empty hours of retirement from the computer software business she built with her husband, but how she's chosen to spend the second part of her life.

She was so serious about this second phase of her life that when she realized just how rusty her math skills were, she audited summer school classes in algebra and geometry with kids who were just a fraction of her age.

She liked the challenge - though not the panic attack she had the day of her first quiz. And she liked shattering the misconceptions that seem to come so easy once you cross the city line.

"It's so easy to sit in judgment in the comfort of your home," she said.

Her family made their concerns for her safety known right at the start. But she won them over by sharing stories of all the great people she met and the amusing mistakes she made in her exuberance.

There was the Hartford High School kid she innocently called "Feo" for weeks - didn't everyone call him that? - until someone told her it was Spanish for "Ugly."

And the young refugee woman she was out to lunch with just a few blocks from the shooting on Park and Squire streets: She was practicing her conversational English to qualify for a job at Hartford Hospital. She thinks she'll be ready soon.

They're great stories, Chapdelaine said. And partly why she's still torn about what to do.

They just aren't holding up to the stories of shootings her family keeps reading.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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