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Class of 2018 Cover Story Difference Makers

difference-makers-logoBack in late 2008, the management team at BusinessWest conceived a new recognition program.

It was called Difference Makers because this would be a trait shared by those who would be honored — they were all making a difference in the community. The goal was, and is, to show the many ways in which an individual or group can make a difference, and suffice to say this goal has been met.

And the class of 2018, the program’s 10th, makes this even more abundantly clear, as the stories below show.

This year’s sponsors are Health New England, Royal, P.C., and Sunshine Village.

The six members of the Class of 2018 will be honored on Thursday, March 22 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. For information about that event, sponsorship opportunities, or to purchase tickets, go HERE or call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100.

Photography by Leah Martin Photography

 

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Sponsored by

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Class of 2017 Difference Makers Features

Scenes From the Ninth Annual Event

The 2017 Difference Makers

The 2017 Difference Makers

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More than 450 people turned out at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke on March 30 for a celebration of the 2017 Difference Makers, the ninth annual class of individuals and organizations honored by BusinessWest for making an impact in their Western Mass. communities. The photos on the next few pages capture the essence of the event, which featured musical entertainment by the Taylor Street Jazz Band, fine food, and thoughtful comments from the honorees. This year’s class, chosen by the editor and publishers of BusinessWest from dozens of nominations, include the: the Community Colleges of Western Massachusetts; Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College; Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round; Denis Gagnon Sr., President & CEO of Excel Dryer Inc.; Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts; and Joan Kagan, President & CEO of Square One.

Sponsored by:

RoyalPCSunshineVillagefirst-american-logonortwestern-mutual
mbk-300x141jgs-lifecareoconnell-care-at-homehne_logo_cmyk_stack-page-001

Go HERE to view the sponsor’s videos

For reprints contact: Leah Martin Photography

From left, Dajah Gordon, Sabrina Roberts, and Johnalie Gomez

From left, Dajah Gordon, Sabrina Roberts, and Johnalie Gomez, teenagers involved in Junior Achievement of Western Mass., a 2017 Difference Maker.

Susan Jaye-Kaplan, a 2009 Difference Maker, and Bob Perry, a 2011 Difference Maker.

Susan Jaye-Kaplan, a 2009 Difference Maker, and Bob Perry, a 2011 Difference Maker.

Bob Pura, president of 2017 Difference Maker Greenfield Community College (left), chats with Ted Hebert of Teddy Bear Pools & Spas.

Bob Pura, president of 2017 Difference Maker Greenfield Community College (left), chats with Ted Hebert of Teddy Bear Pools & Spas.

Joe Marois of Marois Construction (left) chats with Ed Murphy and Molly Murphy of event sponsor First American Insurance.

Joe Marois of Marois Construction (left) chats with Ed Murphy and Molly Murphy of event sponsor First American Insurance.

From left, Darlene Francis of event sponsor JGS Lifecare, Ethel Griffin and Colleen Loveless of Revitalize CDC, Kathleen Plante of BusinessWest, and Mary-Anne Schelb of JGS Lifecare.

From left, Darlene Francis of event sponsor JGS Lifecare, Ethel Griffin and Colleen Loveless of Revitalize CDC, Kathleen Plante of BusinessWest, and Mary-Anne Schelb of JGS Lifecare.

From left, Noni Moran, Dennis Murphy, and Amber Letendre of event sponsor First American Insurance.

From left, Noni Moran, Dennis Murphy, and Amber Letendre of event sponsor First American Insurance.

Al Kasper of Savage Arms with Jennifer Connolly, president of 2017 Difference Maker Junior Achievement of Western Mass.

Al Kasper of Savage Arms with Jennifer Connolly, president of 2017 Difference Maker Junior Achievement of Western Mass.

The community colleges of Western Mass., honored collectively as 2017 Difference Makers, were represented by their presidents, from left, Bob Pura of Greenfield Community College, Ellen Kennedy of Berkshire Community College, Christina Royal of Holyoke Community College, and John Cook of Springfield Technical Community College.

The community colleges of Western Mass., honored collectively as 2017 Difference Makers, were represented by their presidents, from left, Bob Pura of Greenfield Community College, Ellen Kennedy of Berkshire Community College, Christina Royal of Holyoke Community College, and John Cook of Springfield Technical Community College.

From left, Shawna Biscone of event sponsor Royal P.C., Julie Cowan of MassDevelopment, Tara Brewster of Greenfield Savings Bank, and Amy Royal of Royal P.C.

From left, Shawna Biscone of event sponsor Royal P.C., Julie Cowan of MassDevelopment, Tara Brewster of Greenfield Savings Bank, and Amy Royal of Royal P.C.

From left, Patricia Faginski of St. Germain Investment Management, Amanda Huston of Elms College, Jennifer Connolly of 2017 Difference Maker Junior Achievement of Western Mass., and Rebecca Connolly (Jennifer’s daughter) of Moriarty & Primack, P.C.

From left, Patricia Faginski of St. Germain Investment Management, Amanda Huston of Elms College, Jennifer Connolly of 2017 Difference Maker Junior Achievement of Western Mass., and Rebecca Connolly (Jennifer’s daughter) of Moriarty & Primack, P.C.

From left, from Square One, Dawn DiStefano, Bonnie Katusich, Kristine Allard, Karen Smith, 2017 Difference Maker Joan Kagan, and Andrea Cincotta.

From left, from Square One, Dawn DiStefano, Bonnie Katusich, Kristine Allard, Karen Smith, 2017 Difference Maker Joan Kagan, and Andrea Cincotta.

From left, Brigit Shea-O’Connell, Fran O’Connell, and Rachel Normantowicz of event sponsor O’Connell Care at Home.

From left, Brigit Shea-O’Connell, Fran O’Connell, and Rachel Normantowicz of event sponsor O’Connell Care at Home.

Michael Curran of the Taylor Street Jazz Band.

Michael Curran of the Taylor Street Jazz Band.

2017 Difference Maker Denis Gagnon Sr., president and CEO of Excel Dryer, with his wife, Nancy.

2017 Difference Maker Denis Gagnon Sr., president and CEO of Excel Dryer, with his wife, Nancy.

From event sponsor Northwestern Mutual, from left, Adey Thomas, Darren James, Cara Cole, Kate Kane, Donald Mitchell, and Craig Knowlton.

From event sponsor Northwestern Mutual, from left, Adey Thomas, Darren James, Cara Cole, Kate Kane, Donald Mitchell, and Craig Knowlton.

From event sponsor Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C., from left, Howard Cheney, James Krupienski, John Veit, Brenda Olesuk, and Donna Roundy.

From event sponsor Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C., from left, Howard Cheney, James Krupienski, John Veit, Brenda Olesuk, and Donna Roundy.

Top row, from left: Glenda DeBarge of event sponsor Health New England (HNE); Jen Stone of USI Insurance Services; Mark Keroack of Baystate Health; Ashley Allen, Jody Gross, and Jessica Dupont of HNE. Bottom row: Michelle Martone of USI (left) and Yvonne Diaz of HNE.

Top row, from left: Glenda DeBarge of event sponsor Health New England (HNE); Jen Stone of USI Insurance Services; Mark Keroack of Baystate Health; Ashley Allen, Jody Gross, and Jessica Dupont of HNE. Bottom row: Michelle Martone of USI (left) and Yvonne Diaz of HNE.

Back row, from left: from event sponsor Sunshine Village, Teri Szlosek, Amie Miarecki, Michelle Depelteau, Peter Benton, and Jeff Pollier. Front row, from left: Colleen Brosnan and Gina Golash Kos from Sunshine Village, and Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos.

Back row, from left: from event sponsor Sunshine Village, Teri Szlosek, Amie Miarecki, Michelle Depelteau, Peter Benton, and Jeff Pollier. Front row, from left: Colleen Brosnan and Gina Golash Kos from Sunshine Village, and Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos.

Back row, from left: from TD Bank, Gregg Desmarais, Peter Simko, Dave Danker, and Tracey Alves-Lear. Front row, from left: from TD Bank, Christina Sousa, Bela Blake, Jana Seiler, and Claudia Pereira.

Back row, from left: from TD Bank, Gregg Desmarais, Peter Simko, Dave Danker, and Tracey Alves-Lear. Front row, from left: from TD Bank, Christina Sousa, Bela Blake, Jana Seiler, and Claudia Pereira.

BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti welcomes attendees to the Log Cabin.

BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti welcomes attendees to the Log Cabin.

Back row, from left: from event sponsor JGS Lifecare, Karen Petruccelli, Christina Tuohey, and Susan Halpern. Front row, from left: from JGS Lifecare, Darlene Francis, Mary-Anne Schelb, and Martin Baecker, with George Sachs from Acme Metals & Recycling.

Back row, from left: from event sponsor JGS Lifecare, Karen Petruccelli, Christina Tuohey, and Susan Halpern. Front row, from left: from JGS Lifecare, Darlene Francis, Mary-Anne Schelb, and Martin Baecker, with George Sachs from Acme Metals & Recycling.

BusinessWest Publisher John Gormally (left) with Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno.

BusinessWest Publisher John Gormally (left) with Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno.

From left, Monica Borgatti and Ellen Moorhouse of the Women’s Fund of Western Mass., a 2012 Difference Maker, and Elizabeth Fisk and Danielle LeTourneau-Therrien of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County, a 2016 Difference Maker.

From left, Monica Borgatti and Ellen Moorhouse of the Women’s Fund of Western Mass., a 2012 Difference Maker, and Elizabeth Fisk and Danielle LeTourneau-Therrien of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County, a 2016 Difference Maker.

Steve Levine applauds 2017 Difference Maker Joan Kagan, president and CEO of Square One.

Steve Levine applauds 2017 Difference Maker Joan Kagan, president and CEO of Square One.

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien congratulates 2017 Difference Maker Denis Gagnon Sr., president and CEO of Excel Dryer.

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien congratulates 2017 Difference Maker Denis Gagnon Sr., president and CEO of Excel Dryer.

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Class of 2017 Difference Makers

Steady Course

The Community Colleges of Western Massachusetts

Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College,
Holyoke Community College, and Springfield Technical Community College

The region’s community-college presidents

The region’s community-college presidents, from left, Bob Pura, Ellen Kennedy, John Cook, and Christina Royal.

Jeff Hayden had spent more than an hour talking about the critical roles played by community colleges in this region — while also listening to colleagues do the same — and desired to put an exclamation point of sorts on matters with a story about a woman whose case he had come to know first-hand.

She was about to earn a certificate of completion in a specific field from Holyoke Community College (HCC), and had a job interview set for the following week. She still had considerable ground to cover in terms of starting and then forging a new career, but she had a new-found confidence and sense of purpose, and wanted to let HCC officials know that — and know why.

“She said, ‘I’ve been out of work for almost five years; I thought I wasn’t worth anything, I didn’t think I could do anything, and my kids thought I could never do anything,’” Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services at the school, told BusinessWest. “She went on, ‘the opportunity you’ve given us through this program is something that has not only changed my life, but changed my children’s lives as well.’

“Frankly, those of us at the region’s community colleges hear those stories often, which is great, and it’s a feel-good kind of thing,” Hayden went on. “But it’s one story at a time, and with the power of the four institutions here, it’s thousands of stories a year that happen in our region, where people are changed, and hopefully changed in a way that helps them with their family and with their career.”

Jeff Hayden, seen here with new HCC President Christina Royal

Jeff Hayden, seen here with new HCC President Christina Royal, says community colleges provide a vital pathway to an education, especially for first-generation college students.

With that, Hayden effectively and somewhat concisely explained why the four community colleges serving residents of Western Mass. — HCC, Berkshire Community College (BCC), Greenfield Community College (GCC), and Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) — have been chosen collectively as Difference Makers for 2017.

Through use of those phrases ‘the power of the four institutions’ and ‘thousands of stories,’ he hit upon the real and profound impact of the four schools, which have been making a difference now for almost 60 years in some cases.

Echoing Hayden, Bob Pura, president of GCC, said the community colleges act as both a door of opportunity, especially for those who don’t have many open to them, and a pathway to both careers and four-year degrees at other schools.

And GCC is a perfect example. It is the only institution of higher learning in Franklin County, the poorest and most rural in the state, said Pura, while stressing that point about access to an education, and it has one of the highest rates of transfer to four-year schools among the state’s 15 community colleges.

“I don’t think there is a region in this state better served by community colleges,” said Pura, who stressed the plural and saw the six other people gathered around the table in a classroom at HCC’s Kittredge Center nod their heads in agreement. “We’re the pathway for the infrastructure in our community; the socioeconomic futures of our communities pass through the doors of our collective colleges.”

By ‘better served,’ Pura meant work beyond the schools’ historic mission of providing potentially life-altering opportunities to their students. Indeed, they are also playing important roles in a host of ongoing economic-development initiatives across Western Mass.

HCC’s involvement in the Cubit building project

HCC’s involvement in the Cubit building project in downtown Holyoke is just one example of how community colleges have become forces in economic-development efforts.

In fact, if one were to name a key issue or specific program, one will likely find one of the community colleges involved with it at one level or another.

Start with the region’s workforce. The schools are the proverbial tip of the spear in initiatives ranging from the retraining of manufacturing workers displaced by the decline of that sector to preparing individuals for the myriad jobs in the broad healthcare field that will have to be filled in the years to come; from training area residents for many of the 3,000 or so jobs to be created by the MGM Springfield casino to providing specific help with closing the so-called skills gap now plaguing all sectors of the economy and virtually every business, a problem addressed mostly through a program called TWO, as we’ll see later.

But there are other examples, as well, from STCC’s work to help precision manufacturers build a steady pipeline of talent to BCC’s involvement with efforts to create new opportunities for jobs and vibrancy at the sprawling former General Electric complex in Pittsfield, to HCC’s decision to move its culinary arts program into a mostly vacant former mill building in downtown Holyoke, thus providing the needed anchor for its revitalization.

All of these examples and many more help explain why the region’s community colleges — individually, but especially as a group — are true Difference Makers.

Schools of Thought

Community colleges, formerly known in some states as junior colleges, can trace their history back to 1901 (Joliet Junior College in Illinois is generally considered to be the first).

There are now nearly 1,200 of them enrolling close to 8 million people. They come in all shapes and sizes, some with just a few hundred students and others with enrollment in the tens of thousands.

In the Bay State, community colleges can trace their roots to 1958, when an audit of state needs recommended the establishment of a community-college system to address the need for more diversity and access to higher education in the Commonwealth, which, then as now, has been dominated by a wealth of prestigious (and expensive) private colleges and universities.

The reality is that the mission of a community college — to provide access to excellent education for the local community — is what we do, and we do it in sometimes unique ways. But what we also do is recognize the fact that there are times when shaking the hand and working together is far more effective than trying to go out on our own.”

 

The recommendation was adopted by the Legislature in August of that year, and the accompanying legislation included formation of the Board of Regional Community Colleges, which established nine of the current 15 schools within a five-year period, starting with BCC in 1960.

“We were the first one,” said Ellen Kennedy, president of that Pittsfield-based institution, with a discernable note of pride in her voice, while acknowledging that what is now HCC has a longer history, because that school began as Holyoke Junior College, which opened in 1946.

GCC opened its doors in 1962, and STCC, housed in the historic Springfield Armory complex, which was decommissioned in the mid-’60s, opened amid some controversy — HCC is only eight miles away as the crow flies, and many thought there wasn’t a need for two community colleges that close together — in the fall of 1967.

Today, community colleges in Massachusetts and across the country face a number of common challenges, including smaller high-school graduating classes, which are impacting enrollment; funding levels that are imperiled by dips in the economy and devastated by serious recessions, such as the one that began nearly a decade ago; and graduation rates that are impacted by the many burdens faced by the community-college constituency — everything from finances to life issues (jobs and family) to even transportation.

But overall, community colleges are seeing a surge of sorts. Indeed, amid the soaring costs of a college education and the ever-rising amounts of debt students are being saddled with, the two-year schools are being seen by many as a practical option to at least begin one’s education.

Meanwhile, host cities and regions are becoming more cognizant of their ability to help provide solutions to workforce and other economic-development-related issues and problems.

This is especially true in Western Mass., where many gateway cities, including Springfield, Holyoke, and Pittsfield, are facing stern challenges as they attempt to reinvent themselves and move on from their collective past as industrial centers, and regions (especially Franklin County) face spiraling unemployment, aging populations, and outmigration of young people.

ge-pittsfield-aerial-1946

BCC’s efforts to develop new opportunities for the former GE complex

BCC’s efforts to develop new opportunities for the former GE complex in Pittsfield (in its heyday, above, and today) is another example of community colleges becoming involved in economic-development initiatives.

But at their very core, community colleges are still all about access — that open door that Pura mentioned. They all have what’s known as open admission, meaning anyone who has a high-school diploma or GED must be admitted. But while getting in isn’t a problem, staying in, and hanging in until a diploma or certificate is earned, can be, and often is.

Thus, increasingly, schools have been focusing on that broad, multi-faceted assignment of helping students succeed — with whatever it is they are trying to succeed at.

There are many elements that go into this equation, said those we spoke with, from programs focused on basics, including language skills, to new degree and certificate programs to meet specific industry needs, to a host of partnerships with area four-year schools that include not only articulation agreements but efforts to bring those schools’ programs onto the community-college campuses to help those facing time and transportation issues.

Meeting this role, this mission, makes the community colleges unique in the pantheon of higher education, and even public higher education. It is a niche, if you will, or, for many, including those we spoke with, a career path they’ve chosen for any of several reasons, but often because they can relate to the students in their charge.

Such is the case with Christina Royal, the recently named president of HCC, who is so new to the role she chose to let others, like Hayden, speak about the school’s history and specific current projects while she got fully up to speed.

But in a candid interview with BusinessWest upon her arrival, she said that, when she went to Marist College, a private liberal-arts school in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., she was the first in her family to attend college, and it was a struggle for the family to send her there.

So she understands what community-college students are up against, and chose that constituency, if you will, as the one she wanted to serve.

“The experience of community colleges — dealing with a lot of first-generation college students who don’t always understand the value of what they’re doing and also how to navigate it to be successful — these are things I can relate to from my own background,” she said. “And I think that has created a connection with the community colleges for me and helps me understand the students we serve. I’ve found a home in the community-college system.”

The original faculty and staff at STCC

The original faculty and staff at STCC pose in front of the old officers’ quarters at the Springfield Armory. The school was created in 1967 to focus on preparing students for careers in technology-related fields.

John Cook, who succeeded Ira Rubenzahl as president of STCC last summer, is similarly attracted to the community-college mission and unique role.

Formerly the vice president of Academic Affairs at Manchester (N.H.) Community College, he cast a wide net when seeking opportunities to lead a school, but was specifically focused on community colleges, which, he said, have a direct role in serving their communities (hence that middle name for all these institutions) and their residents, not employers across the country or halfway around the world, as the major private institutions do.

Pura agreed. “The students who come to our colleges are those who stay here,” he explained. “They’re the ones who will run the ice cream shop and the small nonprofit, and they’re going to be part of the leadership for our hospitals.”

The Jobs at Hand

Beyond providing access and pathways to opportunities, however, the region’s community colleges have become increasingly larger role players in area workforce and other economic-development-related initiatives.

Such roles are natural, said Cook, noting that the schools pride themselves on being nimble, responsive, and, overall, good listeners when it comes to the community — including the business community — expressing specific concerns and needs.

And while such programs solve problems for businesses, the communities they’re based in, and the region as a whole, said Bill Fogarty, HCC’s vice president for Administration and Finance, who served as interim president until Royal arrived, they also benefit individuals who may or may not have a job, but instead need a career.

“All of our capital investments, whether it’s the new Center for Health Education or the Cubit Building and the culinary center, or any of the others, have been geared toward getting people in the door,” he explained, “and getting them a basic type of credential they can use, and then providing pathways so they can further their education.”

Examples of economic-development-related initiatives that are also creating opportunities for individuals abound, and we’ll start with BCC, which has been active in efforts to help that region move past the huge shadow left by GE and other elements of a manufacturing-based economy, said Bill Mulholland.

He recently retired after a lengthy career at BCC, most recently as vice president of Community Education and Workforce Development, a title that speaks volumes about the work he was involved with in recent years. And as he started talking about that work, he referenced a Berkshire Eagle headline — “High-paying Jobs Going Unfilled” — from January 1998.

Upon reading it, he called Pura and invited him to lunch, at which there was broad discussion that eventually led to creation of something called the Berkshire Applied Technology Council.

“This is an industry-driven organization focused on workforce development,” Mulholland explained. “As we got all the companies together, we said, ‘what are your biggest needs?’ And when we boiled it all down, the commonality was basic math, writing, all of the basic skills.”

That’s where organizers started with a program that would be called (here comes that word again) Pathways, he went on, adding that the initiative effectively checks many of the boxes community colleges are trying to check, including direct involvement with businesses, providing individuals with the basic skills needed to contend for jobs and careers, working in collaboration with other community colleges and other partners, and creating progress with efforts to keep young people from migrating out of the region.

Another very specific example is the college’s involvement in the work to create an advanced manufacturing facility (the Berkshire Innovation Center) that will become the centerpiece of the William Stanley Business Park, created on the former GE site. Specifically, the school is developing training programs for individuals that will be employed by companies based there.

“What’s significant about this, for us and for the Commonwealth, is that we’re reinventing our manufacturing,” he said. “It’s about high-technology capabilities; so many of the original equipment manufacturers are outsourcing up to 70% to small and mid-sized enterprises because we’re quick, we’re nimble, and we innovate. That’s the focus of the innovation center, and it’s more about the human capital now than it is about the equipment, although that’s important as well.”

Human capital, and creating more of it, is at the heart of many BCC initiatives, he went on, adding that the school is also involved with efforts to bolster the creative economy that is becoming a force across Berkshire County and especially a revitalized Pittsfield, as well as the tourism industry that has always been a pillar.

As examples, he cited a filmmaking course designed to help provide trained individuals for the many film companies and special-effects houses that now call that region home, and also a special customer-service course for those seeking to enter the hospitality industry.

Manufacturing Momentum

Meanwhile, at GCC, manufacturing is also a prime focus, said Pura, adding that the region has lost a number of large employers in this sector over the past several decades and is intent on both retaining the companies that remain and attracting new ones.

To this end, a manufacturing collaborative was formed involving the college, employers such as Yankee Candle and Valley Steel Stamp, the Regional Employment Board, career centers, and area high school.

“What became clear was that we needed to invest in our infrastructure; facilities were very antiquated,” said Alyce Stile, dean of Workforce Development and Community Education (same title as Mulholland) at GCC, adding that, with $250,000 in seed money from many of the employers and grant money attained as a result of that investment, Franklin County Technical School has been transformed into a state-of-the-art facility.

With that foundation, GCC was able to start its first adult-education evening program — one firmly focused on the basics — with the help of considerable feedback from STCC, BCC, and other partners.

No, the region’s community college presidents have not been reassigned

No, the region’s community college presidents have not been reassigned. They’re merely using some artistic license to display a pattern of cooperation and collaboration that is only growing.

To date, more than 100 students have gone through the program, said Stiles, with the even better news being an employment rate of more than 80%.

Other recent initiatives have included a nursing ladder program designed to put more individuals in that important pipeline, and also a comprehensive study of just what area employees want and need from the workers of today and tomorrow. The results were not exactly surprising, but they were enlightening.

“Employers made it clear that what’s needed are the communication skills, the ability to critically think through and problem-solve in an innovative way, and the ability to work well with other people,” he explained, adding that a panel comprised of area employers ranging from Herrell’s Ice Cream to Baystate Franklin Medical Center recently emphasized these needs and discussed the next critical step — programming to help ensure workers possess these skills.

In Hampden County, meanwhile, initiatives involving the two community colleges there have generated considerably more press, and, like those in the other regions, have involved high levels of collaboration between the schools and a wide variety of other partners.

At the top of the list, perhaps, is TWO (Training and Workforce Options), a joint effort between STCC and HCC that provides custom contract training for area businesses and industry-sector collaborations.

To date, TWO has created training programs for call centers and customer-service workers, manufacturing production technicians, hospitality and culinary positions, home-health-aide workers, and healthcare-sector employees who need to become versed in the recently introduced medical coding system known as ICD-10, among others.

Another collaborative effort, this one involving all the community colleges, is the Mass. Casino Careers Training Institute, which, as that name suggests, is designed to help area residents become qualified for many of the positions that MGM Springfield — or any of the other casinos to open in the Commonwealth — will need to fill.

Other specific examples range from STCC’s involvement with CRRC, the Chinese company that will soon be building subway cars in Springfield’s East End, to secure a trained workforce, to HCC’s investment in Holyoke’s Innovation District through the Cubit project.

Degrees of Progress

As the presidents of the region’s four community colleges posed for some photographs for this piece, they each gathered up their respective school’s pennant, in a colorful, pride-nurturing exercise in effective identification.

Then, as a bit of fun, Pura had them shuffle the deck, if you will. This drill yielded some laughs and intriguing facial expressions, but also some symbolism if one chooses to look for it and accept it.

Indeed, while the schools remain immensely proud of their histories and track records for excellence, and do compete on a number of levels — for students, in some cases, and on all sorts of playing fields, especially — they also collaborate, and in ways that are often changing the local landscape.

It wasn’t always this way, especially when it came to HCC and STCC, mostly because of their proximity to one another and often-overlapping programs. But this spirit is certainly in evidence now, and the obvious reason is that the schools have realized that they can do more for the region by working together than by trying to do it alone, often with parallel initiatives.

“The reality is that the mission of a community college — to provide access to excellent education for the local community — is what we do, and we do it in sometimes unique ways,” said Hayden. “But what we also do is recognize the fact that there are times when shaking the hand and working together is far more effective than trying to go out on our own.”

Maybe the best example of both sides of this equation is the TWO program. Prior to its formation, the schools went about trying to forge skills-gap solutions themselves, and would often “bump into each other,” as he put it.

“It was not uncommon for a business owner to say, ‘Jeff, you’re here … but the guy from STCC was here last week,’ or vice versa,” he explained. “What we’ve recognized through some of these partnerships is that we need to work together; it’s better for the customer, it’s better for the student, and it’s better for the business.”

The effectiveness of that particular collaboration caught the attention of the Boston Foundation, which awarded the two schools the inaugural Deval Patrick Award for Community Colleges in 2015 (it came with a $50,000 unrestricted grant that they split), and in many ways it serves as an example of what other schools can do together — if they are so inclined.

The Mass. Casino Careers Training Institute, which will train workers for MGM Springfield

The Mass. Casino Careers Training Institute, which will train workers for MGM Springfield (see here in this rendering) and other casinos, is another workforce initiative involving the region’s community colleges.

“In the Boston market, they’re still really trying to figure out how to put such partnerships in place,” Hayden went on. “We talk about how we’re eight miles away from STCC or 21 miles away from Greenfield or 58 miles or whatever it is from Berkshire, but in Boston, you have four community colleges that could almost throw rocks at one another, and they can learn from this.

“The establishment of that kind of collaboration was more common sense than anything else,” he went on. “Why duplicate efforts? Why waste resources? Why not work together?”

There are countless other examples of this mindset, said Mulholland, who cited BCC’s addition of a medical-coding program.

“Our local health system said, ‘we’re going to ICD-10 — we need help here,’” he recalled. “We picked up the phone and called STCC, and we had the curriculum in no time. We were able to put it in and met the system’s needs in ways we never could have without partnering like that.”

Such partnering continues on many levels, and the schools are constantly looking for new ways to forge collaborations, said Cook, adding that he was calling and texting Royal within days of her arrival on Jan. 9 to initiate such discussions and continue a legacy of cooperation that has been handed down to the two of them.
“We have an obligation to do well by that tradition of cooperation,” he said. “It’s good for our schools, and it’s good for this region.”

Course of Action

Hayden said he doesn’t make a habit of it, but once in a while he will allow himself to think about what it would be like if HCC did not exist in that city.

It’s a whimsical exercise, but a nonetheless important one, he said, adding that, while some schools provide jobs, vibrancy, and a boost to service-related businesses in the city or town they call home, community colleges have an impact that runs much deeper. And it goes back to those words he and others would use early and quite often — ‘door’ and ‘pathway.’

Pura agreed, and to further the point, he summoned a comment he attributes to Allen Davis, former director of GCC’s foundation, and one he relates often.

“He said, ‘if Amherst College were to close, those students would find somewhere else to go; if GCC were to close, it would devastate this community,’” noted Pura. “And I think you can say that about all four of our institutions; if you were to close any of them, students would come to dead ends.”

The community colleges have instead made it their mission to provide inroads to better lives. And their success with that mission makes them more than worthy of the title of Difference Maker.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2017 Difference Makers

Seizing the Brass Ring

Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round Are Preserving a Treasure

Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round

Some of the many passionate Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round: from left, Jim Jackowski, Barbara Griffin, Angela Wright, and Joe McGiverin.

The giant scrapbooks, their newspaper clippings turning yellow and their heavy leather covers fraying and kept on with shoelaces, are getting on in years — as are the people who created them.

But the truly inspiring story they tell never gets old.

It’s about how one of the poorest communities in the Commonwealth, then and now, came together, in every sense of that phrase and against very long odds, to raise nearly $2 million during a stubborn recession to keep the historic Mountain Park merry-go-round in Holyoke.

Carefully chronicled in those scrapbooks, this story relates tireless fund-raising efforts — from generous donations given by large corporate players to a fishing derby with a $10 entrance fee that went to the cause; from phone-a-thons and mailed solicitations featuring carefully crafted pleas for support to sales of everything from sweatshirts to Christmas-tree ornaments out of a donated kiosk at the Holyoke Mall.

It also captures work to find, finance, build, staff, open, and operate a home for the merry-go-round in Holyoke’s Heritage State Park in late 1993, an important chapter in this tale and one with many twists and turns.

John Hickey, a.k.a. “Mr. Holyoke,”

John Hickey, a.k.a. “Mr. Holyoke,” rallied the city to seize a “glittering brass ring.”

And those scrapbooks poignantly reflect, through photos, news stories, and his own commentary in the daily Holyoke Transcript Telegram, the passion, commitment, and drive of one John Hickey, known to most as “Mr. Holyoke,” who rallied the city and unified it behind what was, at the time, a most unlikely cause.

“He was determined; he felt like this was an important piece of Holyoke’s history and that there needed to be a way to save it,” Angela Wright, long-time volunteer director of the merry-go-round and one of the leaders of the effort to keep it in the Paper City, said of Hickey, then head of the Holyoke Water Power Co., who passed away in 2008. “He was like a pied piper … he went to every meeting, every organization, every business he could to stress the importance of this. And he got a city behind him.”

Indeed, Hickey ended one of his op-ed contributions (a piece that has become part of Holyoke lore) with a question that doubled as a rallying cry.

“There’s a glittering brass ring out there,” he wrote in reference to the carousel. “Will the people of Holyoke extend themselves to capture it?”

Indeed, they would, as the pages of those scrapbooks make clear, and more than 1.2 million people have gone for a ride.

But the last entry in those volumes is from Dec. 1, 1994 — a short story about upcoming Christmas happenings at the carousel — and, therefore, they don’t tell the whole story.

Indeed, while the efforts to buy the carousel and then begin its next life in downtown Holyoke could be described as ‘heroic’ and ‘monumental,’ what has transpired over the past 23 years or so and continues today is worthy of equal praise, said Jim Jackowski, business liaison for Holyoke Gas & Electric and long-time president of Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round Inc., the organization created to not only buy the treasure, but manage it and preserve it for future generations.

The second part of the equation isn’t captured in the scrapbooks because, for the most part, that hard work doesn’t generate headlines, he said. But the challenges to operating and properly maintaining the carousel — everything from spiraling insurance costs to non-stop maintenance to restoration work on the ornate horses — are many and formidable.

But the same passion that went into raising the money to buy PTC 80 (the 80th carousel built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Co.) goes into the work to keep the ride spinning today — and tomorrow, said Jackowski.

“It’s been a labor of love — it was then, when we were raising the money to buy it, and it still is today,” he explained.

One of the many ads designed

One of the many ads designed to emphasize what Holyoke would lose if the merry-go-round went to another buyer.

And that sentiment is perhaps best summed up with words from the Transcript Telegram, which played its own sizable role in the efforts to save the carousel.

Its presses fell silent in January 1993 as the paper succumbed to disastrous losses in the wake of the early-’90s recession. But it still has a voice on this subject (and this Difference Makers award) thanks to an editorial published just a few weeks before the paper closed.

The occasion was a decision of the state Department of Environmental Management to award $300,000 for the construction of a building in Holyoke’s Heritage State Park for the carousel, providing it with a home and, essentially, sealing the deal.

“If one project in recent history had to be chosen to represent the best Holyoke has to offer in community spirit, from the youngest child to the most senior resident,” the paper roared, “then the campaign to save the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round is it.”

More than 24 years later, those words still ring true.

Mane Attraction

Among the many individuals, groups, and businesses that donated in-kind services to the cause of saving the merry-go-round was the Hartford-based marketing and advertising firm Adams & Knight Communication.

The firm had a number of specific assignments — from designing promotional brochures destined for potential donors to crafting copy for print ads that ran in the Transcript Telegram and elsewhere. But one of its very specific tasks, apparently, was finding children with the ability to look sad. Really, really sad.

Children recruited for ads used in the merry-go-round campaign had plenty of practice looking sad.

Children recruited for ads used in the merry-go-round campaign had plenty of practice looking sad.

For example, there’s one young girl displaying that talent in an ad (that appeared in multiple outlets) in which she stands next to one of the carousel’s horses wearing a sign around its neck reading ‘sold.’ She’s holding on to its reins as if she doesn’t want to let go, clear symbolism of the city’s attitude at the time.

She makes another appearance, along with two other children, in an ad that features a broad view of the carousel with the headline “Imagine Telling Them That the Ride Is Over … for Good.”

And there’s a despondent yet still-hopeful young boy featured in yet another full-page ad. He’s holding out his piggy bank, as if to offer whatever’s in it. The headline reads, “Why He’s Putting All His Money on a Horse.”

But it wasn’t just young people enlisted to send this message. Indeed, several teenagers (from the ’50s, presumably, based on their attire) are featured in still another ad with the headline, “If You Care About Holyoke’s Future, Put Money Down on Her Past.”

In essence, this is what the campaign started in 1988 was all about, said those we spoke with, adding that it wasn’t just about keeping PTC 80 from being sold off as a unit or piece by piece and shipped overseas.

It was also about people investing in the city’s future, said Jackowski, meaning both the generations to come and the city itself, which needed a boost to spark its sagging fortunes and deteriorating downtown.

These sentiments are reflected in comments attributed to then-Mayor Marty Dunn (another of this story’s many heroes) in one of the many promotional pieces created to solicit support.

“This is not a toy,” said the mayor. “It is a folk-art masterpiece and a powerful attraction for our downtown.”

The merry-go-round has, by most accounts, become that spark, that attraction, thanks to the campaign to save it and, more specifically, that group that came to be known as the Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round.

It was created and led by Hickey, who first approached John Collins, owner of Mountain Park, who closed that attraction in 1987, with a proposal to allow the city of Holyoke to buy the carousel and thereby keep it ‘home.’

By most accounts, this wasn’t exactly a hard sell. Indeed, while Collins reportedly had some handsome offers for the merry-go-round on the table, including a rumored $2 million, he was supportive of the efforts to keep it in the city, and thus he set the bar, or price tag, low — $875,000.

While there was considerable support for the merry-go-round, in Holyoke and beyond, all those involved knew that raising that kind of money, at that time and in that community, would be very difficult. And, as we’ll see, the community would soon see that number rise considerably.

It’s been a labor of love — it was then, when we were raising the money to buy it, and it still is today.”

And this is where our story — the one told through the clips in those scrapbooks — really begins.

However, those we spoke with say it really starts with John Hickey.

Indeed, he was the one, said Wright, who convinced Holyokers, then facing a mountain of other, seemingly more pressing issues, from rampant unemployment to soaring poverty to a declining downtown, that the merry-go-round was still a treasure worth saving.

“In the beginning, people were saying, ‘are you kidding — a merry-go-round?’” Wright said while trying to capture the mood at the time. “There were so many other problems, from homelessness to the schools to downtown. People said, ‘how can you be thinking about raising money for a merry-go-round?’

“John would say to them, ‘you don’t understand — beauty is for your soul; there needs to be art, music, and beauty in this world, for everyone,’” she went on. “He would say, ‘this is as important as food’; he would make that comparison and stress the importance of art in one’s life.”

Round Numbers

To effectively reach the people of Holyoke, and beyond, Hickey would make early and frequent use of the Transcript Telegram’s op-ed page. Some of his early entreaties capture his passion for the project and his belief that it was an important part of the city’s history, identity, and psyche.

“A city needs more practical things, like sewage-treatment plants, snow plows, water filtration, better roads, and good school buildings,” he wrote on March 5, 1988, just as the campaign was being conceptualized. “But it also needs objects that nourish its spiritual life. A beautiful and historic, million-dollar merry-go-round may be a bit of mirthful indulgence, but it will give us, for generations, a special kind of happiness and pride.

“It is sad that we are losing our historic amusement park,” he would go on a few paragraphs later, “but it would be tragic if we stood by, doing nothing, and letting its centerpiece, the merry-go-round, become the object of pride and fame in some other distant city.”

Merry-go-round employee Kathie McDonough, left, staffs the concession stand with long-time volunteer Maureen Costello.

Merry-go-round employee Kathie McDonough, left, staffs the concession stand with long-time volunteer Maureen Costello.

Beyond passionate rhetoric, though, Hickey understood that this campaign needed a solid foundation on which to build, and to erect one, he turned to the many banks and other prominent corporate citizens at that time, said Wright.

“He pulled together all the CEOs and banking leaders and put them in a room,” she recalled, adding that, prior to this now-historic gathering, he took them to Mountain Park for a ceremonial and sentimental look at the carousel. “He talked for an hour about the value of this merry-go-round, not only to families and kids, but for history, nostalgia, as an anchor to downtown … he went through the whole thing.

“And he said, ‘unless you people commit a big number — and I mean a big number — then we can’t do it,’” she went on. “And by then, he had them practically in tears.”

Before the meeting convened, a big number, $300,000, had indeed been pledged, she went on, adding that, as for the rest … well, there were a variety of imaginative, and effective, strategies put to use, as told by the stories, ads, and posters clipped into the scrapbooks.

Famously, schoolchildren in the city raised $32,000 in two weeks from selling cookies and candy door-to-door, and for that work, a plaque was placed next the armored lead horse in their honor (such plaques were placed under each horse to commemorate donors.)

There was that fishing derby at the Jones Ferry Marina (“now is the time not to flounder,” wrote the creative scribe at the Chicopee Herald); Holyoke Community College raffled off a free semester of study to aid the cause; musicians performed at a benefit concert; the city’s aldermen launched a charity ball, with the merry-go-round as the first recipient of proceeds; commemorative stamped envelopes were issued with the likeness of the lead horse on them (the price was 25 cents, which will tell you how much water has passed under the bridge).

Also, schoolchildren sold Christmas ornaments; artists sold limited lithographs of the carousel; there were car washes, phone-a-thons, a 10th-anniversary party at the mall, with the carousel as the beneficiary. And at the Merry-Go-Round Gift Store (the storefront donated by the mall) and other locations, supporters could buy hats, ornaments, tote bags, sweatshirts, a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, mugs, notecards, and several different posters with carousel imagery. The headline on the ad promoting it all in the Dec. 9 issue of the Transcript read, “Now You Can Finally Get a Pony for Christmas.”

Turn for the Better

As noted, the brass ring Hickey mentioned became the unofficial prize, if you will, and the phrase appeared repeatedly in ads and news stories throughout the campaign.

But even as the original goal of more than $1 million came closer to reality, the bar moved, and in a big way, said Wright, noting that, from the beginning, organizers knew they would have to build a home for the carousel.

They had a pledge from the state of $300,000 to build that home, she said, but as time went on, huge doubts emerged about whether the state could uphold its end of the bargain given the enormous financial pressure it was under, and whether that amount would be enough.

As things turned out, the state did keep its promise, but that figure wasn’t nearly enough (bids for the structure came in at twice that total).

Photography by Leah Martin

Photography by Leah Martin

But funds to cover the difference were raised with significant help from Warren Rhoades, then-president of PeoplesBank, she said, adding that this triumph would be one of the countless enduring stories from the campaign to save the carousel and then operate it, many of which simply didn’t generate headlines, but certainly contributed to that phrase ‘labor of love.’

As she recounted some of them, Wright said she didn’t really know where to start.

She eventually settled on Jim Curran, a contractor and owner of the Wherehouse banquet and meeting facility in downtown Holyoke, who not only stored a large amount of the carousel’s thousands of components — most of the horses were kept in a locked railroad car, and Hickey even kept some in his living room — but also took the carousel apart and played a huge role in the very complex, time-consuming effort to put it all back together.

“It was like a giant puzzle,” she explained. “There were boxes and boxes of nuts and bolts; it was mind-boggling to me.”

Wright also mentioned her husband, Joe (the couple have a long history of philanthropy in their native Holyoke), who assisted with piecing the carousel together and maintaining it; Tim Murphy, the architect who designed the carousel’s new home in Heritage State Park; Will Girard, a neighbor of the Wrights who has assisted with seemingly endless repairs and maintenance; the Gaul family, which donated the huge concession stand now at the carousel, replacing what amounted to a card table that was there at the start; Craig Lemieux, who volunteered the time and labor that went into building the ramp to make the carousel handicap-accessible; and the Steiger family for gifting to the carousel the Tiffany window that graced its downtown Holyoke store.

And on she went, noting that there were, and still are, volunteer angels whose names she never knew and faces she never saw.

“When we first opened, we didn’t have any money; we had no debt, but we also had no money,” she said. “And people just did things. Like cleaning the windows — people would appear … in the dark of night; I don’t know, I never saw them.”

The Ride Stuff

In many respects, this community spirit and volunteerism continues today, said those we spoke with, adding that the task of keeping the carousel open and operating is daunting, and a small army of volunteers is still needed.

Speaking in broad terms, Jackowski said operating a merry-go-round is a tough business these days — so tough that many have actually closed in recent years — and this one is no exception.

He cited everything from the myriad competitors for the time and attention of children and families to the rising cost of doing business (and generally flat revenues), to changes in Holyoke itself.

“It’s like any other business — there are fixed expenses and just stuff that you have to do,” he said, adding that there is quite a lot of ‘stuff’ with this ride that is now nearly 90 years old. “It’s a piece of machinery that requires maintenance and upkeep and hardware. And the community has changed in the 20-plus years since we opened; we had a bigger presence of retail and shopping when we first opened, and a lot of what was downtown and drew people to the downtown is unfortunately not there anymore.”

As one example, he cited Celebrate Holyoke, the annual summer festival that drew tens of thousands of people to Holyoke during its four-day run, which was discontinued several years ago.

“That used to be a huge weekend for us — we would get 20,000 riders in four days,” he explained. “Once that went away, it was hard to make up those riders; even at $1 per head, that was $20,000.”

And that challenge goes a long way toward explaining why a ride now costs $2, which is still a great bargain and one of the lowest prices to be found for a merry-go-round.

But, as with the vast majority of museums and other types of attractions, admission doesn’t cover annual expenses, said Joe McGiverin, another long-time member of the Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round board, noting that labor (there are seven staff members) and, especially, insurance top the list of rising costs.

Thus, other sources of income must be developed and nutured.

Birthday parties, private functions, and a handful of weddings each year have long been one such source, said Barbara Griffin, another long-time board member and former staff member at the Log Cabin, who, with Jackowski and others, would handle the logistics of such events.

“That’s just one example of how of this is truly a working board — we don’t just go to meetings,” she explained, adding that, while the staff manages the carousel day-to-day and is largely responsible for that perfect safety rating, the attraction is dependent on volunteers today as much as it was when the money to buy the attraction was being raised.

And many of these volunteers have their own specific assignments, said Wright, who offered one of many examples.

“Joe is the security person — if the alarm goes off in the middle of the night, it’s his responsibility to go in there and see what’s going on,” she said. “Everyone on the board has a job, in one way or another.”

But overall, the volunteers are generalists, said McGiverin, and help with everything from keeping the grounds clean to staging the semi-annual Kentucky Derby-themed fund-raiser, called Derby Dazzle, at the site.

But there is another source of help at the carousel that speaks volumes about its hold on people — and its special place in Holyoke.

These would be the young people — and there are more than a few of them — who would like to ride but don’t have $2, said Griffin, adding that staff members will often let them take a spin in exchange for pushing a broom for a few minutes.

“If they want to sweep the floor or pick something up, we’d be more than happy to give them a little something in return,” she said, noting that, in the larger scheme of things, the carousel is what has been given to all of Holyoke, and the region as a whole, in return for the generosity that kept it here.

Wright agreed. “These kids … they know what we have, and you can’t let a kid walk by and just look in the window all day. You need to let them ride.”

That’s the kind of community spirit John Hickey was talking about all those years ago.

Words That Ring True

In March 1988, not even Hickey could have known what an attraction, and an institution, the merry-go-round would become.

Then again, maybe he did know. Or maybe … there’s no maybe about it.

What was it he wrote? “A beautiful and historic merry-go-round may be a bit of mirthful indulgence, but it will give us, for generations, a special kind of happiness and pride.”

Sounds quite prescient, as does that comment from the Transcript Telegram. Indeed, this was, and still is, the best Holyoke has to offer in community spirit, from the youngest child to the most senior resident.

And that’s why, nearly 30 years after this saga began, three decades after Hickey implored a city to reach for that “glittering brass ring,” the story about how it all happened never gets old.

And that’s also why the many Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round — those who have passed and those who still keep the city’s happiness machine turning — are true Difference Makers.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2017 Difference Makers

Cut and Dried

In Business and the Community, Denis Gagnon Is a Role Model

Denis Gagnon

Denis Gagnon

Denis Gagnon Sr. was asked about the origins of the signed, framed Tom Brady jersey that dominates one wall of his spacious office at Excel Dryer in East Longmeadow.

Rather than answer that question, he bolted up out of his chair and said, “think that’s nice? I’ve got something better … follow me.”

And with that, he walked briskly down the hall, with BusinessWest in tow, to the conference room, apologized as he ever-so-briefly interrupted a meeting in progress, and proudly pointed to a huge framed, autographed photo of Malcolm Butler, depicting the moment he stepped in front of Russell Wilson’s final pass in the 2015 Super Bowl, sealing a Patriots victory.

“How about that?” Gagnon, the company’s president, said of the photo, a gift from Pats owner Robert Kraft, who is now a valued customer of Excel Dryer, which, according to company literature — not to mention most people who have placed their hands under one of its products — has revolutionized the long-maligned hand-dryer industry.

Later, amid considerable and quite necessary prodding, he grudgingly revealed that signed photos and jerseys are just some of the many benefits that have come through what is now a very solid and multi-faceted marketing relationship between the Patriots and Excel (and donations to the team’s charitable foundation), up to and including the opportunity for Gagnon to actually get on the hallowed turf at Gillette Stadium, practice with the team, and play some catch with TB 12.

As noted, such reflections came reluctantly, because it is simply not in Gagnon’s nature to call attention to his actions or accomplishments. Those who know him well say he basically just goes quietly — and quite efficiently — about his business.

Denis Gagnon with his wife, Nancy, and sons Denis Jr., left, and Bill, right.

Denis Gagnon with his wife, Nancy, and sons Denis Jr., left, and Bill, right.

And by ‘business,’ they aren’t referring specifically to Excel and its signature product, the XLERATOR, although that’s certainly a big part of the conversation — the part referring to his strong entrepreneurial instincts, success in making the company’s products a global phenomenon, and even pride that the dryers are made not only in America (the only ones that can make such a claim), but in the 413 area code.

“I’m in the men’s room at Heathrow Airport … and I see East Longmeadow, Mass. on the XLERATOR,” recalled Gene Cassidy, president of the Big E, who has known Gagnon for years, “and it sends shivers up my spine; I wanted everyone in the lavatory to know that I knew Denis Gagnon.”

No, by ‘business,’ they were mostly referring to Gagnon’s strong track record of service to the community, which is notable for many reasons.

For starters, there’s simply the depth of that service, which includes everything from decades of work with the Boy Scouts and the Children’s Study Home to his multi-layered involvement with Link to Libraries (LTL).

There is also his ability to inspire others to become involved and make a difference in their own way.

He’s a man who not only sees the need, but takes action. He is very empathetic to those people in need and especially the young people of our community.”

Dana Barrows, a financial advisor with Northwestern Mutual, another long-time acquaintance and long-time LTL volunteer, explains.

“I was in Denis’ office four years ago, and I saw a picture of him with Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno,” he recalled. “I said, ‘what are you doing?’ and he replied that he was reading a book to school kids as part of Link to Libraries. And he told me I should check it out.

“I did, I’ve been reading ever since, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it,” he said, adding that this is but a small example of how Gagnon not only gets involved, but gets others to follow suit.

Humbly, Gagnon said simply, “if you have the good fortune of being in a good corporate job or owning your own business, like we’ve been able to do, you have a responsibility to give back to that community.”

And this philosophy was certainly handed down to his children, including those involved with him at Excel, Denis Jr. and Bill, who are both very active in the community (Bill is a member of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty class of 2013).

Mike Suzor, assistant to the president at Springfield Technical Community College and a serial entrepreneur himself, was a classmate of Gagnon’s at Cathedral High School, in the class of 1968. He remembers Gagnon as an excellent student, a multi-sport athlete, and someone who knew what it took to succeed on any stage, or playing field.

Mike Suzor

Mike Suzor, a long-time friend and former classmate of Denis Gagnon’s at Cathedral, says Gagnon has always understood what it takes to succeed at any level.

“I never met his parents, but they must have been great people,” he said, “because Denis learned very early on the value of honesty, integrity, and hard work — ‘don’t pass it off to someone else; get it done yourself.’ That attitude was there in high school, and it has stayed with him all through his career.”

“If you measure success financially, then he’s clearly successful,” Suzor went on. “But if you measure success by what kind of human being someone is … he’s one of the most successful people I’ve ever met.”

Rarified Air

Over the past 18 years or so, Gagnon has sat across from interviewers representing all manner of media outlets curious about the XLERATOR, from the small weekly paper that covers Longmeadow and East Longmeadow to the Wall Street Journal; from a host of trade publications, such as Restaurant Daily News, to Inc. magazine.

While the comments vary, obviously, he will undoubtedly tell the inquirer something he told BusinessWest back in 2003 — that, as entrepreneurial gambles go, Excel Dryer was anything but a rock-solid bet.

That’s because the company made a product that, by Gagnon’s own admission, people don’t like or want — electric hand dryers, a product that, historically, didn’t dry people’s hands as much as they would like.

As he explained back then, and has gone on explaining ever since, most businesses and institutions that installed hand dryers in those days did so because satisfying the customer — and that’s a relative term in this case — was not a priority, and saving money was. As examples, he listed airports, train stations, colleges, municipal buildings, sports stadiums, and even correctional facilities.

Today, businesses and institutions like those mentioned above, but also some certainly not on that list, are installing Excel models because they do place a premium on customer service — and also on protecting the environment and saving money.

Changing the hand-dryer landscape wasn’t exactly the stated mission when Gagnon bought a piece of Excel in 1992 and later acquired the entire company, but it quickly became not only a goal, but an obsession — one of those who knew Gagnon well firmly believed he would succeed with, even given the chosen product’s dubious history and uncertain future.

To explain, Suzor went into the wayback machine to Cathedral High, then home to 3,000 students, and memories of Gagnon the student-athlete.

“He was an incredible wrestler and first-team All-Western Mass. placekicker,” Suzor recalled. “In the wintertime, he would go out and kick field goals in the snow to practice; he was absolutely dedicated to excellence and doing whatever it took to be the best he could be. Going back to high school, he showed that.”

This pattern would continue at UMass Amherst and later in business, especially at what was then Milton Bradley, later Hasbro, and now Cartamundi, where Gagnon would rise in the ranks to vice president of International Sales.

This was a rewarding job in a number of ways, but also one that took him away from home quite often (he was responsible for the Pacific Rim region).

Desiring a change, and something closer to home, he and his wife Nancy would both join her family’s business, Springfield-based Bassett Boat, and he would help it achieve dramatic growth in the late ’80s. But the deep and lengthy recession that began at the end of that decade put a serious hurt on discretionary spending and thus the boat business, and Gagnon began searching for an entrepreneurial adventure of his own.

He and a partner thoroughly researched options, and set their sights on Excel Dryer, but the partner got cold feet, leaving Gagnon to pursue plan B, as he called it, which was to acquire a piece of that company and acquire the rest over time as he ran its sales and marketing efforts.

By 1997, when the acquisition was complete, he would begin the process of changing the equation when it came to the product that seemingly no one liked or wanted by partnering with (and essentially bankrolling) some inventors with a revolutionary new concept.

In time, it would come to be called the XLERATOR, which, as that name suggests, was painstakingly designed to reduce the time it took to dry one’s hands, while actually getting the job done.

Gagnon explains the technology, sort of, in one of the many interviews he’s given, this one with Restaurant Daily News.

“If I could describe the new drying system in layman’s terms, I would say that it delivers a focused, high-velocity air stream, which blows off excess water in three to four seconds,” he told that publication, “and evaporates the remaining boundary layer of moisture very rapidly. With a conventional hand dryer, it takes over 20 seconds before effective evaporation takes place, and 30 to 45 seconds overall to completely dry your hands.”

Denis Gagnon

Denis Gagnon stands beside one of the first XLERATORs, the hand dryer that changed perceptions about that product.

He skipped over much of the proprietary science and engineering that would eventually solve a noise problem and enable the XLERATOR to live up to its considerable promise and become the best-selling hand dryer in the world, with more than a million units now in use.

The map outside Gagnon’s office, the one with multi-colored push pins on seemingly every continent (covering more than 70 countries in which the product is now sold), does an effective job of explaining how far this company has come in less than two decades.

Having a Blast

But there are other ways to measure its success, and at Excel, there are many of them, including:

• Evolution of the venture into a true family business. Indeed, while Denis Gagnon is president, his wife, Nancy, who has been involved with the company from the beginning, serves as vice president, while son Bill, who joined after college when Denis was developing the XLERATOR and has since helped grow the company, is vice president of Marketing and Sales, and son Denis Jr. is vice president of International Sales;

• Continued expansion and diversification of the product line, including a new “XLERATOR integrated sink system,” as Gagnon described it (there’s a prototype at the Fort restaurant in Springfield and 168 of them at MGM’s new casino in Maryland). Developed in collaboration with Sloan Valve, it includes an automatic soap dispenser, automatic faucet, and an automatic dryer coming out of what looks like a faucet head. “You never have to leave the sink — you soap, wash, and dry your hands right there,” he explained, adding that the product is being brought to the marketplace by a separate LLC called D13 Group, run by his son Bill and son-in-law Lance;

• Continued expansion of the plant complex in East Longmeadow to accommodate a growing company and staff (the company now employs 49 people). Town officials recently approved plans for 5,000 square feet of additional warehouse, R&D, and engineering space;

• Official designation as an American-made product and being named as the inaugural winner of the ‘Made in the USA Certified Award’ in the ‘medium company’ category in 2013; and

• Continued exposure in the press. Over the years, the company and the XLERATOR has earned all kinds of ink and face time. It was one of Terry Bradshaw’s ‘picks of the week,’ on his CNN Headline News segment, for example, and has also been on the Science Channel’s How It’s Made show, the Discovery Channel’s Things We Love to Hate series (actually, the show was about how the XLERATOR is changing perceptions about hand dryers), and many more.

But, as noted earlier, success in business is really only one chapter in the Denis Gagnon story, and not the most important one, according to those who know him well.

Excel Dryer employees

Excel Dryer employees gather for a shot at the plant in East Longmeadow. The company has registered explosive growth in recent years.

Instead, it’s his work within the community that resonates most.

As he talked about that work — again, something he doesn’t like to do and would rather leave to others — he referenced a more-than-half-century-long relationship with the Boy Scouts of America and the many lessons imparted him through that involvement.

Especially those from his youth. Indeed, Gagnon, a member of Troop 424, which met at the Nativity Church in the Willimansett section of Chicopee, became an Eagle Scout at the age of 12, something that couldn’t be done today (one needs to be at least 14) and was a very rare achievement back then.

He remembers some of the scout credos, or marching orders, if you will, and said they’ve never left him.

“What’s the motto of the Boy Scouts? ‘Do a good turn daily’ — in other words, do something to give back to help other people,” he explained. “They teach you to be self-reliant, but they also teach you to give back, and that stays with you.”

Likewise, he’s never really left the Boy Scouts. He served as board president for eight years, for example, and, during that time, merged the Pioneer Valley Council and the Great Trails Council into the Western Massachusetts Council of the Boy Scouts of America. And he’s still on the board.

In addition, he’s been a long-time supporter of a number of agencies, including the United Way, the American Red Cross, Western New England University (he’s a trustee), and a host of veterans’ organization, including Wounded Warriors.

Also on that list is the Children’s Study Home, the oldest nonprofit in Western Mass., which was created in 1865 as the Springfield Home for Friendless Women and Children, serving mostly the widows of Civil War veterans.

He’s served that agency, which provides a host of innovative and educational programs to strengthen children and families, in a number of roles, including the current one — president emeritus.

“That means that, whenever something big happens, they know who to call,” he joked, adding that his son Bill is now on the board.

Buy the Book

Actually, a number of agencies have called Gagnon’s number over the years, generally because he rarely says ‘no,’ but especially because he does much more than simply write a check.

That was the case with Link to Libraries, which, as that name suggests, places books on school-library shelves, but also brings business leaders into the classroom to read and essentially adopt the school in question.

Excel Dryer now sponsors two schools, and eight people at Excel volunteer to read, he said, adding that this is a company-wide effort that goes beyond read-alouds. Indeed, the company has funded a field trip to Sturbridge Village and other initiatives. And, as noted, Gagnon has encouraged others, including Barrows, to become involved and sponsor schools themselves.

Susan Jaye-Kaplan, founder of Link to Libraries and one of the first Difference Makers brought to the stage at the Log Cabin back in 2009, said Gagnon’s involvement with LTL is a good example of how he immerses himself in a cause and offers support that goes well beyond a cash contribution.

“He’s one of the most humble and caring men that I know,” said Jaye-Kaplan, who was one of many to invoke the phrase ‘role model’ as she talked about Gagnon. “He has never forgotten where he comes from or the people who helped make him the man he is today.

“He’s a man who not only sees the need, but takes action,” she went on. “He is very empathetic to those people in need and especially the young people of our community.”

Cassidy agreed, and put to use some of the same words and phrases others would deploy as they talked about Gagnon: ‘quiet,’ ‘humble,’ ‘generous,’ ‘impressive,’ ‘family man,’ and ‘inspiring,’ to name a few.

“He works quietly and mostly behind the scenes,” he said. “I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from him throughout my career from the way he works with people, the way he deals with adversity, and especially his generosity to the community.”

Barrows, who’s been doing business in Western Mass. for more than 40 years now, went so far as to put Gagnon in the same company (and sentence) as the late Dick Stebbins, the long-time regional president of BayBank whom most credit with setting the standard locally when it comes to community service, and said Gagnon is essentially the standard bearer for his generation.

Stebbins and Gagnon had different platforms in the business community — the former with a large public corporation, and the latter with a much smaller, family-owned company, but both worked in essentially the same way, Barrows explained.

“When I think of the people of that stature in today’s Pioneer Valley business community, I think of John and Steve Davis, and I think of Denis Gagnon,” he explained, adding that there may be others he is less familiar with.

“Denis is a little more private, a little more anonymous with his work in the community,” he went on. “But his actions speak very loudly. He’s a major player, and he inspires others with what he does and how he does it.”

Suzor agreed, noting that, in his philanthropic efforts, as with his business exploits, Gagnon takes a measured, results-driven approach to his giving.

“Even with his generosity, he would want to know the plan — ‘if I’m giving you money, what are you going to do with it? How are you going to use it? And how are you going to measure how successful you are at using it?’” he explained. “He’s a very bright businessman who always says, ‘let’s do what makes sense, and let’s not do what doesn’t make sense,’ and it was the same with his work in the community.”

Cut and Dried

In Business and the Community, Denis Gagnon Is a Role Model
That’s the Ticket

Returning to the subject of the Patriots and the various perks derived from that relationship, Gagnon noted that the company now has several season tickets.

In what should come as no surprise to anyone who knows him, Gagnon doesn’t use them much himself. (In fact, by late December, he had taken in only the Rams game a few weeks earlier, and that very ugly loss to Buffalo in early October, when Brady was still serving his Deflategate ‘vacation,’ as the quarterback called it).

Indeed, as any smart businessperson would, he bestows most of those tickets on very good customers and those who may attain such status. But he also puts them to use within the community — he donates tickets to the Boy Scouts, for example, for one of its fund-raisers, and, through his son Denis Jr., a board member with the United Way, that organization has received a few as well.

That’s a small example, but one of many, of someone who very quietly and humbly goes about his business — or businesses, as the case may be.

There’s the one that makes electric dryers, and then there’s the business of giving back to the community.

He’s, well, very hands-on, as one might say, with both — and certainly making a difference across Western Mass. in every sense of that phrase.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2017 Difference Makers

Paying Dividends

JA Provides Critical Lessons in Business, Life

Jennifer Connolly

Jennifer Connolly stands beside the portrait of JA co-founder Horace Moses at the agency’s offices in Tower Square.

Jennifer Connolly likes to say Junior Achievement works hard to present young people — and, in this case, that means kindergartners to high-school seniors — with eye-opening and quite necessary doses of reality.

And one of the more intriguing — and anecdote-inspiring — examples is an exercise involving second-graders — specifically, an individual wearing a nametag that reads simply, ‘Tax Collector.’

The best story I ever heard from one of our volunteers was about how he announced to the class that it was time to take the taxes, and this one boy dove under his desk and said, ‘no, no, my daddy says taxes are bad … I don’t want to pay taxes!”

You guessed it. This is a direct lesson in how the amount of money one earns certainly isn’t the amount taken home on payday. In this case, the tax collector, often one of the students, literally takes away two of the five dollars a student has ‘earned’ for work they’ve undertaken.

The exercise has yielded some keepsake photos for the archives, and colorful stories that Connolly, president of Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts, has related countless times.

The ‘tax collector’ makes his rounds at a local school

The ‘tax collector’ makes his rounds at a local school. The exercise provides important lessons and has yielded some colorful anecdotes.

“The best story I ever heard from one of our volunteers was about how he announced to the class that it was time to take the taxes,” she recalled, “and this one boy dove under his desk and said, ‘no, no, my daddy says taxes are bad … I don’t want to pay taxes!’

“And the students … they don’t want to be the tax collector,” she went on. “We sometimes have to get one of our volunteers to do it. The kids cry — they don’t want to take money away from people; they say, ‘I can’t do this.’ It’s adorable.”

That’s not a word that applies to all the lessons, obviously, including one that Connolly imparted on a local high-school student herself.

“One girl couldn’t decide between being an early-childhood educator or a doctor,” she explained. “She looked at the income for an early-childhood worker and said, ‘that’s terrible,’ and I said, ‘unfortunately, yes.’

“So she said, ‘I’ll go into allied health, become a doctor, and make a lot of money,’” Connolly went on. “That’s when I told her about one of my daughter’s friends who became a dentist; she owes $250,000 in student loans, is back home living with her parents, and drives the same minivan she had when she was in college. I told this student there are no easy choices, and you have to weigh the impact, and she replied, ‘you’ve given me so much information, my head is going to explode.’”

Whether adorable or biting in their nature, the lessons provided by JA are, in a word, necessary, said Connolly and others we spoke with. That’s because they help prepare young individuals for the world beyond the classroom, where wrong decisions about finances can have disastrous consequences, and also where hands-on experience with the world of business can pay huge dividends and perhaps even inspire future entrepreneurs and business managers.

“It’s rewarding to watch the students and see the lightbulbs go on,” said Al Kasper, president and chief operating officer of Savage Arms in Westfield, who has been a long-time JA volunteer and board member.

At present, he mentors two entrepreneurship classes, or “company programs,” at East Longmeadow High School taught by Dawn Quercia, who has been doing this for nearly 20 years now, and is such a believer in the program that she fronts the startup money needed for her classes to place orders for the products they are to sell.

 

Dawn Quercia

Dawn Quercia, who fronts the money for her business students’ ventures, says the JA program provides hands-on lessons one can’t get from a textbook.

“It’s a little risky … I’m not a wealthy person, but I believe in the kids,” she said, adding that the most she’s ever lost is $200, and all she ever gets back is her investment — there’s no interest.

The dividend, she went on, is watching students learn by doing and gain maturity and life lessons while doing so.

“I could teach this out of a book, and that’s what I did when I first started here,” she went on. “And I didn’t feel the kids were learning as much as they could, and I said, ‘why don’t we just start a business?’”

Young people have been doing just that since 1919, when Horace Moses, president of Strathmore Paper Co., collaborated with other industry titans to bring the business world into the classroom by having students run their own venture.

And it continues today with a wide range of programs involving the full spectrum of young students — from those learning their colors to those trying to decide which college to attend.

JA is coming up on its centennial celebration, and since it was essentially born in Western Mass. (although now headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo.), Connolly is hoping that Springfield, and perhaps the Big E — where the so-called Junior Achievement Building, built in 1925 and funded by Moses, still stands — can be the gathering spot for birthday celebrations.

But while she’s starting to think about a party, she’s more focused on providing more of those hard, yet vital lessons described earlier. And that’s why this organization was named a Difference Maker for 2017, and is clearly worthy of that honor.

Thinking Outside the Box

They’re called ‘memory boxes.’

That’s the name a small group of students from Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy in Springfield assigned to a product they conceived, assembled themselves, and took to the marketplace just over a year ago.

As the name suggests, these are decorated wooden boxes, complete with several compartments designed to store jewelry or … whatever. They were hand-painted, with stenciling and paper flowers glued on the top, and priced to sell for $15, with were being the operative word. That’s because, well, they just didn’t sell, and are now more collectors’ items than anything else.

But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

“They did everything to sell them — they kept getting knocked down, and they kept getting back up,” said Connolly, referring to the students involved in this exercise, which she supervised as part of the JAYE (Junior Achievement Young Entrepreneurs) program. “They tried craft fairs, flea markets, they tried online, they sold from a table at Tower Square … the boxes just didn’t sell.

“The girls just wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” she went on, adding quickly, though, that they heard ‘no’ more than enough times to convince them it was time to develop a new product. “They learned to take rejection very well.”

From left, Sabrina Roberts, Dajah Gordon, and Johnalie Gomez

From left, Sabrina Roberts, Dajah Gordon, and Johnalie Gomez have learned some critical lessons selling ankle anklets — and not selling memory boxes.

And that, as it turned out, was only one of many lessons imparted upon them during that exercise, as was made clear by these comments from Dajah Gordon, a team member and JAYE veteran who has been part of far more successful ventures, including the team that went to the program’s national finals, staged in Washington, D.C., two years ago with a company that sold charm bracelets.

“Whenever we fail, like we did with the boxes, we have to step back, look at the company, and say, ‘where are we lacking?’” she said of the six-month odyssey with that ill-fated product, which all the participants can look back on now and laugh. “For us, with the boxes, something we didn’t focus on much was our target market; we were trying to sell to everybody, but we needed a specific target group or audience.

“Later, we got that part down,” she went on, adding that the identified audience — young people like themselves — has become far more receptive to the team’s new product, the so-called ‘wish anklet.’ (The wearer is to make a wish upon tying it around her ankle; if she keeps it on until it naturally falls off, the secret wish will come true.)

While there is no documented or even anecdotal evidence that the product performs as advertised, the anklets, introduced just a few months ago, have been selling well, and the three young women involved are certainly optimistic about fast-approaching Valentine’s Day, and are hard at work replenishing depleted inventory.

These collective exploits are typical of the JAYE initiative, an after-school version of the JA Company Program, which is the very bedrock on which the Junior Achievement concept was built in the months after World War I ended and when the nation was returning to what amounted to a peacetime economy.

Horace Moses; Theodore Vail, president of American Telephone & Telegraph; and Massachusetts Sen. Murray Crane got together behind the notion that, as the nation shifted from a largely agrarian economy to an industrial-based system, young people would need an education in how to run a business, said Connolly. A decidedly hands-on education.

Four and perhaps five generations of young people have formed enterprises and brought products to market through what is still known as the JA Company Program, as evidenced by the front lobby of the JA office on the mezzanine level in Tower Square, which has a number of artifacts, if you will, on display.

There are no memory boxes, but on one table, for example, is what would now be considered a very rudimentary, wooden paper-towel-roll holder, as well as a small rack for key chains, both products conceived by high-school classes in the ’70s, said Connolly.

On another table by the front window, near a large, imposing painting of Horace Moses (a prized possession for this JA chapter), is a wooden lamp, a product produced in the late ’70s through a JA Company Program called Bright Ideas, sponsored by what was then called Western Mass. Electric Co. (now Eversource). Connolly noted that lamps of various kinds were a staple of early JA ‘company’ classes, which started as after-school exercises and eventually moved into the classroom in the late ’50s.

Today, there are in-class and after-school programs that are providing students with tremendous opportunities to not only learn how a business is run, but operate one themselves, experiencing just about everything the so-called real world can throw at them.

Learning Opportunites

That would definitely be the case with another after-school JAYE program, said Connolly, this one called the Thunderpucks.

A collaborative effort involving students at Putnam, Chicopee High School, and Pope Francis High School, this bold initiative essentially makes a team of students part of the staff of the Springfield Thunderbirds, the new AHL franchise that started play last fall amid considerable fanfare and promise.

Al Kasper

Al Kasper says he enjoys seeing the “lightbulbs go on” as he mentors students involved in JA programs at East Longmeadow High.

This team has been assigned the March 3 tilt against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and will coordinate many aspects of it, from the band that plays the National Anthem to the T-shirt toss, to some ticket sales, said Connolly.

“They’re going to be reaching out to businesses and groups and trying to sell them ticket packages,” she explained. “They’re going to be handling almost all aspects of the game; it’s an incredible learning experience.”

Those last two words, and even the one before them, would apply to most all JA initiatives, she went on, adding, again, that they start with children at a very young age.

With that, she took BusinessWest through the portfolio of programs, if you will — one that involved some 11,500 students across the region during the 2015-16 school year — starting in kindergarten.

At that age, the focus is on very basic financial literacy, such as understanding currency and the concept of a savings account. By first grade, students are acquainted with jobs, businesses, the assembly line (they create one to make paper donuts), and the term ‘income,’ and how families must live within one. This is when they are told about the difference between a ‘want’ and a ‘need.’

Moving along, in second grade, the tax collector makes his arrival — money is taken from those working to make donuts and given to those working for the government, so students can see where their tax dollars go, among other lessons. In third grade, students learn how a city operates and are introduced to concepts such as zoning, planning, and the basics of running a business.

And on it goes, said Connolly, adding that, by sixth grade, students are learning about cultural differences and why, for example, they can’t sell hamburgers in India. By middle school, there are more in-depth lessons in personal finances, budgeting, branding, and careers — and how to start one — as part of the broad Economics for Success program.

By high school, the learning-by-doing concept continues with everything from actual companies to stock-market challenges; from job shadowing to lean-manufacturing concepts. And while students learn, they also teach, with high-school students mentoring those in elementary school, and college students returning to coach those in high school.

The work of providing all these lessons falls to a virtual army of volunteers, said Connolly, adding that the Western Mass. chapter deployed more than 400 of them last year. They visited 522 classrooms and donated more than 73,000 hours to the area’s communities.

“JA is taking what students are learning in school, the math, the communications, the writing, all of that, and giving it a real-life reason,” she explained, summing up all that programming and its relative importance to the students and the region as a whole. “You need math because … you have to figure out your finances, or you might run a business. You need to understand social studies and geography because we’re an integrated world — where do the products come from?

“And the activities we have in JA are really hands-on, so we really promote critical thinking, analyzing, and problem solving,” she went on. “These are the 21st-century skills that students will really need.”

Returning to that episode involving the high-school girl trying to decide between early-childhood education and the medical field, and the choices involved with each path, Connolly said it reflects many of the lessons and experiences that JA provides.

“We don’t want to show them that everything’s easy — it’s not easy, no matter what you pick,” she explained. “We’re trying to make them think and make intelligent decisions.”

And this is certainly true when it comes to the JA Company Program, as we’ll see.

Course of Action

“Good cop … bad cop.”

That’s how Katie Roeder, a junior at East Longmeadow High School, chose to describe how she and Seth Bracci, co-presidents of a company now selling sweatshirts, work together at their JA venture.

And she’s the bad cop, a role she thinks she’s suited for, and that she enjoys.

Katie Roeder

Katie Roeder says she enjoys her ‘bad cop’ role as co-president of a company at East Longmeadow High School selling sweatshirts.

“I’m the one who lays out the schedule, and I go around to different groups and check on them, and if they’re not where they need to do be, I ask them to do those things as soon as possible,” she explained. “And Seth … he comes in after that and says, ‘c’mon, guys, let’s do it,’ evening out the seriousness with a bit of fun.”

It all seems to be working, she went on, adding that this business doesn’t have a name, really; it’s merely identified by the class title and time slot: Entrepreneurship H Block (12:20-1:01 p.m.). It is one of two JA classes at the school, with the other selling water bottles, as we’ll see shortly.

The H Block class spent a good amount of time deciding on a product, Roeder told BusinessWest, adding that, while young people can buy sweatshirts in countless places, online and in the store, they can’t find one with the distinctive Spartan logo, or mascot, that has identified ELHS since it opened in 1960 — unless they’re on a sports team.

The class then spent even more time — too much, by some accounts — coming up with a design (gray sweatshirt with a red logo, covering both of the school’s colors), she went on, adding that Quercia insisted on making this a democratic exercise, with input from all those involved, to achieve as much buy-in as possible. Then it spent still more time conducting what would be considered market research on who might purchase the product before placing a large order with the manufacturer.

This was a fruitful exercise, Roeder noted, because it informed company officers that those most likely to buy were underclassmen and students at nearby Birchland Park Middle School who would soon become ninth-graders. Thus, the order was for large numbers of smalls and mediums, and only a handful of XLs and XXLs, presumably to be sold to alums at the Thanksgiving Day football game (and there were a few such transactions).

Such hands-on lessons in how businesses run, or should run, are what JA’s entrepreneurship program is all about, said those we spoke with, adding that the year-long exercise is an intriguing departure from learning via a textbook, such as in AP Calculus, which is where Roeder was supposed to be at that moment, only she got a pass so she could talk with BusinessWest.

“It’s great because it’s different from the day-to-day classroom things we do,” she noted. “We handle real money; this is a real business with real stakes. It doesn’t feel like a class at all. We’re learning, but it doesn’t feel like we are. All that knowledge still goes into our mind, and we keep it there.”

Bracci agreed. “It’s interesting to see the inner workings and just how hard it is to create your own business,” he explained, “and how there are many different obstacles you can run into as someone trying to get a product out there.”

Meanwhile, at the water-bottle-selling company gathered next door, in room 111, the discussion focused on sales to date — and how to sell the 30 or so units still in inventory.

Co-president Bridget Arnesen, while occasionally drinking from one of the Spartan-logo-adorned bottles, exhorted her classmates to not rest on their laurels — bottle sales did well in the run-up to the holidays — and keep selling when and where they could, such as at the big basketball game slated for that night against league powerhouse Central.

This was where Kasper stepped in to evoke the ‘80-20 rule,’ which, he said, predicts how roughly 80% of a company’s products will be sold by 20% of its representatives.

A quick look at a tote board of sorts that detailed how many units each class member had sold, revealed that the 80-20 rule certainly held up in this case, with some class members clearly motivated by the $5.67 in commission they make for each bottle sold (one enterprising young woman logged 40 transactions), and others … not so much.

But the walking-around money is just one of the things students can take home from these classes, said Quercia, adding that the doses of reality can help in a number of ways, especially for those who have intentions of getting into business.

And Roeder already has such plans in the formative stage. She’s not sure where she’ll attend college — she says she’ll start kicking some tires next year — but does know that she intends on majoring in pediatric dentistry and probably owning her own practice.

“Business will help with my future career because I want to run a pediatric dentistry,” she explained. “I hope all the things I’ve learned stay in my head, because I’m going to need them.”

Life Lessons

Such comments help explain why those at BusinessWest chose Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts as a Difference maker for 2017 and, more importantly, why the organization continues to broaden its mission and find new ways to impart hard lessons.

Indeed, it is comments of various types and from a host of constituencies that drive home the point that JA’s programs are more important now than perhaps ever before.

We could start almost anywhere, but maybe the best place is with Robbin Lussier, a business teacher at Chicopee High School and another educator who has a long history with JA.

It has included a number of initiatives, including a career-preparation program that has grown to include 120 students, who receive tips on résumés and how to search for a job, and actually take part in mock interviews with area business owners and managers.

Bridget Arnesen and Nathan Santos

Bridget Arnesen and Nathan Santos, co-presidents of the company at East Longmeadow High School selling water bottles, say their class provides real-life lessons in running an enterprise.

The lessons eventually turned into life experiences, she said, adding that many students actually earned jobs with area companies, prompting employers to come back year after year as they searched for qualified help.

Other involvement with JA has included programs in budgeting, personal finance, and the stock-market challenge, she went on, adding that they provided what she called a “heightened sense of reality” that a classroom teacher could not provide.

“It’s a whole new dimension — students are walking away with memorable lessons learned,” Lussier said, adding that some of the more intriguing things she hears are from those who are not taking part in these programs, but wish they could, or wish they had.

“I teach a personal-finance class this year,” she said, “and if I had a nickel for every time a teacher, administrator, or parent at open-house night said, ‘I wish I could take this class’ or ‘I wish they had this when I was in school,’ I could retire.”

Connolly agreed, and cited a 50-question quiz on debit and credit cards given recently to middle-school students at Springfield’s Duggan Academy as an example.

“At the end, after the volunteer had gone through all the questions, one girl turned to another and said, ‘this has been the best day … I learned so much today,’” she recalled. “And another said, ‘can I take this home so I can show my parent? Can I take this home so I can show my grandmother? I want to save this so when I go to college I can make the right decisions.’

“That’s what you live for, students who have that reaction,” she said, adding that she sees it quite often, which is encouraging.

Also encouraging is seeing students learn by doing, even if it’s difficult to watch at times, said Quercia, who was happy to report that both classes, first those selling water bottles and then those peddling sweatshirts, paid back the seed money she invested.

“They handle everything, I act as their consultant, and Al [Kasper] explains how everything they’re learning is like the real world,” she told BusinessWest. “Together, the students face challenges and confront problems and get creative in finding solutions together.”

Kasper, who has been involved with JA in various capacities since the early ’80s and at ELHS for 15 years now, concurred.

“This isn’t MCAS, ‘memorize-this-stuff’ learning,” he said of the company program. “It’s real-life stuff that students get excited about, and because of that, we’ve really grown this program.

“They’re excited to come to class,” he went on. “It’s something new, it’s reinforcing what they’re learning, and it’s fun. They’re still learning, but they’re having fun doing it, so the retention is great, and their confidence goes up.”

It’s All About the Bottom Line

When asked what she had learned about business through her involvement with JAYE, Johnalie Gomez, another member of the team from Putnam now selling wish anklets, thought for a moment before responding.

“It’s not … easy,” she said softly, deploying three little words, in reference to both business and life itself, that say so much that those around her immediately started shaking their heads — not in disagreement, but rather in solid affirmation, as if to say, ‘no, it’s not.’

Everyone who has ever been in business would no doubt do the same. And that’s because they probably have at least one ‘memory box’ or something approximating it somewhere on their résumé — a seemingly good idea that just didn’t work. With each one, there are hard lessons that bring pain, maturity, and, hopefully (someday), laughs.

Delivering such vital lessons when someone is in the classroom — or the conference room in the suite at Tower Square — so that they may resonate later and throughout life is why Junior Achievement was formed, why it continues to thrive, why it is even more relevant now than it was 98 years ago, and why the organization is a Difference Maker.

Just ask the ‘tax collector,’ or, more specifically, those young students who don’t want to be him.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2017 Difference Makers

The ‘Unflappable’ Joan Kagan

Leader Guides Square One Through All Kinds of Adversity

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Joan Kagan’s corner office on the second floor of 1095 Main St. in Springfield comes complete with two large windows offering stunning views of the ongoing construction of MGM Springfield.

That’s the good news — and the bad news.

Indeed, while she and others have been fascinated by the panorama presented by this front-row seat, Kagan readily admits that at times — or most of the time, to be more precise — it can be a huge distraction and even an impediment to workflow.

“It’s … amazing,” Kagan said of the beehive of activity that has been a constant for more than a year now. “A few days ago, I’m at my desk working, and all of the sudden I see this huge piece of equipment dangling in front of my window; I look out, and they’re placing it on an 18-wheeler parked on Main Street.”

She acknowledged that, while she, other staff members, and certainly the children at Square One have been captivated by the construction work and giant cranes moving steel and equipment just a few feet from those windows, the demolition work that preceded it was equally, if not more, compelling and attention-diverting.

“When they were moving the [former First Spiritualist] church, I think we were down to about 10% productivity,” she said with a wry smile, noting that the historic structure seemed to move at a snail’s pace, but that didn’t stop observers from becoming entranced by the exercise. “It was fascinating, but it made it tough to get work done.”

She’s seen worse impediments to productivity, unfortunately. Much, much worse.

Start with the June 1, 2011 tornado that roared down Main Street and then through Square One’s former offices just a few hundred yards to the north, displacing young students and staffers alike and leaving the agency without a permanent home for … well, even the current quarters wouldn’t exactly be considered permanent.

Joan Kagan with several of the students at Square One

Joan Kagan with several of the students at Square One. Since 2003, she has led the agency through profound change — and large amounts of adversity.

But the tornado did more than dislocate employees and programs. It seriously impacted cash flow by removing from the equation invaluable seats in early-childhood-education classes, and it would be years before those losses could be made up.

Then there was the natural-gas explosion roughly 18 months later that absolutely erased the gentlemen’s club on Worthington Street next to another Square One facility, leaving it uninhabitable, thus displacing more people and programs and further imperiling the bottom line.

Kagan’s actions during both disasters, but especially the tornado, have been described as heroic, in both a literal and figurative sense, with the latter saved for how she fashioned response plans and rallied the various troops. As for the former, she acted quickly and calmly that June afternoon to help move young students and employees — and even a technician in the building working on the air conditioning — to safety in the basement. Then, while standing in the middle of Main Street surveying the considerable damage and hearing police issue loud warnings about gas leaks and a second tornado, she essentially commandeered a school bus to get students and staff to a shelter set up down the street at the MassMutual Center.

“She was … unflappable,” said Kevin Maynard, an attorney with Springfield-based Bulkley Richardson, a long-time (now former) Square One board member, and current volunteer, who would use that word often to describe Kagan’s work before, during, and well after those calamities . “After both the tornado and the gas blast, Joan leaned on the board for support, but the board really leaned on Joan. She was rock-solid, knew what she had to do, and worked with others to get it all done.”

She continues to fight every day, through all the bureaucracy, to make sure that Square One and other organizations are heard and they’re able to meet their individual mission statements.”

While being unflappable in the face of natural and man-made disasters is certainly part of the reason Kagan was named a Difference Maker for 2017, there is, of course, much more to this story — and this individual.

It involves not only her work to stabilize, diversify, and expand Square One, an agency that was in a definite state of disarray when she arrived in 2003, but also her tireless efforts to bring attention to the critical need for not only early-childhood education, but other programs focused on strengthening families and championing their cause — on Capitol Hill, Beacon Hill, and everywhere in between.

Bill Sullivan, a long-time Square One board member

Bill Sullivan, a long-time Square One board member, said of Joan Kagan’s outlook on children and families and society’s responsibilities to them, “she gets it.”

Bill Sullivan, first vice president of Commercial Loans at PeoplesBank and another long-time board member, summed it all up succinctly and effectively.

“She gets it,” he told BusinessWest. “She understands that human services, and especially childcare, is really the foundation of the whole local — and national — economy. If you have an employee who doesn’t have safe, secure childcare, what is that employee’s attendance going to be like?

“Joan gets that,” he went on. “And she continues to fight every day, through all the bureaucracy, to make sure that Square One and other organizations are heard and they’re able to meet their individual mission statements.”

Not Child’s Play

As he talked further about Kagan, Sullivan said the place to start the discussion was not with the day she was hired at Square One — and he was one of those on the search committee that hired her — or that fateful June day in 2011, or even the day after Thanksgiving in 2012, when the natural-gas explosion leveled a city block.

Instead, he chose an unlikely place and time — the funeral services he attended for Kagan’s mother in Pittsfield 2013. That’s when and where he gained a real understanding of — and a deeper appreciation for — her passion for helping others, and especially children.

“Her mother really was involved in the community, and she understood the social activism that’s needed to make sure people are heard, especially the people who are less fortunate than we are,” Sullivan explained. “My epiphany at that time was ‘Joan’s pretty good, but now I understand why she’s pretty good. She comes from a family that has a long heritage of giving back.”

That heritage has defined her career through a number of career stops, including an unlikely starting point, and a certainly intriguing 14-year stint at Square One, one that has seen everything from the adaptation of that name (the agency was formerly known as Springfield Day Nursery) to a profound broadening of its mission to what everyone would agree has been far too much practice dealing with adversity.

Our story begins in New York City in the fall of 1975. Kagan had recently earned a master’s degree in social work (MSW) at Columbia University, but was confronting a historically bleak job market.

Indeed, the Big Apple was in the depths of its worst financial crisis since the height of the Great Depression, and was teetering on bankruptcy that would only be avoided when President Gerald Ford, who initially balked at a $4 billion federal bailout of the city (the New York Daily News headline on Oct. 29 famously read ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead’), eventually relented.

But the federal assistance would come far too late to improve in any way Kagan’s job-search prospects.

“I couldn’t buy a job, and in fact, some of the people I was calling to inquire about opportunities with were telling me they were getting laid off,” she explained while talking about the months after she graduated. “So I went back home with my tail between my legs.”

Kevin Maynard

Kevin Maynard says that, during times of crisis, Joan Kagan would lean on her board, but the board would really lean on her.

Home was Pittsfield, a city dominated in every way, shape, and form by its largest employer, General Electric. And while she thought ever-so-briefly about trying to work there, Kagan instead joined the field she was trained for. Well, not really, but it was in the ballpark, as they say.

She found an opportunity at Berkshire Home Care, tending to the needs of the elderly, not those at the other end of the spectrum, as she desired. But it was work, and it was actually much better than that.

Indeed, at age 25, she was named client-service supervisor — the job demanded an MSW, and there were not many people with that credential — and tasked with overseeing co-workers and coordinating services with other community agencies. This would be the first of a host of leadership roles on her résumé.

The next would come a few years later, after a short stay as a social worker at Child & Family Services of Springfield Inc., when she became supervisor of Social Services at Brightside for Families and Children in 1979.

She would stay with that West Springfield-based agency for 17 years, serving in no fewer than 12 positions, ranging from program manager for the Family Resource Unit to the last one, vice president of Community Development.

“I kept getting promoted and given new management responsibilities and training,” she explained. “Brightside was going through a major transition, and I had a lot of opportunities for growth and development, and appreciated that very much.”

In 1996, she would apply those skills to a new career challenge serving as administrator of the Western Mass. region for the Mass. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC), a position — one that saw her supervise a staff of nearly 400 — she would keep for seven years before deciding she was ready for “something else.”

That turned out to be the administrator’s role at a Springfield institution with a proud past, a shaky ‘present,’ and uncertain future.

Name of the Game

Indeed, as he talked about the situation at Springfield Day Nursery when Kagan arrived, Maynard spoke in measured tones, choosing his words in a careful, diplomatic manner, while still getting his point across.

His point was that the agency was at a crossroads in many respects, and in need of strong leadership to return it to stability.

“We had gone through some tumultuous times and several changes in leadership,” he explained. “The organization very much needed someone like Joan, with her credentials and her experience, to right the ship, which had been roiled by some pretty big waves.”

Kagan, being equally diplomatic, agreed.

“When I arrived, Springfield Day Nursery needed a lot of restructuring, fiscally as well as programmatically and administratively,” she said, adding that the CFO left just before she arrived, and the agency’s board had just closed its center in East Longmeadow and was in the process of closing the facility in Tower Square.

“Eight centers immediately became seven, and I consolidated two of those centers, so the seven became five, and that’s how we were rolling along until the tornado,” she said, before replaying the tape and moving much more slowly.

June 2011 tornado

In many ways, Joan Kagan and Square One became the face of the June 2011 tornado and its aftermath.

Her first eight years would see expansion of the agency well beyond its Springfield roots (into Holyoke, for example) and its primary mission — to provide daycare services. To undertake this diversification of services, Kagan called upon experience, and perspective, amassed at several of her previous stops.

“They hired a social worker who was coming to them with a background in child welfare and mental health,” she said of her career path. “And with that came a perspective, or philosophy, that the strategic point of intervention in making a difference with children is the family.

“You cannot work with just the child — you must work with the family,” she went on. “I said that before I even got hired during the interview phase; I said I wanted to integrate early-childhood education, child welfare, and mental health.”

That’s because many of the same families she saw at the MSPCC were arriving at the doors at Springfield Day Nursery, she said, adding that a far more holistic approach to serving children was needed.

So, over her first several years, she implemented one, after first educating the board and then gaining its blessing.

“I’m not sure anyone really knew what I was talking about or quite understood it,” she said with a laugh. “But I think it was intriguing enough that they went with it.”

In 2006, Kagan, amid some skepticism, hired the agency’s first social worker with the help of a grant and some other funding cobbled together, thus beginning the process of changing the conversation from a focus on the child to a focus on family-support services.

“I remember someone saying to me, ‘how can you hire someone? — this is a one-year grant; you’re just going to have to lay her off,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘welcome to the world of nonprofits — this is what we do. And over the next year, we’re going to work very hard to find more funding and hire more of these people.’”

And she did. There are now 40 social workers, funded in large part by a contract through the Children’s Trust Fund called Healthy Families. Other contracts would follow, including one with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department to work with individuals who have been incarcerated.

These various forms of expansion involving geography and programming created the need for a name change, she explained, adding that neither ‘Springfield’ nor ‘day nursery’ really worked anymore.

Several options were considered, before the board, after much debate, decided upon ‘Square One,’ a name crafted to connote that this was where a child got a solid start and a foundation he or she could build on.

Little did board members and agency administrators know they would be going back to square one themselves in the years to come, and in ways they probably couldn’t have imagined.

A Force in the Community

Before moving on to Columbia, Kagan earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. While there, she received an informal education in a much different subject matter — tornadoes.

Indeed, while that Missouri city located on the banks of the Mississippi River isn’t as noted for twisters as sections of Oklahoma and Kansas, it is visited by them frequently, she told BusinessWest. “We never had a direct hit while I was there, but there were times when it got pretty scary; it would get very dark and very still, and the winds would pick up, and the pressure would build.”

She would call on those experiences nearly 40 years later on that fateful afternoon in 2011, reacting instinctively, for example, to get her assistant away from the large window through which she first spotted the twister, and then herd everyone into the basement, including that reluctant air-conditioning technician.

Joan Kagan chats with state Sen. Eric Lesser

Joan Kagan chats with state Sen. Eric Lesser. Over the years, she’s lobbied tirelessly for programs benefiting children and families.

Thinking back, Kagan said that, while everything happened very quickly — three minutes total, by her estimate — she remembers events unfolding almost in slow motion. And what she remembers most are sights and sounds.

Starting with the latter, while most would compare the noise generated by the twister as it passed over and through the building to a freight train moving at high speed, she would get into even more detail.

“It was deafening,” she said while recalling the brief time she and several others spent in the basement listening to what was going on overhead. “It was like you were on a airport tarmac, and jumbo-jet engines were running, and someone was taking pieces of metal and throwing them into those engines. It was like metal crunching, and it was very loud.”

As for the sights, there are too many to recount, but the one that resonates most, perhaps, was the view she had of the building next door to Square One’s after arriving on a chaotic Main Street.

“The wall had been sheared off … I’m looking at it, and I’m looking at people’s offices; I can see their pictures on the wall,” she recalled. “It was totally exposed; it was like a doll’s house.”

In the days and weeks after the tornado, Square One, and especially its president and CEO, would become the face of the tornado and the recovery that followed — quite literally.

Indeed, the June 20 issue of BusinessWest, bearing the headline “Blown Away: Business Community Grapples with the Tornado Aftermath,” features a picture of a grim-but-determined-faced Kagan with a pile of rubble that used to be the Square One offices in the background.

And that verb grapple was the operative word. While the tornado packed a wallop, the aftermath was in many ways far more grueling, said those we spoke with, noting that the challenges were many, ranging from simply finding new quarters to the immediate and severe cash-flow problems, to dealing with insurance companies that covered the agency.

“The tornado totally took out our infrastructure — the administration building was demolished — and dramatically altered our business plan,” Kagan explained. “That spring, we had just secured funding to renovate our King Street site; our plan was to add 100 more children there. When we lost the Main Street site, instead of being able to add 100 children, I ended up having to place the 100 children we were serving on Main Street to King Street.”

Those renovations weren’t ready until August, she went on, adding that the agency had to find temporary space for the displaced children while waiting for an insurance settlement and finding a new home for administrative offices.

Unfortunately, and almost unbelievably, the agency’s misfortunes would be compounded by a different disaster, the natural-gas blast 18 months later. Kagan was actually out of town traveling when it happened, but quickly returned to handle an aftermath that featured far too much déjà vu.

“Just as we were getting things together from the tornado, the gas explosion hit, and we lost the capacity to serve another 100 children,” she said. “We were rocking and reeling and trying to find places for those kids, dealing with staff issues, dealing with the insurance companies, dealing with Columbia Gas … on it went.”

The twin disasters certainly tested the agency’s mettle, said Sullivan, adding that, in many ways, the present tense is still needed, because Square One is still dealing with infrastructure and cash-flow issues and still rewriting its business plan; it has gone from serving 1,000 children to handling roughly 700.

“Instead of growing, we were just trying to keep things together,” he said, adding that Kagan’s calm, determined brand of leadership has been a key factor in weathering those storms. “She never gets rattled; she’s been the voice of reason, and that has certainly helped us as we’ve fought our way back.”

Battle Tested

But while Kagan has in many ways become best-known for her leadership in the form of disaster response — something they don’t teach people in business school, let alone the social-work program at Columbia — her work before and after those calamities has more far-reaching implications for Square One and the community as a whole.

In recent years, that work has increasingly focused on the day-to-day fiscal challenges facing all nonprofits today, as well as bringing attention to a challenging, almost debilitating system for funding agencies like Square One and lobbying for a replacement that enables such institutions to function more effectively.

“They pay you per child, per day,” said Kagan, adding that this puts enormous pressure on efforts to build capacity, efforts that have been, as noted, crippled by those twin disasters, but also by simple demographics.

Joan Kagan and students at Square One

Joan Kagan and students at Square One pose with members of the Western Mass. delegation to the state Legislature.

“Because of the population we serve, it’s very hard to keep children in the seats day after day,” she explained, adding that the current system would be akin to a college being paid only for the classes a student attends, rather than a designated tuition amount set to cover a host of expenses. “We have all these fixed costs, and they’re the same whether we have 15 kids in the class or 20. But if we only have 15, they’ll only pay us for 15, which makes it very difficult to operate.”

For years, Kagan and others have been lobbying for change, and a sliver of hope for such a system has come in the form of a pilot program, which Square One is now part of, whereby agencies are paid on a reimbursement system based not on students in the classrooms, but costs incurred.

“It’s still difficult, but it’s better; if I spend this amount on teachers, that’s the bill I submit,” she explained, adding that there are still challenges, because the agency incurs expenses one month, bills the state the next month, and gets reimbursed the third, which adds up to serious cash-flow-management issues at an already-difficult time for nonprofits.

“We can manage now,” she went on, adding that the challenge ahead is to convince the state to change its funding model because, with the old (current) one, center-based care is simply not viable, let alone profitable.

Fighting this fight is just one example of the strong leadership Kagan has provided to the larger community of Greater Springfield and all of Western Mass., said Sullivan, adding that she has never stopped battling for children and families — and won’t.

“The state looks at centers like this, and it figures there will be 50% private pay, something you can make margin on, and 50% are poor children who have to be subsidized,” he explained. “Well, Square One doesn’t have that benefit; all our children are subsidized. The children we serve are the future employees in this city, and she’s out there saving souls every day.

“Joan’s been a director, but also a kind of battlefield commander,” he told BusinessWest, referring specifically to the twin disasters but also to the sum of the challenges she and the agency have confronted. “She gets her arms around things quickly and can understand what has to be done.”

Family Business

As he talked about Kagan’s career — the chapters that have been written and those still to be penned — Bill Sullivan harkened back to the woman he came to know and fully appreciate at that memorial service in Pittsfield more than three years ago.

“I think about how proud Joan’s mother would be knowing what a tremendous human-service advocate her daughter has been, and how she has continued that family legacy by passing it on to her children,” he said, adding quickly that Irene Besdin Kagan certainly wouldn’t be the only proud one.

All those who had the foresight to hire her daughter would fall into that category, he said, as would everyone who has the opportunity to work with her — at Square One, all her other career stops, and within the community as well.

Through more than 40 years of service to children and families in need, she has been not only a true leader, but, as Maynard so eloquently put it, “unflappable,” especially during the times when that quality was most urgently needed.

And for that, Joan Kagan is truly a Difference Maker.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2017 Cover Story Difference Makers

Difference Makers to Be Honored on March 30

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When BusinessWest launched the Difference Makers program in 2009 (see past winners HERE), it was with the understanding that there were several components to this initiative.

The first is what this special edition has become, a comprehensive effort to shine a light on individuals, agencies, and institutions that are finding profound and often unique ways to improve the quality of life in the community we call Western Mass. These light-shining efforts are profiled with words and pictures that collectively tell some very poignant stories.

The second component of this program, the more fun one, is the event at which the honorees are recognized for their various accomplishments and contributions. Since the beginning, those of us at BusinessWest have struggled with what exactly to call this gathering.

‘Dinner’ doesn’t quite work, because, although the food at the Log Cabin is certainly excellent, the evening’s festivities encompass so much more. ‘Gala’ falls short, too, because this connotes black ties and formality, and there is little of that at this event.

No, we prefer the word ‘celebration,’ because that’s exactly what this is — a celebration of those who stand out and make this region a better place to live, work, and conduct business because of their efforts. And this year, there is much to celebrate:

The region’s community-college presidents

The region’s community-college presidents, from left, Bob Pura, Ellen Kennedy, John Cook, and Christina Royal.

• We start  with a nod to the region’s community colleges. While perhaps not as famous as the region’s many fine private schools or UMass Amherst and other four-year institutions in the state system, these schools — Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, and Springfield Technical Community College — are playing an absolutely critical role in the development of this region.

They act as both a door of opportunity, especially to those who don’t have many available to them, and a pathway to careers, through both degree and certificate programs that provide job skills and also transfer opportunities to four-year schools. Meanwhile, behind almost every major economic-development initiative in this region, there is a community college playing a significant role.

Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round

Some of the many passionate Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round: from left, Jim Jackowski, Barbara Griffin, Angela Wright, and Joe McGiverin.

• We continue  with the Friends of Holyoke Merry-Go-Round Inc. The story of how this group raised the money to save the carousel at Mountain Park and keep it in the Paper City has been told many times. But there’s a reason for it. This is an epic tale of a community coming together and battling long odds to save a treasure that could very easily have become someone else’s treasure.

But buying the carousel was just the first chapter in the story, really. Keeping it operating amid a host of stiff challenges so that it may be enjoyed by more generations of ‘young’ people (with young in quotation marks for a reason) is an ongoing saga and one certainly worth celebrating.

Denis Gagnon

Denis Gagnon

• As are the contributions of Denis Gagnon Sr. He has improved our lives by dramatically reducing the amount of time we need to spend in the restroom drying our hands with his company’s XLERATOR. But that’s not why he’s being honored. OK, that’s part of it.

The other, much bigger part is how he has devoted generous amounts of time, energy, and imagination to groups and causes ranging from the Boy Scouts to the Children’s Study Home to a host of veterans’ initiatives, and, while doing so, serving as a true inspiration to others.

Jennifer Connolly

Jennifer Connolly stands beside the portrait of JA co-founder Horace Moses at the agency’s offices in Tower Square.

• Also worth celebrating are the contributions of Junior Achievement of Western Mass. This is a group that has been around a long time now (its centennial is coming up in 2018), and it would be easy to take its many programs for granted.

That would be a big mistake. As the story reveals, JA programs run much deeper than showing high-school students how to make and sell lamps (although that’s where it all started, and that solid foundation remains).

The organization begins by teaching vital lessons in financial literacy to kindergarten students, and stays with these young people until they’re ready for college or whatever other path they choose. And because JA stayed with them, the lessons stay with them as well.

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

• Last but certainly not least, there is Joan Kagan, whose career and accomplishments are worth celebrating for many reasons.

She has steered the organization known as Square One (formerly Springfield Day Nursery) through treacherous whitewater in the form of seemingly endless adversity. It has come in waves, literally and figuratively, from a tornado to a natural-gas blast to persistent fiscal challenges.

But her more lasting contribution has been tireless efforts to not only serve children and families, but lobby state and federal leaders for the many kinds of support they need and deserve.

As we said, this year’s honorees offer much to celebrate. And we’ll do it on March 30. Here’s what you need to know:

 

Fast Facts:

What: The 2017 Difference Makers Celebration
When: Thursday, March 30
Where: The Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, Holyoke
COST: Tickets are $65 per person, with tables of 10 available. To order, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100.
For More Information: Call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100, or go HERE.

Sponsored by:

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Class of 2016 Difference Makers

More than 450 people turned out at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke on March 31 for a celebration of the 2016 Difference Makers, the eighth annual class of individuals and organizations honored by BusinessWest for making an impact in their Western Mass. communities. The photos below capture the essence of the event, which featured entertainment from Veritas Preparatory Charter School and the Taylor Street Jazz Band, as well as fine food and thoughtful comments from the honorees. This year’s class, chosen by the editor and publishers of BusinessWest from dozens of nominations, include Hampden County Sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr.; the late Mike Balise, Balise Motor Sales and philanthropist; Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire counties; Bay Path President Carol Leary; and John Robison, president of Robison Service and advocate for individuals on the autism spectrum. Once again, the honorees received glass plates handcrafted by Lynn Latimer, representing butterflies, the symbol of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers since the program was launched in 2009.