Judge dismisses City Councillor’s case against Mayor

This article appeared on April 17, 2015 in the Gardner News. 

Citing a lack of standing, a judge on Thursday dismissed City Councillor Scott Graves’s complaint that Mayor Mark Hawke overstepped his authority during the writing of Gardner’s emergency service zone plan.

“A claim of injury based on an official’s disobedience or flawed execution of a law alone is simply a generalized grievance about the conduct of government and does not confer standing,” wrote Superior Court Justice Dennis Curran in his finding dismissing all claims.

For months, Mr. Graves and City Solicitor John Flick have squared off over the city’s service zone plan, which was approved last fall by the Department of Public Health and is a requirement of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 111C. Years overdue in submitting it to the state, Mr. Hawke acted as the local jurisdiction during the writing of the plan, without City Council approval.

Despite correspondence from the DPH to the contrary and Mr. Flick’s insistence, Mr. Graves said the City Council and only the City Council could authorize a local jurisdiction to legally write the plan.

The question of whether the mayor acted legally was answered by the court, as Judge Curran upheld Mr. Flick’s motion to dismiss the case due to lack of standing.

“This is the fastest I’ve ever seen the courts move on a motion to dismiss,” said Mr. Flick, who appeared before the judge alongside Mr. Graves  last week. “I would love to argue Chapter 111C … but it has to be brought the right way, and the judge clearly said this wasn’t the right way.”

In his decision, Judge Curran wrote that the outcome may have been different if the case was brought on behalf of the entire City Council. He also cautioned that the courts should have a limited hand in matters such as this one.

“Courts should exercise restraint in becoming involved in disputes between other branches of government,” he wrote. “Court should not resolve disputes in cases where a political remedy is available.”

Mr. Graves said he has no plans to appeal the decision.

“It’s an excellent decision, although I don’t like the result,” he said. “The judge based the decision on two things Mr. Flick never brought up, which I find interesting.”

As for next steps, Mr. Graves said the judge’s decision gives the council the option of still voting to appoint a local jurisdiction. A decision, he said, City Council President James Walsh will have the first chance to mull over.

“I wouldn’t want to step on his toes,” while reserving the right to broach the subject again, he said.

While Mr. Walsh did not offer comment Thursday, Mr. Flick said he is ready to move on to other matters.


$14 million plant upgrade proposed

This article appeared on May 28, 2015 in The Gardner News. 

At least $14 million worth of improvements to Gardner’s Wastewater Treatment Facility could be on the horizon due to old equipment and future federal regulations.

“At 30 years old, the technology is obsolete, parts are hard to find, and the pumps, electrical units and other devices are well beyond their useful and efficient life,” said Director of Public Works Dane Arnold. Additionally, “we will be receiving a new permit from the Environmental Protection Agency shortly (which was expected in February 2014) that will most likely force the city to have to reduce the concentration of nitrogen in the plant’s discharge.”

On Wednesday, the Finance Committee unanimously recommended a $14 million loan order to the City Council following a presentation by Mr. Arnold. The project would be funded through a gradual increase in the sewer rate, the city’s first hike in seven years.

“I agree we should get in front of this now,” said Councillor Marc Morgan, who sits on the Finance Committee and is chairman of the Public Service Committee. “The system is getting antiquated and fixing it before it breaks is the way to go.”

The sewer rate is now $4.10 per 100 cubic feet. If the plan is approved, the rate would likely rise to $4.50 in 2016, $4.76 in 2017, and $5 in 2018.

Mr. Arnold said it’s hard to predict the increase after 2018 because the contract with United Water, the private company that handles the operation of the plant, expires and decisions will need to be made about the sludge landfill.

The improvements would fix issues where sewage enters and water leaves the plant, as well as address problems with electrical and software components. The EPA has stated that portions of the facility are in “dire need of repair.”

For example, in high flow conditions like heavy rain, sometimes the headworks — where sewage is accepted into the plant — fails, sending “materials” into parts of the facility where they aren’t meant to be, Mr. Arnold said. He cautioned that these failures could eventually lead to a fine from the EPA.

The city has not been ordered to make these improvements by the state or federal government at this point. However, Mr. Arnold said it’s inevitable that the city will one day be mandated to make improvements.

If the city were to wait for that day, he said rate payers might see a sharp increase in rates and the city would have to rush through changes. This, Mr. Arnold cautioned, is what happened in Fitchburg in 2012 when the city was required to meet stricter requirements — and residents’ bills spiked by 60 percent as a result.

“We owe it to our rate payers to phase this upgrade in on our timeline, not a timeline that forces us to upgrade our rates in two years,” Mr. Arnold said.

He also said that if the city waits for equipment to fail, such as the headworks and belt filter press, it will cause problems.

“If we can implement a plan and approach, it will no doubt go more smoothly than if one day they stop working and we have an emergency on our hands,” Mr. Arnold said.

The main reason this is appearing before city councillors now is because Gardner recently became eligible for state revolving loan funds at a 2 percent interest rate. As the city’s interest rate is 3.25 percent, over the life of the loan it would save rate payers about $1 million if the lower rate is secured, according to officials.

To get the lower rate, however, the paperwork — including the City Council’s approval — has to be into the state by June 30.

The project is phase one of a three-part plan to upgrade the facility. The second phase would upgrade the nitrogen treatment process, depending on what the EPA calls for, and could cost an additional $10 to $15 million, Mr. Arnold said. The final phase will address how the city handles its sludge disposal.

Mr. Arnold is expected to give a presentation to the full council before its first meeting in June.

Families who lost children to overdose appear in movie

This story appeared on June 26, 2015 in The Gardner News. 

On a bitterly cold, snowy day in January — the type of day when most people would stay home — Gwen Phelps of Westminster and her husband, Michael, braced themselves and made an early morning journey to St. Williams Catholic Church in Tewksbury.

There, they acted as extras in the funeral scene of the newly released film “If Only,” about two teenage boys who experimented with, and then become addicted to, drugs.

Except they, like everyone else there, didn’t have to act. They knew exactly what it was like to don black and sit at a loved one’s funeral. Just one month prior, their son, Jacob Phelps, 24, had died from an overdose.

“It was very moving. Everyone was very serious, very somber,” said Ms. Phelps. “I remember thinking, ‘Are you kidding me? This happened to all of us?’ And this is just the tip of the iceberg, too.”

At the end of the film, all of the extras were shown one family at a time holding a picture of the loved one they lost. The Phelps, Fletcher and Dunn families all represented the Gardner area.

“From this small area there were three families representing,” said Michelle Dunn, who founded the AED Foundation after her daughter, Alyssa, passed away in 2013. “I think that says a lot about the problem in the area.”

Though each family had their own story, they all hoped that by standing there they would break down the stigma, educate and prevent another opiate death.

“I hope the movie reaches young people. We’re losing a generation with kids thinking it’s OK to experiment when they don’t know,” said Ms. Phelps. “They are playing Russian roulette…My son started at 15.

“I hope when at the end they see that these are actual people, it resonates.”

On Thursday, Ms. Dunn held a small community viewing of the half-hour film at Alyssa’s Place: Peer Recovery and Resource Center.

The film starts with a high school student, Isaac, being pressured by his best friends to go to a party and bring some of his mother’s pills. He lies to his mother, goes and takes a handful of pills.

Days later, he takes some more pills a friend offers him and then starts stealing out of his mother’s medicine cabinet. His mother notices he is acting weird.

When he nods off during dinner, a side effect of being high, she has the doctor drug test him. When his results come back negative, she sends him to rehab.

Meanwhile, Isaac’s friend, Connor, keeps using. The day Isaac leaves rehab, Connor passes away in his room with a needle in his arm.
“When we’re young, we think we’re invincible,” Jeffrey said at Connor’s funeral. “We’re not.”

Both Ms. Dunn and Ms. Phelps hope the film will be screened at local middle and high schools, for both students and parents.

“I think the film is fantastic,” said Ms. Dunn. “And I think it could and should be showing in the schools…and parents should be mandated to see it.”

Alyssa’s Place is open three nights a week and holds at least one community event a month. For more information, go to aedfoundationinc.org.

The Makers: Gardner baker Heather O’Toole is not settling for the ordinary

This article appeared on July 23, 2015 in the Gardner News. 


This article is the second in a three-part series about local people who make specialty items and sell them either directly to the consumer or through online marketplaces.

Boring cupcakes are a bit of a pet peeve for Heather O’Toole, the baker behind My Sweet Escape Treats.

“Buttercream frosting is great, but I can do so much more than that,” said Ms. O’Toole, the business owner and baker. “I don’t like run-of-the-mill flavors you can find anywhere. I want to make really cool flavors you can only get here.”

An insurance claims adjuster by day, Ms. O’Toole has always liked to bake quality food, but never seriously considered it as something she could make into a small businesses until her son’s third birthday party.

“I ordered a cake, and I paid a lot of money for it, and then I really didn’t like it,” she said. “That’s when I said, ‘I can do this.’”

From there, she turned her house’s kitchen into her own personal cupcake laboratory, manipulating recipes to capture unique flavors, testing out ingredients and perfecting techniques.

Her coworkers, her husband’s office and her friend’s work became her taste-testers, with dozens of cupcakes showing up in the break room in exchange for honest feedback.

“I wanted a broad variety of opinions,” Ms. O’Toole said. “There was a lot of trial and error.”

Eight months later, in September 2012, Ms. O’Toole was ready to bring her cupcakes to the masses, launching her website and signing up for a Groupon — an online coupon — to help promote her business.

“People at work were asking me “is this you? Is that what all those cupcakes were about?’” she said. “We lost more money than we made on the Groupon, but you can look at all the pictures of cupcakes you want, you need to try them. We got quite a few repeat customers out of it.”

In sampling My Sweet Escape Treats’ cupcakes, there is a clear difference between them, and other cupcakes on the market.

The cheap shortening used in a lot of store-bought cakes is strictly banned in this baker’s kitchen. She uses real butter.

But not only that, all the ingredients are made fresh. The caramel is whisked up from sugar, butter and heavy cream on her stove. The raspberry jam filling in her lemon raspberry cupcake is her mother’s homemade jam recipe. Homemade marshmallows, fresh churros and basil-infused mascarpone frostings are some other ingredients that Ms. O’Toole whips up.

“I love fresh, fresh ingredients,” she said. “I make everything fresh to order.”

To create her unique flavors — funky monkey, raspberry lime ricky, Mexican hot chocolate, margarita — Ms. O’Toole considers every food she samples as something she could turn into her next cupcake.


“It’s one of those things I don’t think I could shut off,” she said.

For example, while on vacation last week she enjoyed some fancy guacamole with toasted coconut and pineapple in it while out to dinner. The whole time she was analyzing the guac to see if it could be a cupcake.

“I’m thinking an avocado cupcake, pineapple and coconut frosting with a sriracha drizzle,” she said.

She admits the idea pushes the definition of “cupcake,” but without trying it, how do you know if it’s good or not?

Cupcakes are the easy, and fun, part of the business. The business part of it — bookkeeping, bringing the house up to Board of Health standards and marketing — are more challenging.

“It’s a lot of work and commitment and it can’t be half-hearted,” Ms. O’Toole said. “Getting the name out there is hard.”

The big dream is to someday open a storefront with her daughter, now 13, who loves making cupcakes. The short term dream is to find a business or restaurant to partner with.

“That would get me to the next step,” she said. My Sweet Escape Treats can be found at mysweetescapetreats.com or by calling 978-790-1187. They sell for $18 for a half dozen and $36 for a dozen.

Gardner to take building by eminent domain

This article appeared August 4th in the Gardner News. 

The city is making moves to take one of the neglected buildings in the downtown through eminent domain, although which one has yet to be disclosed.
At its August meeting, the City Council approved borrowing $97,500 so the Gardner Re­development Authority could purchase a “derelict vacant property in the downtown business district.”

Councillors were very careful to not reveal which building was being talked about as the owner of the property has yet to be informed this is coming. All discussions took place in an earlier executive session.

“There are steps that have to be taken,” said Councillor Ronald Cormier, who also is the chairman of the Gardner Redevelopment Authority.

However, officials promised the change would be well worth the money.

“There are a couple of derelict buildings that have been in the same state of decay for far too long,” said Mayor Mark Hawke. “This is a way of taking back our downtown. We need to assist the private sector.”

With the purchase of this property, he alluded, the city would be able to start massive redevelopment efforts, as outlined in the urban renewal plan, which was created nearly a decade ago.

Reclaiming the vacant buildings in the downtown — such as the old Gardner cinema and the Maki Building — has long been a priority for local politicians and shop owners, who worry some of the more unseemly properties deter people from coming downtown to shop.

And, in some cases, the buildings have attracted nefarious activity.

For example on June 13, 2014 — Friday the 13th — police arrested three Gardner men who had broken into the old cinema to “make a movie” using stolen robes from St. Joseph’s Church.

Other buildings have also attracted problems. However, many of these buildings have absentee landlords who pay the taxes so the city can’t seize the building in land court for taxes, but otherwise put no money into the property, allowing them to crumble.

This makes it difficult for the city to gain control, as the landlords often name a high selling price.

In this case, though, the city, in partnership with the Redevelopment Authority, is working to take it through eminent domain.

“They are using their powers of sale,” said Mr. Hawke. This means, according to Mr. Hawke, the Redevelopment Authority can set the price at an assessed fair market value and send a letter to the landlord informing him of its decision. The landlord will then have the option to challenge the price in court 30 days after receiving the letter.

From there, it is a legal battle. Known abatement costs, such as asbestos removal, can be deducted from the fair market price.

Once the property owner is informed, officials said they will reveal which building they plan to take.

Mansion to become spooky B&B

This story ran in the July 24, 2015 edition of the Gardner News. 


The ghostly tenants of the S. K. Pierce Victorian mansion have a new landlord.

New Jersey-based company “Dark Carnival” announced Thursday it bought the South Gardner landmark, with plans to turn it into a bed and breakfast 11 months of the year and a seasonal haunted house in October.

“For all of those who love this home and appreciate the rich history associated with it, we want to let you know that our main goal is to restore and preserve the beauty, history and originality of this home,” the company posted on Facebook. “No changes will be made to the structure.”

Hoping to open the home in October 2016, Dark Carnival plans to start immediately with renovations.

“We hope to make everyone in Gardner proud of this place again,” a representative said.

The first step will reportedly be renovating the deteriorating soffits. Next up will be the trim, a power washing and repainting the exterior.

On the inside, company representatives said they to keep the updates minimal. While there will be some repairs to plaster and such, they claimed on Facebook to want to keep as much of the original woodworking and furniture as possible.

“The attraction we will offer here will be a very special “altered illusion” attraction that accents the history of this home and its ghostly inhabitants,” Dark Carnival wrote. “One thing for sure, it will be one of the most terrifying attractions on the East Coast.”

Established in 2010, Dark Carnival offers a circus-themed attraction in New Jersey focusing on “the terrifying world of clowns and freaks.”

Exodus: St. Joseph, Sacred Heart hold last Masses; Gardner’s four Catholic churches coming together as the new Annunciation Parish

This story ran on July 1 in The Gardner News.

last mass

If you ask the Rev. Brian O’Toole, he’ll swear to you the Holy Spirit was with parishioners at Sacred Heart church last Sunday. “It was the second time in my life I’ve had an experience like that,” he said.

It was the final Sunday service in the history of the 140-year-old parish, and he was giving his sermon on the story of how Jesus healed a woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years and then resurrected a young girl by saying “Talitha koum,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

The message, he said, is that with faith we can conquer our fears and move into the future. And so he told the brimming church to “koum.”

“Just as I said that, a huge wind blew through the front door, and the bulletins — that had been stacked on the table by the door — went flying through the church, up into the choir and to my feet,” he said. “Everyone broke into applause.”

“You couldn’t have planned it,” he continued. “It was a roar, just like the stories of the Pentecost.”

• • •

In the mid-1800s, there was no Catholic church in Gardner. Every Sunday, the 125 recorded Catholics in the community walked to St. Martin’s in Otter River for Mass.

Then in 1856, they started to celebrate Mass outdoors in a little grove of trees off of Baker Lane. According to Sacred Heart’s records, there “the women knelt on their shawls, the men held their caps in sincere reverence and the children watched the flicker of candles, which each worshipper held.”

In 1874, these people formed together to open the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church on Cross Street. While the building burned down in 1887, the parish — made up mostly of Irish immigrants — rebuilt it.

The year before Sacred Heart burned down, the French Canadian immigrants decided they wanted a church of their own where they could incorporate French into the Liturgy and honor their customs. From this desire, Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church was built on Nichols Street.

A fierce rivalry, still talked about when the Sacred Heart and Holy Rosary elementary schools merged two years ago, developed between the two parishes.

Not to be outdone, Gardner’s Polish immigrant population decided to build a church of their own, where their heritage could be a part of their worship. In 1908, they build St. Joseph Parish on Pleasant Street.

In 1955, Holy Spirit Parish on Lovell Street was built to give everyone else, as well as portions of Hubbardston and Westminster, a place to worship.

A few years ago, the Worcester diocese began to study whether it made sense for Gardner to still have four parishes in a world where people no longer walk to church. In Nov. 2014, Bishop Robert McManus announced it didn’t.

Starting today, the four parishes no longer exist. Instead, their parishioners are now a part of AnnunciationParish, worshipping at Holy Rosary and Holy Spirit.

Sacred Heart and St. Joseph are now closed.

• • •

Uncertainty, fear, disappointment, discouragement, sadness and even anger are feelings parishioners at all four churches have struggled with since the announcement of the reconfiguration.

“People were crying last Sunday,” said the Rev. Thomas M. Tokarz, who presided over both St. Joseph and Holy Spirit. “It’s a tough time.”

To many, these are more than just buildings and names. They are the places they brought their babies to be baptized, the origins of their marriages, where they said goodbye to their parents, and the support network they relied on in difficult times.

“We were married here (at Sacred Heart) in 1960 on Oct. 1. I still have the wedding pictures,” said Gardner resident Marjorie Kraskouskas. “It kind of hurts that it is going to close.”

“I did everything you could do here,” her husband, John, said. “I was baptized here, I had First Communion here, I went to school here, I altar-served here, I was Confirmed here and I was married here. … This was the bedrock of the community and life.”

How to honor that was a question each of the closing churches dealt with differently. At St. Joseph’s people dealt with it quietly, culminating in a simple, well-attended service last weekend, where people gave thanks, remembered and cried.

At Sacred Heart, they decided to go out with a bit of a bang.

• • •

On the wall next to the baptismal font at Sacred Heart Parish there is a list posted of 8,000 names, representing everyone who had been baptized there. The pews are covered with white stickers with green typed names representing everyone who received First Communion at the church’s altar. The wood columns that stretch to the ceiling are covered with 6,000 white stickers with red names, all of the people who were Confirmed there.

For the last six days, the members of Sacred Heart have kept a vigil to honor their history.

“These are real human lives, with real stories, real families, real histories and real futures,” said the Rev. O’Toole. “We need to have some sort of ritual to honor that.”

Each day of the vigil, the community remembers a different piece of their history — the baptisms, First Communions, celebration of the Eucharist, weddings, and education.

On Tuesday, more than 50 people attended one last farewell Mass.

“The parish brought me back to church,” said Patricia Castagna, who will attend Holy Rosary this Sunday. “I had been away for a long time, but this felt like being with family.”

For his last sermon, the Rev. O’Toole spoke about how change is an inevitable form of chaos — scary and confusing. However, Jesus was capable of calming the ocean in a storm, and so with faith in him, it is possible to move forward, no matter how frightening.

“With God, there is no such thing as an accident,” the Rev. O’Toole said. “Every time I look in the Scriptures, I have yet to find a time where God says, ‘Retreat, go back.’ He is always saying, ‘Go forward, don’t be frightened, have faith.’”

• • •

Today, the Rev. O’Toole is on his way to Assisi, Italy, to do a pilgrimage in honor of St. Francis before spending some time in Rome while on sabbatical.

The Rev. Tokarz is unpacking boxes at St. Joseph Church in Berlin — his third stint preaching at a St. Josephs — to start new after 20 years in Gardner.

And, the Rev. Joseph Jurgelonis, formerly the pastor at Holy Cross Parish in East Templeton and St. Martin Mission in Otter River, is moving into his new home in Gardner, ready to start building Annunciation Parish.


New church brings together the lost under umbrella of faith

From a makeshift pulpit in Nu Cafe’s dining room, Corey Bowser, 26, delivers a simple but profound message to his flock every Tuesday.

“God loves you. He loves everything about you,” the recovering heroin and crack addict told a crowd of nearly 50 this week. “I love you, and I will love on you until you can love yourself … I’ve got your back.”

The dining chairs, rearranged into pews, are filled with the young, the tired, the addicted and the recovering joined together into a nondenominational group that’s dubbed itself the Family Unit.

It’s here that Mr. Bowser is working to create a place where people can “be real and raw with each other, grow and hold each other accountable” – a place he believes could have saved his brother, veteran Adam Morse, who died April 29 from a heroin overdose.

“You don’t have to clean yourself up to come to God,” Mr. Bowser – who attends the Excel Church in Lancaster on Sundays – said. “You come to God, he’ll clean you up.”

* * *

When Mr. Bowser first “came to God,” he was in pretty bad shape. “I don’t know anyone more wrapped up in drugs than I was,” he said. “I was bottom of the barrel. I was not a good person, but God loved me.”

Mr. Bowser was 16 the first time he smoked weed at Bickford playground. A good student at Gardner High School, with high math scores and plans to go to college, he had the American Dream in front of him and hopes of breaking the cycle of addiction that has plagued his family tree.

Until he lost control.

As he became more consumed in drugs, the other pieces of his life fell away. Dreams of college were shattered. He was arrested multiple times by the Gardner Police Department, though never served serious jail time. He robbed people. He started dealing to fuel his addiction, first in marijuana, then escalating into pills. He lost his home and started living in a tent in the woods.

“For months, I told people I wasn’t homeless I was camping. I was drinking a fifth of vodka a day. I was doing opiates. I couldn’t stop,” he said. “Every day, I prayed to God to help me stop.”

Then, he says, he took a leap of faith and checked into Community Healthlink, a detox center in Worcester.

From there he got himself clean, moving into sober living house where piece by piece he patched his life together, eventually working as a case manager at that same detox center.

“It was tough,” Mr. Bowser said. “I used to sell drugs to some of them.”

Harder still was the death toll, as heroin’s popularity grew and deadlier strains killed clients, friends and even his brother.

“I couldn’t leave work at work anymore,” he said.

About this time, he said he felt called by God to come back to Gardner. He wasn’t keen on the idea at first – the city was filled with a history he didn’t want to relive, a past he didn’t want to face. But, he listened.

“I always felt called to preach. I always wanted to be a pastor, but I had such an idea of what that looked like,” he said. “It’s not based on a title though … I am a shepherd, and there are sheep all around me.”

And so, he started the Family Unit, which he describes as “ a community of young people intent on growing horizontally, closer to each other, and vertically, closer to God.”

* * *

The first week 21 people showed up, too many for Nu Cafe’s back conference room. So they moved into a corner of the main dining room, and there Mr. Bowser preached.

The next week 26 people came. Then 31. And then 34.

This week, 43 people attended, enough to fill the main dining room.

For the first part of the meetings, people simply listen. Mr. Bowser talks about Scripture, salvation and how it relates to everyday life.

“I was dead, now I’m alive. I was so broken,” he said. “I’m not here to point out people’s sins. I am a 26-year-old who loves Moe’s (Mexican restaurant) too much … I’m here to love these people until they can love themselves.”

Then, breaking into small groups, they have a half hour to talk about the message, their lives and get to know one another. At the end, they come together for a final group prayer and Mr. Bowser asks if anyone would like to pledge to devote themselves to God. A handful of people have so far, including friends of Mr. Bowser, like the young man this week.

“He used to shoot heroin in my bathroom,” Mr. Bowser said. The Family Unit, he said, is not a place for the perfect. He wants it to be a place where a user can come with the smell of smoke still lingering on their clothing and start anew.

“Jesus said it’s not the well that need a doctor, it’s the sick,” Mr. Bowser said. “We want the lost and the broken.”

* * *

More than anything, Mr. Bowser wants the Family Unit to transcend an hour and a half at Nu Cafe and become a part of their everyday life.

Though it’s still early, the pastor said he’s already started signs of the happening. Last week, four girls from theFamily Unit met up to make inspiration posters, and there are routinely pick-up games of basketball among members.

Then, there are texts Mr. Bowser is getting.

“I definitely need more God. I have to start somewhere and the Family Unit is the place to start,” said one Unitmember in a text, after admitting they were ashamed of getting high.

Another called Tuesday her special day, when “everything clears out of her head” and she feels like she can talk with God without being uncomfortable.

“I’m thankful for the Family Unit,” she added.

For his part, Mr. Bowser is committed to the people who show up. If they need someone to pray with at 2 a.m., he’ll be there. If they need someone to go back to their apartment with them and keep them from using, he’ll be there too.

“The vision isn’t just to fill a coffee shop … this is going to blow up into thousands,” he said. “This is a powerful generation of people. We are going to change this city one person at a time. We are world changers.”

That change starts, he said, with a single question.

“How would this generation feel if they knew God wasn’t mad at them?” he asked. “If they knew God loves them and just wants a relationship with them?”

* * *

The Family Unit meets every Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at Nu Cafe on Chestnut Street in Gardner. For more information, visit “The Family Unit” Facebook page.


Shoppers on the hunt at Riettas

This article appeared on July 27, 2015 in the Gardner News. 


At 5 a.m. every Sunday morning, vendors line up in the parking lot of Rietta Flea Market, vehicles packed with anything and everything — stones, fresh produce, antiques, baby toys, junk and treasure.

Marketing itself as “one of the largest and most popular flea markets in Northeastern U.S.,” the Hubbardston staple has room for as many as 550 vendors. At $30 a table, some are looking to clean out their basements, others are hobbyists and then there are the established dealers who show up every week.

All of them want to make some money. The thousands of customers who show up every week, however, are all looking for a steal.

“The poorer the economy, the better our market,” said co-owner Ralene Williams. “The shoppers are coming to save some money, and the dealers are working to make some money by selling.”

Forty one years ago when it first began, Rietta Ranch was a small country-themed market. As it grew in popularity, the theme was forgotten. Today, shoppers tote out everything from toilets to antique harpoons, often in little red wagons.

“It’s kind of like a treasure hunt,” said April Clow, who was selling this Sunday but often comes to shop.

Like pirates, shoppers scour the tables looking for gems at the lowest price possible, haggling with vendors in the name of a good price.

“Everyone wants everything for like free,” said seller Casey Roseberry, who stood behind a table with rare coins, old shutters and bottles of French’s mustard. “You have to have what they are looking for that day. The market has its ups and its downs.”

While vendors at tables with an odd assortment spend most of their day haggling with customers, tables that specialize in one thing, such as cacti, often don’t have to bargain as much with shoppers.

“Occasionally, people will try to haggle with me but the prices are so low they usually don’t,” said Cliff Livernois, a botanical hobbyist selling cacti and succulents for $2 to $3.50. “A small percentage will walk away.”

Mr. Livernois, who sells at several markets, said Rietta tends to have the lowest prices.

“There’s all kind of stuff here,” he said. “The prices are usually very inexpensive.” In part because the high-priced stuff is hard to sell.

“The more-expensive items move slowly,” said Ms. Clow, who was selling on behalf of the Ashima Animal Rescue in Templeton. “People want to feel like they got a deal.”

So toys sell for as little as three for $1, DVDs can cost as little as $1, amethyst goes for $10 a pound, clothes for $2 a garment.

Only one factor controls the market, the weather. “Mother nature is ultimately in charge,” said Ms. Williams. “It all hinges on the weather. Holidays don’t affect the market. Seasons don’t affect it, but the weather does.”

Gloomy days attract smaller crowds and fewer vendors, whereas the market booms on sunny days.

Rietta Flea Market is open for business April through October starting at 6 a.m. and lasting till about 3 p.m. when vendors pack up. Parking and admission is free, and there is a concessions stand as well as a bar.

No pets are allowed.