By Seth Daniel
Perhaps it all started when Chelsea High School (CHS) sophomore Charlie Rustigian was only about eight years old and he encountered a boy at school who didn’t know what a birthday party was.
Charlie’s grandmother Peggy Foulco, who has raised him with her husband, Mike, said she had a $50 bill that she planned to give Charlie to put in his savings account, but it had mysteriously disappeared.
“I told him to tell me the truth and not to lie and he wouldn’t get in trouble,” said Peggy Foulco. “He told me it was a boy’s birthday and he had never had a gift before. He told me he wanted to give the $50 to the boy because he had more than the boy would ever have. He said he had been talking to the boy and he had never had a gift and didn’t even know what a birthday party was. Charlie could’t believe it and told him how great birthday parties are. Then, I guess he gave the boy his $50 bill so the boy could get a gift and have a birthday party. He wanted that boy to experience a birthday and that’s just how Charlie has always been.”
Charlie said he has always had a feeling that others were more important than he was.
“I tend to care about other people and am sensitive to them and want to know how they are doing,” he said at his Heard Street home, which was burned down in a large fire in September 2014. “When I find that someone isn’t doing as well as I am, I just have a sense of wanting to help them a little bit.”
And not to mention his family, including his uncle Paul Rustigian.
Both Paul and Charlie began Project Chelsea Opening Doors over three years ago, and around their kitchen table and with the help of Rev. Sandra Whitley, they have amassed a volunteer organization that is doing everything possible to eliminate student and veteran homelessness in Chelsea.
It all started when Charlie was at the Wright Middle School and, through a teacher, learned that there were more than 100 students in the schools that were homeless.
“There were students in our school who didn’t have anywhere to go after school was over,” said Charlie. “I was shocked to hear that, that I could be walking by kids who were homeless and didn’t have a place to go.”
He went home and summoned a family meeting – a staple of the Heard Street home – and they discussed the issue of homelessness in Charlie’s school. Then they set to work, collaborating with Rev. Whitley and starting the project to meet the needs of homeless children. But Charlie wasn’t interested in meeting their needs, he wanted to end the problem.
There had been 110 kids in the schools who were homeless, and by the end of the first year, when he had vowed to finish the problem, there were still homeless kids.
“Charlie didn’t understand why we hadn’t fixed the problem,” said Paul. “He said he’s always been taught to come to adults with problems and they would do their best to fix them, but this hadn’t been fixed. I tried to tell him that things like this are very complex and there’s a lot of bureaucracy and protocol in solving a big problem. He still didn’t understand why it was that so many smart people had been working on the problem and had the resources, but there were still homeless kids.”
It launched their current campaign whereby they take trips with volunteers regularly each month to Rosie’s Place in Boston to serve the homeless. They also compile a detailed list with the assistance of the schools of homeless kids and their needs.
Some ask for pillows, or crib sheets or shoes, and the needs are fulfilled by Open Doors – sometimes with Charlie himself spending his allowance to buy the items.
“We had identified the needs of an 11th grader and she needed a pillow,” said Paul. “She was so excited about that pillow and we didn’t understand why.”
Added Charlie, “She had been sleeping on a hoodie or jeans. She had never had a pillow before.”
The pillows cost $2.37 each at Wal-Mart, but they were out of reach for this young lady.
Paul said it’s those things that really push him forward.
“The thing that really energized me is that people have made up their mind about certain segments of the population,” he said. “A lot of people believe you’ve done something to deserve to be homeless. People often think it’s the 70-year-old drunk under the bridge, but it really isn’t that. When people learn that it’s children who are homeless and their families, it’s amazing how people were willing to open up because it’s a population that isn’t to blame. We have a need for little toddler shoes, and you often don’t see the face of the people who are homeless, but I hold those shoes in my hand and that’s a person. How can you blame that?”
Still, today, there is a significant number of kids in the schools who are homeless, with the latest count of 63 families and 90 kids in November. Still, Charlie continues to give presentations to groups and spread the word to his classmates and teachers.
“It’s the right thing to do and that’s why I do it,” he said. “Someone has to do it. This can happen to anyone.”
And it did – even to Charlie.
In September 2014, a horrendous fire on the street behind his house erupted and took with it several homes. Charlie’s grandparents’ house on Heard Street was totally burnt out. The family had to leave for 395 days, only just recently returning to their totally rebuilt home.
“Charlie realized that if it wasn’t for his support network and for insurance, he could be homeless now too,” said Paul. “It was a five-alarm fire and it took our home. You can become homeless because of a fire, losing a job, being unable to pay bills or getting sick. These are things that are beyond your control. We were fortunate to have insurance; others aren’t. I think we lose sight of that.”
Others might lose sight, but the Rustigian family has not and likely will not.
Charlie said he will continue his quest to end homelessness in the schools and has a new goal.
“I’d like to see it that by the time I graduate, there will be zero homel
ess families,” the soft-spoken young man said. “I think if we keep going the route we are on, it can be done. As more people are informed, it gets pushed out. Sometimes I write a story about this and share it with the class. When I read it, every time I get the ‘ohhs’ and ‘ahhs’ from the students and the teachers because they don’t know.”
Certainly if they knew Charlie Rustigian or his family, they would know.