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Business of Aging

Sound Judgment

By Kayla Ebner

The girl sits in her classroom and turns up the volume wheel on her hearing aid loud enough to hear her teacher. Suddenly, the classmate sitting next to her drops his book. She tries to turn her hearing aid down, but it’s already too late. A loud ‘bang’ echoes through her head, then ringing, and more ringing.

Decades later, Jen Sowards remembers exactly how moments like those — and hearing loss in general — felt.

She’s struggled with hearing loss for her whole life, although it wasn’t identified until she was 6 years old. Fortunately, technology in hearing aids continues to get better and better, and Sowards gets to be a part of the evolution. 

Her life experience with hearing loss inspired her to become an audiologist, a career she has thrived in for more than 18 years. After spending more than a decade practicing across the country in Portland, Ore., she returned to the East Coast, where she worked at Clarke Hearing Center in Northampton for about a year. She has since opened her own practice at Florence Hearing Health Care and continues to help people who face the same daily struggles as she does.

“My own experience helped shape my philosophy for clinical practice now. I remember the audiologist just not necessarily taking a lot of time to explain things to me.”

“My own experience helped shape my philosophy for clinical practice now,” said Sowards, adding that her interactions with audiologists as a young child weren’t always positive. “I remember the audiologist just not necessarily taking a lot of time to explain things to me.”

Now, years later in her own practice, she takes ample time to explain to patients what she’s doing, why she recommends one type of hearing aid over another, and much more.

Dr. Deborah Reed, doctor of Audiology at Ascent Audiology & Hearing in Hadley, compares the human auditory system to a piano. The sensory nerve cells in the ear are like the keyboard, and their job is to stimulate the auditory nerve fibers. 

Jen Sowards uses her personal experience with hearing loss to help her patients who face the same daily struggles she does.

“If we unroll that auditory nerve, each fiber would be tuned to a particular pitch just like each string of a piano would be tuned to a particular note, and the job of the keyboard is to play the piano strings,” Reed said. “What we look for during the hearing test is, how well is your keyboard working, and how tuned are your piano strings?”

To continue with this analogy, hearing aids are tuned to respond wherever the keyboard dysfunction is occurring. 

“The bottom-line job of the hearing aid is to restore speech sounds and to improve our communication,” Reed continued. “We’re not necessarily looking to just give you a bunch of volume, we’re looking to give you clarity of speech, and we can do that by fine-tuning the digital processor of the hearing aids today.” 

That’s a long way from the earliest hearing aids, which were hollowed-out animal horns in the 1800s. As technology continues to improve, more people than ever are able to receive custom treatment for their hearing loss — and more lives are being changed.

Beat of a Different (Ear) Drum

Now, Sowards no longer hears the ringing, and loud noises are no longer painful.

That’s because the hearing aids themselves automatically adjust the volume of sounds coming into them. If a sound is very soft, the hearing aid recognizes that and turns it up, and vice versa.

“They really came a long way to where, by digitizing that signal, they were able to have an automatic volume control,” she said, adding that a hearing aid is a lot like a mini-computer. “Being able to automate the volume control on those really made a big difference.”

This is just one way in which modern-day hearing aids have improved. From those initial hollowed-out animal horns, hearing aids evolved to giant battery packs strapped to a person’s chest. A lot of variations have followed — with the past decade in particular seeing a notable burst of progress.

“We’re not necessarily looking to just give you a bunch of volume, we’re looking to give you clarity of speech, and we can do that by fine-tuning the digital processor of the hearing aids today.”

Sowards was fit with just one hearing aid when she was identified with hearing loss as a child. Since then, research has shown that the brain processes sound a lot better when hearing clearly through both ears.

“The prevailing thought at the time was, ‘well, if you can hear with one ear, that’s probably good enough,’” she said. “But if you can hear well out of both ears, you tend to have much better processing for speech when there’s competing background noise, and you also have much better localization skills, or the ability to tell what direction the sound is coming from.”

To achieve this, the patient must first be fit with the right hearing aid. They come in myriad types and sizes, but the ideal match depends on their ear anatomy and severity of hearing loss.

“In a perfect world, we would want to fit the best technology with everybody, but we can’t always do that,” said Reed, adding that fitting hearing aids to people is very much a case-to-case basis. “Then, we have to make judgment calls around quality of life and need.”

For example, someone who is a manager working full-time attending events and interacting with people on a daily basis will want a hearing aid that can process noise much better. On the other hand, someone who works in assisted living might not need all the fancy features.

One of the more recent developments is fall detection. If a person falls, Reed said, some hearing aids now have the ability to detect that fall and issue an alert. If the person does not respond and cancel the alert, a message is sent out to an emergency contact list.

“What we know about people with hearing loss is they tend to be older and might be more isolated,” she explained. “We’re trying to keep them safe and independent.”

Another feature is the ability to Bluetooth hearing aids to a smartphone. Apps allow a person to adjust the settings of their hearing aid and pin that location, so the next time they go there, the hearing aid will adjust to those saved settings automatically.

Hearing aids are also rechargeable, whereas years ago, batteries needed to be replaced. Sowards says most hearing aids now last 20 to 21 hours before needing to be charged again.

Not every person with hearing loss needs hearing aids, but for those that do, plenty of technology is available to support their needs.

“We’re really fortunate today in that technology is amazing,” Reed said. “The digital processing available in hearing aids has never been faster or more accurate.”

Don’t Ignore the Signs

The effects of untreated hearing loss can be startling. An estimated 36 million Americans have some sort of hearing loss — that’s 17% of the adult population.

Unsurprisingly, the incidence of hearing loss grows with age; however, hearing loss is growing in teens as well. According to the Hearing Loss Assoc. of America, an estimated one in five American teens experiences some degree of hearing deficit. Meanwhile, 12.5% of kids between the ages of 6 and 19 have hearing loss as a result of listening to loud music, particularly through earbuds at high volumes.

And the effects go beyond the ears. Studies show that those with hearing loss show significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other psychosocial disorders. Hearing loss has also been associated with decreased social and emotional communication and cognitive function.

Dr. Deborah Reed

“What we know about people with hearing loss is they tend to be older and might be more isolated. We’re trying to keep them safe and independent.”

 

When it comes to teens with hearing loss due to loud music, Sowards says two factors are hugely important: the volume of the music and the time the ears are exposed to the sound.

She compares the fine hair cells in the ears to a green lawn. “If you walk across it a couple times, those blades of grass spring right back up, and it’s no big deal. But if you and 20 of your friends walk that same path eight hours a day, you’re going to get a bare patch.”

The simple solution: be careful with how loud and how often you listen to music. “If it’s loud and constant, that’s when you start to see the damage,” Sowards said.

Reed gave another analogy: exposure to sunlight. Limiting the duration of loud sounds is similar to putting on sunblock or avoiding long stretches of exposure to harmful UV rays.

“It’s okay to listen to music a little louder when you’re working out or something, but make sure you’re turning it down when you’re hanging out reading or doing homework,” she said.

Signs a person may be experiencing hearing loss may include muffled speech and other sounds and difficulty understanding words, especially with competing background noise.

When experiencing symptoms like this, Reed said it’s important to visit an audiologist to get a baseline hearing test sooner rather than later. “What we know now that we didn’t know seven or eight years ago is that the sooner we start treating hearing loss, the better we do.”

Class of 2020

She’s Fighting to Find a Cure for Metastatic Breast Cancer

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Thirty-seven. 

That’s the age Sandy Cassanelli was diagnosed with stage-3 breast cancer. 

Thirty-eight.

That’s the age she was declared cancer-free — a bilateral mastectomy, eight rounds of chemotherapy, and 28 days of radiation later.

Thirty-nine.

That’s the age she was diagnosed with stage-4 metastatic breast cancer — a diagnosis with no cure.

Forty.

That’s the age many doctors start to recommend mammograms for women.

Yes, Cassanelli was diagnosed with uncurable breast cancer before most women even get their first mammogram.

In just three short years, she was knocked down by this disease more than once, but each time, she did something extremely difficult — she got right back up.

Living with a terminal illness is a different experience for each individual it affects. But Cassanelli is determined to take her personal experience with cancer and use it to help others to, hopefully, find a cure.

Sandy Cassanelli (third from left) with daughter Samantha, husband Craig, and daughter Amanda at Breast Friends Fund’s biggest annual fundraiser, Taste the Cure, in March 2019.

“I feel like the more you give, the more you’ll get,” she said. “I feel so blessed that I’m able to give, and I get so much that I just want to give and show people that, if you are kind, it just makes life so much easier.”

Four years after her stage-4 diagnosis, she continues to try out new medications and treatments, but has yet to find one she can stick with. In October 2018, she began an FDA-approved treatment, but recently found out, once again, her medication was not working. The next step — discussing possible options with her team of doctors.

Despite her diagnosis, Cassanelli lives her life full speed ahead. She’s a mother (to daughters Samantha, 17, and Amanda, 13), as well as CEO and co-owner (with her husband, Craig) of Greeno Supply, a company in West Springfield that distributes various cleaning and packaging supplies both locally and nationally.

She’s also the creator and manager of the Breast Friends Fund, a charity that takes aim at the very disease she was diagnosed with. One hundred percent of funds raised go directly to metastatic breast-cancer research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

That’s a heck of a load for any person, let alone someone with severe health problems. But Cassanelli holds the weight just fine, and with a smile on her face.

“Having a terminal illness, of course I live every day like it’s my last,” she said. “I try not to sweat the small stuff. I believe that every day I get is a gift, and I’m going to make the best of that day, and I’m going to be positive, because if I’m positive, then everybody around me is going to be positive.”

It is estimated that 155,000 Americans currently live with metastatic breast cancer, a disease that accounts for approximately 40,000 deaths annually in the U.S. That’s why Cassanelli has made it her mission to raise money for the cure.

“Once I became metastatic, it was obviously a big punch in the gut to our family, and we realized that we needed to help find a cure,” she said.

Upon her research into some of the major charities and organizations that support breast-cancer research, she found herself in shock at some of the information she came across.

“We started to do our homework about what most breast-cancer organizations give to research to find the cure,” she said. “We were totally and utterly shocked that most of them give 7% of their money raised to research for the cure.”

So, where does the rest of the money go?

Much of it goes to awareness campaigns, pink ribbons, salaries, community outreach, and more — all important things, she said, but not what she is looking for. So she decided to take matters into her own hands and start her own charity — one that has raised $400,000 in five short years.

But Cassanelli isn’t stopping there.

She says she has a long-term goal of raising $1 million, and is dedicating her life to finding a cure for the very disease that causes her to see every day as a gift — and an opportunity.

Determined to Fight

Cassanelli says being a full-time mom and CEO while running a very successful charity is not an easy task, but she is grateful she can spend many of her days with her family.

“I cherish every minute with my family,” she said. “We do a lot of trips together; we spend a lot of time together.”

Before purchasing Greeno with her husband, Cassanelli lived a very different life. She was a travel agent for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), booking flights and hotels for superstars like the Rock and the Undertaker — a non-stop job that required a lot of traveling.

This is where she met Craig, who was also working at the WWE as an advertising agent in New York City. They got married, and, after 9/11, it became difficult for Cassanelli to send Craig into the city for work every day.

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Then they had their first daughter, and working in a big, corporate environment became even harder. When Craig’s uncle passed away, he left behind a business, Greeno Packaging. So, the two purchased it from the estate in 2003.

“There’s nothing glamourous about selling toilet paper and paper towels,” Cassanelli joked, explaining the differences between her previous job and the position she now holds. “I was used to a different lifestyle. To come to Western Mass., it was definitely a culture change … but it’s nice to be your own boss and to be an employer to other people and give back that way.”

A member of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty class of 2014, Cassanelli has successfully run Greeno for more than 15 years. The company distributes regionally to Western Mass. and Connecticut, where she resides, but also ships nationally with an online Amazon store. Local manufacturers, hospitals, schools, and other companies utilize its products.

Greeno is also a certified woman-owned business, and Cassanelli holds a few key core values that she uses not only in her business, but also in her charity work.

“I believe that, with hard work and dedication, you can do anything,” she said. “I tell my daughters that all the time: try your hardest, work the hardest, and you can achieve your dreams.”

While Cassanelli refers to her charity as part-time, it never slows. Once she realized she wanted to start something on her own, she approached her doctor, Dr. Eric Winer at Dana-Farber, to see if they could make something work.

“When I approached him, I said, ‘why would I give somebody else money to give to you? Can I start this thing and give money directly to you?’” she recalled, adding that he agreed, and that’s when she began the Breast Friends Fund. Every single dollar raised goes to metastatic breast-cancer research at Dana-Farber. Every expense, from postage stamps to signs for fundraisers, is paid for by Cassanelli’s company, Greeno.

The decision proved to be a solid one. In just five years, the fund has raised $400,000, with a long-term goal of $1 million.

Coming up soon for Breast Friends Fund is its annual Taste the Cure fundraiser on March 27. This wine-tasting at the Gallery in Glastonbury, Conn. includes a wine tasting, appetizers, silent and live auctions, raffles, and more. Last year’s event raised more than $120,000.

Cassanelli maintains that the charity wouldn’t be as successful as it is today without the involvement of the Dana-Farber institute and all the help from her community. “I think our partnership with Dana-Farber is why I’m such a huge success,” she said. “People really believe in them.”

In Connecticut, she said, several local businesses hold fundraisers for the Breast Friends Fund, especially in October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

In the past, 2 Hopewell American Bistro & Bar, a restaurant in Glastonbury, donated $1 per pink martini to Cassanelli’s charity. A local bakery also sold cookies and donated 100% of the profits to the charity all month long.

Additionally, in September during the Big E, Greeno parks cars in its space and gives $1 per car to the charity.

This support and growth is a clear testament to the genuine intentions of Cassanelli and her family and the charity that she works so hard to run.

Chasing the Cure

Cassanelli continues to tell her story as much as possible to get the word out about metastatic breast cancer, and hopes to get more Western Mass. businesses involved as the charity grows in more regions across Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Despite her diagnosis, she chooses to get up and fight the fight every day — not just for herself or for her family, but for others who are battling this terrible disease.

“Does it suck? Yeah, it totally sucks,” she said. “But me crawling up in a ball and putting the sheets up over my head is not going to fix anything, so I might as well just get up and go.”

And that’s exactly what she does — she gets up, even when she has every reason not to, and that’s why she is a Difference Maker.

“There’s no point in being sad because, I mean, we’re all going to die,” she said. “I know that every day is a gift, and I’m going to live it to the fullest and do the best that I can.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2020

This Unique Nonprofit Provides Support, Light in the Darkest of Times

Kelsey Andrews (third from left, with Therese Ross, program director; Bill Scatolini, board president; and Diane Murray, executive director) calls Rick’s Place “a wonderful support system” — and much more. (Photo by Leah Martin Photography)

Kelsey Andrews remembers her husband, Michael, a Massachusetts state trooper, being larger than life.

“He was full of life, full of energy,” she told BusinessWest as she recalled how quickly and how profoundly so many lives were altered when Michael was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma in June 2017 and passed away two short months later. And also how a big a void was left in all those lives.

Kelsey, mother to now-12-year-old Madeline, was abruptly pressed to take on the role of both parents, all while grieving the loss of her husband and trying to raise a grieving child — something no parent is ever prepared or equipped to do.

She recalls thinking — actually, knowing — that she needed help, but didn’t know where to find it or if it even existed.

“I wanted my daughter to be around kids who are, unfortunately, going through a similar situation, and for me to be around people who have gone through the same thing,” said Andrews, adding that, through a co-worker, she eventually found a unique nonprofit that provided all this in the form of free peer support to grieving families, especially children.

Creating just such a place was the mission of several friends and loved ones touched by Rick Thorpe, an individual who was himself larger than life in many ways. And so they gave it his name.

Thorpe, a former football star at Minnechaug High School and 1984 graduate, was among the more than 1,100 people who died in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11; he left behind his wife, Linda, and newborn daughter, Alexis.

After his death, friends — and there were many of them — felt the need to memorialize him and searched for ways to do so.

They started with a scoreboard placed in his honor at Minnechaug’s football field — the message written across it read “In memory of Rick Thorpe #3 – Class of 1984” — and later a memorial fund, a charity golf tournament, and scholarships. But they wanted something even more impactful.

For inspiration, they turned to Rick’s daughter, Alexis. The bereavement center they established in her father’s name was created in her honor.

Here, children and families can talk about their own experiences, or simply be in the presence of others who are facing similar situations. 

That’s something Executive Director Diane Murray and Program Director Therese Ross say can be incredibly comforting for grieving families. While each person experiences grief differently, they noted, what helps most is being with those who have gone through something similar — one of the main factors that encouraged Kelsey to walk in the door.

“It’s a unique grief journey, but it’s also a universal experience,” said Ross. “To hear from other people how they manage when their child says this or does that, it’s real boots on the ground, people living it, and it’s really helpful.”

Above all else, Rick’s Place provides families with a safe space to not only grieve the loss of their loved one, but keep their memory alive, and does it in a way that people are surrounded by those who understand what they are going through.

Younger children in Rick’s Place programs often use arts and crafts to explain how they’re feeling about their loss.

“To be around others who understand is the single most important thing we do,” Murray said. “There’s just something about being around others who understand a little of what you’re going through that helps diminish the isolation they feel.”

And that’s why this unique nonprofit has been chosen as a Difference Maker for 2020.

Support System

Bill Scatolini, president of Scatolini Insurance in Wilbraham, was a teammate of Rick Thorpe’s at Minnechaug. He describes Rick as a selfless, caring person who always considered others first.

“Rick was the type of person that always thought about the person sitting in front of him,” he recalled. “I would consider Rick to be a giver, whether it was helping somebody in the street or in a soup kitchen. That’s the type of person he was — always trying to look out for the other person’s welfare and see if he could help.”

The nonprofit formed in his honor has taken on this same quality, and it carries out its mission largely through volunteers — facilitators who complete a comprehensive, 17-hour training that addresses bereavement, child development, reflective practice, and group-curriculum planning and facilitation. The board of directors is also completely volunteer-run.

All those involved understand that, according to research, unexamined grief in children can lead to worsening mental-health issues in the long term, including poor school performance, anxiety, depression, addiction issues, and increased risk of suicide.

To help those who are grieving, Rick’s Place offers free programs on site at its home base in Wilbraham for kids ages 5 to 18, and separates groups by age to provide specific activities for each age group. For example, younger children may focus more on arts and crafts to illustrate how their grief makes them feel, while older kids may do more journaling.

The nonprofit also provides eight-week grief groups to schools in the Pioneer Valley, and has recently added a family night once a month where anyone can come in and share their story.

“It’s a unique grief journey, but it’s also a universal experience. To hear from other people how they manage when their child says this or does that, it’s real boots on the ground, people living it, and it’s really helpful.”

It’s this sharing of stories, of common emotions and challenges, that makes Rick’s Place so unique and impactful.

“Madeline’s been a trooper through the whole thing; she’s been very strong,” Kelsey said. “Rick’s place has been wonderful for her, just being around kids that have also experienced loss, knowing that other kids have been through it and she’s not alone.”

This concept of not being alone is at the very heart of Rick’s Place, said Murray, noting that the program began with six kids and four families, and has now served nearly 245 families.

Before finding Rick’s Place, both Ross and Murray served in education roles, and say that, while they loved their previous jobs, they can now truly feel the impact they are making.

Kelsey and Michael Andrews and their daughter, Madeline, before his tragic death in 2017.

“It’s been, quite literally, the most rewarding work of my life,” Murray said. “Being an educator was wonderful, but the way we touch lives here is so important to the families.”

Ross, who has a unique connection to the families that walk through the doors, agreed. She lost her husband to cancer and became a single parent to three children, and she said her experience with loss keeps her present and allows her to remember that each person’s journey is different.

“Just because my husband died doesn’t mean my experience is exactly the same as someone else’s because her husband died,” she explained. “It’s feeling like I’m in those shoes, and I’m farther out than they are now, but boy, do I remember the fog of that first week, month, year, multiple years. It keeps me present in what is the hard journey of grief.”

Both she and Murray emphasized that grief may also include laughter and happiness when remembering a loved one, and they try to normalize that as much as possible. During group activities, they may include projects that help keep a bond of connection to a loved one, such as memory boxes or dreamcatchers.

But, as they noted, each grief experience is different, and with the very young it may also include not fully understanding what’s happening, in which case things get a little trickier.

“We know that preschoolers and kindergartners often do not understand the permanence of grief,” said Murray. “Parents may think they have things under control, and then the child might say, ‘OK, but is she coming to my soccer game?’”

That’s just one of many difficult — sometimes seemingly impossible — questions that parents must try to answer as they navigate an extremely difficult time.

“It’s hard to parent in the first place, but then you have the challenge of parenting a grieving child,” said Ross. “It’s a daunting experience.”

While Rick’s Place does its best to assist parents facing a situation like this, it also encourages adults to find an outlet with either a counselor or a bereavement group themselves so they can work with their own grief while being present for their child’s grieving process.

Shedding Light

The agency is currently midway through a comprehensive strategic plan to examine possible paths to more sustainable growth, while continuing to provide the services so many families desperately need.

Coping with the loss of a loved one is a struggle that, while not often talked about, is more common than most realize.

And for folks like the Andrews family, Rick’s Place is more than just a place: it’s a family.

“They are always here for me and my daughter if we ever need anything,” Kelsey said. “Just being with the people that work here, the volunteers, the other parents, grandparents, that have unfortunately gone through loss as well, has just been a wonderful support system.”

Families often participate in activities together at Rick’s Place.

A support system that emphasizes it’s not about keeping a brave face, but being honest about what it means to be grieving.

A support system that fosters a caring, judgment-free, open environment to anyone who walks through the door.

A support system that encourages people to try to see the light, even in the darkest of times.

“You can choose to let the loss define you positively or negatively,” said Ross. “That doesn’t mean, when you choose to define it positively, that you’re not paying attention to the pain of it. It’s working with the pain to still continue to grow.”

That’s what Rick’s Place helps people do. And that’s why this agency is a real Difference Maker.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Valuable Perspectives

Students at UMass Amherst participate in the 2017 International Festival.

International students can add a lot to a university or college. They bring diversity when it comes to cultural traditions, and they give domestic students a chance to experience global perspectives. However, it is not always easy to be an international student at a U.S. institution. The process to get in can be very difficult, tuition is expensive, and a rocky political climate makes the decision to go to a different country for school even more unsettling. But colleges and universities in the area are taking steps to make international students feel at home.

Imagine moving to a new country where you don’t know anyone and don’t speak the predominant language.

This is the reality for international students who travel to the U.S. to further their education. But local institutions in Western Mass. are well aware of this and have implemented several new strategies to make these students feel more at home.

The 2019 Open Doors Report on International Education released by the Institute of International Education and the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs notes that the total number of international students enrolled in U.S. colleges fell by 2.1% from 2017 to 2018, and continues to drop. This national decline is being attributed to many factors, including student visa delays and denials, the steep price of U.S. higher education, and a rocky political climate.

However, a few institutions in Western Mass. are bucking this trend and continue to accept a consistent number of international students. In some cases, the numbers are even increasing.

While dedicating resources, staff members, and lots of time toward specifically reaching out to international students may not have been on the radar for institutions 10 or 15 years ago, the benefits of bringing these students to campus has become clearer for schools, several of which have adopted strategies for recruiting international students. Some even have positions dedicated to just this effort.

“It’s only been about 10 years that we’ve been really putting our mind to it,” said Kregg Strehorn, assistant provost for Enrollment Management of Undergraduate International Admissions at UMass Amherst.

But putting forth such an effort can’t happen all at once; it requires thoughtfulness, a solid plan, and a team willing to put in the work to make sure these students not only enroll in the university, but thrive there.

“One thing when we began to recruit international students was to make sure that we had a slow-growth model,” said Strehorn, adding that they didn’t just open up the doors and welcome any qualified international student because they wanted to increase the numbers. “We were very planful, very guided. That included me being in constant contact with our campus partners.”

At Western New England University (WNEU), two staff members travel internationally to recruit students, and the institution works with several companies geared toward marketing efforts specifically for international students.

Michelle Kowalsky Goodfellow, executive director of Undergraduate Admissions at WNEU, said a big part of the process is making the students feel welcome, just like they do for any domestic student as well.

“We really try, as we do for any student here, to get them involved in other clubs and organizations and get them to a place where they can make some connections with other friends and not just treat them as, ‘oh, they’re the international students,’” she said. “We want them to have the full experience like any other student.”

Despite a tense political climate and some difficult circumstances, these two universities, among many others, have implemented specific plans to give international students a great experience from start to finish — and those efforts are bearing fruit.

Welcoming Diversity

Strehorn summoned a phrase — “the farther you get away from home, the more you understand home” — to explain how he approached learning about the international student market.

So much so, in fact, that he moved to China with his family for four months to get to the bottom of it.

“China was the first market that we really drilled down and tried to understand how we would compete in that market,” he told BusinessWest, adding that UMass Amherst was already receiving a solid flow of applications from China before implementing specific outreach strategies.

UMass and other institutions have honed strategies for not only attracting international students, but creating a welcoming environment for them.

Living there, he added, helped him understand the intricacies of the market and helped him develop a strategy to move forward.

And it’s working.

According to a fact sheet from the Office of Institutional Research at UMass, the number of entering first-year international students has grown continuously over the past decade, from 54 in the fall of 2010 to 444 last fall.

“From that slow-growth model, we can meet and decide, how many more students can we add for the following year?” Strehorn said.

WNEU has had similar experiences, and Goodfellow says the university accepts around 50 new international students each fall at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

One of the ways UMass and WNEU have been able to retain these students is by cultivating an open and welcoming environment. Goodfellow noted that, despite the negative perception the media may portray regarding the U.S. and its relationship with international visitors in general, most are able to recognize that they will be coming to a safe space.

Massachusetts also leans toward the more progressive side — another talking point for international students and their families.

“I tend to articulate that and say, ‘you would be coming to a place that’s a lot more open to diversity and people with different backgrounds,’” she said. “That’s kind of a big part of a university in general — the inclusion and feeling of acceptance of all people.”

Strehorn added that creating a welcoming environment from start to finish is a big part of recruiting and retaining international students. When they are admitted, the first department they hear from on campus is International Programs, where they receive help with their I-20 document and visa to enter the country, as well as assistance with how to travel to the U.S., where to land, and how to get to campus.

Michelle Kowalsky

“We really try, as we do for any student here, to get them involved in other clubs and organizations and get them to a place where they can make some connections with other friends.”

“It’s really that welcoming spirit that then carries through,” he said. “Not only have they had a good experience through the admissions process, that first handoff over to International Programs is quite smooth and friendly.”

Strehorn said the somewhat tumultuous political climate in the U.S. is a common topic for international students and their families. He added that these families frequently see Americans on the news being less than welcoming of people from other countries, and that can be a valid concern.

“We hear from students and families constantly about the political atmosphere in the United States, whether they will be safe,” he went on. “We are consistently asked about the president and his policies. I think people are doing their due diligence when they’re sending their children here, wondering, are they still going to get a good education at a fair price? And are they going to be safe and welcomed?”

A more recent concern is the spread of the coronavirus, which continues to wreak havoc in China. As a result, UMass has decided to suspend its spring 2020 program to China, affecting seven students. However, the university has not yet made any changes to recruiting Chinese international students. Like everyone else, Strehorn noted, they are waiting for more information before making any big decisions.

“Right now, we are moving business ahead as usual,” he said, adding that they have reached out to several contacts at universities in the U.S. as well as overseas. “We’re hoping to support people from China as always, and we’re hoping this doesn’t turn out to be as devastating as it has the potential to be.”

Home Away from Home

Despite these challenges, there are certainly benefits to bringing international students to an American campus. The first, Goodfellow says, is the diversity factor.

“It allows both our domestic students to interact with folks from all over the world, as well as for those students that are coming from abroad to get a perspective of a U.S. student,” she said.

Another reason is the economic impact international students have on universities and the areas surrounding them.

International students are not eligible to receive federal financial aid, meaning most students, aside from merit-based scholarships like the #YouAreWelcomeHere scholarship at WNEU, are paying full price to attend these universities, boosting revenues for schools and the areas around them.

To put a specific number on that impact, according to the Assoc. of International Educators, international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contribute $39 billion to the U.S. national economy and support more than 400,000 jobs.

Strehorn added that UMass likes to call itself a “global community,” and it can’t be that without representation from the globe.

“Having folks from all different countries is imperative,” he said. “Domestic students can benefit tremendously from being in classes, discussions, clubs, and social events with students from other countries. I think all of that has formed kind of a home away from home for these students.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Joint Effort

Jeff Hayden says the Cannabis Education Center is a much-needed training ground that will support the growth of an industry on the rise in Holyoke and across Massachusetts.

Investment, job creation, and tax revenue.

According to Jeff Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services at Holyoke Community College (HCC), these are the three keys to economic development.

They’re also precisely what the cannabis industry is bringing to the state of Massachusetts, which is why HCC has created the Cannabis Education Center, a new series of non-credit courses that provide skilled workforce training to prepare participants for a career in the cannabis industry.

HCC has partnered with the Cannabis Community Care and Research Network (C3RN) to create the first-ever cannabis training center in the state, and classes and programs are in full swing.

Hayden said the conversation about a cannabis training course started two and a half years ago, when discussion was heating up across the Bay State about the prospects of legal, adult-use cannabis — and how the Cannabis Control Commission would handle an expected proliferation of businesses. Once word got out that the commission would be licensing companies — and, therefore, creating jobs in the state — HCC jumped into action.

“Right now, there are about 75 employees in Holyoke who work for cannabis companies, but the projection is that, within a year of those licenses being granted to them, there will be somewhere between 400 or 500 employees in Holyoke.”

“When we heard that, we started to look around for different resources to try to learn more about what was going to happen, and especially what was going to happen in terms of the workforce training and how does someone get ready for the jobs that are going to come in this field,” he told BusinessWest.

About 14 companies have already applied for 21 licenses, and counting, in Holyoke alone. Two are active, both run by Green Thumb Industries on Appleton Street, and the rest are provisional or pending. But that won’t be the case for long.

“Right now, there are about 75 employees in Holyoke who work for cannabis companies, but the projection is that, within a year of those licenses being granted to them, there will be somewhere between 400 or 500 employees in Holyoke,” Hayden said.

Soon, the demand for trained, qualified employees in several different cannabis careers will skyrocket, and there needs to be people to fill those positions.

That’s where HCC comes in.

Growing Like a Weed

Hayden says there are currently five key pillars under the Cannabis Education Center’s umbrella: community education, meaning teaching people all about the cannabis industry; social-equity training; occupational training; custom contract training to cannabis businesses, including communication, leadership, and mentorship skills; and developing different trainings that would be useful for the industry.

Sage Franetovich says there’s a lot of curiosity around the subject of cannabis, and she expects the career prospects to draw people from different backgrounds.

“In all these pillars that we have, we hope that we’re providing a broad-based approach to the industry to either the job seeker or the business so that they can get the training and skills they need either to get on that career track or to be able to be a successful business,” said Hayden. “The hope, really, in terms of what they walk away with, are stackable credentials.”

A few examples of rising careers in this industry are cannabis culinary assistant, cannabis retail/patient advocate, cannabis cultivation assistant, and cannabis extraction technician assistant.

But HCC’s cannabis education doesn’t stop at the center. The college is also soon to offer its first credit-based cannabis-related course, called “Cannabis Today,” through its Sustainability Studies program. While no cannabis will be allowed on campus, the programs will use off-site locations for programs that require practice with the plant.

Sage Franetovich, Biology professor at HCC, will be teaching the class and said she has been working on developing the curriculum for the fall of 2020, and hopefully sooner, in the summer, if all goes well.

“With a response to the growing market and job market, we decided it would be a good fit to offer a course on cannabis cultivation with a focus on hemp,” she said.

The class will target topics such as the cultivation of hemp, indoor growing versus outdoor growing, and plant diseases and pest management.

Franetovich said she has been working with several people in the cannabis industry to develop the best possible curriculum for the class. “I think there’s a lot of curiosity around the subject, and I think that will be a draw for people from different backgrounds.”

All this activity comes in response to what will soon be incredibly high (no pun intended) demand for a cannabis workforce.

“When you start to think about that many new people coming in, that’s the equivalent of some of the large things that have happened regionally, like the CRRC company in Springfield, or MGM,” Hayden said.

And this center is striving to prepare people for careers in cannabis with everything from knowledge of the cannabis plant to knowledge of the industry itself, to understanding the commission’s regulations and how those impact the way they’ll do their jobs.

For example, a culinary technician working with edibles needs to know some of the ways the chemicals impact the edible product, specific measurements, levels of dosing, and more.

In the end, all this training is an investment that will, hopefully, bring the city of Holyoke a lot of jobs, and a lot of revenue.

High Expectations

Hayden estimates that between $20 million and $30 million has already been invested in the cannabis industry in Holyoke alone, despite only two operating licenses so far. He says the taxes going to the state will be significant, but 3% of sales also goes to the municipality. That means $1 million in sales equals $30,000 in taxes for the city of Holyoke.

“It’s a significant amount of money that the town can garner,” he said. “This past year, we’ve already received over $100,000 from cannabis-related companies for the city of Holyoke with only two licenses.”

And, so far, the response to the center has been positive, he noted. One of the first programs, a one-time class on the business and accounting side, drew 15 participants, and more than 100 people have expressed interest in training.

The first occupational training course began on Jan. 25 at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute and will continue for five more Saturdays for eight hours a day. C3RN will then place those who successfully complete the course in internships with local companies.

The ultimate goal of all these trainings is not simply to hand participants a diploma, but give them several certifications that will allow them to thrive in every aspect of the field.

“That’s really what we’re shooting for, someone who’s got multiple pieces of paper,” Hayden said. “It’s not just one diploma, it’s multiple pieces of paper that show to an employer that they’re ready for the job and that they can learn from the employer in terms of the skills they need for the future.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Doors to Success

Invigorated.

That’s not the word many people would use to describe themselves after being in the same business, with the same company, for 34 years. But that’s precisely how Al Herringshaw feels about his most recent career move.

Specifically, he purchased Pella Windows & Doors of Western Massachusetts, a window and door sales and installation business headquartered in Greenfield, which he first joined as a teenager in 1985. It’s been a long and challenging road to ownership, one that required decades of experience in the field and lots of “homework,” as Herringshaw called it, to be ready to take that leap.

Despite the challenges, he would be the first to say he’s glad he decided to take the reins. The second would be Gary Sherman, former owner of Pella Windows & Doors, whom Herringshaw credits with not only showing him the ropes, but also providing support throughout the transition process.

“As succession occurred from Gary Sherman to me. I wouldn’t have done it without his support and without the support from all the employees,” said Herringshaw. “It wasn’t a one-man show. Gary wanted it to happen, I wanted it to happen, and it allowed Gary and I to provide a fairly seamless experience for the employees.”

Herringshaw said making this an easy transition for staff members topped his priority list — not only out of respect for them, but because he knows how it feels to be an employee. In fact, he held several positions in the company before ascending to ownership this past July.

“It feels really good that they’re, in my opinion, back to promoting innovation and coming up with unique things within the window and door industry that set us apart. They’ve really come up with some neat products over the last couple years.””

Herringshaw was only 19 when he started at Pella in the summer of 1985 as a sliding-door builder. He worked in the shop for two years before moving to commercial coordinator, as recommended by his shop supervisor. He spent two years there, then moved into an outside sales rep position in West Springfield for 10 years — all positions he says he enjoyed greatly.

“It’s good to spend time in the field,” he said. “You certainly learn a lot about a business in a sales position.”

In 2000, he came back to Greenfield as Sherman’s general manager and spent 20 years in this position before purchasing the business last year. He said the company had a great back end to 2019, and he’s excited to tap into his extensive experience to bring even more success to an already thriving business.

Opportunity Knocks

Herringshaw believes his experience within the company will help him bring many skills to the table in order to take Pella to a new level.

“I think it helps me garner some respect from the employees because I have seen a lot of the business,” he said. “I also think it gives me perspective on how to look at certain things when people come to me with issues, or even when a customer comes to me.”

Herringshaw said minimal changes were made to staff or location of employees during the transition, and he hopes to fill seven to 10 open positions in the near future.

And that’s only the beginning.

He says he has several ideas and goals he would like to implement to take Pella Windows & Doors to the forefront of the construction field.

“I think we need to add new talent to our business, and I think we need to grow our social-media profile,” he said. “I think those are two key things for our business to get us to the next level.”

Perhaps one of his biggest goals is to raise the Pella profile in the architect community.

“I think we do well there. I’d like to be awesome there,” he told BusinessWest. “I would like Pella products to be the number-one thought-of brand in an architect’s office.”

Al Herringshaw says his many years and layers of experience in the company will help him garner respect from his employees.

As for how to accomplish this, he said he’s excited about some new products that the Pella corporation is introducing to help stand out from the competition.

“It feels really good that they’re, in my opinion, back to promoting innovation and coming up with unique things within the window and door industry that set us apart,” Herringshaw said, adding that he is on a product board where he gets to give input to the company. “They’ve really come up with some neat products over the last couple years.”

For example, he hopes to become a business that is very focused on the ability to supply replacement windows, noting that this will be in high demand in the future.

“When you look at the inventory of homes we have in New England, there are a lot of old homes,” he said. “I think energy-efficient replacement is a big deal, and a good experience for customers is something that we have to focus on and be ready to supply.”

“My folks are very available, I’m very available, and we want to make sure people are happy with the end result. I think that’s a big deal for any company today — to be conscientious and to understand that that’s probably the one way you can truly make yourself unique.”

Standing out is difficult in this industry marked by stiff competition and often vulnerable to economic tides. But Herringshaw is confident that, by diversifying the business and continuing to provide excellent service to customers, Pella will be able to stand out.

“I think the innovation makes a big difference in standing out,” he said. “I truly believe that the overall quality of our products, the fit and finish, really is superior to anyone else’s. But I’ll also tell you, at the end of the day, I believe our customers would say that they do business with us because of the way we respond and take care of them.”

Looking Ahead

Installed sales manager Dan Wells is enthusiastic about the new ownership, noting that “Al has a way of keeping everyone engaged and focused on priorities. One of those priorities is supporting the communities where we live and work.”

A fixture in Western Mass. and Vermont since 1962, Pella has long been known for its customer-centric approach to business, Herringshaw noted, and he expects that to continue. “I have one goal — to make Pella of Greenfield the number-one place to purchase windows and doors, and the number one place to work.”

In short, with plenty of experience in the field, a mind full of ideas and goals, and a hardworking team ready to make it happen, Herringshaw is ready to take Pella Windows & Doors to the next level.

“My folks are very available, I’m very available, and we want to make sure people are happy with the end result,” he said. “I think that’s a big deal for any company today — to be conscientious and to understand that that’s probably the one way you can truly make yourself unique.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Powered Up

Mike Ostrowski says having the right tools and resources for each job matters, but so does a focus on the personal service and small details.

Mike Ostrowski says having the tools and equipment to be able to do any job is at the top of his priority list.

In fact, it has been that way since the day he started his business. 

Right after high school, Ostrowski went to work for an electrical company in Westfield. For 10 years, he gained extensive experience beyond what many believe is the typical job description of an electrician. 

“When people think of electricians, they think lights and plugs and stuff like that,” said Ostrowski. “While that’s part of it, my specialty and what I got into is automation controls and machinery.”

While he felt he gained an ample amount of experience at this position, he did not feel appreciated for what he brought to the table, so he left the company to start his own business in 2004.

“I went out to see my dad and said, ‘hey, can I borrow enough money to buy a van?’” Ostrowski told BusinessWest. “So, I went out and bought a van and put tools in it.”

“When people think of electricians, they think lights and plugs and stuff like that. While that’s part of it, my specialty and what I got into is automation controls and machinery.”

The rest is history.

This van — and Ostrowski’s dream‚ turned into Ostrowski Electrical, which became AMP Electrical in 2006. He gained a partner that year, and before they parted ways in 2010, they were still able to grow the company from seven employees to 35.

AMP has since downsized to 12 staff members, and while the company has taken some twists and turns over the years, Ostrowski continues to promote the same values he started with, specifically focusing on delivering strong personal service to customers.

“Quality and neatness still count for us,” he said. “Sometimes that’s missed in projects that I’ve seen. Even though we’re a smaller company, we have all the tools and equipment that it takes to do big projects, which a lot of smaller guys don’t have.”

Around the World

As Ostrowski said, many tend to view electricians as just that: people who install lights. But one way AMP Electrical is able to stand out from the crowd is its automation and support services, which have taken Ostrowski everywhere from local cities and towns to all the way to Egypt.

“I like watching the whole process run from start to finish,” he said. For example, beginning in 2005, he picked up a couple projects for Qarun Petroleum Co., based in Cairo, where he designed, built, and tested control panels and wired pump skids locally. He then shipped them off to Cairo, flew there himself, and ran the startup process.

While this is certainly not a regular occurrence, Ostrowski says this is a process that he encounters locally as well.

More recently, AMP Electrical worked on a bleach-dilution process for KIKCorp, a leading independent manufacturer of consumer packaged goods. Ostrowski and employees programmed the valves and controls so the bleach could be diluted to whatever temperature the company wanted.

Of course, AMP is capable of much more than these complex jobs. The company also offers complete electrical construction services, municipal water and wastewater controls, building electrical maintenance, telecommunications solutions, complete service to industrial manufacturing, electrical testing, and bucket-truck services.

The key, as Ostrowski said, is having the tools for every job.

But this field does not come without its challenges. With the wide array of services they offer, AMP has managed to stand out from area competition, but has struggled, as many in this and related industires have, with a lack of skilled workers. “There are not enough skilled people out there,” he said. “There’s a gap in knowledge.”

This, he noted, is partially due to the solar boom, which has created a deficiency in electricians. When people go into solar as apprentices, they come out with the skills to put solar panels on, but often lack basic electrical skills.

“The biggest challenge today, being in this field, is finding talented electricians,” he told BusinessWest. “The solar industry has created a lot of electricians that don’t have a lot of the basic pipe-bending skills and electrical knowledge that you would get working for a traditional electrical contractor.”

Ostrowski himself has quite a few more skills than the average electrician. Moving from business owner to employee, he’s had to do some research to strengthen his expertise in areas including finances, estimating, and business management, all without a college degree.

“I’m a licensed electrician that basically figured it out and made it happen,” he said.

Getting the Job Done

No matter what hat Ostrowski may wear at any given time, electrician or business owner, he makes sure his employees have the tools to get the job done and sets an example of what quality service should look like.

“You’re still going to see my face on job sites,” he said. “When the phone rings and everyone’s busy, my boots are in the corner. I’ll grab my tools and go out and fix somebody’s piece of equipment, or I’ll plug my laptop in and be able to look at somebody’s process and take care of them.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Economic Outlook

Springfield Regional Chamber to Host Marijuana Professionals, Officials

There’s still a lot of confusion surrounding the cannabis industry.

Despite the fact that medical marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts in 2012, and recreational marijuana in 2016, the business community is juggling countless regulations and laws, whether looking to get into the cannabis industry themselves or just dealing with this new economy in general.

On Tuesday, Jan. 28, many of these questions will be answered.

From 12:30 to 5 p.m. at the Springfield Sheraton, the Springfield Regional Chamber will host “The Buzz About Cannabis: Marijuana in the Marketplace and the Workplace,” a collection of business, legal, and medical marijuana professionals, distributors, and entrepreneurs, as well as state cannabis officials, who will give attendees all the information they need to know about cannabis.

Nancy Creed describes retail cannabis sales as just one spur on the wheel of an industry that has pushed its way to the forefront over the last several years, and the president of the Springfield Regional Chamber is making plans to prepare business folks for this rising economic driver.

“The cannabis industry is clearly a, no pun intended, budding industry,” Creed said. “When you look at the revenue associated with it and the taxes, it really is the next economic engine of its time.”

It was a meeting with Cannabis Control Commissioner Kay Doyle that inspired Creed to begin researching this topic.

Nancy Creed describes retail cannabis sales as just one spur on the wheel of an industry that has pushed its way to the forefront over the last several years

“This, to me, was kind of a no-brainer,” Creed said. “We need to make sure that we are at the front of the industry and we are helping businesses either get into the industry or, on the flip side, deal with this new economy.”

The conference itself features an opening keynote from Doyle, breakout sessions focused on topics like “Business Structure and Banking in the Cannabis Industry” and “Cannabis in the Workplace,” and a closing keynote by Beth Waterfall, founder of Elevate Northeast, titled “Cannabis: What’s Next?”

Budding Goals

Chamber leaders thought carefully about what their goals were for the cannabis conference — the first time a chamber in the region has hosted an event of its kind.

Creed said this first conference will take a general focus, building a solid foundation on the basics of the industry — and leaving room for a potential focus on hemp, CBD, or other spokes on the wheel, as she calls them, next year.

The main goal of the conference is to educate attendees on what cannabis is, what they need to know when getting into the industry, and how it affects the economy.

“It’s a place for business people to come and get educated,” she noted. “I think it’s also an opportunity to recognize the growth of the cannabis industry and how that will positively impact our economy and be able to shine a light on it, so people see it as the future of our region.”

In order to accomplish this, she knew they needed to bring in several experts and professionals from different parts of the industry — including someone from the commission, Doyle, to talk about the landscape of the industry and the regulations entrepreneurs need to grapple with.

Next, Creed wanted to ensure the conference featured someone who could help businesses figure out what they needed to know about not only getting into the industry, but also what type of business they would be classified as.

Perhaps most importantly, they needed an expert in the banking industry. Because marijuana is still federally illegal, almost no bank will deal with marijuana businesses — although that could eventually change. Tina Sbrega, CEO of GFA Credit Union, will accompany Scott Foster, partner at Bulkley Richardson, to talk about banking and business structure.

“I want to make sure that businesses understand that, so they are successful when they start out, and aren’t just starting out not thinking through all of the things you need to think through to be a successful business,” Creed said.

She added that this conference is not just for people looking to get into the business, but also for people who just need to understand how it works.

Joanne Berwald, vice president of HR at Mestek; Erica Flores, attorney at Skoler Abbott; and Pam Thornton, director of Strategic HR Services at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, will lead a breakout session about recruitment, retention, and employment law.

“There are a lot of complex laws that come into play,” Creed said. “We wanted to make sure, for the rest of the business world that isn’t interested in getting into the cannabis industry, that we had information about what is it like for the other folks working and hiring in a cannabis world.”

For the final breakout session, Creed explained that she wanted to bring in a panel comprised of a marijuana grower, a user, and a distributor, but did not have the internal resources to find people who fit the description. That’s when she reached out to Michael Kusek, cannabis journalist and publisher of Different Leaf magazine. He crafted a team — Noni Goldman, Leslie Laurie, Ezra Parzybok, Karima Rizk, and Payton Shubrick — to talk about their individual niches and how they navigate the cannabis industry in different ways.

Sowing Seeds

Overall, Creed hopes to help as many people as possible navigate a still new and quickly growing industry.

Because it is the first event of its kind, she is unsure just how many people will register, but believes that, once people learn more about the event, they will see the benefits of attending.

“I really don’t know how much the business community is going to understand the conference and embrace the conference,” she said. “Our hope is that they will, but it’s new.”

What she does know is that the cannabis industry is evolving at a rapid rate, and keeping up with the high demand is a must for the chamber.

“It’s a place for business people to come and get educated,” she said. “I think it’s also an opportunity to recognize the growth of the cannabis industry and how that will positively impact our economy, and be able to shine a light on it so people see it as the future of our region — because it’s here.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

More Than a Gym

Dexter Johnson says people who work downtown are excited about having the YMCA nearby.

Dexter Johnson can rattle off the amenities found in any chain gym. Weights and cardio equipment. A sauna or pool. Perhaps a playroom for kids to hang out while their parents work out.

But the YMCA offers more than just fitness equipment and childcare for its members — it gives them a community, said Johnson, CEO of YMCA of Greater Springfield, which recently relocated from Chestnut Street in Springfield to Tower Square in the heart of downtown.

The nonprofit recently held its grand opening, and is well underway with programs, fitness classes, and more activities open to members.

The fact that Tower Square, Monarch Place, 1550 Main Street, and other surrounding offices are home to more than 2,000 employees in downtown Springfield is one of several benefits of the YMCA’s move, Johnson told BusinessWest. “The reception has been great. The people that work in this building or in the adjoining buildings have been excited about having us here.”

And it’s no secret why.

The new Child Care Center for the Springfield Y boasts a 15,000-square-foot education center, including classrooms, serving infants through elementary-school students. The Wellness Center continues its popular fitness and health programming with a new, 12,000-square-foot facility on the mezzanine level of Tower Square, complete with a group exercise room, state-of-the-art spin room, sauna, steam room, and walking track.

But Johnson knows the Y is more than just a gym — it’s a cause-driven organization that focuses on giving back to the community through youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility.

“We don’t call ourselves a gym, despite the fact that we have gym equipment,” he said. “We are a community organization, and this is just one of the ways that we serve the community.”

The Bigger Picture

One of the many programs the Y offers is LIVESTRONG at the YMCA, a 12-week personal-training program for adult cancer survivors offered without cost to participants. It also provides families with nearly $700,000 in financial scholarships every year — just two examples of how the Y is much more than just a gym, Johnson said.

“Our goal as an organization is to really make the Y stronger,” he noted, adding that the move to a new facility will greatly reduce costs to allow the organization to expand its services and impact. “The Y is looking to serve the community and to help from the spirit, mind, and body aspects of what people need.”

Before the move, Johnson anticipated the Y would lose about 20% of its members due to lack of a pool and change of location, but added that it has since gained new members and partners that are taking advantage of the services. About 50 new memberships were sold before the move into the new space, just because people knew it was coming.

“Nearly 2,000 people work in these three buildings, so we’re really hoping that those folks will understand the convenience of having something like this right here and not having to go to your car and drive elsewhere to meet your wellness needs,” he said.

Right now, the number of membership units, both families and individuals, is up to about 1,000. In order to increase these numbers, Johnson says the Y is giving tours, reaching out to local businesses and neighbors, and will be offering specials starting in 2020 to get people in the door.

“We’re hoping that we will get a good turnout of people that will give us a try,” he said, adding that a new sauna, steam room, and more than 40 group exercise classes a week are just some of the benefits.

While welcoming those newcomers, Johnson emphasized that the Y is also hoping its long-time members will enjoy the new facility as well.

“Despite the fact that we are heavily focused on the business population, we continue to serve the population as a whole, and we want our members to remember that part because that’s crucial for us,” he said. “We’re really looking to build upon the existing membership by moving here.”

A New Venture

While the new location has more limited space than the original, Johnson says he’s focused on making the most of the new location. That includes utilizing the parking garage by offering members free parking for up to three hours — as well as letting people know what other amenities exist in Tower Square, from retail and banking to UMass Amherst and numerous restaurants, most of them in the food court.

“We understand that the more activity and the more action taking place in this building, the better for everyone,” he said.

Overall, Johnson strongly believes this new facility will help serve the goals of the Y as a whole.

“We think this facility will stabilize the organization,” he said, “while we continue in our other efforts as they relate to our full service at our Wilbraham location, our childcare facilities throughout the city, and all the things the Y is involved with.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor Thomas Bernard says North Adams has been investing in economic development, public safety, education, and a host of other areas.

Seven priorities, 43 goals, 95 policies, and 355 actions.

This tall list makes up the master plan for the city of North Adams. The Vision 2030 Plan was launched in 2011, and just this year, Mayor Thomas Bernard and cohorts revisited the plan to check up on the progress made to date.

“We had a really good session in October where we got some interesting suggestions for setting priority areas around marketing and promotion to move the needle on some of the economic developments,” he said.

In addition to the information session in October, Bernard says another will be held in early 2020 in which the town will tackle three things: review what has been accomplished so far, identify things that five years ago may have seemed urgent but are not as pressing now, and identify issues that have changed in the last five years.

The plan’s seven priorities — economic renewal, investment in aging infrastructure, creation of a thriving and connected community, intergenerational thinking, fiscal efficiency, historic preservation, and food access — are all currently being reviewed, and Bernard says these undertakings make for an exciting time in the city.

“There are some really great developments happening in a lot of different areas,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s a good chance to work in collaboration with a lot of people.”

Some of the more prominent developments include a project to build a much-needed new elementary school, updating zoning for the town, investing in public safety, and several projects that cater to younger children.

Bernard knows that, in order to be successful with new projects, the city must still take care of the older, foundational matters, and says North Adams has done a great job keeping track of both.

“We want to double down on the things we’ve already done, both this cultural development that’s happening, but also doing the foundational work to ensure that we can be successful so that we’re championing the big developments, we’re celebrating the jobs that are coming in, but we’re also making sure that the quality of life in neighborhoods is strong and solid,” he said.

“There are some really great developments happening in a lot of different areas. There’s a good chance to work in collaboration with a lot of people.”

Indeed, he says the overall feedback from the community has been extraordinarily positive, and mentioned one feeling in the city in particular: optimism.

Youthful Approach

That optimism, said Bernard, now going into his second term as mayor of North Adams, comes amid an increasing number of investments in economic development, public safety, and other key areas.

But you can’t move forward without looking back, so one big goal is investing in the youth and education sector, which includes the renovation of a very old elementary-school building.

Just a few weeks ago, Bernard and Superintendent of Schools Barbara Malkas visited the Massachusetts School Building Authority and were invited into eligibility for consideration of the reconstruction of Greylock Elementary School — a building that is 70 years old.

North Adams at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 13,708
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.62
Commercial Tax Rate: $40.67
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Crane & Co.; North Adams Regional Hospital; BFAIR Inc.
* Latest information available

“If we’re able to be successful in the feasibility phase, then we’re invited to proceed forward, and we can put the funding plan together,” said Bernard. “It really will set the course for elementary education in the city for the next 50 years.”

Other investments for the youth population in the city include a splash park and a skate park. While Bernard acknowledged North Adams is an aging community and its leaders are always thinking about what it means to be age-friendly, he sees a lot of energy and — here’s that word again — optimism when it comes to investing in the younger population.

“What this splash park and the other main investment, which was a skate park, has done is create community engagement, excitement, energy, vibrancy, and a sense of optimism that comes from things that are youth-focused,” he said.

On the economic-development side, Dave Moresi, a local developer, recently embarked on a mill project that celebrated its grand opening this past June. Bernard said Moresi bought the mill in mid-2017, and it already has more than 50 businesses inside, including a financial-services office, a mental-health clinician, a coffee roaster, a gym, a hair salon, and much more.

“I think this speaks to a couple things,” said Bernard. “It speaks to the quality of work that Dave and his team do, but it also speaks to this moment that we’re in, bringing it back full circle to this energy, excitement, and potential.”

Moresi also purchased a school building the city no longer uses and is turning it into residential apartments.

Adding to that excitement are two enabling projects that have occurred over the past year. Bernard said bringing life into the downtown area continues to be a challenge, so a parking study was done to look at what assets and needs are necessary if the city were to attract additional housing and development. North Adams also updated its zoning map to reflect current conditions — a process that hadn’t been tackled since the late ’50s to early ’60s.

With all this activity going on, the city has also been investing in public safety. Just this year, Lt. Jason Wood was appointed as the new police chief for North Adams. In addition, the city added its first hybrid vehicle to the city fleet and is working on adding a hybrid cruise, which would make it the first city in Western Mass. to do so.

Forward Momentum

While North Adams still faces economic and socioeconomic challenges, like all cities do, the mayor feels optimistic that the community is on the path for success.

“We continue to be in an exciting time for North Adams, and I think more and more people are picking up on it, whether that’s visitors who are coming here or whether it’s longtime residents who are seeing some of these developments and being really excited about it,” Bernard said. “We have a lot of work to do to make sure we stay on an even keel.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

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