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The Peace Center hosts storytelling tours

The Langhorne-based nonprofit is working to inform locals about its services, which include conversations about racism and helping middle school girls be kind to one another

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Spread the love: During a recent “Bridges to Peace” event, The Peace Center’s executive director Barbara Simmons (center) shared how her kindness sparked a local man’s decision to leave the Ku Klux Klan. Samantha Bambino / Times Photo

While strolling through historic Langhorne Borough, it’s almost impossible to miss the old Richardson House situated on the corner of E. Maple and S. Bellevue avenues. Dating to 1738 with its white walls and black shutters, the building itself is something of a community staple.

But for most residents, it exudes a sense of mystery. What exactly goes on in the house? What does that sign hanging out front, emblazoned with the words “BUCKS COUNTY PEACE CENTER” actually mean?

For starters, The Peace Center is not a yoga studio, as many have wrongly assumed. It’s a nonprofit organization formed in 1982 to do just what its name suggests — inspire peace.

According to Debbie Wachspress, director of relationship development, The Peace Center is the “best kept secret in town.” Despite the impactful work its limited staff does on a daily basis, including open dialogues on diversity and teaching young women how to be kind to one another, many locals aren’t aware of its services, which each year reach thousands of children and adults across Bucks County.

To let people know what The Peace Center is all about, Wachspress launched “Bridges to Peace” storytelling tours in November 2018. These one-hour events allow curious individuals to hear from her, executive director Barbara Simmons, and other representatives about how they’re working to help positive transformation occur.

The most recent took place on Wednesday, March 20, from 1:45 to 3 p.m. inside the Richardson House. Attendees, who primarily hailed from Langhorne, Levittown and Yardley, took up each of the approximately two dozen chairs aligned in a cozy, conversational circle.

Simmons, a Newtown resident who has been involved with The Peace Center for 31 years, explained how she spent that entire time trying to inform others about the organization.

“It wasn’t until we started doing these tours that people finally understood more,” she said. “We’re doing really important work, and I don’t say that out of vanity. You have an organization that can see what’s happening and understand what the community needs by talking with the community and then creating a program.”

For Simmons, The Peace Center is her “second home.” But why does she believe in its work so adamantly? In her opinion, learning to understand each other and talk to one another, rather than automatically resort to violence, is highly needed.

She provided one such example from 20 years ago, when the Ku Klux Klan had plans to march against gay people in New Hope. While some groups wanted to stand on the sides of the road and turn their backs as the KKK walked past, others wanted a loud protest. How did Simmons respond? She appeared on TV with the leader of the KKK, who was from Langhorne.

“I decided to do it against people’s advice because I felt strongly that we have to model what this could look like. If we’re just screaming at each other, or turning our backs and ignoring, how do our children learn how to deal with this?” she said.

Throughout the conversation, in which Simmons was called “white trash” for her support of gay people, she channeled her inner-Gandhi, stayed calm, and talked about what kind of world she wanted to see for her children. Once back at The Peace Center, Simmons received a phone call — the local leader of the KKK wanted to meet with her.

As it turns out, Simmons’ peaceful demeanor struck a chord with the man. His daughter, a junior at Neshaminy High School, hated what he did and he wanted to quit. Simmons’ ability to speak to him like a fellow human being was what he needed to break ties.

“That story changed me because I had my own assumptions and stereotypes about him, and he had his own about me. It’s not like we were going to be close friends. But by listening to him and not judging him, he came to that conclusion by himself,” Simmons said. “With this rise in hatred today, we’re finding that 13, 14, and 15 year olds are becoming self-proclaimed neo-nazis. We have a chance of reshaping them.”

Much of this is done through conversations, and helping bring together those with predetermined stereotypes. “Bridges to Peace” attendees heard the story of Claire, a 60-year-old white woman from Northeast Philadelphia, who was able to shed a lifetime of prejudice toward people of color after meeting an Ethiopian named Mal at a Peace Center event. The two established a friendship. They broke down racial barriers.

Wachspress then shared photos of discriminatory, hateful signage found over the years.

“The Peace Center responds by holding a town hall meeting, bringing the community together,” she said.

“Bridges to Peace” also featured information on Girls Unlimited, which was founded by Karin Kasdin eight years ago and has since served 10,000 girls. Kasdin came to The Peace Center with the intention of simply volunteering a few days a week. But after learning of the conflict zones the nonprofit visited in Bucks County and across the United States, she realized something. It hadn’t gone to the worst conflict zone of all — middle school.

“To this day, I still remember the things kids said to me and the effect it had on me, and that was before the days of social media,” Kasdin said. “The program is simply about kindness. Be kind to one another. Kindness is at the root of bullying prevention.”

Girls Unlimited, which has reach both locally and nationally, teaches seventh-grade girls, over the span of five consecutive days, how to build empathy, stand up for themselves and others, and have a positive body image. It also discusses self-harm and suicide, which Kasdin said is, for the first time in history, the leading cause of death among middle schoolers. According to her, girls attempt suicide three times more than boys.

“It has become a public health crisis. Our girls are in trouble, and somebody needed to do something about it. Girls Unlimited stepped in,” she said. ••

For information on upcoming “Bridges to Peace” events, visit thepeacecenter.org/bridges-to-peace or call Debbie Wachspress at 215–750–7220.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com

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