Lots of colleagues vow to keep in touch when they move on, but one group of former co-workers at Peace Neighborhood Center has actually followed through, holding annual reunions for thirty years now. Even as they’ve relocated around the country over the decades, they’ve continued a tradition dating back to the Reagan administration.
“Part of it is that we enjoy each other so much,” says Larry Wahlberg, who runs a residential treatment center for post-traumatic stress disorder at the Veterans Administration hospital in Denver. “Part of it is that we want to keep alive this thing we lived out in the 1980s in Ann Arbor. All of us drew lifelong inspiration from that.”
Wahlberg, Bonnie Billups, Nondi Orazi, and Nancy Workman were in their early-to-mid-twenties when they worked together at Peace, each hired by then-executive director Rose Martin, one of Peace’s founders and its driving force for years. Orazi worked in administration while Wahlberg, Workman, and Billups–the center’s current executive director–staffed kids’ programs or helped adults find jobs. Mostly. Because in classic Peace Center fashion, says Orazi, they did whatever was needed, following Martin’s dictum to help clients in any way possible.
“There was just a sense of possibility” in the culture at that time, Workman says. A year out of U-M, she arrived at Peace as an anti-corporate vegetarian VISTA volunteer in Birkenstocks, blazing with ambition to change the world. At Peace she met kids who loved McDonald’s and longed for name-brand sneakers and whose families had suffered from massive auto industry layoffs in the 1970s. “They didn’t want out,” she recalls. “They wanted in.”
It was a swift education, and she quickly adapted to the “no boundaries” theme at Peace, sometimes inviting the kids to sleepovers at her apartment on weekends. She’s now a psychologist at Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn, New York. Though regulations heavily govern her interactions with clients there, she keeps the Peace spirit alive where she can. She runs therapy groups with kids and parents together, and that model, of people helping each other, is reminiscent of her work thirty years ago. “Everything I’ve done has really been driven by my experience at Peace,” says Workman. Similarly, Wahlberg models his collaborative management style on Martin’s leadership at Peace (though Martin always had final say). “When I think about the kind of climate I’m trying to create on the team here,” he says, “I really draw that from Peace.”
The reunions began when Orazi moved to Wyandotte for a new job. She hosted the first ones, she says, because “I was the one who had pots and pans” to cook with. She now lives in Illinois and is executive director of Anima Singers, a youth group in greater Chicago.
Due to busy schedules, the reunions are short but intense, confined to a weekend. Everyone gathers at someone’s home, often Orazi’s, on Saturday, to eat the mountains of food she’s cooked. Then they talk deep into the night. There’s actually not much reminiscing about the old days. Rather, each person takes a turn recounting his or her past year and discusses plans for the one ahead, using the others as sounding boards and getting suggestions. On Sunday they have brunch and race off to catch planes or trains home.
The gatherings are “like breathing to me,” says Billups, executive director of Peace since Martin retired in 2006. “It’s a regular part of what’s important to me.” Between get-togethers, they’re not in regular contact. “It’s sort of like you save it” for the reunion, Orazi says. “We don’t need to be in each other’s life on a monthly basis.”
Last year’s reunion, however, was longer. They gathered at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado to honor Martin, who died in January 2013 and was an outsize influence in all their lives. “There was always another project,” Wahlberg recalls affectionately of working for her. Martin visited Workman in New York City several times, sometimes bringing Peace kids, and Workman estimates that Martin saw at least ten performances of Dreamgirls. Workman loves to tell the story of the time she and Martin holed up in a motel at Sleeping Bear Dunes to write up Martin’s own inspiration for a musical.
By now, the reunions have become something of a life metronome as the group marches through milestones together–marriage, children, graduate school, career, deaths of loved ones, divorce, illness. They couldn’t have known, at the time, the lasting reach of those few years on Maple Rd. In your twenties, says Workman, it’s easy to believe that you’ll always be meeting interesting people. “But we didn’t really meet people who generated the same kind of connections,” she says. They all know the value of what they have. “To luck into a constellation of people who were this talented and this much fun to be around,” says Wahlberg, “compels you to get on airplanes and travel across the country to catch up.”