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For a Lawrence nonprofit, neighbors always come first

Ana Luna is executive director of ACT Lawrence.
Ana Luna is executive director of ACT Lawrence.Juan Coca

In 1996, residents of Lawrence’s Arlington neighborhood decided to create an association that could help them advocate for such needs as more jobs and housing, and a solution to the area’s periodic flooding.

Those neighbors could hardly have guessed that the fledgling group they launched nearly 25 years ago would evolve into a citywide nonprofit that today assists about 500 local residents in grappling with some of those same issues.

Recently ACT Lawrence itself received a major boost when the Latina-led community development corporation was awarded a three-year, $100,000 grant from the Cummings Foundation.

The Lawrence agency, one of 130 nonprofits sharing in $20 million in Cummings grants to support their community work, will use the funds to maintain and enhance the financial literacy workshops and counseling it provides to adults and young people -- all offered virtually now due to COVID-19.

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“It was more than exciting -- it was like a dream come true,” said Ana Luna, the organization’s longtime executive director.

Luna said the funding -- to be distributed in three annual $33,333 payments -- will provide the nonprofit with financial stability over the next few years and position it to secure other funding -- valuable support for a relatively low-budget agency with just three paid staff members.

She said the funding is particularly helpful now during the pandemic as ACT Lawrence, like other nonprofits, grapples to keep pace with community needs at a time when funding is less available.

“As we navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic, this award comes to us right on time to continue to help people with financial counseling,” Frank Espaillat, ACT Lawrence’s board chair, said in an e-mail.

From its start as a neighborhood group, ACT Lawrence became a nonprofit agency in 1998 and some years later was certified by the state as a community development corporation. Today it is among about 60 state-certified CDCs in Massachusetts that provide a range of services for low- and moderate-income residents.

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“They are a smaller organization and yet they continually punch above their weight in terms of the numbers of households they are serving,” said Joe Kriesberg, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations.

“Their work around homeownership and financial education has been outstanding,” he said. “And they’ve been very consistent doing that, especially since the last recession, helping families navigate these complex financial times. Partly because they are small, they are nimble and able to adapt to the needs of their constituents.”

ACT Lawrence, about 90 percent of whose clients are Latinx, also stands out as one of only three Latina-led CDCs in the state, and among only a handful overall headed by Latinx, according to Kriesberg. Luna and Nathalie Lora, both Dominican Republic natives, and Maytee Pena, a daughter of Dominican immigrants, operate the agency with help from volunteers and interns.

The agency serves about 470 adults each year -- the vast majority from Lawrence -- through its financial literacy workshops and private counseling, some of which are geared towards purchasing a home.

“We teach budgeting. We help people learn about credit and counsel them on how to fix their credit,” Luna said. “We also do homebuyer workshops that help people learn how to buy a house, and how to keep one after they have purchased it,” including assisting them in improving their credit score in order to receive a mortgage loan, or to start saving towards buying a home.

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Through its housing-related counseling, the agency also helps clients facing eviction or foreclosures

ACT Lawrence additionally operates a summer program that provides about 30 young people with job-seeking skills and financial literacy education. And it organizes special neighborhood events to engage the community, including an annual National Night Out crime prevention event and a community holiday party.

Luna said that in addition to covering the cost of serving about 225 of the agency’s adult clients, the Cummings Foundation grant will enable ACT Lawrence to bolster its programs.

For example, part of its financial literacy education will now include teaching families to set aside money they can use in emergencies. Luna said the agency came up with that idea in response to emergencies Lawrence has experienced in recent years, including the 2018 natural gas explosions. Now with COVID-19, she said it seems even more important.

“We are encouraging people to save money not only to buy a house but for emergencies,” she said.

Luna, who has been with ACT Lawrence since its origins as a neighborhood group -- as a volunteer and since 2003 as executive director -- said she still has a passion for the work.

“Sometimes we see the terrible conditions people face. But we often find ways to make someone’s life better,” she said. “For me, it’s incredible to have that feeling.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.

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