The Amherst Survival Center was started in 1976 in response to a growing phenomenon of poverty and homelessness in western Massachusetts. Increasing unemployment, cuts in welfare spending, and the closing of institutional state facilities all contributed to the growing need for assistance. As they had historically, people in need turned to the local churches. The response was forthcoming, as had been in the past.
Amherst resident Jane Holappa brought the need for a community resource center to the attention of the town. As a single mother who had recently had her electricity cut and was struggling with decreased welfare, Holappa reached out to friends and neighbors for assistance. She, like many, found the experience of asking for help to be humiliating and getting the help she needed to be hard. Seeking to provide a place of community support for people confronting similar challenges, the Amherst Survival Center began as a telephone and storage area in Holappa’s basement.
Soon stacks of clothing were piling up in Holappa’s garage, and people were coming, with Jane’s slogan of “Everyone’s welcome! Take what you need and bring what you can spare” resonating through the town. Jane soon passed the leadership of what had become the Amherst Survival Center to Evangeline “Vangie” Wescott, whose own experiences led her to deeply understand the indignities faced by those who are having trouble making ends meet and other of life’s challenges. Vangie led the organization for the next 30 years, as it grew and shifted to meet the needs of those who came.
Jane’s vision and Vangie’s creation were rooted in the belief that no one in our community should have to struggle in isolation for daily survival. They understood that invisibility is perhaps the greatest pain inflicted by poverty. They also saw that many in our community, including those facing economic struggles, wanted to help one another. With these insights, the Amherst Survival Center was established as a place where everyone can give and receive, and where all are treated with dignity.
The efforts of those starting the Amherst Survival Center built off of, and alongside, a momentum nationwide of anti-poverty programs, including governmental programs started as part of President Johnson’s “war on poverty,” and the development around the country of Survival Programs and Survival Centers by The Black Panthers. These Survival Programs included the first free breakfast programs for hundreds of thousands of school children, free medical clinics in neighborhoods with no medical care, and community centers that provided free clothing, free food, helped people find jobs and housing and connected them to the resources they needed to survive. There were also models of these types of community resource centers nationwide in indigenous communities.
As the Amherst Survival Center opened, response was strong. There was clearly a need and in 1980, the Town of Amherst granted the Amherst Survival Center space in the Jones Library, and five months later, a new space in the basement of a brick school at North Amherst Center, where it grew and expanded its programming in the 34 years it was housed there.
Since its inception, the Amherst Survival Center has relied on volunteers as both an operational necessity and an assertion of our values – that we all give, that we all receive and that everyone has something to offer.
It has been a critical value since our beginning to offer resources to all who need them, creating a vibrant community space where it is ok to ask for help.
In December of 2012, after decades of dreaming, years of planning, and a very successful capital campaign, the Amherst Survival Center moved to its new home at 138 Sunderland Road. This building, appropriately sized for the organization’s services, beautiful, and light-filled continues to serve as a reminder of the unprecedented support of our community — dozens of volunteers and over 700 business and individual donors. We are so grateful for the leadership of Jane and Vangie, Cheryl Zoll (former Executive Director), Jan Eidelson (former President of the Board), Lynn Griesemer (chair of the Capital Campaighn Committee) and the Capital Campaign Committee, and all of the visionary contributors who saw what was needed and responded. You can read more in our capital campaign report.
Upon moving into our new building, we roughly doubled the number of people we served. We were able to double the number of meals provided, to expand programming, activities, and workshops offered, and continue to grow and develop to ensure that all in our community are able to survive and thrive. Both the physical space and incredible ASC community were key to the organization’s subsequent transformation amidst COVID-19, shifting to an all to-go model of food distribution, and expanding access through food pantry delivery and curbside pick-up options. During the first year of COVID-19 operations, the Center provided more than a million meals — prepared and groceries– to more than 7,000 of our neighbors.