As a single mom in the 1960s, Tewksbury resident Rita O’Brien Dee faced struggles trying to work, put food on the table and keep a roof over the heads of her five children. But much like today’s young families, one of her biggest trials was finding affordable childcare.
In 1965, Head Start was introduced as a new antipoverty initiative. What started as a seven-week summer program for low-income families soon transitioned into a school-year program that delivered a quality early learning experience for the two youngest of Rita’s five children, and hundreds of children since.
It also provided her with a career that was more than simply a job — it was a calling. Rita has served at CTI for more than 50 years, first as a teacher’s aid in the agency’s Head Start program, then as a teacher and adviser mentoring other teachers and currently as a board member.
On Wednesday, Community Teamwork recognized those years of service with a gala dedication of the new Rita O’Brien Dee Center for Behavioral Health and Development. Rita celebrated the occasion with her large family, many friends and top CIT leadership.
CTI is a nonprofit that serves more than 50,000 people in 63 cities and towns, including Tewksbury. It supports dozens of nonprofit organizations, including many that serve Greater Lowell’s immigrant and refugee communities. Via its Common Ground Development subsidiary, the organization partners with municipalities to create affordable housing, with more than 200 units brought online to date.
The new Rita O’Brien Dee Center for Behavioral Health and Development will be housed within CTI’s Child and Family Services Division and is facilitated by a partnership with the UCLA Health Care Institute. CEO Karen Frederick said the Center will be a resource for both CTI and providers across the community who work with children with behavioral, emotional and developmental challenges or who may have experienced trauma.
The Center will house programs and services to promote children’s healthy social emotional development, increase success in school, strengthen families and mitigate adversity through trauma-informed care.
“Rita’s love for children is unparalleled, as is her passion for giving back to the community,” said Meghan Siembor, Division Director, Child and Family Services. “We could not think of a better person to dedicate this Center to. It truly is an honor for me and the staff across the Division of Child and Family services to be able to develop this Center in her honor.”
CTI’s strategic plan calls mental health the most pressing issue in the community behind the
need for housing. Both problems have been exacerbated by Covid.
“Rita is a very special, caring person and I’m blessed to have her as a dear friend, colleague and role model,” said fellow CTI board member Marie Sweeney. “Her understanding and commitment to kids and families and to the mission of CTI is strong. The Rita O’Brien Dee Center for Behavorial Health and Development is the perfect honor for her 54 years of dedication, and she’s still going strong.”
She certainly is, as many in Tewksbury can attest.
Rita serves on the executive boards of The Friends of the Library and the Historical Society. She is an active member of the Senior Center, the Garden Club, the Democratic Town Committee and a former long-time election worker. She is also an example of kindness to those who are privileged to call her a friend.
The Center’s startup costs were funded by an anonymous donation plus a $20,000 grant from the Greater Lowell Community Foundation. Now, CTI is seeking ongoing support. Those who wish to donate may do so through the Greater Lowell Community Foundation.