State Representative Paul Donato stands in his office at the Massachusetts State House and motions toward the framed drawing of the Italian Home nestled onto one of the room’s bookshelves.
“Second window on the right on the second floor,” he says, moving closer and touching the image of the Home’s main building. “That’s where I stayed when they brought me here” recalls Donato, now assistant majority leader and state representative for the 35th Middlesex District in the Massachusetts House of Representative, serving Medford and Malden.
Donato has come a long way since the mid-1950s when he and three of his siblings first became part of the child welfare system in Massachusetts. That journey has included living with his younger brother at the Italian Home and, later, the now-closed Nazareth Child Care Center on Moss Hill in Jamaica Plain. What followed was seven years in a foster home in Medford with his younger brother and a frequently changing rotation of five or more other foster children.
Donato got a job working as assistant buyer in the old Filene’s Basement while still in high school, living and working a second job at a flower shop so he could afford to bring his younger brother and mother to live with him. Later, Donato ran his own company with two partners selling housewares to major retail chains. He attended the University of Massachusetts/Boston.
And then, there is the 30+ year career in politics as a Medford school committee member, city councilman, mayor, and, since 2001, state representative.
“Resilience and perseverance – those are the two most important things to me,” Donato says when asked what enabled him to achieve so much.
Child welfare officials come calling
Donato says he was living with his father, mother and four siblings in Mission Hill when a neighbor apparently reported concerns about the children’s welfare to the state in the mid-1950s. His father was more than 20 years older than his mother, had been in World War I and in a terrible automobile crash when he was younger. He had a lot of medical problems as a result. His mother had given birth to seven children -- two died in infancy. And she had even more serious medical issues than his father that made it difficult for her to handle a large brood of children.
“I thought it was fine,” says Donato, who was about 10 at the time. “But clearly someone else didn’t feel my parents were able to take care of us all given their medical problems.” When the Department of Social Services came calling, his oldest brother was 17, and joined the military. Paul went to the Italian Home, and his other siblings were sent to the Home for Little Wanderers.
Reunited with a sibling
Eventually Paul and his younger brother were reunited at Nazareth, where they lived for three years before both were put in a foster home in Medford run by “Mrs. Lynn.” Donato recalls, “I said I wanted to make sure my brother and I stayed together.”
At Mrs. Lynn’s, there were always six or seven boys being fostered at any one time, and turnover was constant. But Donato found a measure of stability there, attending Medford junior and senior high schools, joining the debate club and serving as the assistant ad sales manager of his high school yearbook.
“I learned sales and public speaking through those activities,” he laughs. “Skills I used for the rest of my career.”
While his father had died, he stayed in touch with his mother, traveling with his brother by bus back to Mission Hill to see her on Sundays.
“Aging out” and finding two jobs
But at age 18 – while still in high school – Paul Donato was “aging out” of the foster care system, and could no longer live at Mrs. Lynn’s. It was a pivotal turning point for Donato, just as it is for children in the foster care system today. He needed to find a job and a place to live. A teacher guided him to enroll in a coop program run by the school district that enabled him to work and attend school. And a classmate tipped him off to an apartment above the flower shop his family owned.
“The rent was $30 a month – I couldn’t afford that,” says Donato, who was working as a stock boy in Filene’s Basement as part of the coop program at the time. “But in exchange for working in the flower shop on Saturdays and Sundays, I got the rent reduced to $20 a month. That was much more affordable.”
Brings mother and brother to live with him
As Donato became better able to support himself, he was ultimately able to bring both his younger brother and his mother to live with him over the flower shop.
Over the next two decades, the job at Filene’s evolved into a job as an assistant buyer, where he was spotted by one of the salesmen from whom he bought merchandise. The salesman offered him a more lucrative job selling housewares to major retail chains. That in turn led to taking over a business run by two brothers when they retired, and ultimately creating another business with a father-and-son team selling products to major stores like Bradlees, Zayre’s and the like.
‘Ward of the state’ becomes Mayor
When the local high school burned down, Donato became involved in Medford politics, serving on the School Committee from 1972-1975, and on the City Council from 1976 to 1985. In 1980, the City Council elected him mayor of Medford, a position he held through 1985.
“Mrs. Lynn died a few months before my inauguration as mayor,” Donato remembers sadly. “I would have loved for her to see that, and to have been able to motion to her in the crowd and say ‘imagine, a ward of the state is now the Mayor of Medford.’”
Donato’s mother died in 1984. He left politics for a decade between 1985-1995 when Medford changed to a government structure with a full-time, elected mayor, and his bid for that office failed. But with a thriving business, the itch to get back into politics was always there. He returned as a city councilor in 1996, and was council president from 1999-2000 when he was elected state representative.
Helping foster children, grandparents
As a state rep, Donato says he keeps in close touch with networks of foster children, and is chairman of the House Foster Care Caucus, which includes house members who are adopted or lived in foster care as well as members who have fostered children or adopted foster children.
“I try through my legislative work and through my networking to encourage foster kids that they can be successful too,” he says. Donato says he feels particularly strongly about the needs of grandparents who find themselves raising grandchildren because drugs, alcohol and abusive relationships have ripped families apart. With two children and eight grandchildren himself, Donato says: “I feel worst for those grandparents who are in their 60s and 70s and are trying to navigate the system. They have raised their own kids. They are thinking: ‘I did my time. I’m 65 now and I’m exhausted.’ “
“We have to do more for them and their grandkids. We need to make sure grandparents get their rights,” he says.
Today, Donato’s younger brother with whom he lived at Mrs. Lynn’s lives in Florida and retired as Dean of Students at a high school. His older brother spent 30+ years in the military, achieving the rank of chief master sergeant and is now retired. His older sister was a fulltime mother, raising three children. His younger sister married a military man and traveled the world. He sees his siblings often – and being able to bring the family together as he did as a young man, and keeping them together all these years is one of his proudest accomplishments.
Will never forget
When Donato thinks about the importance of places like the Italian Home and Nazareth where he spent his early years, he muses.
“The nuns were strict, but they took care of us. They had compassion,” he observes.
“They would make sure we brushed our teeth, went to Mass, said the rosary. But we were all just looking for someone to pat us on the head, to say they loved us. And they did that, too. That meant so much to us then. And I will never forget them for it. “