LEWISTON — There was a time not long ago when Karen Doucette didn’t feel altogether safe in the city’s downtown park.

She might bring her 5-year-old grandson to Kennedy Park, but at the first sign of violence, she’d have to hustle him right out again. It left her wondering if there was any point in going to the park.

That was in the spring and the early part of summer. Things have changed since then. On Thursday, Doucette was relaxing on a bench in Kennedy Park and said she felt right at ease.

“It’s better now,” she said. “I feel like I can bring my grandson down here and feel safe again.”

Why the change?

There are plenty in the community who credit a volunteer group, 28 strong, called Peace in the Park. Every late afternoon and evening, those volunteers, clad in bright yellow shirts, walk through the park and simply talk to people. If there’s some kind of confrontation happening, the volunteers will do their best to de-escalate the situation.

So far, the effects have been dramatic.

“The project is calming people down,” says Steve Wessler, a human rights advocate and educator. “Helping people feel calmer helps reduce the risk of violence.”

The death of Donald Giusti

In the early part of summer, Wessler began working with Fatuma Hussein, executive director of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, in an effort to put together a team of volunteers for peace work in the park.

The effort in large part stemmed from the mid-June beating death of 38-year-old Donald Giusti, who died when an ongoing clash between two groups of people flared up at the edge of the park.

Giusti’s death created a swirl of fear in and around the park as talk of retaliation and further violence spread across social media.

“The fear level was really high,” Wessler said. “People were saying, ‘There’s no way I’ll let anybody in my family go to that park.'”

But those in the know say problems in the park didn’t begin with Donald Giusti. For years, there had been clashes almost nightly in or around the park. Long before Giusti’s death, Hussein had been talking to Police Chief Brian O’Malley about the need for action in Kennedy Park.

“We had been talking about the need to get some community folks down there,” O’Malley said. “This was not a knee-jerk reaction. It was something that was being discussed.”

Hussein and Wessler started rounding up volunteers, and they came from all over. Refugees somewhat new to the area signed on to the cause, as did those who have lived all their lives in Lewiston.

“It’s everyday people who are trying to make a difference in their community,” O’Malley said. “It’s quite a good range of people of different ages and backgrounds.”

“It’s become a really vibrant cross-section,” Wessler said.

Among those who volunteered were Jim Thompson and his brother, Brian, the uncle and the father, respectively, of Donald Giusti.

“I came on board the first day,” said Thompson, known in the park as “Uncle Jim.” “So did my brother. We truly believe that being out here, as family members, really makes a difference. We know a lot of people here in the park. We know some of the people who were involved in what happened.”

The fact that Thompson and his brother are so close to the Giusti tragedy tends to have a profound effect on people. Wessler described a recent encounter in which a pair of young Somali boys was complaining about the volunteer program, insisting it was intrusive and unnecessary.

Then they learned that Thompson was the uncle of the man who was killed in June. Suddenly, the death that had so polarized the community had a living, breathing face.

That seemed to change everything for the Somali boys.

“Their whole attitude changed. It was just remarkable,” Wessler said. “They just looked at him and said, ‘You’re really doing this? Well, maybe this is really an important thing.'”

‘Definitely better’

Starting in the late afternoon, volunteers start patrolling Kennedy Park. They talk to people. They try to smooth out any issues that arise before 10 p.m., when a curfew clears the park.

“We’re trained to de-escalate,” Wessler said. “If it turns to violence, we back off. We’re not qualified to deal with that, so we don’t.”

“We’re not looking to put people in harm’s way,” O’Malley said.

Violent flare-ups have been rare in Kennedy Park in recent months, and especially when compared to the tumult of spring. Thompson swears he can feel the effect Peace in the Park is having every time he goes out for another round of patrol.

“We’re trying to keep the park as safe as possible,” Thompson said. “People here see it, and what I’m seeing is that people are starting to police themselves. If someone gets into an argument, they break it up right away before it turns into something serious. I think people are starting to feel safer about coming to the park again.”

That seems to be the trend. Wessler and Hussein say they are forever asking locals what they feel about the volunteer effort and its impact on Kennedy Park.

“People say, ‘We feel so much better here, so much safer,'” Hussein said. “Most people have been really open to us.”

Wessler, who led the civil rights unit of the Maine Attorney General’s Office from 1992 to 1999, reported that 95 percent of the people he talks to approve of the volunteer program. Its organizers are also quick to recognize that they’ve had a lot of help along the way.

Bates College and Community Concepts donated space to the program so volunteers could be trained. The Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce chipped in to pay for the yellow T-shirts.

“People have been very, very generous,” Hussein said.

The way police see it, the more people invested in keeping peace in the park, the better things will be for everyone.

“We’ve got a lot of stakeholders involved in this,” O’Malley said.

As of Thursday, Peace in the Park had 28 volunteers. That’s not bad for a project that’s only a few weeks old. But organizers want more. Wessler would like to see 50 volunteers at some point. For Hussein, 60 would be just about right.

The effect the project is having on the park is largely anecdotal for now — there are no crime statistics available to show how much crime has dropped in Kennedy Park since spring. There’s also the fact that violence in the park often goes unreported or is resolved without arrest.

“Personally, I think people came quickly to realize that what by all rights should have been a minor squabble between two groups quickly escalated into something more,” said Jimi Cutting, who said he walks through the park twice every night. “The resultant ‘cool down’ is indicative of that. A terrible tragedy happened and it is my hope that cooler heads are prevailing and people are evaluating their own behaviors in light of all of this.”

The people who populate the park on a regular basis are quick to agree that things have been more peaceful in recent weeks. There are still those who are wary of going back to the park — it hasn’t been all that long since a man was beaten to death, after all, and there has been no arrest in that killing.

But for the most part, relative peace has returned to Kennedy Park as summer inches toward fall.

“It’s better,” said Cindy Gallant, lounging next to Doucette on a park bench. “It’s definitely better than it was.”


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