Ellen Freyman

Ellen Freyman
Ellen FreymanShareholder with Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, P.C.

Ellen Freyman was talking about her family’s work mentoring and tutoring members of a Somali family now residing in Springfield through the help of Jewish Family Services. She spoke proudly of the time and effort that she, her husband, Richard, and sons Neal and Stephen were putting into this initiative, and said she firmly believed they were improving the quality of life for this family of five.

But she also conveyed a strong sense of frustration and concern that speaks loudly about how she approaches her voluminous work within the community and explains why she’s a member of the Difference Makers Class of 2010.

The Somalis, who were raised in a refugee camp in Kenya, speak in a patchwork of languages and dialects, and have serious trouble reading and writing in any language, including what amounts to their own, said Freyman. “This makes it even more difficult for people to try and teach English to these kids, because they don’t know what word to use to correlate to what they know,” Freyman explained. “If you say ‘tape recorder,’ they don’t know which word to pull out of what language to say ‘tape recorder’ in Somali, or Kenyan, or whatever.”

Freyman first met with Springfield teachers and principals, and later with Superintendent Alan Ingram, to discuss the problems facing not only ‘her’ Somali family, but others, as well as young people speaking other languages who are seemingly thrust into classes in the city’s high schools where other students are reading Hamlet and Of Mice and Men. As a result, a task force has been created to assess the problem and recommend possible solutions.

But that group’s work probably won’t happen soon enough to help of the oldest of the children in the family the Freymans are working with. He’s now 19 (at least that’s the best guess), and he will need literacy skills if he is to get a job.

Unfortunately, the waiting lists for adult-literacy programs in the area are so long that some people don’t even bother trying to apply. So Freyman, in addition to her one hour a week of mentoring and involvement with that aforementioned task force, is working to find a solution to the literacy-class problem.

“I’m trying to bring a coalition of people together to work on this, to bring some attention to the problem of adult literacy and to get more classes,” she said, acknowledging that there won’t be any easy answers to this one. “We have resources in the community; people just have to be creative. Things don’t always fit in a box — sometimes you have to figure out how to work outside the box.”

Being creative and thinking outside the box is how Freyman, a principal with the Springfield-based law firm Shatz Schwartz and Fentin, P.C., goes about her work with a long list of organizations, ranging from the Dunbar Community Center to the Community Music School; from the Springfield Jewish Federation to the Springfield Technical Community College Foundation.

Her bio on the law firm’s Web site lists more than a dozen nonprofits and initiatives to which Freyman has lent her name and time. But that’s just part of the story. The energy, imagination, and outside-the-box thinking that she takes to not only these assignments, but projects she’s initiated, are other big parts.

For example, there’s her work to create a group called On Board Inc., which works with area boards to help them achieve not only diversity, but also cultural sensitivity.

It all started in the early ’90s, or not long after Freyman began her work within the Greater Springfield community with such groups as Jewish Family Services, the Springfield Library & Museums, StageWest, and others.

“I was able to get on a lot of nonprofit boards, but I came to realize that, with the chambers and business boards and economic councils, many of them weren’t open to women,” she explained. “And it wasn’t because they were keeping women out, it was because they didn’t know women who were qualified to be on these boards.”

So she collaborated with a few other women to create a name bank of sorts with such qualified women, and then approached banks, hospitals, and other organizations to use that resource when filling seats.

“We met with various board representatives and nominating committees, and said, ‘we know you want your board to be more diversified, but you just don’t know how to do it, and you don’t know who’s out there.’ We met with college presidents, hospital CEOs, and banks, and within a year we had great success; we had a lot of women on these boards.

“And very soon after we started, it was our mission to get not just women on these boards, but all non-represented groups,” she continued. “I saw that it wasn’t just women that were absent, but also people of color; boards didn’t look like our community, and they needed to.”

The work with On Board Inc. exemplifies the approach Freyman says she takes with her work in the community — to look beyond her own basic assignment (attending a meeting or two a month) and to look for ways to, well, make a real difference.

Returning to her work with the Somalis, for example, she said she’s working together with others to create a soccer team that will compete against other clubs in the region; she’s agreed to be its manager. With an assist from Go FIT founder (and 2009 Difference Maker) Susan Jaye-Kaplan, with whom she runs most mornings, Freyman was able to secure 36 new pairs of cleats from Boston-based Good Sports Inc. She’s also received donations of soccer balls, but she’s looking for help with arranging contests and getting the Somalis to games and practices, either through rides or donations of bicycles.

In other words, she’s looking for more people willing to think — and work — outside the box.

That’s part of being a Difference Maker. —George O’Brien

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