An Introduction to an Amazing Organization
By Tom Hall
Born out of the turbulence of the late 1960s, LUK was a safe haven for those who weren’t part of the mainstream. LUK was created to empower the disenfranchised, give voice to the voiceless, access to the outcasts, and power to the powerless. Of course, there are the services that everyone knows, as our official name denotes – L.U.K. Crisis Center, Inc.; the agency started as a crisis center and hotline.
But LUK also provided services in our formative years that people may not know as well. Anonymous pregnancy testing when access to women’s health care, especially for minors, was very challenging. LUK provided emotional and financial support for women who chose to end a pregnancy by assuring safe and legal access to abortions in New York (one of only two states where it was legal at the time). For individuals who were morally opposed to the Vietnam War LUK provided counseling on how to apply for and become a Conscientious Objector (CO) based on “freedom of thought, conscience or religion.” LUK also provided anonymous drug testing intended to provide information on the content of drugs on the street.
Although we no longer provide any of these services, they are core to LUK’s identity and values. These weren’t sexy services! They were down in the mud services that no one else wanted to provide to the communities of North Central Massachusetts. These were not “poster child” services plastered on a billboard but they were services made accessible for those without access or power. In the early days, LUK proudly wore the badge of “alternative.” Rather than expecting clients to meet us, we went to them! LUK’s co-founders, Punky Pletan (-Cross) and Ric Whalen, with an army of volunteers, brought services to Fitchburg and the surrounding communities for individuals who were not going to walk into traditional social service settings.
Punky and Ric were VISTA members assigned to the Fitchburg/Leominster area. Punky was from the wilds of North Dakota and Ric was from the ‘burbs of Connecticut. When they first landed in the area, Montachusett Opportunity Council lent them office space in their building. In late 1969, LUK moved to a small church located below Burbank Hospital on Mechanic Street. The lack of heat quickly drove them to find an alternative location and, in 1970, they opened the hotline housed on the first floor of the First Methodist Episcopal Church located on the corner of Fox and Elm Streets in downtown Fitchburg. LUK incorporated on November 18th of the same year and became officially known as the L.U.K. (Let Us Know) Crisis Center, Inc. In addition to Punky and Ric, there were three part-time employees and 70-100 volunteers with a range of responsibilities from Board members, to hotline counselors, to fundraisers, to community activists.
The Fox Street location was about 10,000 square feet made up of a staff office filled with Army-salvage desks, chairs, and file cabinets; an orange day-glow hotline room; a red, white, and blue “Board Room” with stuffed pillows for chairs; a large industrial kitchen with a great 8-burner Vulcan stove; small counseling rooms; and a large open room in the very middle of the building with floor to ceiling sliding glass walls made up of individual panes of glass and basketball hoops mounted on the two ends. From the main entrance at the corner of the building you climbed a sweeping staircase leading to the second floor and the sanctuary. Behind the altar was a massive Estey Co. Opus organ built in the 1920s. The pipes of the organ rose to the cathedral ceiling. Sometimes on windy nights when you were alone on the hotline, the wind would blow through the pipes creating an eerie, howling sound. The building had “good bones” and it was a great place to kick-off what has become a fifty-year journey of a dynamic organization dynamic enough to evolve as the needs of the community change, creative enough to find new ways of meeting the needs of the people we serve, innovative enough to stay ahead of the competition, and with a heart big enough to stay the course even on the most challenging days. LUK is a value-driven organization that has stayed true to our core values throughout our history.