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Councilor Opposes Home For Disabled Child

Councilor Alvarez Attacks Family of Disabled Boy Accusing
Them of Making a Deal with Another Councilor

Tom Duggan

LAWRENCE - When Nilka Alvarez-Rodriguez ran for one of three at-large City Council seats last November, she told The Valley Patriot that her number one priority was “to help the disabled and make sure that the Americans with Disabilities Act is being enforced throughout the city.”

Last month, however, Alvarez-Rodriguez seemed to go back on that promise when she lashed out at the family of a disabled child and then began using stall tactics to prevent them from purchasing a city-owned vacant lot.

Alvarez-Rodriguez’s accusation came at a Housing Subcommittee meeting of the Lawrence City Council last month. Councilor Alvarez-Rodriguez is the chairman of the committee. It is charged with declaring city-owned land “surplus property,” before voting on who can purchase the land.

 Since 2004, Greg and Waira Berroa have been trying to purchase a piece of property across the street from their three-tenement house on Bromfield Street.
They want the land to build a single family home with wheelchair ramps to accommodate their disabled six-year-old son, Rodrigo.

Rodrigo is severely, mentally and physically disabled. He cannot sit, stand or grasp objects by himself. He has multiple daily seizures, sits in a wheel chair and needs twenty-four-hour supervision. Because his family lives in a home built so close to the street, his parents cannot build a ramp; there simply isn’t enough room between their front door and the sidewalk.

“We started researching the land in 2004 and followed it all the way through land court until the city took over,” said Waira Berroa, Rodrigo’s mom. “So when we heard that there was going to be a housing meeting to declare it surplus property, we were all excited. We were finally going to be able to bid on it and maybe build the home we always wanted.”

During that meeting, however, the Berroas said they were shocked and dismayed by the way they were treated by At-Large City Councilor Nilka Alvarez-Rodriguez.

“All they were supposed to do is declare this as surplus property,” Rodrigo’s father, Greg Berroa, said.

“There wasn’t supposed to be any discussion about who would bid on the land until after the vote. But Councilor Alvarez started talking about putting up a park and then said that we had made some kind of a ‘done deal’ with Councilor Grisel Silva. We were shocked. This is a public meeting … and she is making statements like that? All we wanted to do was follow the process. It was very upsetting.”

In the end Councilor Alvarez and Council President Patrick Blanchette moved to put off the vote for two more weeks so that they could hear more about how the land should be used.

Now some are wondering if procedures are being broken to prevent the Berroas from getting the land.

District “B” City Councilor Grisel Silva said she is “disappointed” that Alvarez can’t keep her personal and political vendettas away from the council table and that Alvarez was “subverting the process” to predetermine how the land is going to be used before it is declared surplus.

Silva went on:  “Listen, by having any kind of discussions at all about who might bid on this land before it is declared a surplus property is unethical. We are basically saying to the community that we are going to test the waters to see what kind of bids we will get and then if it doesn’t go the way we like, maybe we wont declare it a surplus. I really wish the district attorney would look at the minutes of the Housing Subcommittee over the last six months. What Nilka has been doing cannot be legal.”

“I understand that Councilor Alvarez has some personal issues with me,” she continued. “But it just isn’t fair, it just isn’t right to take it out on these poor people. They are not politicians; they just want a better life for their son. The people of Lawrence want us to do our jobs. They don’t want to hear about our personal issues. They certainly shouldn’t have to suffer because of them.”

Silva said that Alvarez’s behavior was just further embarrassment for the city and the council after she had previously allowed a Housing Committee meeting to degenerate into name calling and allegations of racism during hearings on Northern Essex Community College.

Waira Berroa says that Councilor Silva, Councilor Gonzalez, Mayor Mike Sullivan, Tommy Schiavone and Dan McCarthy from the planning office have been “very helpful” in answering thier questions and giving them all the information they needed.

“They have all been so great to us. We never heard from Councilor Alvarez, but Grisel Silva has done so much for us and she is not even our district councilor. Even during the flood when her home was washed out, she was up here on Bromfield St. making sure the neighbors were OK. We are very grateful that she and Nelson have been there for us. But we never made any deal with anyone. How could we? She is only one councilor and this process takes a long time.”

“If she has some issue with Grisel,” Greg added, “that has nothing to do with us. That has nothing to do with Rodrigo. 

The fact is, we have talked to many people within the city since this all started. And by the way, Nilka Alvarez was one of them. Nilka came to our neighborhood meeting when she was running for City Council last year. She said she had experience with people who have disabilities and she was aware that we wanted to buy the vacant lot. She told us she would help. She gave us her card and asked for our vote. But after the election was over, we never heard from her again.”

Greg and Waira Berroa purchased their Bromfield Street home nine years ago before their son Rodrigo was born.

“I grew up in this neighborhood, I love it here,” Greg said. “I have bullet holes in my truck from when this neighborhood was really bad. There were gangbangers
here. There were shootings and stabbings and we never left, we stuck it out. But now the neighborhood is getting so much better and we would like to stay and raise our family here. We can’t do that unless we can have a home with a wheelchair ramp.”

Greg says that his son was born a normal baby, but when he was eight weeks old his doctor gave him too many vaccinations and Rodrigo’s health quickly declined.

“When Rodrigo got his shots, something happened and he became very ill. Now he is severely, mentally and physically disabled. He’s in a wheel chair and we have a really hard time getting him in and out of the house, especially in the winter, because there’s no room for a wheel chair ramp.”

The Berroas say that once councilors Grisel Silva and Jorge Gonzalez began meeting with them to help them through the process, they immediately began to receive interference from Councilor Alvarez and her friends in the Alma-Bromfield Neighborhood Association.

 “Suddenly, out of the blue, they start talking about building a playground on that lot. They even went around to the neighbors with a petition asking people whether they wanted a single-family home or playground. The neighbors said they preferred a single-family home, next thing we know Councilor Alvarez is trying to get a petition from kids in the neighborhood for a park,” Greg explained.

 “Why do they want another park?” he asked. “We have so many parks in this area. We aren’t asking for the city to give us anything for free. We are willing to sell our house and purchase the lot from the city so we can accommodate Rodrigo’s disabilities.”

Lawrence Mayor Mike Sullivan said he has been aware of the hardship the Berroa family is going through. “I met the Berroas last year at a neighborhood meeting and they told me about Rodrigo and their dream of buying that lot on Bromfield St. My heart really goes out to them. Once the council does what they are supposed to do and this land is declared surplus, my administration will do everything in our power to help them. Look at everything we were able to do for Hector Paniagua. There is no reason we cannot do something to help this family.”

Rodrigo’s father, Greg, works third shift at Holy Family Hospital as a mental health councilor and a certified interpreter.

Rodrigo’s mom, Waira, works with mentally disabled children with behavioral problems.

“I had to start working again because we just couldn’t afford the medications Rodrigo needed for his seizures and other health problems,” Waira said. “Just one medication alone costs us $435 a month.” Waira says they are fortunate to get help from the Katie Mulligan Program as part of Mass Health.

Next year Rodrigo will be attending the Lawrence public schools.

Mayor Sullivan said he was surprised to hear that the Housing Committee was delaying the process of declaring the land surplus. “I don’t think the process calls for discussion on the use of the land until after it is voted to be surplus property. That is surprising to hear.”

“When the time comes, I am going to see what we can do to deed this property over to the Berroas for a dollar and help them make their dream come true!”

The City Council’s Housing Committee will meet again to discuss the land at Alma and Bromfield St. on August 17th at 7 p.m. The Berroas say they will be there to follow the process and hope that the council will do the right thing.    

Tom Duggan is the president of Valley Patriot, Inc., is a former member of the Lawrence School Committee, and hosts the Paying Attention! Radio Program on WCAP, 980AM, every Saturday afternoon from noon-2pm. You can email your comments to Tdugjr@aol.com

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The August, 2006 Edition of the Valley Patriot
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