The “Mayor of Worcester” (with apologies to Joseph Petty)

Some people become mayor by being duly elected by voters. Others get that moniker from the sheer force of their personalities. James W.L. Bergstrom is one such person.

Back in 2000, James was living in a group home and attending a typical congregate day program. His autism had led to a mismatch between him and the world around him. In frustration, he would hit his head so frequently that he wore a hockey helmet 24/7 for protection. He had a loud voice that others didn’t appreciate. Being told to be quiet didn’t silence him, but it did result in many painful confrontations.

That same year Sean Daly, director of the day program, realized he was developing a close bond with James. Meanwhile, Aspire was creating what was then a new residential arrangement in the state, Community Companion Homes. Sean thought they could be great housemates and James agreed. Given the challenges James was experiencing, there were skeptics who didn’t think it would last a month.

Twenty-two years later, they have built a life together that is both typical and unusual.

Sean decided not to worry about James’ loud voice and instead focused on hearing what James had to say. With encouragement and some give and take, James gradually learned he didn’t need to yell to advocate for himself. As James became more confident, he stopped hitting himself. But he was afraid to take off his helmet – as he didn’t want to hurt himself. Sean coaxed him into trying, just for a few seconds at first. Eventually, James let go of the helmet and chose to wear a baseball cap instead. Now James says, “I’m a lover, not a fighter.”

The household has grown to include Sean’s wife (James calls her Pookie) and two children, as well as several dogs over the years. James arrived before the children and they call him ‘Uncle.’ James is close with them and with the extended family as well. Like any good housemate, James does his share around the house taking care of his own space, laundry, and pitching in with the dishwasher and vacuum. One of James’ dreams was to be a dog owner and he’s proud of the care he gives them.

James’ increasing confidence gave him the opportunity to dive into his interests and find a joyful life. The household takes lots of vacations where James can try new activities (although James discovered he doesn’t like airplanes). Going out to eat has been another favorite pastime and James is excited that restaurants in Worcester have opened back up. He loves the drive-thru at McDonald’s but misses the camaraderie of eating at sit-down restaurants.

“Over the years, he’s been to half the restaurants in Worcester, and there are a lot of them,” notes Sean. “Everyone knows him wherever we go. People say, ‘hey JWLB!’ We call him the Mayor of Worcester.”

Music is important to him. James was a frequent rock and pop concert-goer for many years, but now he’s more apt to listen to music at home. James collects old-style transistor radios. He has about 20 of them. Other music technologies like CDs and streaming never appealed to him, but he’s learned the value of some newer technology – he can now use a mobile phone and Zoom independently. He’s learned to take care of himself so he can spend time alone when he chooses.

James is not a fan of masks, so he’s spent a lot of time at home the past two years, but has loved Aspire’s online day services. (He sends a shout-out to Mabel Sagwe for leading that effort). As James becomes more independent and the pandemic winds down, he and Sean are exploring different ways to give James more direct control over his day supports. One possibility is a participant-directed program, where James would choose his own staff with support from Sean for hiring and scheduling.

At 55, James has a wide circle of friends and family whom he adores. Fifty people showed up for his recent birthday party. When asked what the W.L. in his name stands for he says, “James Woman Lover Bergstrom” and reminds you that he is a handsome guy.


The “Mayor of Worcester”