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In a year that has been devastating for poor families, Chelsea is a place where all the painful issues have intersected. That’s put Gladys Vega, executive director of La Colaborativa — formerly known as the Chelsea Collaborative — to the test as never before. Vega seemed to put sleep on hold in April, as she quickly ramped up a food pantry to feed families in need.
Since that time, the burden on her organization has only grown. In addition to distributing food, Vega and her group now spend much of their time fending off an eviction crisis, as well. “We’re aware that Chelsea has a huge wave of people who will get evicted,” Vega says. “If I have to, I’ll turn [my office] into an air-mattress living space, so people don’t have to sleep on the street.”
Her Chelsea neighbors have long been aware that Vega, 53, is a force of nature. She has the kind of passion for her city that often marks new arrivals. She moved to Chelsea from her native Puerto Rico at the age of 9, and found, she says, home. She celebrates its diverse Latino community, and the wide variety of cultures.
She began at the collaborative years ago, as a receptionist. In those days, the Chelsea Collaborative — founded as the city was nearing bankruptcy, among other challenges — was run by white people whose ties to the community she found a bit, shall we say, tenuous. “I knew that I wanted to do something different there,” she says.
So she set to work overhauling the place into something more representative of the Chelsea she knew. “Every time an Anglo board member’s term expired, I would buy them a plaque and thank them without my boss’s permission, so I could push them out and get a person of color on the board. Little by little, I transformed the organization.” She became executive director in 2006.
La Colaborativa is an organization that does a bit of everything — from housing to eviction assistance to aiding victims of domestic violence. This year, basic needs have taken priority. “We’re distributing 6,000 boxes of food, five days a week,” Vega says. And on weekends, “we go out to public housing developments. We just get a bullhorn and say, ‘Hey guys, we’re back!’ and people come down and get the food. We’ve been doing that very consistently.”
Her group recently changed its name because its services are no longer limited to Chelsea. But, make no mistake, that’s where Vega’s heart lies. Her daughter serves on the City Council; a niece chairs the School Committee. “You take me out of Chelsea, I get lost,” Vega says. “My family is all here. When we buy houses, it’s to stay in Chelsea. This is home.”
So saving Chelsea residents from the worst of the pandemic is Vega’s current, 16-hour-a-day job. Recently, she contracted COVID-19 herself, though she says she has recovered. “The work that we are doing, I wish I could say it is sustainable,” she says. “But it’s a Band-Aid. It’s a Band-Aid to a bleeding wound that doesn’t heal.”
If she has down moments, they pass quickly. There’s too much to do, and too many people depending on her. “I’m their community leader,” Vega says. “I’m the one who has to be optimistic and giving them hope.”