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Difference Makers

Class of 2024 Special Coverage

MEET THE 2024 DIFFERENCE MAKERS!

BusinessWest Editor Joseph Bednar interviews with 2024 Difference Makers: Rock 102, Paul Lambert from Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Beth Welty from the Springfield Chamber Players and Shannon Rudder from MLK Family Services.
BusinessWest Editor Joseph Bednar interviews with 2024 Difference Makers: Scott Keiter of Keiter, Linda Dunlavy of Franklin Regional Council of Governments, Matt Bannister of PeoplesBank and Delcie Bean of Paragus Strategic I.T. Special Thanks to GCAI

Thank You to our Partner Sponsors

Thank You to our Supporting Sponsors

Class of 2024 Cover Story

Introducing This Year’s Class

For 16 years now, BusinessWest has been recognizing and celebrating the work of individuals, groups, businesses, and institutions through its Difference Makers program, with one goal in mind: to show the many ways one can, in fact, make a difference within their community.

The stories of the class of 2024, like the 15 cohorts before it, are all different, but the common thread is the passion and commitment exhibited by each honoree to improve quality of life for those in this region and make it a better place to live, work, and conduct business.

The stories are inspiring in many different ways, whether it’s Matt Bannister’s deep commitment to area nonprofits or Shannon Rudder’s lifelong pursuit of equity and access for all; whether it’s the work of Fred and Mary Kay Kadushin and the staff of Rock 102 to fight hunger or the ways Delcie Bean and Scott Keiter use their business success to impact others; whether it’s Linda Dunlavy’s hard work on tough regional issues or the significant impact of Springfield Symphony Orchestra and Springfield Chamber Players on the economic and cultural health of Western Mass.

We invite you to read these stories below. All of the 2024 Difference Makers have made an impact — real, tangible, often life-changing impact — in this region that we call home.

You can also help us celebrate the honorees in person on Thursday, April 10 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke. Tickets cost $95 each, with reserved tables of 10-12 available. For more event details and to reserve tickets, go HERE

Thank you to our sponsors — Burkhart, Pizzanelli, P.C., Keiter, Mercy Medical Center/Trinity Health, the Royal Law Firm, and TommyCar Auto Group — for making this program possible.

Please Join Us for the 2024 Difference Makers Celebration!

Wednesday, April 10 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Tickets are $95 and can be purchased HERE

Thank you to our partner sponsors: Burkhart Pizzanelli, P.C., Keiter, Mercy Medical Center/Trinity Health, the Royal Law Firm, TommyCar Auto Group, and our supporting sponsors: Springfield Thunderbirds and Westfield bank.

Partner Sponsors:

Supporting Sponsors:

Class of 2024

They’re Keeping Music Alive in New Ways for Future Generations

SSO

Springfield Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Paul Lambert and Springfield Chamber Players Chair Beth Welty.

 

Beth Welty said the musicians just wanted to play.

With the Springfield Symphony Orchestra’s leadership and musicians locked in a labor dispute in 2021 and 2022, the players were willing to perform under the old contract until a new one was settled, but the SSO wouldn’t agree.

“At this point, the pandemic had subsided enough that all the other orchestras in the Northeast had come back to work, audiences were showing up, and we decided we needed to do something,” Welty said. “We were very worried if there was no symphonic music in Springfield — out of sight, out of mind — people would forget about us. We had to keep this going.”

So the musicians started staging shows on their own — both at Symphony Hall and at smaller venues around the region — churches, the Westfield Atheneum, anywhere they could draw an audience.

“We were playing at all these little places, constantly expanding to new communities and venues, and bringing live chamber music to as many people as we possibly could in Western Mass.,” said Welty, an SSO violinist who headed up the effort known as MOSSO, or Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.

“So many people, including members of my board, have told me, ‘the first time I ever heard a symphony orchestra was in school.”

Well, you might know the story after that — the SSO and the musicians’ union struck a two-year deal last spring to bring full symphony concerts back to downtown Springfield, which proved gratifying to SSO President and CEO Paul Lambert, who never considered the musicians his enemies as they worked out their labor differences.

“I grew up in the Actors’ Equity Association. I’m a union member. And I believe in organized labor, especially in the performing arts. You want to make sure that everyone is well taken care of,” he said. “At the same time, I’ve been a businessman for a long time, so I’m very well aware of the economic realities and challenges that the performing-arts business is going through, especially in these eccentric times we’re still living through.”

The relief on both sides, in fact, was palpable. But the return of concerts to Symphony Hall was only part of the story. The other part was the continued existence of MOSSO under a new name — Springfield Chamber Players — and its continuing mission to bring smaller chamber concerts to venues around the region, including schools.

“We’re interested in promoting the voices that don’t get heard as much but are great composers — music by Black composers, composers of color, women composers,” Welty said. “We’re mixing in composers people have some familiarity with, but also bringing them composers they haven’t heard of, even living composers.”

So as the music reverberates around the region once again, BusinessWest has chosen to honor both the Springfield Symphony Orchestra and Springfield Chamber Players as Difference Makers for 2024 — not because they settled a labor agreement last year, but because of how important the performing arts are to the region, and how important both entities are to filling that role, hopefully for generations to come.

The Springfield Chamber Players

The Springfield Chamber Players string quartet includes Miho Matsuno, Robert Lawrence, Martha McAdams, and Patricia Edens.
(Photo by Gregory Jones)

“When people come to the concerts, and I may open with remarks, I ask people, ‘just for a couple of hours, turn off your cell phones and let it go,’” Lambert said. “It’s like therapy — go listen to some beautiful music. For a few hours, just relax and drink it in. We just need that so badly right now.”

Welty agreed. “Music is a big part of life, and I want that for everyone. It doesn’t have to be classical — we did a combo jazz-classical concert,” she noted, before citing Duke Ellington’s famous line about how genre doesn’t matter, and that “there are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.”

And good music — good live music — truly makes a difference in a community.

 

Generation Next

Lambert recalled being in the fourth grade and attending a symphony concert; in fact, it’s an especially vivid, formative memory. So he’s grateful for a two-year, $280,000 grant from the city last spring to help the SSO create educational programming for youth.

“We are deeply involved in finding creative solutions, ways to reach out. This is a giant opportunity to reach all kinds of members of our community who might like to learn more about music — classical music, symphonic music, all the various forms of music that we can touch,” he said.

Meanwhile, through a program called Beethoven’s Buddies, people can donate money toward free tickets for those who might not be able to afford one. “Whatever your situation is, we want you to come to these concerts to hear this music and have a wonderful time,” he explained. “We’re excited about that. It’s also another way that we can reach into our community to pull in people as donors and sponsors.”

“You come together, and the concert happens, and it’s magic. It’s that one-time experience of being together in a space where this beautiful thing happens. It’s special.”

A long-time program called the Springfield Symphony Youth Orchestra is going strong as well, Lambert said, and the SSO just hired an education director, Caitlin Meyer, who has been engaging with public schools and colleges on everything from internships to educational programming and performances.

“That’s a critical piece in the equation,” Lambert added. “So many people, including members of my board, have told me, ‘the first time I ever heard a symphony orchestra was in school.’”

Meanwhile, Springfield Chamber Players recently presented educational outreach concerts at the Berkshire School in Sheffield and the Community Music School of Springfield.

Meeting young people where they are is simply a matter of survival for performing-arts organizations, said Mark Auerbach, Marketing and Public Relations director for Springfield Chamber Players.

“A lot of people who go to symphonies and come to our concerts are on the older side. And it’s partly because the music programs in schools are not what they were 30 or 40 years ago,” he noted. “If we can get family concerts going, educational concerts going, and interest kids and young adults to come to concerts, hopefully they will stay and grow with us.”

Welty is glad the SSO is doing grant-funded youth outreach because the budget for Springfield Chamber Players is limited, so it needs to be a group effort.

“I’ve been with the symphony 40 years, and we used to have a really robust school presence. We’d send a trio or a quartet to play for kids, talk to them, and answer questions. And they later came to Symphony Hall to hear the whole orchestra,” she recalled. “I think they want to bring that back. We have to be developing the next generation of audience members.”

Symphony Hall

Leaders of both Springfield Symphony Orchestra and Springfield Chamber Players are gratified to be bringing music back to both Symphony Hall (pictured) and smaller venues around the region.

Part of the growth and outreach is simply broadening the definition of what an SSO concert is, Lambert told BusinessWest.

“A lot of folks think of a certain type of music from Western Europe, from the 18th and 19th century. And I love that music. I love Mozart. I love Brahms. I love Beethoven. I love Schubert. I’m thrilled to hear that music, personally,” he said. “But I’ve become increasingly aware of the streams of music traditions that exist all around the world in different cultures and different backgrounds that might appeal to all kinds of folks. So we are trying to pull those various streams together in our programming opportunities.”

To that end, the SSO has begun assembling some hybrid concerts that offer a mixture of traditions, like the classical-jazz fusion explored at the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration concert in January, and a Havana Nights show earlier this month that featured Latin jazz and Afro-Cuban rythms.

“The MLK concert had a marvelously diverse audience. We are thrilled when we see new people coming in,” Lambert said. “At our Juneteenth concert that we did last year, we had so many people telling us, ‘I’ve never been to one of your concerts before; I’ve never even been to Symphony Hall before.’ It’s thrilling to us to get those folks coming in to hear this beautiful music.

“Our pops concerts do really well, and we’re going to see what we can explore with those, with different genres of music,” he added. “At the same time, we’re never going to lose track of that beautiful, traditional repertoire that people, including me, love so much. That’s the core of who we are.”

 

A Resource of Note

Welty noted that Springfield Chamber Players has brought an eclectic spirit to its offerings as well, such as “Johnny Appleseed,” a composition by local composer Clifton Noble Jr. based on Janet Yolen’s book of the same name. That concert will take place outdoors in Longmeadow — the legendary character’s hometown — on May 12.

Whatever the venue, she is passionate about exposing more people to good music — whatever that means to Duke Ellington or anyone else — and to get them into music at younger ages.

“I wish every kid could take lessons on an instrument for a few years. You really learn so much. Problem-solving, analyzing, listening, observing. Music is very mathematical, too. Music education would boost everybody,” she said.

“I really think of arts organizations — music, a ballet company, whatever it is — as a resource for everyone,” she added. “You can’t just go to work every day and then go home and watch TV. That’s a boring life. You want something more. And kids that see live music get interested. They want to try it themselves.”

A thriving performance culture is also an economic driver, Auerbach noted.

“It’s essential that Springfield Symphony Orchestra survives because it’s the only live, nonprofit performing-arts organization in Springfield,” he said. “Without the arts, we’d have trouble attracting new residents and new businesses. And there’s a lot of economic spinoff — you go out, first you pay to eat, you pay to park, you may go out to drink afterwards. The musicians, if they are local, spend money here. If they’re not local, they have to stay in hotels and eat here.”

Lambert agrees, even though the demographics for this art form are challenging right now — not just in Springfield, but everywhere.

“For a couple of years during the pandemic, folks stayed at home, and they got used to not coming out at night so much. You got used to staying home and being cozy in your armchair and watching Netflix. Coming back from that was always going to be a substantial challenge.”

But the rewards are great, he added.

“I used to think about how people make wine — you grow the grapes, and you tend the vineyards, and you design the bottle, and you do all of this work. And then you get to dinner and someone opens the cork and you drink it, and it’s gone. But it’s a beautiful thing for that moment.

“I often think about our experience the same way,” he went on. “All the work and the rehearsals and the planning and the tickets and this and that. But you come together, and the concert happens, and it’s magic. It’s that one-time experience of being together in a space where this beautiful thing happens. It’s special.”

Class of 2024

President and CEO, Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services

She Wants to Galvanize a Community to Effect Positive Change

Shannon Rudder

For her 12th birthday, Shannon Rudder didn’t want a present from her mother; instead, she wanted to redecorate her bedroom.

So she did, and she remembers some of the things she hung on the walls, like the Indigenous Ten Commandments and a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, along with the quotation, “live, think, and act. Be inspired by humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony.”

She remembers that message because she internalized it at a young age, and it has informed every stop along her career journey — and the difference she has been able to make at each one.

“It’s embedded in me,” Rudder said as she sat with BusinessWest in her office at Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services in Springfield. “I feel like I can be a part of creating humanity in my immediate area. I might not be able to change the whole world or the whole city that I’m in, but I’ve always felt compelled to make an impact in a positive way with compassion and love. And I’m responsible for my thoughts because those become actions. Very early on, that idea led me to be a person of integrity, of deep compassion, and of advocacy.”

Perhaps that’s why, after considering a corporate career in college, she eventually embarked on a series of roles at organizations with a social mission, from MotherWoman and Teach Western Mass to Providence Ministries and, now, MLK Family Services, where she stepped a year ago into the very big shoes of the late Ronn Johnson, who steered the ship there for more than a decade (and was also honored by BusinessWest as a Difference Maker in 2020).

Simply put, Rudder said, “I just think I have been called to contribute to important causes, and I go after that.”

Her first nonprofit job was in Buffalo, N.Y., where she grew up, for an organization called Women for Human Rights & Dignity. “It just like cracked me open, like, ‘oh, the skills that I have and the compassion that I have … they can be aligned, and I get paid to do awesome, impactful work?’

“I might not be able to change the whole world or the whole city that I’m in, but I’ve always felt compelled to make an impact in a positive way with compassion and love.”

“That was all about women’s empowerment,” she added. “We did alternatives-to-incarceration programs and domestic-violence support and non-traditional education and housing. I was really young, and I had a little baby, and I was doing this good work, but also learning how to run a business.”

Since then, Rudder has taken care to align with causes that are important to her, moving into work with fair housing and civil rights in the Buffalo region before moving to Western Mass., where her first pathway to organizational leadership was at MotherWoman, a nonprofit focused on maternal health and well-being, where she served as executive director.

Later, she was executive director for Providence Ministries Inc., a nonprofit advocating for and supporting marginalized populations across programs dedicated to food security, addiction recovery, housing, clothing, and workforce development. That role opened her eyes to many types of need and further honed her sharp sense of empathy.

“I remember my grandmother saying, ‘but for God’s grace, there go I’ — meaning, in a blink of an eye, your situation could change, and you could be on the other side of needing services like that,” she said. “We’re all part of the same journey.”

Shannon Rudder

Shannon Rudder with the two youth emcees from last month’s MLK Day celebration.

She also served as deputy director of Teach Western Mass, a nonprofit startup working toward educational equity in partnership with more than 30 schools. Her duties included fiscal and operational oversight, knowledge-management systems, data and impact, communications, equity and belonging, human-resource management, overall team culture, and supervision of cross-functional teams.

“I’ve been really intentional about the causes that make a difference to me, approaching it from the perspective of, ‘OK, this agency’s mission is really clear, the heart and the compassion are here, and I get to make sure it lasts for a long time by building the infrastructure, the operations systems, the fundraising and return on investment, and all the important scaffolding that needs to be in place so that the business aspect of it can thrive.”

The clear thread woven through all these roles has been a focus on equity and making sure everyone has access to the resources they need to live healthy, meaningful lives, she explained. “I picked causes that are doing the important work of amplifying the voices of those that have often been silenced or marginalized.”

By using her own voice, compassion, and business acumen to do so, Rudder has become a true Difference Maker.

 

Lifetime Support

At MLK Family Services, she shares with Johnson, her late predecessor, an approach to the work from a public-health standpoint, considering how the social determinants of health affect all areas of life.

“Sure, we can triage and put Band-Aids on stuff — people are hungry now, so let’s make sure they have food — but let’s dig a little deeper: how do we actually get a grocery store in an area that is in need?” she said.

“I remember my grandmother saying, ‘but for God’s grace, there go I’ — meaning, in a blink of an eye, your situation could change, and you could be on the other side of needing services like that. We’re all part of the same journey.”

“I also want to make sure that MLKFS as a whole, operations and programs, is operating from a trauma-informed place,” she went on, citing a philosophy that takes into account the unique, often traumatic experiences of an individual’s life and how that informs what they need.

“How do we approach our programs and ensure that the people working with our kids are helping to break that, or making sure that those kids have resources like mental-health counseling? How do we make sure we’re helping to embolden and empower them, and then actually building the bridge to get them access to the things that they need?”

The current programs offered by MLK Family Services are many and diverse, and include:

• The Family Stabilization Program, funded through the Department of Child and Family, offers support to families to keep their children safely at home and in the community by advocating for the well-being and rights of all children and ensuring parenting support.

Shannon Rudder’s work at MLK Family Services lifts up children in many ways.

Shannon Rudder’s work at MLK Family Services lifts up children in many ways.

• The MLK Food Pantry provides emergency food services to community members in Hampden County. The program relies on donations from grocery vendors and is a member of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. The pantry operates at the MLK Community Center weekly and also hosts the Food Bank’s mobile market twice monthly.

• The Clemente Course in Humanities is a transformative educational experience for adults — an opportunity to further their education and careers, advocate for themselves and their families, and engage actively in the cultural and political lives of their communities.

• The Historically Black College and University (HBCU) Tour helps young people explore their academic journey by visiting multiple college campuses in a single trip. These tours equip participants with a solid understanding of the history, culture, and traditions that have shaped the schools’ collective legacy. In addition, students, parents, and counselors are engaged in a year-long series of workshops.

• The King’s Kids afterschool programs serve up to 130 children at two locations. Programming is aimed at helping students become academically successful by nurturing their character building, critical-thinking skills, and creativity. Students are offered homework help, STEAM enrichment, literacy support, cultural experiences, and recreational and holistic well-being.

• Youth between ages 13 and 22 are invited to participate in the weekly Night Spot program, which empowers them to be critical thinkers and community builders while preparing them for life in high school, college, and beyond. Night Spot offers advocacy services for a variety of needs, including handling life’s complications, navigating the court system, and ensuring safety in a safe, drug-free environment.

• Beat the Odds is a Springfield-based youth mental-health coalition led in partnership with the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts. Hosted at MLK Family Services, the program focuses on breaking the cycle of stigma and barriers to youth mental healthcare. In 2023, this program launched a public-awareness campaign called “I Am Not My Mood.”

“How do we make sure we’re helping to embolden and empower them, and then actually building the bridge to get them access to the things that they need?”

• King’s Kids Summer Camp is a full-day camp for children ages 5-12. Meanwhile, a new partnership with Springfield Empowerment Zone schools provides summer enrichment programs to Springfield middle- and high-school students in partnership with agencies across Massachusetts.

• DCR Summer Nights Program is a transformative, statewide initiative that enriches the lives of urban youth ages 13 to 21. MLK Family Services is one of the sites providing safe, inclusive, and fun activities (both recreational and educational) during evening hours. Participants enjoy gaming competitions and tournaments in a variety of sports, enriching arts activities, health and wellness workshops, career explorations through guest speakers, and off-site excursions.

“I can’t wait to jump in with the community and do a strategic plan where they begin to inform us what they need, so we’re not sitting here thinking, ‘oh, I think it would be cool if we created this experience,’” Rudder said. “Does the community need that? We know that the community is ever-shifting and changing. So to really meet the needs of the community, we need to hear from them, and I’m excited about doing that.”

The MLK King’s Kids dance troupe performed at MLK Day this year.

The MLK King’s Kids dance troupe performed at MLK Day this year.

It’s a way to go beyond Johnson’s ‘teach a man to fish’ credo and make sure people are fishing in the right ponds.

“If we say we’re going to listen to the community, then we have to go into the community and say, ‘OK, we heard you. How are we going to work at this together?’” Rudder said. “It’s our job to provide the resources and the tools, but I want them to be a part of that solution, whatever that looks like.”

 

Thinking Ahead

Rudder has plenty of goals for the center, from broading the trauma-informed piece to launching a full capital-needs assessment.

“I want to make sure our center is there for decades to come, so that means a lot of capital improvement. Our food pantry needs a new home; we’re just bursting at the seams.

“I also want to do economic-development training,” she added. “We do a really good job with HBCUs and also college readiness locally, and I want our kids to dream big — but college might not be for them. So how do we equip them to realize their dreams and potential? I want to do some vocational training, some entrepreneurial things, all STEAM-based approaches to things.”

One idea from Providence Ministries she’d like to being to MLK Family Services is ServSafe training. “We can get them certified in management and actually have hands-on teaching of kitchen skills and culinary skills. And then, how do they make money off of that? So, we’ll teach them business acumen and then link them to opportunities for jobs,” she explained. “I’m just excited to hear what our community’s needs are and finding a way — again, through the public-health lens — of making sure that we meet those needs.”

To accomplish all that, Rudder relies not only on the center’s staff, but also about 120 volunteers. And she finds it gratifying that she’s following King’s philosophy of not working solo, but galvanizing an entire community to accomplish positive change.

“One adage I grew up with is, ‘to whom much is given, much is required.’ And I’m really blessed; I’m really fortunate in my life,” Rudder told BusinessWest. “So that’s my responsibility — to leverage those things that I’ve been blessed with into doing good, into impact. This is fun, and it is fulfilling to me.”

Class of 2024

They’ve Made the Mayflower Marathon a Community Tradition

The Staff of Rock 102

 

Mike Baxendale, the on-air personality known to all simply as Bax, says it started as a radio promotion. But it quickly became a community event.

And now, it’s a huge community event, involving individuals, families, businesses, institutions, area schools and colleges, and more.

He was referring, of course, to the Mayflower Marathon, staged each year in the days just before Thanksgiving to benefit Open Pantry. For 30 years now, the event, organized by and staged by the staff at Rock 102, has collected food and monetary donations to help those in need.

It started with one Mayflower trailer — hence the name — and each year, with a few rare exceptions, such as the height of the Great Recession in 2009 and the height of COVID in 2020, it has grown bigger and collected more to combat food insecurity.

And in 2023, the marathon, in its relatively new home at MGM Springfield, shattered all previous records, collecting more than $234,000 in food and monetary donations and filling nearly six trucks.

That number, and the level of support needed to reach it, speak to both the growing amount of need in the region amid higher inflation and growing financial issues facing many in the 413 and the manner in which the staff at Rock 102 have collaborated with others in recent years to take the marathon to new levels, with a comedy night at MGM Springfield and a Mayflower Marathon Night on the Springfield Thunderbirds schedule.

“They’re incredible; they truly have such huge hearts to make sure our neighbors get fed. The Open Pantry would never be able to serve that many people without the Mayflower Marathon.”

“Ultimately, the goal is to raise more and more and more to help those in need,” said David Oldread, vice president and general manager of the Springfield Rocks Radio Group and Northampton Radio Group, which includes Rock 102. He noted that the marathon involves difference makers on many levels, including those who donate everything from the trucks to the portable toilets to the tents; those corporate supporters, many of which have been part of this since the beginning; and the volunteers who help collect the donations and load the trucks.

But it is the staff at Rock 102 that is being honored the Difference Makers award this year, and deservedly so. The station conceived the idea back in 1993, and it has been the driving force in continuing the program and orchestrating its strong growth pattern.

The Mayflower Marathon

The Mayflower Marathon, now staged at MGM Springfield, fills several trucks with donations of food for Open Pantry in Springfield.

And it’s a company-wide initiative, a true team effort, said Oldread, noting that it is “all hands on deck,” especially in the weeks and days leading up to the event, with each staff member making important contributions to the effort, with work starting months before the marathon begins.

Bax and Steve Nagle, morning show hosts, entertain the audience — and inspire it — for 52 hours during the marathon; Erin Buehler, promotions director at Rock 102, plans, organizes, sets up, and executes the event; Alex Byrne, program director, coordinates the entire broadcast; Joshua Smith, engineer, sets up the technical side of the broadcast and keeps the show on the air; Dan Williams and Pat Kelly, on-air hosts, produce the broadcast at the station in East Longmeadow; the sales staff members rally their clients to get donations and volunteer their time at the event … and on it goes.

Overall, the marathon has become a powerful collaboration between Rock 102 staff members and the community to come together for a great cause, said Buehler, adding that this collaboration grows stronger each year.

Nicole Lussier, executive director of Open Pantry, agreed. She’s been with the Springfield-based agency for nearly 30 years, and thus has been involved with the marathon since the beginning. She’s watched it grow and become an increasingly larger force in the agency’s ability to carry out its mission. And she noted that the staff at Rock 102 brings passion to its work of making the marathon happen each year.

“To be able to tell Nicole Lussier what we had just done — and she had been there every minute of the event — to be able to tell her that we had raised at least $217,000, with more on the way … to see her reaction, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I got choked up on the air.”

“They’re incredible; they truly have such huge hearts to make sure our neighbors get fed,” Lussier said. “The Open Pantry would never be able to serve that many people without the Mayflower Marathon; there’s no way we would be able to distribute that much food.”

Such sentiments help explain why the team at Rock 102 is being honored not for putting on the marathon, necessarily, but for rallying a region, a community, around a cause — and, in the process of doing so, becoming a true Difference Maker.

 

Making Waves

He called it the “chicken wing.”

This was the very effective submission hold developed by former pro wrestler Bob Backlund, who administered it to Bax during one of the marathons a few years ago.

“It’s very painful,” he said with a look that conveyed as much, adding that Backlund is one of many colorful guests who have made appearances during the marathon over the years, and his application of the chicken wing is one of the more intriguing ways that the airtime has been filled.

Others in the guest category include mayors, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal (a regular each year), comedians, New England Patriots wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (who stopped by last year), and many others. As for memorable moments, there have been plenty of those as well, as the marathon has persevered through all kinds of weather, power outages, equipment glitches … you name it.

Rock 102 morning show hosts Bax (right) and Nagle talk with Springfield Thunderbirds President Nate Costa (a Difference Maker himself in 2023) at last year’s Mayflower Marathon.

Rock 102 morning show hosts Bax (right) and Nagle talk with Springfield Thunderbirds President Nate Costa (a Difference Maker himself in 2023) at last year’s Mayflower Marathon.

But what is remembered far more are other moments in time — the ones that reflect the generosity, caring, and spirit of collaboration that have come to define the marathon and explain why it was conceived all those years ago.

Moments like the announcement of how much was raised last November.

“At the end of the broadcast, we give an unofficial total, with this year [2023] far exceeding anyone’s expectations — I don’t think anyone expected anything close to this,” Bax recalled. “To be able to tell Nicole Lussier what we had just done — and she had been there every minute of the event — to be able to tell her that we had raised at least $217,000, with more on the way … to see her reaction, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I got choked up on the air, and so did Steve. When you realize where this is going and how many people it helps…”

He didn’t finish that sentence, but didn’t really have to. And this sentiment speaks to how and why the marathon was launched three decades ago.

The idea, said all those we spoke with, was to raise some money for Open Pantry, which today operates several different programs, including am emergency food pantry, holiday meals, the Loaves & Fishes Kitchen, a teen-parent program, and many others.

It’s unlikely that anyone at the time could have imagined that it would grow, evolve, and become, as Bax noted, a community event, said Byrne, adding that the marathon has continually broken through new barriers — be it with trucks filled or the total dollar amount raised — that were previously thought impossible.

And every employee at the station, roughly 25 at last count, is involved on some level in making it happen, said Oldread, noting there are many moving parts with this production.

“There’s an awful lot that goes into this,” he said, “from making sure you have power and internet access to getting trucks and RVs and security, and feeding volunteers, and signage and traffic plans. You have to start around Labor Day in order to get things where they need to be in the days before Thanksgiving.”

“We’ve developed our own little tradition with this game, and we want to continue it and expand it. It’s a testament to the work they’re doing at Rock 102 — they’re driving a huge amount of food to the Open Pantry, which lasts almost an entire year.”

The staff, and the marathon, has persevered through recessions, a pandemic, rough weather, and, most recently, the need to find a new home when the Basketball Hall of Fame informed those at the station in 2022 that it could no longer host the marathon in its parking lot.

In many ways, that search for a home crystalized just how much the community had embraced the marathon and wanted to help it live on, said Oldread, noting that, as the station’s on-air personalities went public with the need to find a new home, there was an outpouring of support and commitments to help take the program to a new, much higher level.

 

Food for Thought

Indeed, Beth Ward, director of Public Affairs for MGM Springfield, said the station received several offers to host the marathon, so many that there was almost a competition for the right to become its new home.

MGM Springfield prevailed, she said, and it has been a privilege to stage the marathon, an event that has become part of the philanthropic culture at the resort casino.

“When we got the call, it was like Christmas morning; we were so excited that we were chosen,” she recalled. “There are so many of us here at MGM that live in Western Mass. and are familiar with this event and have taken part in it and donated to it. Immediately, there were so many people who were thrilled and excited to be there and support it.”

She said MGM Springfield set a record when it comes to volunteer hours donated by employees, and a big reason is the Mayflower Marathon, with many of the casino’s workers on site early (as in 5 a.m. in some cases) to help collect donations and load them into trucks.

“Our employees want to be part of this; they want to help make it successful,” she said, effectively summing up the sentiments of many others we spoke with.

That includes Nate Costa, president of the Springfield Thunderbirds, a Difference Maker himself last year. He told BusinessWest that the team has long had a solid relationship with Rock 102, knowing that its listenership boasts many hockey fans. That relationship was taken to a new level when the event lost its home and then found one with another of the T-Birds’ partners, MGM Springfield.

The team soon dedicated the Wednesday night game before Thanksgiving to the cause, branding it Rock 102 Mayflower Marathon Night. That Wednesday is traditionally a time for family gatherings and “bar gatherings,” as Costa called them, but the pull of the marathon and Open Pantry has brought more than 5,000 fans to the arena the past two years for “one last push” for donations.

“We’ve developed our own little tradition with this game, and we want to continue it and expand it,” he said. “It’s a testament to the work they’re doing at Rock 102 — they’re driving a huge amount of food to the Open Pantry, which lasts almost an entire year.”

Costa, Ward, Lussier, and others credit the staff at Rock 102 — the on-air personalities especially, but everyone that gets involved (and that is everyone) — with bringing a region together behind a cause as few other events in this region have.

“Over the course of the past 30 years, it’s become a full-blown community event, where it almost has nothing to do with Rock 102 or any of us,” Bax said. “It has everything to do with different segments of the community getting involved in something special — collecting food.”

Well … it has something to do with the team at Rock 102. Indeed, they have made this happen, not just when it comes to logistics, but from the standpoint of shaping an event that not only serves a community, but creates a stronger community, Oldread said.

And that’s why the team can collectively share the title of Difference Maker.

Class of 2024

CEO, Keiter

He’s Building on a Tradition of Giving Back to the Community

Scott Keiter

Scott Keiter has made the construction company that bears his name one of the fastest-growing ventures in this sector regionally.

And to position his company to achieve that kind of growth, Keiter (pronounced ‘Kiter’) knew early on that he would have to focus most of his time and energy on business, making connections, developing talent, putting the right team in place, and fashioning a blueprint (yes, that’s an industry term) for success.

“As we built the business, the most precious resource was time,” he said. “Anyone who creates a business knows what it takes — it’s every waking hour, so there’s not much time left behind. And then you introduce a child or two, and there’s even less time.”

But he also knew that, once he had the foundation of his business down and was building on top of it, he would eventually shift some of that time and energy toward the community and start to get involved on a number of levels.

And he has followed that blueprint as well, devoting time and talent to everything from an advisory role at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School’s carpentry program to becoming a trustee at Look Park, to involvement with the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce (GNCC) on many levels, including something called the ‘Keiter Card.’

“He said, ‘I’d like to do something, because we have, fortunately, gained business throughout this horrible period. So I’d like to do something to support the community.’”

This is an initiative to match the value of gift cards sold by the chamber and accepted in more than 100 businesses — one that has put thousands of dollars back into the Greater Northampton economy in late summer, during back-to-school sales and tax-free-weekend time.

In the beginning, it was called the ‘Double Your Money Northampton Gift Card Promotion,’ but eventually it took the name of the company and the philanthropist behind it, making this both an economic driver and an effective branding initiative.

The program, started in 2021 and expanded each year, allows consumers to purchase a $25 Northampton gift card and receive $50 in actual spending power, said Vince Jackson, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber, adding that it has provided a real boost for that region’s many small businesses and become somewhat of phenomenon in Paradise City.

The Keiter Card

The Keiter Card has been described as a ‘win-win-win,’ benefiting the Keiter company, the local economy, and small businesses that accept the cards.

Indeed, as he talked about the card, Jackson referenced everything from how quickly they sold out each of their first three years, to how mothers would bring in their children collectively (it’s one Keiter Card per customer) so they could spend part of their allowance on a card, and then talk about where they would go and what they would spend it on.

But while heaping praise on the card and its impact, Jackson saved some for the company and the person behind it, especially as he recalled the circumstances of how it came about.

Flashing back to late summer 2021, when the economy was really starting to open up again after the pandemic, Jackson recalled a conversation he had with Keiter.

“He said, ‘I’d like to do something, because we have, fortunately, gained business throughout this horrible period. So I’d like to do something to support the community,’” Jackson recalled. “So he came up with the idea of donating $10,000 to the chamber, and for everyone who bought a $25 gift card, he would match that amount, up to $10,000.”

For year two, Keiter doubled the amount to $20,000, and in year three, he increased it to $25,000, with the chamber donating another $5,000 to make it a $30,000 matching program. For year four … Keiter leaked to BusinessWest that he will again be donating $25,000 to build on the momentum that’s been generated.

Meanwhile, Keiter, working in tandem with his wife, Jill, continue to expand their involvement in the Greater Northampton area while at the same taking their business to the proverbial next level.

Success in both realms helps explain why Keiter will soon have his name on something else: a Difference Makers plaque.

 

What’s in a Name?

Returning to the subject of the Keiter Card, Jackson said it’s an example not only of Scott Keiter’s genrosity and commitment to the community and its small businesses, but also of how he’s developed into a successful business person, refining several talents, including, in this case, branding and marketing.

Indeed, to purchase a Keiter Card, one first has to say that name, said Jackson, adding that, when needed, those at the chamber will help the buyer along.

“Sometimes they need help with the pronounciation — some will say ‘Keeter,’” he explained, adding that, with each transaction and each card, the Keiter business gets some additional exposure.

Scott Keiter with, from left, Evan Latour, Zak Martinez, and Sean Houlihan

Scott Keiter with, from left, Evan Latour, Zak Martinez, and Sean Houlihan, Smith Vocational Agricultural High School graduates now working for the company.

And it has already been making a name for itself in the region as a growing company, now with 85 employees, focused on both residential and commercial construction. With the former, the company tackles new construction, but mostly renovations. And with the latter, it has developed a deep portolio of clients, including many higher-education institutions, including Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Amherst College, Elms College, and Western New England University. It also counts many businesses and municipalities on its client list.

The business recently spun off Hatfield Construction, which focuses on earth work and site work, as a wholly owned subsidiary of Keiter, and last month, it announced that it had appointed Jim Young, a business consultant and former president of Paragus Strategic IT, as president of Keiter, leaving its founder more time to focus on the proverbial big picture instead of day-to-day operations.

“We’re excited to open a new chapter for the company and focus on growth and development and building on the successes that we’ve already had,” said Keiter, who will assume the title of CEO. “Jim will help me leverage my time so I can remain focused on looking forward, being in the role of a visionary, and guiding the direction of this organization.”

The business plan calls for continued, sustainable growth and further expansion into Hampden and Berkshire counties, he went on, adding that the company has established itself in those markets and wants to build on that presence.

As noted earlier, for the first several years he was in business, Keiter had a singular focus, to get that venture on solid footing and put an aggressive growth plan in place.

As the company’s name, reputation, and portfolio of clients and projects grew, he began to shift some of his time to the community, although the main focus has still been his business.

 

Concrete Examples

Keiter has chosen to get involved in realms where he can lend expertise, and also where he can make a difference.

That includes Smith Vocational, where he has served as an advisor to the carpentry department while also bringing a number of its students into the company through its co-op program, with several of them eventually being hired by the firm.

“We try to get them out to do everything that we do,” he explained. “We try our best to get them out on our projects, where they can work side-by-side with our staff. In fact, we’ve hired a number of them; they’re some of our best employees.”

Keiter’s involvement also extends to Look Park, which he described as a “treasure,” one of the city’s best assets.

But it’s with the Keiter Card that he is making a greater name for himself in the community, literally and figuratively.

And he said it came about through twin desires — to help small businesses in the community and build his brand.

“I had an epiphany one day,” he recalled. “We were comtemplating how to allocate some marketing money, and I wanted to find a way to create a win-win, or what Vince [Jackson] calls a ‘win-win-win.’

“What this card does is give Keiter some good exposure, but it’s also supporting our community, and it’s also supporting the local economy and retailers,” he said, adding that the idea was to build on the chamber’s existing gift-card program, which was “keeping the money local.”

Douglas Gilbert, vice president of Commercial Lending at Florence Bank, another of those who nominated Keiter for the Difference Makers award, put the initiative in perspective, noting that “Scott’s generous support of the Northampton gift-card program has been vital to the program’s success and provides purchasers with a significant financial incentive to support participating area merchants.”

Jackson agreed, adding that the program’s impact has grown each year.

“In 2023, the GNCC experienced year-over year growth of 10% in Northampton gift-card sales, 13% growth in gift-card units, and 22% growth in redemptions — all driven primarily by the excitement and impact of the Keiter Card promotion,” he said, noting that the cards have sold out in a matter of days each year. “That growth in redemptions in significant and signals immediate spending, giving an exceptional boost to small businesses during a traditionally slow sales period.”

Summing up Kieter’s involvement in the community, as well as his success in business, Jackson started by saying the chamber no longer refers to those who join its ranks as members. Instead, it calls them ‘investors.’

And some businesses have earned the designation ‘prestige investors,’ he went on, adding that these are the ones creating jobs, getting involved — in the chamber and in the community — and making an impact.

Keiter — both the company and its owner — have certainly earned that designation, said Jackson, adding that his involvement in the region prompted the chamber’s leadership to present him with a Community Service Award in 2023.

“They’re doing all the right things, practicing good citizenship and promoting economic development along the way,” he noted. “They’re sharing the wealth and rewards that they’ve been blessed to have, and that’s admirable.”

 

Playing His Card

Jackson told BusinessWest that Keiter cycled off the chamber’s board of directors recently, and that it’s a tradition to give departing board menbers a gift, usually something of the ‘gag’ variety.

In this case, those at the chamber wrapped up a Keiter Card and presented it to him, imploring him to spend it wisely and spread the wealth around.

While that card was a gift to him, the Keiter Card program has been a gift to the community —both its residents and its businesses. It is a gift that has become, as Jackson said, a true win-win-win.

Class of 2024

Co-founders, Feed the Kids

They Decided to Do Something … and Not Just Write a Check

Dr. Fred and Mary Kay Kadushin

It all started with a story on National Public Radio in 2017, one with some alarming statistics about how many children in this country go to bed hungry — some 6 million of them, according to estimates at that time.

Dr. Fred and Mary Kay Kadushin were in different places when the NPR story aired, but they both had their radios on. And they were both surprised and alarmed by what they heard — enough to want to try to do something about it.

“Both of us were just so blown away by what we heard,” said Mary Kay, a retired graphic artist. “When you think about childhood nutrition, and the lack thereof … you think of other countries, but it’s right here in the United States; it’s right under your nose.”

Fred, a semi-retired neuropsychologist who specializes in toxic disorders, agreed. “We decided we needed to do something, and that we needed to do more than just a write a check.”

They talked at length about possible courses of action and eventually settled on creating a new nonprofit venture that would be called Feed the Kids, a name that says it all. And they would eventually settle on a golf tournament (something they had some experience with from their years helping to fundraise for the Boy Scouts) and accompanying online auction as the way to carry out a simple yet vitally important mission — to help existing local programs that have undertaken initiatives to combat childhood food insecurity.

Specifically, they now support Square One, the Springfield-based early-education and family-support provider that offers breakfast, lunch, and snacks to its preschoolers; Pioneer Valley Power Packs, an all-volunteer program that provides school-aged children with non-perishable food each weekend in Easthampton and Northampton; the HPS (Holyoke Public Schools) Weekend Backpack program; and No Kid Hungry, a national organization that battles food insecurity.

“Both of us were just so blown away by what we heard. When you think about childhood nutrition, and the lack thereof … you think of other countries, but it’s right here in the United States; it’s right under your nose.”

Since the first players teed it up in 2018, the program has raised more than $350,000 to fight childhood food insecurity, and along the way it has garnered the support of several area businesses, including PeoplesBank, Westfield Bank, the accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, the law firm Shatz Schwartz and Fentin, Freedom Credit Union, Monson Savings Bank, Elm Electric, and many others.

We talked with the Kadushins about their work, but we also talked with those at the agencies they support. They describe a couple that is modest, caring, generous, and committed to doing what they can to help others in this region. In other words, Difference Makers.

Dr. Fred Kadushin gets to know some of the young students at Square One in Springfield

Dr. Fred Kadushin gets to know some of the young students at Square One in Springfield, one of the nonprofits supported by Feed the Kids.

“Fred and Mary Kay are selfless in their efforts,” said Mary Bianca, a board member with Pioneer Valley Power Packs, who nominated the Kadushins for the Difference Makers award. “They work tirelessly, and their help and dedication have, and continue to make, a huge difference in the lives of thousands of children in our community.”

Kris Allard, vice president of Development and Communication at Square One, who also nominated them, agreed.

“If there’s a poster recipient for the Difference Makers award, it would be Fred and Mary Kay,” she told BusinessWest. “They are the kindest, most generous family … and there’s a pureness to what they do. They’re just individuals doing this work; there’s no expectation for recognition. They’re just good people.”

 

Impact Statements

As she talked about the Kadushins, Allard started not with Feed the Kids and what it does for Square One, but with a different initiative at the agency — one that collects winter coats for children in need.

“They would donate beautiful coats to the program, and I would always get a note from them that said, ‘make sure they check the pockets,’” she said. “There was always a toy zipped into the pocket — a little Matchbox car or any other kind of small toy that would fit in there — and Fred would always say, ‘have the kids check the pockets; there’s a little something extra there.’”

Doing something extra has been the MO for the Kadushins, she went on, adding that, during COVID, when coat drop-offs were not possible, the couple still wanted to donate. Allard, who lives in Wilbraham, arranged to go to the Kadushins’ home on Lake Paradise in Monson and pick up some coats, and while there, Fred initiated a conversation about what else Square One did.

“If there’s a poster recipient for the Difference Makers award, it would be Fred and Mary Kay. They are the kindest, most generous family … and there’s a pureness to what they do. They’re just individuals doing this work; there’s no expectation for recognition. They’re just good people.”

Upon being told the agency provided breakfast and lunch for children, but that this was ‘deficit operation,’ because funds from the state didn’t fully cover the costs, Fred told her about the golf tournament that he and Mary Kay had started a few years earlier.

So began a partnership that embodies the mission of both agencies, and one that certainly helps explain why the Kadushins are being honored as Difference Makers.

For a more in-depth explanation, we need to go back to that report on NPR.

The Kadushins, as noted, came away determined to help, and not by writing a check. They did considerable research on how best to address the larger problem and started a golf tournament to support No Kid Hungry. Soon, though, they wanted to expand their reach and directly support local organizations with programs to feed children.

There are many of them because the need is great, said Mary Kay, adding that they eventually created partnerships with Square One, Pioneer Valley Power Packs (PVPP), and the HPS Weekend Backpack program, which provides 250 to 500 Holyoke children with a backpack of nutritious food to tide them over until they return to school on Monday.

But some of these programs, and especially No Kid Hungry, provide more than food, said Fred, adding that education is also critically important.

“They have programs that educate parents about making smart food choices because sometimes, kids are just getting the wrong foods,” he explained. “It’s not just that they’re not getting enough; they’re getting the wrong kinds.”

And the need is only growing within the region, said both the Kadushins and those operating the nonprofits they support.

The Feed the Kids golf tournament

The Feed the Kids golf tournament has drawn the support of dozens of local businesses and become a summer tradition in Western Mass.

Indeed, Bianca said Pioneer Valley Power Packs saw a 65% increase in need in 2023, a surge she attributes to inflation, rising rents, an overall softening of the economy that saw more people out of work, and an end to some COVID-related relief programs.

There is a waiting list for students to receive the power packs, which consist of two breakfasts, two lunches, and some snacks, she said, adding that, thanks to the donation from the Feed the Kids tournament and auction, the agency was able to take some young people off that waiting list.

“They’re our largest supporter,” she said. “If not for them, we wouldn’t have a program.”

 

Investment Plan

The golf tournament created to support PVPP and other organizations fighting childhood food insecurity, staged annually at Springfield Country Club, has become a labor of love for the Kadushins and a small army of volunteers that lend support and handle assignments from securing items for the auction to working at the course on tournament day.

Planning for next year’s tournament begins almost immediately after the current year’s edition ends, said Fred, adding that the goal is to keep overhead as low as possible (in this case, almost zero) to funnel as much of the money raised to nonprofits as possible.

The event has grown over the years, at least in terms of the auction and the number of supporting corporate sponsors. (As veteran golf-tournament organizers, they understand the importance of limiting the number of golfers on the course, thus helping to ensure that a good time is had and foursomes come back the next year.)

And its importance has grown as well, said the Kadushins, agreeing with Bianca that, regrettably, the need has only increased in the years since that NPR report.

They view their efforts as an investment in young people and an investment in the future of this region, and the country.

“The payoffs are so high,” Fred said. “Proper nutrition affects physical, cognitive, and emotional development. If you think about it, nutrition affects everything. If you improve concentration, you can improve school performance, and when kids eat properly, they’re more likely to graduate, and the downstream implications of that are huge in terms of improving lives and ensuring that people become productive members of society.

“You decrease things like obesity and improve immunity,” he went on. “So downstream, you’re improving kids’ health, so there will be less drag on the healthcare system.”

Mary Kay agreed. “Our passion is with kids because it’s hard to imagine a child going to bed hungry, and that’s generally through no fault of their own,” she said. “Our heart goes out to that.”

While they’re proud of what they do, the Kadushins, as might be expected given the testimonials above, say the real work being done to combat food insecurity among young people is at the nonprofits addressing the problem and by those on the front lines, many of them volunteers.

“These volunteers are amazing; they pack the food, they get it distributed, and they identify who needs the food,” Mary Kay said, adding that she, Fred, and other members of the golf-tournament team will be joining those in Holyoke to stuff backpacks later this month. “It’s pretty amazing, these people who actually do this work.”

Equally amazing is the devotion that Fred and Mary Kay bring to the efforts to help these agencies and volunteers carry out their missions.

Their work is done mostly behind the scenes, organizing the golf outing, signing up sponsors, and attending to the smallest of details. Their stated goal is to press on, grow their venture, hopefully add a title sponsor, and, ultimately, help local agencies help more people in need.

What else would you expect from a couple that puts small surprises in the pockets of winter coats earmarked for children in need? What else would you expect from a couple that didn’t just listen to a news story on childhood hunger, but committed themselves to doing something about those alarming statistics?

What else would you expect from two genuine Difference Makers?

Class of 2024

Executive Director, Franklin Regional Council of Governments

In Small Towns, She Makes a Big Difference

Linda Dunlavy

When asked what she likes about her work — and she must like it because she’s been doing it for more than 30 years now — Linda Dunlavy paused for a moment before giving an answer that was as succinct as it was powerful.

“If you’re patient … you can create positive change,” she said, putting additional emphasis on that word patient. And for good reason. When you’re dealing in complex issues such as transportation, broadband access, a housing shortage, climate change, and poulation loss, the solutions don’t come quickly or easily, she said.

To get her point across, Dunlavy, executive director of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG, or simply the COG, as it’s called), recalled the countless meetings she would attend with Tim Brennan, the former director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission who passed away in 2020 (and a Difference Makers honoree himself in 2011), as they led efforts to bring north-south rail service back to Greenfield and other communities in Western Mass.

It was a long, hard fight, she recalled, shaking her head as the reflected on the heavy amounts of early skeptism, miles put on the odometer traveling to and from more meetings than she could possibly count, and endless discussions with policymakers and power brokers in an effort to turn back the clock on rail service.

“There were people saying, ‘you’ll never get this,’ and ‘you can never justify this,’” she recalled, flashing back almost a quarter-century and the start of her work on this issue.

“Tim and I would drive to Boston all the time, and I would drive to Springfield all the time; I was meeting with MassDOT, meeting with legislators, meeting with Amtrak, meeting with the Federal Highway Administration, meeting again with MasssDOT, meeting again with legislators. And it was a lot of ‘let’s try this’ … and we’d hit a dead end and then back up, and then we’d say, ‘let’s try this option’ and hit a dead end. That was a lot of the strategic work I did with Tim: ‘what can we try next? What’s the next obstacle that needs to be overcome to prove that this is a good idea?’”

Overall, it took 15 years to get north-south passenger rail returned, Dunlavy noted, adding that passenger volumes post-COVID, high enough to convince the state to take the service from trial status to permanent in nature, validate all that hard work.

This is just one example of how her patience, and a number of other qualities, have yielded that positive change she spoke of. Others include her work to bring reliable broadband to rural communities, a project to realign Route 2 around the Erving Industries paper mill, and even the building the COG is now housed in — the John Olver Transit Center in Greenfield.

“Linda has a preternatural ability to see what needs to be done and, with transparency underpinned by a willingness to accept risk and accountability for choices, forge ahead.”

Dunlavy’s tenacity and ability to get things done were summed up effectively by Jay Dipucchio, president of Turners Falls-based Nutri-Systems Corp. and also a member of the COG advisory board, who nominated her for the Difference Makers award.

“Linda has a preternatural ability to see what needs to be done and, with transparency underpinned by a willingness to accept risk and accountability for choices, forge ahead,” he wrote. “It helps as well that the energies applied and chances taken are informed by hard-earned experience and a great depth of knowledge.

communities in Franklin County, including Greenfield, seen here.

During her lengthy career with the FRCOG, Linda Dunlavy has brought services to, and been a tireless advocate for, communities in Franklin County, including Greenfield, seen here.

“She is an incomprably vigorous advocate and collaboration builder for Greater Franklin County and the Pioneer Valley,” he went on. “By cultivating collaboration and fostering innovative public-sector responses to regional service issues, her leadership of the FRCOG has created arguably one of the most unique and recognized public-service organizations in the Commonwealth, truly making a difference for the people who live here.”

In keeping with that assessment of her talents and value to the region, Dunlavy said she is focused not on what she’s been able to accomplish for the people of Franklin County — and all the state’s 170 rural communities, for that matter — but on the work still to be done.

And there is plenty of it, in realms ranging from housing to climate issues and readiness for disasters like the mirobursts and heavy rains of last July, to what has become the most crucial issue facing this region: population loss.

Dunlavy is addressing these issues and others with the requisite patience, but also large amounts of tenacity and that ability to get things done — attributes that speak to her impact as a Difference Maker.

 

Staying on Track

As she wrapped up her conversation with BusinessWest, Dunlavy gestured out one of the windows of her corner office to the incoming Amtrak train, the Vermonter, stopping at the depot just a few hundred feet away. She took the opportunity to count the number of people getting off and on, something she does often, and for obvious reasons.

“She is an incomprably vigorous advocate and collaboration builder for Greater Franklin County and the Pioneer Valley.”

While only a few were getting on this particular train, heading north on a Tuesday afternoon, the numbers for the trains heading south — to Northampton, Springfield, Hartford, then New York and eventually Washington — have been solid, as has overall volume for the service, she said, adding that the numbers help validate all those meetings and all that time spent convincing officials to bring the trains back to the region.

And while the return of train service may be the crowning achievement of Dunlavy’s career, there have been many others, as noted earlier.

Bringing rail service back to Greenfield and other Western Mass.

Bringing rail service back to Greenfield and other Western Mass. communities is one of many long-term projects in Linda Dunlavy’s record of service to the region.

Beyond the larger projects, there is the day-to-day work of advocating for, and providing services to, the towns of Franklin County, but also all the rural communities of the Bay State — those with fewer than 500 people per square mile.

That’s every community in Franklin County other than Greenfield, she said, adding that these towns are small — or, in the cases of Monroe and Rowe, with populations of 120 and 394, respectively, very small.

Serving these communities is the mission of the COG, created in the wake of the abolition of county government in 1997. Today, it operates 12 programs and boasts more than 50 staff members and an annual budget of more than $5 million, funded in part by assessments to the 26 municipalities in Franklin County, but mostly through state and federal grants.

Dunlavy started with the county commission in 1993 and transitioned to the COG when it was created in 1998, and took at the helm of the organization in 1999.

Summing up its mission, she said it is similar in many ways to the Springfield-based Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. It serves the communities of Franklin County, the most rural county in the state, providing planning services as well as regionalized municipal services to those communities, as well as some outside the county. Those services include building, wiring, and inspection services, as well as the purchasing of municipal products and services for 59 towns, items such as guardrail, asphalt, salt, sand, and fuel.

“Our focus is Franklin County, but we go outside Franklin County with projects and partnerships to serve the county better,” she explained. “So we work with cooperatively with the Pioneer Planning Commission on many projects, such as rail.

“Our towns are very rural, and that’s why we provide so many municipal services,” she went on. “A small town like Buckland would have a hard time finding a qualified accountant, a qualified health agent, a qualified business inspector. So, by combining those services together, we can hire professional staff and provide those services to our rural communities.”

 

The State of Things

Beyond providing these services, the COG, like Dunlavy herself, serves as an advocate for the region, on issues ranging from rail to broadband to housing.

The week she spoke with BusinessWest, she was also in Boston testifiying at an 11-hour hearing on the housing bond bill and advocating for housing solutions that recognize the difficulties and contraints of developing housing in rural areas.

She was testifying in her role as part of the Massachusetts Assoc. of Regional Planning Agencies, but also as chair of the Rural Policy Advisory Commission, she said, adding that, in both capacities, she advocated for recognition that housing development in rural areas comes at a smaller scale than in Hampden County or Eastern Mass., for example, meaning there are fewer economies of scale and far fewer developers interested in building in such areas. Also, most of these rural communities have limited water and sewer infrasructure, so the cost to develop housing is much higher.

With a better understanding of these issues, she said, legislators can craft a bond bill that creates greater equity when it comes to a housing shortage that impacts virtually every community in the Commonwealth.

Meanwhile, she and others at the COG are also working to make the region more prepared for disruptions like COVID and climate-related disasters such as the torrential rains and accompanying flooding last summer, which ruined crops and damaged infrastructure.

“We need to focus on what we can learn from the devastation of the July storms, on how we make our region more resilient, and how we can get our communities to work together to set climate-resiliency priorities and choose projects togther,” she said. “If you look at all of that as emergency response … that’s a big part of what we’re doing right now.”

But the biggest challenge, though, is population loss, and it’s an issue that now commands a large amount of Dunlavy’s time and energy.

“It’s a huge issue for us; we always have it in the back of our minds in all of the work that we do — what can we do to stem population loss and attract young families to our region. Because an aging and declining population is not great for our economy.”

Elaborating, she said population growth has been stagnant since 2000, but there are projections, contained in a report prepared by the UMass Donahue Institute, for a precipitious decline, perhaps 20%, in the years to come.

That model does not take into account a resolution to the broadband issue in many Franklin County communties, she went on, nor does it factor in the rising popularity in remote work and the boost it has provided for many rural areas. So, while the projections are stark, there is reason for optimism.

“There are a lot of factors we can use to make sure those population projections don’t come true,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s a big focus of our work.”

 

Progress Report

As she offered a quick tour of the transit center, Dunlavy recalled the time a gentleman visited not long after it opened.

“He said, ‘I’d like something like this; how long did this take?’” she recalled, adding that the answer — more than 20 years — startled him somewhat.

That’s about the average for most of the major projects she has undertaken, she went on, stressing, again, that none of her landmark projects — be it broadband, rail, or the Route 2 realignment — came quickly or easily. Such projects require patience, and a whole lot more.

Dunlavy has those attributes, just as her friend, colleague, and mentor Tim Brennan did. And now she shares something else in common with him.

She’s a Difference Maker.

Class of 2024

CEO, Paragus Strategic I.T.

His Big Goals Promise a Big Impact for Employees, the Region, and Beyond

Delcie Bean

 

Delcie Bean had been repairing computers as a side gig from schoolwork from his early teens, and he was a high-school junior when he started taking his enterprise seriously, with business cards and a company name: Vertical Horizons.

The name would change twice over the next two decades, first to Valley Computer Works, then to Paragus Strategic I.T. The technology would change quite a bit, too, as would his business model (more on that later).

What hasn’t changed is Bean’s initial goal: to know more than his clients.

“When I started, it was residential computer support. A lot of it was just helping senior citizens,” he recalled. “I was just helping people who were less sophisticated than I was set up a computer and learn how to use it.

“I didn’t actually know all that much. I just had to know more than the person I was helping,” he continued. “I didn’t have a car; I didn’t have a license. So people had to come pick me up, bring me to their home, and I’d help them fix their computer. I got paid $10 an hour and fed very, very well; it was a lot of grandmas, so I got a lot of cookies and cakes and got invited to a lot of dinners.”

The company grew steadily over the next few years, first in a storefront in Amherst, then in a converted house on Route 9 in Hadley. By 2008 — still only 21 — Bean had accomplished enough to be named to BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty, one of the youngest-ever honorees. He also earned the publication’s Top Entrepreneur award for 2014 and its first-ever Alumni Achievement Award, given to high-performing 40 Under Forty alumni, in 2015 — both of those recognizing the impressive growth of what was now called Paragus Strategic I.T. and located in a larger building a half-mile east on Russell Street.

“How can we be the sherpas, the guides, for those small businesses and tell them what’s coming around the corner, what they should be thinking about, and what they should be preparing for?”

And now, Bean is a Difference Maker — not necessarily for the company’s still-upward trajectory when it comes to growth and expansion. No, it’s for the impact he’s had on IT workforce development in the region, and also for implementing an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) model that may create dozens of employee-owner millionaires over time.

“We think we can be a $250 million company in 15 years,” he told BusinessWest. “But in order to do that, we’re going to need to grow a lot, and we’re going to need capital. A lot of businesses in our position bring in a private equity group and leverage their dollars, but that means you work for them, and they make a lot of the big decisions, and it isn’t the same company anymore. And we decidedly did not want to do that.”

He also had no interest in selling the company, feeling he has more to give. “So the third option was to do what we did the first time we wanted to grow, and double down on the ESOP. In this case, we’re becoming 100% employee-owned.”

 

Keys to Success

Looking back, one of the biggest decisions in Bean’s career took place after he and a partner (whom he eventually bought out) settled on the name Valley Computer Works and bought the house in Hadley.

By 2011, the client base was about 60% residential (with about 4,000 customers) and 40% commercial.

“We got it running like a well-oiled machine. There was a touchscreen kiosk when you dropped it off — you checked off what services you wanted to get. We had it running like a car wash: ‘do you want this package or this package?’ And the whole thing was really efficient, but we weren’t enjoying it. It wasn’t giving me a lot of excitement,” he recalled. “But I loved the commercial stuff. I loved helping companies and working with businesses.”

Besides its Hadley headquarters (pictured), Paragus has a location in Worcester

Besides its Hadley headquarters (pictured), Paragus has a location in Worcester and ambitions to expand its footprint steadily from there.

So, one day, he woke up and decided his future would be in commercial support — and he made the bold decision to shut down 60% of his revenue at the time and build on the 40%.

These days, Paragus exclusively provides IT support to small businesses in an ongoing contract model, he explained. “We are their outsourced IT department, and we become an extension of their company, managing and taking care of whatever they need.”

Bean describes Paragus’ traditional services in terms of three pillars. The first is the help desk. “Your employees have a problem — they can’t turn their computer on, they can’t get into their email, their phone’s not working — and we’re the help desk. We’re the people you call to get those issues taken care of.”

The second pillar is the proactive part of IT: the backups, monitoring, and security. “Obviously, that has evolved and changed so much in the past 10 years, but the core principle is that you need somebody looking after your network and being proactive and taking care of it.”

The third pillar is strategy, helping businesses figure out what technology they should be using, and how to use it more efficiently.

But about four years ago, a fourth pillar emerged at Paragus, which is AI and automation. “That’s all about using technology to make the business more efficient, more intelligent. How do we access more information to run a better business?”

As technology continues to evolve, especially on that fourth front, it’s critical that businesses have a strategic partner well-versed in IT and current trends, he added.

“AI and automation are changing everything. They’re going to have a huge disruption in the labor force in terms of who’s doing what jobs and how those jobs get done. And we’re going to be able to do things that, right now, we can’t do, either because we’re too busy doing the mundane, repetitive work, or because we just didn’t have the tools to be able to work on those things.

“So, how do we stay one or two steps ahead of our customer base,” Bean asked, “but in a way that we can figure out not only how this is impacting our industry, but how it’s impacting small business in general? Then, how can we be the sherpas, the guides, for those small businesses and tell them what’s coming around the corner, what they should be thinking about, and what they should be preparing for?”

Sensing a need for a stronger pipeline of talent into the IT field, in 2014, Bean created Tech Foundry, an educational nonprofit that provides in-depth training for promising individuals, particularly from marginalized or underrepresented backgrounds.

“We wanted to create a program that would take people who are having a hard time finding work, give them a career path, and then we can employ them,” he explained. “It helps us, it helps them, it helps everybody. It seemed very sustainable.”

“About 500 students have graduated from Tech Foundry. And many of them are earning significant salaries, way more than they ever could have imagined.”

Employer partners agreed, and a fundraising campaign brought in $400,000 to launch the program, which continues today — and recently expanded into Tech Hub, a facility in Holyoke where people can learn technology skills to help them advance in an increasingly digital job market.

“About 500 students have graduated from Tech Foundry. And many of them are earning significant salaries, way more than they ever could have imagined,” Bean said. “So it not only impacts that person, it impacts their entire family, because now you’ve just changed this person’s entire trajectory.”

 

Wealth of Information

In the early years of Vertical Horizon and Valley Computer Works, Bean said, it didn’t matter who owned the company because it wasn’t making any money.

“But there came a time when that changed, and the company was suddenly worth more. And that was the moment where it started to feel a little bit inequitable. We had the same culture; we were all working just as hard. Everybody was the first one in and last one out, and there was no hierarchy; we were all just doing what we could to make this company successful and serve our customers.

“But at the end of the day, as the company actually started to gain value, all that value was coming to me,” he said. “So, around 2013, I had this idea that I wanted to spread that value across the employees. We tried a couple of different models and finally settled on ESOP as the way we wanted to do that.”

The plan was to transfer 40% of the stock to the employees, a transaction that was finalized in June 2016.

“That was the first moment where I actually planned on running the business for many years into the future,” Bean said. “Up until that point, it was still kind of a side project; I was still a kid with no responsibilities. But when I made that decision to become an ESOP, I was like, ‘OK, this is actually a business, and I want this business to grow and thrive and succeed.’”

To do that, he needed to attract top talent who would want to stay, and that meant creating a desirable employee culture — with employee ownership as a key part of that. Which is why Paragus is now expanding its ESOP to become 100% employee-owned.

“I will no longer own any more stock than any of the other employees,” he told BusinessWest. “I’ll just be another employee owner. But we will have created the capital that we need to be able to execute on our acquisition strategy.”

That’s the heart of the plan: to continue to acquire companies in new geographic footprints, a strategy that Paragus piloted in Worcester with its acquisition of Comportz Technologies during the summer of 2021.

“The plan is to try to do an acquisition a year for the next five years or so and continue to learn and grow and figure out what works, what doesn’t work, and then continue to execute that strategy for as long as it provides value to the community, to the customers, and to the employees,” he explained. “Each year, we want to look for a new geographic market that we think has the right conditions for us to succeed and thrive.”

Meanwhile, Paragus continues to give back to the community, supporting many local businesses by donating goods and sponsoring nonprofit events and educational initiatives.

“We’re a company that believes companies can be a force for good in the community and in the world,” Bean said. “For us, the world is too big a target, but the community feels really approachable. We serve businesses in the community, and we’re dependent on the community.”

And now it’s serving those businesses as a 100% employee-owned firm, which promises to change a lot of lives.

“I’d encourage businesses that are looking to grow, looking to transition ownership, looking to make a change, to keep that option on the table without just defaulting to selling out to private equity,” he added. “Oftentimes, the impact of that is losing jobs, losing revenue, and dollars leave the area.”

The opposite is happening at Paragus, which continues to benefit clients, employees, aspiring IT talent, and the community in myriad ways.

That’s the story — with many chapters in his young life still unwritten — of a Difference Maker.

Class of 2024

Senior Vice President, Marketing and Corporate Responsibility, PeoplesBank

He Goes Well Beyond the Job of ‘Playing Santa Claus’

Matt Bannister

Matt Bannister likes to say that he has “one of the best jobs at the bank,” although some might consider it the worst.

His title is senior vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility, a position that comes with many responsibilities, including a rather large role in determining and then implementing PeoplesBank’s philanthropic strategy, duties he described this way: “I get to play Santa Claus.”

Indeed, he’s part of the team that essentially determined how the bank apportioned $2.3 million in giving in 2022 and another $1.6 million in 2023, with donations averaging roughly $3,000 presented to more than 500 nonprofits and causes meeting some of the region’s most critical needs, such as food insecurity, housing, economic development, and literacy.

 

 

More on all this later, because this work is not why Bannister has been named a Difference Maker for 2024. OK, it’s a small part of the reason why.

The much bigger reason is the manner in which he has gone well beyond playing Santa Claus and well beyond helping decide to whom the bank will write checks — rather, he’s become closely involved with helping to meet some of those needs listed above.

Since joining the bank in 2015, he has served as a board member for agencies including Link to Libraries, EforAll Pioneer Valley, the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, the Springfield 9/11 Memorial fundraising committee, the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, Hilltown Community Health Center; the American Red Cross, and Revitalize Community Development Corp. (CDC), where he is current co-chair.

“You can say that he manages the pocketbook and he helps us disperse funds in the right ways, but when you see that expense report and you see that mileage — that’s not giving out money as much as it is participating and being part of the community.”

Involvement with the health-related agencies on that list continues a pattern to focus his time, energy, and talent on matters related to health and well-being (and he puts Revitalize CDC squarely in that category, as we’ll see).

Before coming to PeoplesBank, Bannister was executive vice president of Corporate Communications and Brand Content for the American Heart Assoc./American Stroke Assoc., and before that, he was vice president and group account director at Arnold Worldwide, working on integrated marketing campaigns with a focus on anti-tobacco efforts for clients including the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the FDA, and the American Legacy Foundation.

PeoplesBank President Tom Senecal, who nominated Bannister as a Difference Maker, says he can quantify and qualify how much of an impact his colleague has made. For both, he turns to statistics the company keeps on just how many hours each employee devotes to volunteer work — with Bannister logging at least twice as many on bank-sponsored activities, in his estimate — and especially the expense reports Bannister turns in.

“I see the expense reports; they’re three pages long with his volunteer mileage — three pages per month,” he said, adding a verbal exclamation mark. “You can say that he manages the pocketbook and he helps us disperse funds in the right ways, but when you see that expense report and you see that mileage — that’s not giving out money as much as it is participating and being part of the community.

Matt Bannister, seen here at the PeoplesBank booth

Matt Bannister, seen here at the PeoplesBank booth at Junior Achievement’s Teen Reality Fair last year in Chicopee, has become actively involved in the community.

“He goes well above and beyond what we ask him to do to represent PeoplesBank,” Senecal went on, adding that this involvement, this commitment to backing up the checks the bank writes with his work on boards and mowing lawns for Revitalize CDC, explains why he’s been chosen as a Difference Maker for 2024.

 

By All Accounts

Bannister loves to tell the story about his participation in career day at his then-9-year-old daughter’s elementary school. It conveys a little about what he was doing at the time — this was when he was with Arnold Worldwide working on ad programs to help curb smoking among young people — and a lot about why he has been chosen as a Difference Maker.

“Kids at that age don’t really have a strong sense for what their father does for a living,” he said, recalling that his daughter introduced him by saying simply, ‘this is my dad … he saves lives for a living.’

“I thought that was really cool,” he told BusinessWest, adding that this description of what he did certainly helped inspire some of his next career steps. “I said, ‘I want more of that,’ and it helped me go from doing the anti-tobacco work at the agency to the American Heart Association.”

“Our philosophy is to give a little to a lot of groups, and not a lot to a few groups. That’s because almost every nonprofit is worthwhile and doing good work.”

Tracing his work history, Bannister said he worked for the ad agency Hill Holiday in Boston and later with Arnold Worldwide, working on accounts ranging from Volkswagen to Puma to Ocean Spray. In the late ‘90s, he was promoted and told he’d be working on the Department of Public Health account.

“I initially said, ‘that doesn’t sound like a promotion,’” he went on, adding that this was at the time when a 25-cent tax was put on every pack of cigarettes sold, with the money going toward smoking-cessation programs and preventing youth uptake.

“Every ad agency had a beer, a car, a fast-food chain … now, a brand-new category was created — a $100 million category because of all the revenue that was being created,” he went on. “And it was untilled, fertile soil.”

In his role, Matt Bannister is often the face of PeoplesBank

In his role, Matt Bannister is often the face of PeoplesBank, such as at this occasion marking the bank’s donation — $250,000 over five years — to the building of a new facility for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

Overall, it was more rewarding work than selling cars or cranberry juice, he said, adding that he changed course, career-wise, and joined the American Heart Assoc., serving eventually as executive vice president of Communications at its national headquarters in Dallas.

“At the ad agency, you’re selling pizza, sneakers, and sugar water — you’re selling a product,” he explained. “In public health, you’re selling behavior change; you’re selling ‘eat right, don’t smoke, exercise more.’ It’s not something you buy, it’s behaviors, and it’s marketing that’s a lot more challenging and rewarding.”

Desiring a return to the Northeast — he was born in Dedham and attended UMass Amherst — Bannister accepted the role of senior vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility at PeoplesBank, a position with a broad job description that includes corporate responsibility but now also includes marketing, media relations, and social-media management.

And when it comes to charitable giving, he said the bank’s goal is to “say yes as often as you can,” he noted.

“Our philosophy is to give a little to a lot of groups, and not a lot to a few groups,” he explained. “That’s because almost every nonprofit is worthwhile and doing good work.”

Elaborating, he said that, while he supports a wide array of nonprofits and causes, within the giving strategy is an emphasis on certain areas, such as economic development, literacy, food insecurity, and public health, which translates into larger donations to some groups, such as the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Girls Inc. of the Valley, and Revitalize CDC.

 

An Involved Process

These have, in fact, become Bannister’s personal points of emphasis as he chooses the organizations and causes to get personally involved with — and there are many invitations to weigh.

As noted earlier, this involvement is the primary reason why he is part of the Difference Makers class of 2024. He said it’s a part of his job, and also a way to see first-hand the work being done in some of the areas listed above, and be a part of that work.

“The more I can roll up my sleeves, the better I feel about who we’re giving to,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he is certainly selective about the groups and causes he gets involved with.

“In the beginning, it was because they asked me,” he said with a laugh. “Now, it’s more the groups that are working boards that have a vibrant cross-section of the community involved, and that I think we can benefit by being involved.”

Since joining PeoplesBank, Matt Bannister has donated his time

Since joining PeoplesBank, Matt Bannister has donated his time, energy, and talents to several nonprofits and causes, including Revitalize CDC.

That includes Revitalize CDC, which undertakes a number of projects that fall into broad category of public health, including critical repairs on homes of low-income families with children, the elderly, military veterans, and those with special needs, but also initiatives involving interventions for adults and children with asthma, nutrition programs, and making home improvements that allow seniors to remain in their homes.

He is active with all those intiatives, but has carved out his own niche.

“My favorite thing is mowing the lawn — no one thinks to do that. It’s the curb appeal,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not a skilled laborer, and mowing the lawn is hard to screw up.”

Turning serious, he said the organization’s work is critical to improving health and quality of life in the region.

“Their work involves prevention more than treating the symptoms, which is what a good public-health person cares about,” he said. “It’s not as glamorous, and it’s harder to quantify, but it’s much more important work.”

As he talked about what he does for a living and within the community, Bannister made sure to thank the bank for giving him the opportunity to be part of a winning team, and to thank his wife, Sharon, for … well, being understanding and tolerant of a schedule that has him on the road a lot, maybe three or four days a week and sometimes for several events on the same day during the busy season.

It’s a big part of the job, he said, adding quickly that the job, the travel, and the events involve two states and a much larger radius now that the bank has made a push into Connecticut, one that promises to involve more zip codes in the years to come.

What’s not necessarily part of the job — and this becomes clear in Bannister’s expense sheets and Senecal’s reaction to them — is his commitment to getting very involved with several of the organizations that the bank ultimately writes checks to.

He admits to gradually learning how to say ‘no’ to those who ask him to serve on boards, but often, the answer is still ‘yes.’

 

Bottom Line

If Matt Bannister had to introduce himself at a third-grade career day, he might start by saying what he often tells people about his role: “I work at a bank, but I’m not a banker. And I absolutely love my job at the bank.”

Others who really know, people like Senecal and Colleen Loveless, president and CEO of Revitalize CDC, might be tempted to borrow the line used by his daughter and say that he saves lives.

Or … they could keep it very simple, yet powerful — and introduce him as a Difference Maker.

That says it all.

Class of 2023 Special Coverage
Class of 2023 Cover Story Difference Makers

Introducing the Class of 2023

For 15 years now, BusinessWest has been recognizing the work of individuals, groups, businesses, and institutions through its Difference Makers program, with one goal in mind: to show the many ways one can, in fact, make a difference within their community.

The stories below convey a desire to help others, go above and well beyond, and set the bar higher when it comes to what people can accomplish when they work together. That’s true whether we’re talking about Steve and Jean Graham, owners of Toner Plastics, or Claudia Pazmany and Gabrielle Gould, dynamic leaders in Amherst. Or Gary Rome, the charismatic local auto dealer recently named TIME magazine’s Dealer of the Year. Or Nate Costa, whose hockey team, the Springfield Thunderbirds, and his staff working behind the scenes are changing the dynamic in downtown Springfield and beyond. Or the Springfield Ballers, a nonprofit helping to get young people in the game.

See the Digital Edition of the 2023 Difference Makers HERE

Please Join Us for the 2023 Difference Makers Celebration!

Thursday, April 27 5:30 to 9 p.m.

Tickets are $85 and be purchased HERE

Thank you to our partner sponsors: Burkhart Pizzanelli, P.C., the Royal Law Firm, TommyCar Auto Group, and Westfield Bank.

Partner Sponsors:

Class of 2023

His Life Story Is One of Creating Opportunities for Others

Leah Martin Photography

Leah Martin Photography

“This is my life story.”

That’s what Henry Thomas said as he gestured to a piece of furniture in his living room — an end table with a compartment under its glass top that contains dozens of items that, indeed, trace many points along his life’s journey.

It’s a story told by business cards and nametags. Badges from his days as Springfield’s Fire and Police commissioner. A ticket to President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. A campaign button from Mike Dukakis’ unsuccessful presidential run in 1988, which Thomas worked on. His Ubora Award from Springfield Museums, along with various other medals and ribbons. A baby-dedication program for one of his five grandchildren. A miniature saxophone, representative of the music he would like to pursue more fully when he has more time.

And two objects that are oddly related. One is a 1950s-era box from a product called Asthmador, a powder that was burned and inhaled in the days before aerosol asthma inhalers. “It looked like I was doing hash,” he laughed. The other object is his draft card for military service during the Vietnam War.

“I got a waiver when I was in college, so that saved me from having to go right away,” he recalled. But when it came time to visit the draft board, “they said, ‘sorry, we can’t take you.’ I said, ‘why not?’ They said, ‘you’ve got asthma.’”

“If you’re trying to get into the end zone for a touchdown, you can’t run out at the five-yard line, back to the coach, and say, ‘hey, Coach, I’m trying to get in the end zone, but this guy keeps stopping me.’ There’s always going to be a defense in life, and that’s what I’ve preached to my kids as well.”

Coming from a long line of men who had seen military service, from the Civil War through two world wars, Thomas felt … well, disappointed. And he argued about it, but was told that an asthma attack could get not just him killed, but other soldiers as well.

“That’s what saved me from going. But I shouldn’t say ‘saved me,’ because I do consider it an honor to serve your country,” he said.

After excelling in football, track, and gymnastics in his youth — he’s a member of the Springfield High School Sports Hall of Fame — he also aspired to play football professionally, but a severe ankle injury derailed that goal as well. But he took lessons from those days that have served him well all his life.

“In a sport like football, all the principles of life are embedded — I think you can say that about other sports as well, but I’m more familiar with football,” said Thomas, who was a running back at Technical High School and American International College. “If you’re trying to get into the end zone for a touchdown, you can’t run out at the five-yard line, back to the coach, and say, ‘hey, Coach, I’m trying to get in the end zone, but this guy keeps stopping me.’

This table contains many of the meaningful items

This table contains many of the meaningful items that tell Henry Thomas’s life story.

“There’s always going to be a defense in life, and that’s what I’ve preached to my kids as well,” he went on. “A lot of guys were bigger and better than I was. But I had a lot of willpower, and I think that was the difference sometimes.”

So, thanks to his asthma and his ankle, Thomas chose a different course after his graduation from AIC in 1971: he got to work on his master’s degree; married Dee, his wife of 51 years; and went to work for the Urban League.

Fifty-two years later, he’s still there, with almost a half-century at the helm. It’s a life marked by profound changes in society, with myriad opportunities to make a deep impact throughout this region. It’s the life of a Difference Maker.

 

Early Impact

Thomas’ first role at the Urban League was youth coordinator, and he immediately saw the impact the organization could have on youth, as well as older people.

“The late Vernon Jordan told me, ‘Henry, this is the best job in black America, because you have an opportunity to meet a host of interesting folks, and you become more sensitized to the challenges and issues that impact the lives of the people you know, or even in your family.’”

In 1974, at age 25, Thomas became the nation’s youngest leader of a national Urban League affiliate. One of his key areas of focus throughout his career has been education, and not just through Urban League programs; he also served for 13 years on the UMass Amherst board of trustees — including two and a half years as board chair — and was a co-founder of New Leadership Charter School.

In all Urban League initiatives — its programs include education and youth-development initiatives, as well as programs for economic and workforce development, health and wellness, and seniors — Thomas has been driven by an understanding of the importance of equity.

“No equity, no excellence,” he simply said. “I always had a feeling that things could be better, as it relates to equity, everyone getting the treatment that others are getting.”

Henry Thomas has made education central to his work

From co-founding a charter school to chairing the UMass Amherst board of trustees, Henry Thomas has made education central to his work throughout the decades.
Leah Martin Photography

Even today, programs like Youth STEM Enrichment, Digital Connectors, a partnership with UMass Amherst IT, and access to STEM programs at Springfield College speak to the need to break barriers to technology adoption by urban teens.

“Technology has had an impact on the Urban League, as it has with many other business,” Thomas said. “Technology is a real game changer in how well are you going to adapt to doing a new job — or an old job, because even the old job has to get upgraded. It’s major, because I’ve seen so many people working inefficiently, and that can limit you. If you want to climb, you’ve got to learn how to do these things.”

Thomas’ leadership and advocacy on the UMass board of trustees was instrumental in UMass Chan Medical School’s establishing its first-ever regional campus, UMass Chan Medical School – Baystate, in downtown Springfield, and its focus on improving the health and well-being of the region’s medically underserved rural and urban communities.

For that effort, he recently earned an honorary doctorate there, to go along with similar honors from UMass Amherst, Bay Path University, Westfield State University, and Nichols College. In addition to his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from AIC, he also earned a juris doctor degree from Western New England University School of Law.

Also in the vein of education and workforce development, Thomas established Step Up Springfield, a teacher-development program in Springfield; is funding (along with his wife, Dee, a former teacher and principal herself) a $50,000 scholarship for Black youth from Springfield; and tackled a two-year assignment with the National Urban League as its vice president for Youth Development, with a primary focus of youth development within inner-city communities.

Another one of Thomas’ successes was bringing Camp Atwater in North Brookfield — the oldest overnight camp for Black youth in the U.S. — back to life in 1980 after a period of dormancy. The camp, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2021, is especially meaningful to him because he attended as a youth.

“I don’t feel desperate. I feel like we can get to where we need to be. I’m optimistic.”

“It had an impact on me; this was the place where I learned that I don’t have to make a selection between being cool or being smart. I found out that I could do both.”

The lesson he took from his own experience at camp was that kids need to see other kids making the right choices in life.

“These kids knew all the contemporary dances. But they were talking about becoming a doctor, becoming a lawyer, and at the same time shooting three-point shots. And I said, ‘wow, I really don’t have to make a choice. I could do both.’”

But it’s not just showing teens positive pathways, but helping them get on them, that really matters, he added. He said his parents did that for him, and it’s been his life’s work at the Urban League to help others achieve their dreams.

“Like I said before, it’s equity. If you don’t have a chance to be as good as the next woman or guy, then you’re not going to achieve the excellence that you think you’re capable of. So I should give my parents a little credit.”

 

A Very Good Life

When considering his long list of achievements of impact, Thomas boils it down simply.

“It’s been a very good life,” he said, before expressing pride in his wife and his children; his son works for OppenheimerFunds in South Orange, N.J., and his daughter is an assistant school superintendent in Richmond, Va. And, as noted, Thomas’ own responsibilities have taken him beyond the Urban League, such as his role as first African-American to chair the Springfield Police and Fire commissions.

“I’ve actually marveled at all the various hats this man has worn through the years, particularly as Police commissioner,” Dee Thomas said. “Those were really rough times when he was in that position, and he met a lot of opposition in trying to change the face of the police force and make it more diverse. I will never forget those days. But I’ve seen all the people that he’s touched, and we still see officers come up and thank him for allowing them to be on the commission, because they know, if were not for him, they wouldn’t be there.”

It’s just another example, Henry said, of sometimes having to run the ball through a defense in life.

And he’s hopeful that the younger generation will continue to pick up his mantle, understanding that equity has not yet been achieved in all areas of life, no matter how much various corners of society — in government, education, and elsewhere — would like the conversation to go away, as evidence by the current tussles over critical race theory and what students are allowed to learn and read.

“I think it is doing an injustice to young people when they are not getting the kind of access that they need — and that they deserve — to help them understand the world and how it operates: the good, the bad, and the ugly. You can make better choices when you know all three,” he said. “I do think that there’s too much of a passive approach by people who are self-sufficient and feel, well, ‘that’s not my problem. I hate to see it, but I’ve got to move on.’”

Thomas is not moving on from those goals, even after his time with the Urban League is done. He’s seen enough to recognize the power of arming young people with education, creating access to opportunities, and continuing the conversation.

“But I don’t feel desperate,” he said — largely because of those young people with the potential to be difference makers themselves, as he certainly is. “I feel like we can get to where we need to be. I’m optimistic.”

That’s a life story — and a continuing legacy — much bigger than a glass-covered end table.

Class of 2023

This Nonprofit Helps Young People Get in the Game

Leah Martin Photography

Leah Martin Photography

James Gee grew up in Springfield, in a single-parent household.

He remembers his mother having to hold down several jobs and work very long hours — 70, maybe 80 a week by his count. He also remembers sports, and especially basketball, being … well, much more than a game at that critical time in his life.

Sports were something to look forward to at a time when there wasn’t much in his life that fell into that category, he told BusinessWest, and something that provided a number of invaluable life lessons — on everything from the value of teamwork to overcoming adversity; from learning from role models to understanding the importance of working hard to achieve one’s goals.

“I had sports as something to keep me engaged and focused,” said Gee, head coach of the women’s varsity basketball team at Central High School, which won the state championship in 2022; a former player at Central himself; and a history teacher at the school. “I had coaches who would pick me up and drop me off and be there as role models as well. Mom was always there for me and always pushing the importance of academics, but the reality was, she had to go to work to pay the bills. I understood that, but when you have that much time, you can get in trouble and find the wrong friends and the wrong crowds. For me, because I had sports, I didn’t have time to get in trouble; my focus was much different.”

It is this basic understanding of the importance of sports in the development of young people that led to the creation of Springfield Ballers, a nonprofit that got its start with an all-girls basketball team (the Lady Ballers) back in 2006 — and also led to Gee to join the effort, become a pivotal force in its growth and development, and become passionate about its mission.

“I believe that sports correlates with life in so many ways. Everything from just being on time to handling adversity, dealing with different situations, dealing with different individuals, learning how to work through struggle; it’s huge. There are so many lessons that sports provide — and it also gives young people something to look forward to.”

Today, through the leadership of Gee, who now serves as president and CEO of the nonprofit; fellow coach Mike Anderson; and a strong board of directors, the Ballers has expanded its mission in many different ways.

Indeed, there are now 27 basketball teams involving boys and girls of all ages; other sports, including golf, lacrosse, and softball; clinics; competitions; and more. Access to sports and competition is now year-round.

Omar Almodovar, James Gee, and Tim Allen

From left, Omar Almodovar, James Gee, and Tim Allen attend a Biddy Ball practice in Springfield.
Leah Martin Photography

Summing it up, Gee said it’s about making sports affordable and accessible, and thus enabling young people to enjoy the many benefits of sports and competition. But the equation also includes exposure to coaches and other positive role models, support with academics, and much more.

“I believe that sports correlates with life in so many ways,” he explained. “Everything from just being on time to handling adversity, dealing with different situations, dealing with different individuals, learning how to work through struggle; it’s huge. There are so many lessons that sports provide — and it also gives young people something to look forward to.

“With a lot of the coaches, they become a really important figure in the kids’ lives. And they provide a lot more than just coaching them on the court.”

Amy Royal

Amy Royal

“With all the challenges people face today, sports gives them something to distract them, especially children in lower socioeconomic and demographic areas,” he added. “Sports gives them something to look forward to after school; sports teaches you so many lessons.”

Sports also helps break down racial barriers, he noted, adding that, when young people from communities with different demographic characteristics come together to play ball, eyes are opened, preconceived notions melt away, and there are learning experiences, and forms of acceptance, on many levels.

“When they play together, the best relationships are formed,” Gee explained. “It’s just people, kids playing basketball or playing sports together; when they finally interact with other, it knocks down barriers and builds so many great relationships.”

Amy Royal, a principal with the Springfield-based Royal Law Firm, long-time supporter of the Springfield Ballers, and one-time coach of a team, agreed.

“It’s so important in so many ways because the Ballers programming does so many different things in the community,” said Royal, who worked with Gee to create the 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity for the agency. “It’s not just about playing basketball or getting instructional lessons in golf; it’s not just about the sports — it’s about learning to be on a team, be with other kids, getting exposure to a diversified group.

“When they play together, the best relationships are formed. It’s just people, kids playing basketball or playing sports together; when they finally interact with other, it knocks down barriers and builds so many great relationships.”

“Also, the Springfield Ballers do a lot of different camps, providing an opportunity to do something when school is out of session — and do something that’s good and positive and productive,” she went on. “There’s also the mentorship and the mentoring programs, the academics, and beyond; it’s all very essential.”

It certainly is, and that reality goes a long way toward explaining why the Springfield Ballers are part of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers class of 2023.

 

Nothing but Net

They call it ‘Biddy Ball.’

That’s the name given to the basketball program for the youngest of the young people served by the Springfield Ballers — those in preschool up to grade 2.

They gather for clinics at Kiley Middle School in Springfield on Saturday mornings. Gee, who is on hand himself for these clinics, said some youngsters who took part in Biddy Ball years ago are now playing at Central and other area high schools and even at the college level.

James Gee

James Gee says his life-changing experiences with sports when he was young inspired him to become part of, and now lead, Springfield Ballers.
Leah Martin Photography

This is one example of how the program shapes lives, not for the short term, but for the long term, by not just showing participants how to pass, shoot, rebound, and defend, but also about how to work as a unit, work together to achieve a common goal, and stay on track, as Gee put it. Indeed, when asked to try to at least quantify the impact that involvement with the Ballers has had on participants over the years, Gee said he sees the results very day.

“When kids have a purpose and a reason and a ‘why,’ they start to focus a little better,” he explained. “We’ve had kids that were struggling in middle school … people would think that they didn’t have a shot. But some became college graduates and have their own business.

“I believe involvement has helped reduce teen pregnancy,” he went on. “You have young ladies who are now engaged in sports — they have goals. Young men, the same thing. Participation in sports helps improve attendance and their academic achievement. I’ve seen first-hand how the program has helped.”

This is what organizers had in mind when they started a girls basketball team 17 years ago and gave the initiative the name Springfield Ballers. The program was soon expanded to include girls and boys from across the region, and, eventually, it moved well beyond basketball to those other sports mentioned earlier.

As Gee said, the mission boils down to providing affordable access to sports, and the Ballers program has done that for thousands of young people of all ages and from across the region.

Indeed, many of the participants are from Greater Springfield, but they are also from Greenfield and other points north and west, and the next expansion initiative is into Northern Connecticut, to meet demonstrated need for such a program.

Meeting needs has been the goal from the beginning, said Gee, adding that those needs vary, from financial support to transportation to an introduction to sports such as golf and lacrosse that are expensive, but important in the way they can provide opportunity — to make connections, make friends, and possibly even earn a college scholarship.

The organization, which partners with a number of organizations and institutions, including area YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs, American International College, USA Lacrosse, and Dick’s Sporting Goods, does all this mostly through donations from individuals and businesses, but it has applied for and received some grants, said Royal, adding that there is an annual fundraising gala, and this year will include a golf tournament as well. Meanwhile, individual teams stage their own fundraisers.

These funds are used to provide what are called ‘scholarships’ — up to 100% — for those who don’t have the ability to pay the costs associated with playing for various teams, especially those that travel to play teams in other parts of the state and other regions of the country. Funds are also used to provide participants with equipment, especially for the more expensive sports such as lacrosse and golf, she went on, adding that the agency received a grant from Dick’s Sporting Goods for that purpose.

“The money is absolutely needed because we have so many kids, and so many dollars being spent on scholarships,” said Royal, adding that, last year, the Ballers awarded more than $25,000 in scholarships.

Over the years, the agency has continuously looked for ways to broaden its mission and its many forms of assistance to make organized sports even more affordable and accessible, said Gee and Royal. It has done that by adding more sports to the portfolio, and also by extending its geographic reach.

And, moving forward, it will do this by providing more assistance with transportation — to practices, games, events, and even visits to colleges by high-school athletes getting ‘looks’ from recruiters. With the help of some grant money, the Ballers will look to add some vans, said Royal, adding that the need is obviously great.

And it is great in many areas, she went on, adding that sports — and the Springfield Ballers —have the ability to meet many of them.

“It’s not just about putting kids on teams so they can play sports, which obviously is important for exercise, health, well-being, and all of that; there’s so much more to it. A big part of it is forming relationships and connections.

“I know that, with a lot of the coaches, they become a really important figure in the kids’ lives,” she went on. “And they provide a lot more than just coaching them on the court.”

 

Crunch Time

As he added up all that sports has provided him in life, Gee said that, in addition to all those lessons he mentioned earlier and the manner in which sports helped keep him out of trouble, they have provided him friendships that have endured for many years.

“I was able to have friends in different communities, not just in Springfield, and I have great relationships to this day,” he said, adding that he’s not sure how his life would have turned out if sports hadn’t intervened, but he’s quite sure he wouldn’t be where he is today.

His goal is to have sports intervene in as many young lives as possible. Springfield Ballers exists to do just that, and it has created a formula for winning — in every sense of that phrase.

And that’s what makes this organization a Difference Maker in this region.

Class of 2023

When It Comes to Community Involvement, He Puts the Pedal to the Metal

Gary Rome

Gary Rome
Jeffrey Byrnes Photography

Gary Rome says it was like the Oscars — or at least what he’s seen of the Oscars on TV.

He was referring to the recent ceremonies at which he was named TIME magazine Dealer of the Year.

The Oscars reference was a nod to everything from the size of the crowd gathered for the National Automotive Dealers Assoc. Show at the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center in Dallas — roughly 3,000 — to the butterflies that were in his stomach when, as one of four finalists for the coveted award (from among 48 nominees), he stood on stage awaiting the announcement of the winner.

“It was very nerve-wracking,” recalled Rome, who can now add being on the cover of TIME (not to mention BusinessWest) and the back of Automotive News to his long list of accomplishments. “My heart rate was like 100; I was really nervous, and then they pulled out that envelope and said, ‘from Holyoke, Massachusetts, our award winner is Gary Rome.’”

With the Dealer of the Year Award now on prominent display at his Hyundai store, Rome now has an even more crowded calendar for the months ahead. Indeed, representatives of TIME and Ally Financal, sponsor of the program, will be coming to Holyoke to celebrate the award, and officials from Hyundai corporate will be coming in from California to mark the occasion as well.

“If it were up to me, I’d give the money to an organization focused on animals, in honor of Jack. But … it’s not up to me. It’s not about me; it’s about my team — that’s who I attribute our success to.”

And he also has a big decision to make — only, he’s quick to note that he won’t make it himself.

The prize comes with a check from Ally Financial for $10,000, to be awarded to the charity of Rome’s choice. But, as a reflection of how he operates his dealerships, Rome will let his team help him decide.

“If it were up to me, I’d give the money to an organization focused on animals, in honor of Jack,” he said, referring to his beloved companion, spokesdog, and customer favorite, who passed away in October. “But … it’s not up to me. It’s not about me; it’s about my team — that’s who I attribute our success to.”

The TIME award was announced just a few weeks after Rome was chosen by BusinessWest to be one of its Difference Makers for 2023. The juxtaposition of the two honors is significant, and he was chosen by two different sets of judges for essentially the same reasons.

They are summed up in comments from Doug Timmerman, president of Ally Financial, who said of Rome — and the other auto dealers nominated — “they go above and beyond for their customers, communities, and employees.”

Gary Rome was recently honored

Gary Rome was recently honored as TIME magazine’s Dealer of the Year.

In Rome’s case, it’s well above and beyond, especially when it comes to communities and his employees.

With the former, Rome is omnipresent, it seems, serving as a foundation board member at Holyoke Community College (HCC); presenting a car annually to a graduating high-school student in Holyoke; carrying on a holiday tradition called the Trees of Hope event, which raises funds for the Ronald McDonald House; and presenting, in collaboration with other Western Mass. Hyundai dealers, an honor called Salute to Heroes, among many other initiatives. The latest such hero, who received a new Hyundai in gratitude for his work in the community, is Bob Charland, a/k/a the Bike Man, who was named a Difference Maker himself in 2018.

With the latter, Rome’s operating philosophy is perhaps best summed up in the company’s core values — excellence, passion, integrity, caring, and especially the last one, ‘we have fun.’

“My involvement with cars started at the age of 9 — I was just enthralled with my father and his business, so I wanted to be around him all the time. My father would go to work, and I would chase him down the hallway at home to make sure he would take me with him. I was very excited about being there, being around him … it got into my blood.”

This is made clear by the monthly calendar for the business, printed out for all employees. It lists birthdays and anniversaries of employment, but also regular raffles staged at the dealership, which coincide with ‘holidays’ such as (in January) ‘Time to get Organized Day’ and ‘National Cuddle Up Day,’ as well as ‘National Peanut Butter and Jelly Lunch Day,’ for which the company provided peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to Providence Ministries — and to employees as well.

That philosophy is also represented in monthly newsletters that profile specific employees in a ‘Get to Know’ section, spotlight employees of the month (and employees of the year in the December issue), as well as collections of photos involving events and company involvement in the community. The December issue included shots from the Mayflower Marathon (Gary Rome Hyundai was a presenting sponsor), Gary and Daisy (another spokesdog) at a Springfield Thunderbirds sponsor-appreciation day, and a Gary Rome Auto Group employee-appreciation party at the Castle of Knights in Chicopee.

Gary Rome, Eastern Region board member for Hyundai Hope on Wheels

Gary Rome, Eastern Region board member for Hyundai Hope on Wheels, Hyundai’s philanthropic initiative to raise funds for research for childhood cancer, presents a $300,000 check to Massachusetts General Hospital last fall.

All this — and it’s just a sample, to be sure — helps explain why Rome is not just Dealer of the Year, but a true Difference Maker.

 

Model Citizen

Getting back to Jack, he took the title ‘official greeter’ for the Gary Rome Auto Group. That title is still held by Daisy, who has her own business cards and is often sought out by customers (most of whom want photos) as they look over models or come to pick up a vehicle they’ve purchased.

“Some people will say they’re not buying a car until they meet the dog,” Rome said. “When Jack passed away, we put it on social media, and it reached 220,000 people; I received more than 6,000 messages on Facebook, hundreds of cards, letters, flowers, chocolate. We put it on LinkedIn, and it reached almost 60,000 people, and I had almost 2,000 people reach out to me, saying they grew up with Jack, and he was a big part of their life.”

Dogs have been prominent in this business for years, from their barking heard on radio and TV commercials to the company’s marketing slogan — ‘the best doggone place to buy a car’ — and their presence is seen everywhere, from the dealership itself to all those events highlighted in the newsletters. In fact, in addition to a new car wash being planned for the Hyundai store, there will a dog wash as well.

“Why would you put your dirty dog in a clean car?” he asked rhetorically, not waiting for an answer.

And dogs are just part of an intriguing story that most know by now. It starts with a young Gary working odd jobs at his father Jerry’s Datsun (later Nissan) dealership in Holyoke.

“My involvement with cars started at the age of 9 — I was just enthralled with my father and his business, so I wanted to be around him all the time,” he recalled. “My father would go to work, and I would chase him down the hallway at home to make sure he would take me with him. I was very excited about being there, being around him … it got into my blood.”

Gary Rome Hyundai sold a record 306 cars

Gary Rome Hyundai sold a record 306 cars last August, and to celebrate, the staff was treated to lunch, one example of how the company values its employees.

So much so that plans to pursue a law degree were eventually shelved, and he followed his father into the business.

By 1985, he was general manager of Jerry Rome Nissan, which would eventually move to Riverdale Street in West Springfield. In 1997, Gary bought the old dealership in Holyoke and opened Gary Rome Hyundai, at a time when that brand was more of a punchline than the respected name it is today. In 2006, he bought a Kia dealership in Enfield, thus creating the Gary Rome Auto Group.

In 2016, the Hyundai store was moved to its present location on Whiting Farms Road, where it has become one of the most successful Hyundai dealerships in the country — ranking fifth in sales in the Northeast and 28th in the country, out of 820 dealers. It has also become a model for others in the brand, he said, noting that Hyundai’s regional manager recently brought his entire team of 65 to Holyoke for a day in October “so they could see what this dealership looks like, take photos, and show their other dealers what a dealership should look like.”

Those numbers, and those tours (there have been many over the years), help explain how Rome has gone from his humble beginnings to TIME’s Dealer of the Year. His work in the community — make that his team’s work in the community — and the culture he has created at his dealerships are perhaps even bigger reasons.

Let’s start with that culture. It is embodied in those newsletters and that monthly calendar of events. It’s an attitude more than anything else, encapsulated by that core value, ‘we have fun.’

Gary Rome (and Jack) read to fourth-graders at Peck Middle School

Gary Rome (and Jack) read to fourth-graders at Peck Middle School in Holyoke as part of the read-aloud program created by the nonprofit Link to Libraries.

As for his work in the community, he said it takes many forms, from his involvement at Holyoke Community College, which he called a ‘crown jewel’ in the region, to support of Providence Ministries, to the Trees of Hope program for Ronald McDonald House, which this past year raised more than $175,000. On a shelf behind his desk is an array of stuffed dogs that resemble Daisy, Jack, and another predecessor, Buddy. The dealership sells them for $25 each, with proceeds going to the Jimmy Fund; more than $15,000 has been raised to date.

As with the $10,000 check coming his way from being Dealer of the Year, Rome said decisions about community involvement and where to put time, effort, imagination, and money are made as a team.

“We try to find charities that are near and dear to our employees’ hearts because we want them to be invested, and we want to them to participate,” he explained, adding that this strategy, which includes a special emphasis on Holyoke, where the company is a large corporate citizen, has proven itself very effective over the years.

Within the city, he’s on Mayor Joshua Garcia’s transition team, he’s a member of the Holyoke Taxpayers’ Assoc., and he’s on the governmental affairs committee for the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, among many other forms of involvement.

“When people ask me where I live, I say I live in Holyoke — I just sleep somewhere else,” he explained.

 

It’s Been Quite a Ride

Rome said his father had a few favorite sayings and words to live by. There are a few that he lives by and will recite quite often.

“He always said that your education is something that no one can take away from you,” he noted, adding that this sentiment helps explain his heavy involvement in education, be it at HCC, the Holyoke public schools, or other initiatives.

Gary Rome presents the keys to a new car to a graduating senior

Gary Rome presents the keys to a new car to a graduating senior at Holyoke High School, one of many initiatives to support education and area young people.

“He also used to say, ‘it doesn’t cost any extra to be nice,’ and he would say it over and over and over again,” Rome went on, adding that this is a mindset he has bought to work, and to the community, every day.

“For 61 years, I heard, ‘Gary, it doesn’t cost any extra to be nice,’” he said. “And that’s why I have an excessively positive outlook on things. If you tell me there’s a 70% chance of rain, I don’t even hear you; I just hear there’s a 30% chance of sun.”

That outlook on life, work, and community explains not only why Rome is TIME’s Dealer of the Year for 2023, but why he’s always been a Difference Maker.

Class of 2023

These Amherst Leaders Work in Partnership to Build a Stronger Community

Leah Martin Photography

Leah Martin Photography

March 13, 2020.

Both Claudia Pazmany and Gabrielle Gould remember that date, and they say they’re not likely to ever forget it.

It was the day when Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID) received word that the Downtown Amherst Foundation she created had officially received its 501(c)(3) status. But that long-awaited good news was rendered all but moot by what else was happening that day — the shutting down of the Commonwealth by Gov. Charlie Baker as the COVID-19 pandemic reached the Bay State and the first deaths were being reported.

“I was thinking, ‘I did all this work to create this foundation that was going to do all these amazing things, and now we’re in lockdown, and we’re not going to be doing anything,’” Gould recalled.

She and Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, who share space in the chamber offices on South Pleasant Street in the heart of the community’s downtown, remember walking out the door together that afternoon, turning off the lights, and setting the heat at 56 degrees as they went.

What they were walking into … well, they had no idea, really.

Turns out, they were walking into what would become a deep (or deeper, to be more precise) and quite extraordinary partnership, through which they would help lead a community that was devasted by the pandemic perhaps more than any other in this region, and maybe the entire state, out of that darkness.

A partnership that makes them true Difference Makers in the Greater Amherst area.

Working separately on some initiatives, but hand-in-hand in most all others, they have helped change the landscape in Amherst and its downtown in all kinds of ways, as we’ll see. But they are also being honored for ensuring that the landscape didn’t change more than it did. Indeed, it is through their efforts that many businesses were able to survive that storm.

“It was a devastating time, but from that, we forged this great partnership,” Pazmany said of the early days of the pandemic. “And we put our collective talents and resources together to put information out there and help people and businesses in need. It was remarkable to see how people came together in that time of crisis.”

By Gould’s count, Amherst “lost more than 45,000 people overnight” that fateful day in March 2020. That number includes students at the three colleges that call the community home — UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College — but also thousands of people who came to work at those institutions and other businesses in town. It also includes tourists who wouldn’t be coming, parents of students and alumni who wouldn’t be attending sporting events or anything else, visiting lecturers who wouldn’t be on campus, performing artists who wouldn’t be coming … you get the idea.

“It was a devastating time, but from that, we forged this great partnership. And we put our collective talents and resources together to put information out there and help people and businesses in need. It was remarkable to see how people came together in that time of crisis.”

In the wake of this exodus, businesses were left dazed and looking for some kind of answers — and any kind of help. Pazmany and Gould helped provide both, with everything from PPE (which they delivered themselves) to virtual ‘tip jars’ to help those out of work; from small-business microgrants to grant-application coaching. They bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of meals from restaurants and gift cards and other items from businesses to both help them survive and assist families and individuals in need.

With this assistance, and their own sheer will to survive, many businesses have made it through the pandemic and to the other side.

But this story, this partnership, is not just about COVID and helping businesses ride out that storm. Indeed, it’s an ongoing story of bringing new businesses and new vibrancy to downtown Amherst and beyond. Businesses like the live-performance venue known as the Drake, an initiative of the Downtown Amherst Foundation, which, in less than a year, has brought roughly 1,000 performers and more than 15,000 patrons to the community.

Claudia Pazmany arranges meals

Claudia Pazmany arranges meals that were bought from Amherst-area restaurants and given to those in need as part of the Dinner Delights program staged during the height of the pandemic.

This informal partnership’s philosophy is summed up in a branded campaign launched in 2021 and funded by a Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism grant, called, appropriately, “What’s Next? Greater Amherst.” It includes a YouTube video and a website — www.greateramherst.com — that highlights the natural beaty, global cuisine, and arts and culture in the community and helps people who are planning a visit.

“Without our collaborative help and willingness to sit in these offices at 7 o’clock at night with business owners with masks on and help them upload their documents and write grants, I think you would have seen a lot more businesses throughout Amherst close.”

Overall, these partners continue to work to make Greater Amherst both a destination and a place to put down business roots. Thanks to them, what’s next is more creative programing, more opportunities for growth, and more vibrancy.

And that makes them true Difference Makers.

 

The Power of Two

Returning to the dark days of the start of the pandemic — and they were dark … the lights literally went out in downtown Amherst — isn’t exactly easy for Gould and Pazmany.

These were extraordinary and, in many ways, desperate times when business just stopped. There was a great deal of uncertainty about what would happen, they recalled, and for several weeks after the state was shut down, businesses suffered mightily.

But as they looked back, these two partners said that was also a time of what could, in some ways, be called triumph, when people, and a community, reached down deep to find ways to support one another and help them through that darkness.

Stamell Stringed Instruments

Stamell Stringed Instruments was one of dozens of Amherst-area businesses to receive gifts of PPE — free safety posters, gloves, sanitizer, and more — as a part of the #IAMherst campaign, through monies raised through the Downtown Amherst Foundation.

Before we elaborate on that, let’s set the stage by talking about the two organizations and their missions.

Like several other communities in the area, Amherst has both a chamber and a business-improvement district. The former, as most know, exists to promote and support businesses, and it does this through everything from advocacy (at the local, state, regional, and national levels) to education and providing forums for businesses to gather, network, learn, and perhaps do business with one another.

The BID, meanwhile, is charged with everything from cleaning up downtown and watering the plants growing from hanging baskets to handling holiday lighting displays and marketing the community through initiatives such as Destination Amherst.

But it was during the pandemic that the two organizations really came together, pooled their resources, and put their various skills sets to work.

Pazmany and Gould were working remotely at the time — the chamber office, like most businesses, was closed — but they were together often, working long days (and a great many nights) to help businesses. Here are just some examples of what they were able to do together:

• Raise close to a half-million dollars and distribute what became known as Relief and Resiliency microgrants to 67 small businesses throughout Amherst, the lion’s share of the money coming from residents, with donations from $25 to $50,000;

• Buy bulk PPE (masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and more) at a time when it was difficult for businesses to attain it, and deliver it to businesses;

• Create a virtual tip jar so residents could support the many who were out of work — rom artists to hairdressers to bartenders;

• Launch the Dinner Delights program, through which the two agencies raised more than $100,000 and used those finds to purchase dinners and lunches from area restaurants to keep them in business, and hand out the meals to families in need;

• Provide those same families with gift bags filled with toys, puzzles, and gift cards purchased from a wide array of businesses — from hair salons to convenience stores — to help those small ventures;

• Continue some time-honored traditions, albeit virtually, such as the lighting of the Merry Maple, a maple tree on the North Common, during the holidays;

• Encourage takeout business at a time when the restaurants needed it and when there was some resistance to such efforts from the colleges and elsewhere in the community;

• Register close to 200 individuals within the business community, including many for whom English is their second language, for vaccination; and

• Provide assistance with state and federal grants. Together, by Gould’s estimates, they were able to help businesses secure more than $2.1 million in state and federal grants by sitting down with them and helping them write grants.

“Without our collaborative help and willingness to sit in these offices at 7 o’clock at night with business owners with masks on and help them upload their documents and write grants, I think you would have seen a lot more businesses throughout Amherst close,” Gould said. “While many people were at home staying safe, which they should have been doing, Claudia and I came to work every day; we showed up, we went out in public, we hand-delivered grants.”

Pazmany agreed, noting that both agencies looked beyond their respective missions and beyond the downtown itself to help a decimated community at a time of dire need.

Gabrielle Gould and Claudia Pazmany

Gabrielle Gould and Claudia Pazmany have worked tirelessly to promote Amherst and the surrounding area as a destination.
Leah Martin Photography

“We all had PPE in our cars for two months — and we delivered it door-to-door,” she recalled. “I looked beyond my membership, and she looked beyond the downtown, and together we were able to look at the collective impact of our shared work around the entire town of Amherst.”

As significant as the work during the pandemic was, this partnership, as noted earlier, is about much more than those efforts.

Indeed, it’s about ongoing work to put Greater Amherst on the map and make it even more of a destination for visitors and home for businesses of all kinds. Here again, the agencies have worked independently of one another, but mostly in concert, to get a number of things done.

Things like the Drake, a venue that has brought people from across New England and beyond to downtown Amherst and provides ample proof of the power of the arts as an economic-development engine.

“I truly believe that arts and culture in a community builds economic development,” Pazmany told BusinessWest. “And it builds reasons for people to come to your community and be part of your community, to want to live here and do business here.”

 

Bottom Line

Looking ahead, Gould said the BID is working on several initiatives, including a spring block party in the downtown with a focus and arts and culture, a summer music series on the Commons, revitalization of the North Common, and creation of more anchors in the downtown.

As for the chamber, Pazmany said a great amount of momentum was generated in 2022 as a number of popular events, from After 5 gatherings to the annual fundraiser Margarita Madness, returned to the calendar. The goal for 2023 is to build on this momentum, generate new membership, and continue to support businesses across Greater Amherst.

“I truly believe that arts and culture in a community builds economic development. And it builds reasons for people to come to your community and be part of your community, to want to live here and do business here.”

“For us, it’s getting back to what we normally do as a chamber,” she explained. “We’re focusing on getting all our events back, making them better than ever, and connecting businesses.”

Gould told BusinessWest that she’s learned that Amherst’s response to the pandemic — the various programs created and carried out by the chamber and the BID — has been hailed as one of the best in the Commonwealth and a model of cooperation and innovation for other communities to follow.

Likewise, the Drake project has become a model itself — of how an organization like the BID can take a concept, raise the money needed, and make it a reality, all in roughly a year’s time.

Pazmany and Gould weren’t thinking about creating models or case studies when they undertook these programs. They were thinking about their community, and how to make it stronger, more resilient, and more of a destination. The fact that they have become models for other towns is testimony to the high levels of imagination, determination, and perseverance these two have brought to their ongoing work.

And that explains why they are Difference Makers.

Class of 2023

She’s Guiding an Arts Renaissance That Will Reverberate Beyond Easthampton

Burns Maxey

Burns Maxey

Looking back over two decades in Easthampton, and her current work with a volunteer organization called CitySpace, Carol Abbe Smith saw, in its leader, someone who is making a difference in myriad ways.

“If you came to Easthampton in 2000, you would see empty storefronts and no foot traffic,” said Smith, owner of Delap Real Estate. “Today, Easthampton has restaurants, interesting shops, and music venues, in part due to the vision, energy, and leadership skills of one person: Burns Maxey.”

She’s right, though Maxey is quick to share credit — and share it with a lot of people — for the revitalization of Easthampton’s downtown in the form of an intriguing project to transform Old Town Hall into an arts and performance space, and the ways in which that project has caused, and will continue to generate, economic ripples far beyond the center of town.

“I think artists have the capability of making change happen on a smaller scale and creating reverberations with communities,” Maxey told BusinessWest. “And imagination is the key to thinking outside of the box and really considering what the possibilities are — or beyond the possibilities.”

“I think artists have the capability of making change happen on a smaller scale and creating reverberations with communities.”

Maxey has been heavily involved in Easthampton’s arts culture for the better part of two decades, including serving as arts coordinator for Easthampton City Arts from 2011 to 2016; during her tenure, she oversaw the creation of events like Bear Fest, Cultural Chaos, and the Easthampton Book Fest, securing grants in the process.

Also in 2011, she joined the all-volunteer board of CitySpace, which had been tasked with creating a flexible arts and community space in Old Town Hall, which was built in 1869 and housed the town’s municipal offices until 2003. In 2015, she became board president, and since then, she has helped secure Community Preservation Act funds, multiple foundation grants, and historic tax credits, as well as heading the capital campaign and events committee in an effort to raise about $8.5 million for the project.

Phase one involved renovation of the first floor, including the creation of a small, 80-seat rental performance space called the Blue Room. In conjunction with that, Maxey established a program called Pay It Forward to allow low-income artists the resources, space, and support to create or collaborate on a project, or have a residency to complete a project prior to public performance. After a successful trial in 2022, the program will roll out more fully in 2023, with the help of a $30,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

“This gives access to this space for rehearsals or performances to artists who need it — underserved artists, artists of color, low-income artists, really — anyone who doesn’t have the capacity to pay for the affordable rates we have,” she explained.

It’s also a sort of incubator space, she said. “It’s used for performing-arts groups and everything from community meetings to nonprofit fundraisers to exercise classes and rehearsals. Last year, we had close to 100 events within the space, different populations coming into the building. They get to see what’s happening here and really get to learn about what CitySpace does. So it’s kind of a neat way for us to test some ideas.”

Burns Maxey stands in the Blue Room

Burns Maxey stands in the Blue Room, which hosted about 100 events in its first year.
Leah Martin Photography

One Pay It Forward recipient, Amherst-based musician Kim Chin-Gibbons, brought her band, Sunset Mission, to CitySpace for a three-day intensive to practice, hone their sound, create a video, and play for a crowd, followed by an audience talk-back session.

“We discovered things about our tech and performances I don’t think we would have for months or maybe years,” Chin-Gibbons said. “It was the perfect place to control all our variables and grow as musicians and people.”

The next phases of the Old Town Hall revival include the restoration of a 350-seat space on the second floor (likely double that capacity for standing-room shows). But that takes fundraising, and Maxey and her board continue that effort, seeing the impact a broadened arts culture has already had on the town’s vitality, and understanding how the completed project will multiply that impact.

“This was established in 1869 to be the hub for community, for performances, for meetings, for dances. It was the place where people gathered.”

“I believe everyone has a place to live and thrive in Western Massachusetts, and now we have a great opportunity to plan smartly to create both affordability and economic flourishing,” she told BusinessWest. “I believe CitySpace is a partial solution to concerns like gentrification by creating long-term affordability to creative space on Main Street, right in the middle of the region.”

By fostering the arts and community she added, “we can make a destination where people want to be, and this, in turn, has economic reverberations. It’s that cycle of reciprocity that will allow this region to fully lift itself up to its potential.”

 

One Step at a Time

While touring Old Town Hall with BusinessWest, Maxey stopped by Big Red Frame, a business owned by Jean-Pierre Pasche that moved into the building around 2007, a few years after the municipal offices moved out.

“I fell in love with this place 17 years ago when I heard that it was going to be transformed into an arts center,” Pasche said. “I approached the people submitting RFPs to the town, and I said, ‘if you need a tenant on the project, I’ll go in. And I’m still here.”

Maxey credits town officials at the time for having the foresight to envision an arts and culture hub in the building, and recognize the impact that could have on economic development in town.

“I could see the potential for this building,” she added. “And when they showed me the second floor, I was like, ‘oh yeah, I’m really interested in this project.’”

Old Town Hall housed Easthampton’s municipal offices until 2003.Staff Photo

Old Town Hall

The first floor, which includes a number of art spaces and the Blue Room, is largely completed. “When you look at the second floor,” Maxey said, “you see where the funding stopped.”

Elaborating, she explained, “when the pandemic hit, we started to think about phasing the project and what our options would be to continue the work. So we talked to our architects, and they said, ‘yes, you can phase it.’ Initially, we thought that it would be one project as a whole, but it grew from a $6.6 million project to an $8.5 million project, which is a lot, but compared to a lot of other projects within the region and beyond, it’s not too far off from where we originally started.”

Phase two of the project, which has already seen the HVAC system upgraded and modernized, will also add an elevator and newly accessible entryway in front of the building; Maxey said CitySpace needs about $170,000 to get there.

Phase three, easily the most expensive part of the $8.5 million project, will complete the second floor, restoring the ceiling and floors, adding restrooms, installing new electrical and fire-safety systems, and investing in state-of-the-art theatrical and lighting equipment. Amid the modern amenities, Maxey wants to retain as much history as possible, including the mahogany balcony.

“Easthampton, historically, wasn’t a wealthy town,” she explained. “Unlike Holyoke or Springfield or Northampton, we really don’t have a plethora of beautiful buildings throughout the city. This was established in 1869 to be the hub for community, for performances, for meetings, for dances. It was the place where people gathered.”

It’s Maxey’s vision to see that happen again, and she intends to maintain affordable rental rates, not just in the small space currently open, but in the large performance hall on the second floor, once it’s complete.

“That’s part of our mission, to keep this building affordable for arts and community programming,” she said of the Blue Room. “When somebody comes into the space, there’s a flat, hourly rate. But they get everything, like the PA, the projector, tables, chairs. So it’s not like an a la carte menu where we’re adding dollars for each item.”

That model will continue upstairs. “We’re thinking of keeping it very similar to what we’re doing in the Blue Room. It’s a rental space with affordable rates, attracting and really serving artists throughout Western Massachusetts, and we want some traveling artists to come in as well. It’s really a place for people who want to produce events, and it’s also allowing for CitySpace to have our own programming.”

The 350-seat capacity is a “sweet spot” for the area, she added, larger than compact spaces like the Parlor Room in Northampton and the Drake in Amherst, but smaller than the Academy of Music in Northampton, which seats about 800. “Sometimes that’s too much to fill for some artists, and there are a lot of 150-seat locations throughout the region, so this is one step above that.”

CitySpace has a 44-year lease with the city on the building, and Maxey is looking long-term, including applying for Massachusetts historic tax credits after the building is completed, to go toward its continual upkeep.

“Even though we’ll be restoring the second floor,” she said, “we know that having a long-term plan for maintenance on the building will allow it to be here for another 150 years.”

 

Labor of Love

Maxey, like all the others on her board, serves CitySpace as a volunteer. Meanwhile, her career — which has taken her from Williston Northampton School as communications associate from 2005 to 2011 to her role as Easthampton’s arts coordinator from 2011 to 2016, to the positions of manager, then director, of Digital and Creative Marketing at New England Public Radio from 2016 to 2020 — has entered a new phase with BurnsMax, the art and design business she launched last year. She is also an adjunct professor of Marketing at the Arts Extension Service at UMass Amherst, teaching a class titled “Marketing the Arts.”

In a sense, that’s what she’s doing at CitySpace, too, a role she called “a joy because of the people who surround me.” In doing so, she singled out several other board members, including former Easthampton Mayor Mike Tautznik, Nikki Beck, Peggy Twardowski, and Smith, as well as an artist advisory committee including Trenda Loftin, Emily Ditkovski, Kyle Boatright, Amber Tanudjaja, and Pamela Means, not to mention a capital-campaign team led by Alison Keller and Tara Brewster.

“Seriously, CitySpace is a labor of love,” Maxey said, “and there are so many more that could be named since we are all volunteers right now — me included — as we kickstart this organization into adulthood.”

And pump some energy into the region as well, she added, noting arts organizations and venues opening up from Greenfield to Springfield, all holding the potential of boosting economic development through the arts.

“You can go to all of these locations, and it’s kind of like this renaissance; you see the potential for performing arts to really enliven and connect the whole Western Massachusetts region. And because of that, we have the capability for incredible economic growth within the region — not just a lovey-feely connection, although that exists too.”

Economic development and its many reverberations. The renovation of a historic building. Creating long-term affordability and accessibility for artists. That’s a lot of differences to make, and Maxey and her team are far from done.

“I’ve made my home here, and it’s such a fantastic place to live and work and play,” she said. “And I think we have a lot of potential to make it even better.”

Class of 2023

From Wrestling to Ice Cream, They’ve Made a Community-wide Impact

Steven and Jean Graham

Steven and Jean Graham
Leah Martin Photography

As he talked about wrestling and how it can help shape young people, Steve Graham offered a wry smile, a cock of the head, and then a look that spoke volumes.

Indeed, it conveyed everything from the many ways the sport helps build character and provides lessons in perseverance, to just how grueling and difficult wrestling practice can be in high school. And Graham, who wrestled in high school and college, has coached the sport on many levels, and helped create the Grit & Gratitude Wrestling Academy in Springfield’s North End, backed up the look with some commentary grounded in those decades of experience.

“The sport is really nice because there are weight classes, so all sizes fit from day one,” he explained. “And that’s unusual. You don’t have to be tall, you don’t have to be big, you don’t have to be anything. But you do have to be tough mentally because wrestling is physically very taxing, and you’re literally fighting with your teammates every single day. And, inevitably, when you start, you’re getting your butt kicked as a freshman and a sophomore by the older kids. Eventually, you become more proficient and stronger and more mature.

“But wrestling also teaches you discipline, and it teaches you control,” he went on. “So when someone does beat you and throws you on your back, you can’t start punching them, you can’t start kicking them, you can’t start actually fighting with them. You have to control yourself, and you have to get back up and face them again.”

Those are great life lessons, and lessons for business as well, he noted, adding that, for anyone in business, there are days when you get knocked down and you must get back up again. And to persevere, one must be mentally tough. He and his wife, Jean, who together started Toner Plastics, now based in East Longmeadow, would know all that, too.

“You don’t have to be tall, you don’t have to be big, you don’t have to be anything. But you do have to be tough mentally because wrestling is physically very taxing, and you’re literally fighting with your teammates every single day.”

In different ways, separately in some cases, but mostly as a team, Steve and Jean Graham have been real difference makers in their community — as an employer, as a wrestling coach and indefatigable promoter of the sport, as supporters of countless nonprofits and education-related causes and organizations, and, yes, as purveyors of ice cream.

Indeed, the Grahams turned an East Longmeadow landmark, the old train depot in the center of town, into an ice-cream shop, but also much more. It has become a gathering spot in the community and a place where children and families can hear music, take in car shows, ride a miniature train, play cornhole, and get a cup or cone of sea-salt caramel. (Much more on that later).

Grit & Gratitude Wrestling Academy

Steve Graham was instrumental in creation of the Grit & Gratitude Wrestling Academy in Springfield’s North End, which introduces young people to a sport that provides many life lessons.

BusinessWest talked with the Grahams about all this, and, well, it wasn’t easy. Both would much prefer to just do what they do than talk about it. Humble and unassuming, they both said, in essence, that they have been simply motivated to help others and improve quality of life in this region.

“We are happy to help out other people if they need it, and we have the means,” Jean said. “It’s nice to help other people out.”

 

Landmark Decision

The old train depot in the center of East Longmeadow is a small, rather non-descript structure. But it is loaded with history, much of which can now be seen in photos on its renovated walls.

Built in 1876, this was where people gathered to catch two commuter trains each day, back when the train was how people got from here to there — and there to here. One train, which originated from Hartford, left at 10:57 in the morning. The other, which started in Springfield, left the station at 3:21 in the afternoon. Meanwhile, freight trains, which also passed through the station twice a day, carried a wide range of goods in and out of the community, but especially the sandstone and brownstone that came from more than 100 quarries in town and was used to build many historic structures, including Boston’s Trinity Church; the original Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York; buildings at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton; and East Longmeadow Town Hall.

Later, after the last train came through in the late ’60s, the depot was converted into the Community Feed Store, where area residents could buy grain, coal, farming supplies, and more.

Steve and Jean Graham learned or witnessed much of this history after moving to the town in the ’90s, and that’s one of the reasons why they became determined to somehow preserve the station for future generations. Steve told BusinessWest that they decided to buy the depot from a developer who planned to create an apartment complex on the site, not knowing where they would move it if the need arose — and it probably would.

Steve and Jean Graham inside the old train depot

Steve and Jean Graham inside the old train depot they have converted into an ice-cream shop and gathering place for the community.
Leah Martin Photography

“We thought … we’ll move it to our backyard if we have to,” he noted, adding that this wasn’t necessary, as he and Jean eventually bought the property around the station as well, as those development plans failed to materialize. And they created an ice-cream shop that opened in the spring of 2021.

Its called the Depot at Graham Central Station, and has since expanded in several ways, including a café where lunch is now served and a small railroad that runs on a track around a portion of the property.

It’s a moderately successfully business, but turning a profit is not really what motivated the Grahams in this effort to not only rescue the station but transform it into something for the community.

“We wanted to create a place for families,” said Jean, who played a lead role in renovating the station and providing a new, warm, and inviting look. “Communities need places to gather, where people can come together and have a good time. That’s what we wanted to do here.”

Those sentiments effectively sum up what drives the Grahams and the many ways they have been involved in the community. There has always been a desire to help children and families through initiatives that include:

• Work with other parents to launch the East Longmeadow Educational Endowment Fund, which today stands at more $1 million and has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the town’s schools. The couple, and especially Jean, helped stage the annual dinner dance that raised money for the fund and raised awareness as well;

• Work building stronger minds and bodies through wrestling. From 2005 to 2015, Steve, who wrestled in high school in New Jersey and then at Princeton, was a volunteer and eventually head coach of the wrestling team for six years at East Longmeadow High School. In 2021, in the middle of the pandemic amid the suspension of interscholastic sports, he worked with other coaches in the area to open (and fund) the nonprofit Grit & Gratitude Wrestling Academy, where they work with young people ages 5 and up;

• The train depot, which has a become a community gathering place, with park benches, live music, and more; and

• Support to a wide range of area nonprofits, from Link to Libraries to the Ronald McDonald House; from the Springfield Jaycees to the National Epilepsy Foundation (Steve’s brother suffered from the disease, so for him it was personal).

 

One Word: Plastics

Meanwhile, the Grahams have been difference makers as business owners and employers as well, providing opportunities on many levels.

As for their business, Toner Plastics, it started small, as in very small — “we had one sale for $200 the first six months,” Steve noted — but eventually they garnered some regular customers, first the old Woolworth’s department store and then eventually Walmart, Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, and others.

Today, the company manufactures everything from point-of-purchase displays to radiator covers to filament for 3D printing equipment. It is still headquartered in East Longmeadow, but has other locations in Pittsfield, Rhode Island, and Florida. While growing the company, the Grahams have amassed a strong track record of providing not only job opportunities, but opportunities to thrive, personally and professionally, after being hired.

Frank Valazquez, operations manager at Toner Plastics, explains.

“I had never met a man like Steve, with a pure heart, humble, fair, quick to listen, patient, wise, consistent, and willing to help anyone willing to help themselves — and who genuinely enjoys helping others by doing good. And for me, a young kid with no sense of direction, 22 years old at the time from Springfield’s North End, he was a difference maker.

“All I needed was a chance,” Valazquez continued, “an opportunity for someone like Steve Graham to truly listen and say, ‘I believe in you, and I am here to help you through the process as long as you are patient and put in the work.’”

Steve said he and Jean have helped script many similar stories at Toner Plastics, where they provide employees more than a job and a paycheck. Often, there are other forms of support and other types of doors they’ve helped to open.

“We have a program that allows employees to borrow money for any reason without divulging why, and they set the payment schedule,” he noted. “The money is loaned interest-free; in the more than 30 years of business, I can’t recall anyone not paying the money back. We encourage employees to invest their money not just in a 401(k) but in the stock market in a conservative manner, and show them the value of compounding. Most of the people who work for us on the factory floor have been able to buy a home and send their kids to college if they so choose. It is wonderful to see.”

Added Jean, “to me, it’s like a family here. Everyone works very hard, and we appreciate everything they do. And we love to see them progress in their lives.”

As noted earlier, the Grahams don’t like to talk about themselves. They would rather let their actions and deeds do the talking for them. When prodded, Jean noted that they are motivated, primarily, to help children and families and “do the best we can.”

Most would say this is a classic understatement.

 

Pinning Him Down

While he doesn’t like talking about himself, Steve Graham really enjoys discussing wrestling and all that it can do to help shape the lives of young people.

In short, he said, it teaches them about much more than maneuvers like the single-leg takedown and the front quarter nelson. Indeed, it also provides important lessons in perseverance, teamwork (even though they’re on the mat themselves), and, yes, humility.

“Wrestling is special because you know that the person in the mirror is the only one responsible for success or failure,” he told BusinessWest. “It is special because, no matter how tough you think you are in street clothes, someone is going to beat you on the mat. And getting beat physically and mentally on the mat is very beneficial; it makes you humble, teaches you respect, and makes you tougher mentally.”

Speaking of special, that’s a word you would need to describe the Grahams, although they probably wouldn’t use it themselves. They put their time, their talents, their resources, and their experience to work helping others and building a stronger, better community.

And that certainly makes them Difference Makers.

Class of 2023

He’s Netting Wins in the Community, Regardless of the Score on the Ice

Nate Costa

Nate Costa

When the Springfield Thunderbirds shut down the 2020-21 season in the midst of a raging pandemic, Nate Costa understood the impact — and the longer-term risk.

“It was an awful period because I had to lay off half of my staff, and the staff that stayed with me were on reduced hours,” he recalled. “And we really didn’t know what we were facing.”

That was the initial impact — which also included serious revenue losses. The longer-term risk had to do with momentum — more accurately, a complete halt to it.

“COVID affected our business like few others. You need people to get together to come to sporting events, to have success in this business. So COVID was a scary thing,” Costa continued. “And we weren’t sure how long it was going to take to have people come back together again.”

Looking back to 2016, when a large ownership group comprised of local business owners brought the Thunderbirds to Springfield just two months after the Falcons moved to Arizona, Costa said it was critical to move that quickly, as other cities that had lost AHL teams, including Worcester and Albany, never replaced them, so maintaining momentum was paramount.

Which is why late 2020 posed such a concern. But Costa understood that the way the organization was constructed would put it in the best position to succeed when hockey returned — and return it did, with a late-season surge in both wins and attendance in the spring of 2022, and a playoff run that stopped just a couple wins short of an AHL championship.

“We had taken the right steps to build the business the right way … to do things that were going to put us in a position to be sustainable long-term,” he said. “And that was really focusing on community activity, being visible in the community, and giving fans a good experience here at the building.”

By continuing with those efforts — and for leading a team that positively benefits community organizations, an enthusiastic fanbase, and the economic vitality of downtown Springfield — Costa has been named a Difference Maker for 2023, though he’s always quick to deflect credit to a hardworking staff and a committed ownership group.

“We had taken the right steps to build the business the right way … to do things that were going to put us in a position to be sustainable long-term. And that was really focusing on community activity, being visible in the community, and giving fans a good experience here at the building.”

“I’m a young person — I have a lot of life to go,” he said, contrasting his experience with Ted Hebert, a member of the T-Birds’ ownership group, who was honored as one of last year’s Difference Makers for a lifetime of work in the community. “It’s cool to be recognized, obviously, but it’s a humbling thing because it’s not what I got into it for.

“I grew up in Springfield,” Costa continued. “I used to come to games. I always thought it would be the coolest job in the world if I could run the hockey team one day, and it happened. And the extension of that is that I get to do things that are going to be the right thing for the community.”

 

Raising Their Game

It’s called Pink in the Rink.

It’s a national effort across the AHL to raise awareness of breast cancer; teams dye the ice pink, wear pink jerseys, and often highlight local efforts.

“Some teams partner with national organizations; some teams don’t partner with anybody — they just host an event, and there’s not a lot of teeth to it,” Costa said. “But when I came here, I knew that the way to make that event as effective as possible is to partner with somebody locally. It’s like an amplification of messages.”

Nate Costa credits his staff of salespeople and other personnel for maintaining momentum during and after the cancelled season of 2020-21.

Nate Costa credits his staff of salespeople

In the T-Birds case, the local partners include Rays of Hope and the Baystate Health Foundation, and the event isn’t held in October, the traditional month for breast-cancer awareness, but in March.

“We do it during a time of the year where there isn’t a lot of focus on the breast-cancer cause. That’s strategic. October is a time when there’s already a spotlight on that cause. Our idea was, ‘well, why don’t we have a second event that brings just as much attention as we would in October to a whole different group of people?’”

Last month, the team hosted a Stair Climb as part of its Hometown Heroes night, celebrating first responders and raising money for the T-Birds Foundation, with support from the American Lung Assoc. “That night, at the game, we have police vehicles and fire vehicles on the ice, and we recognize people that have made a contribution to our community throughout the night.”

Back in November, the team partnered with Rock 102 on the Mayflower Marathon, raising thousands of dollars to battle food insecurity locally. December saw the annual Teddy Bear Toss, when players collected thousands of stuffed animals thrown by fans onto the ice and delivered them to several local nonprofits serving children. The list continues: Military Appreciation Night; St. Pawdy’s Day, which raises money for the Foundation for TJO Animals; a sensory-friendly game in February; and so on.

“Obviously, you want to win a championship, and you want to bring that excitement to the city and to your fans. But I do think, on a day-to-day basis, we put a lot of focus and time and effort into creating value regardless of the score on the ice.”

Many of these events generate a quantifiable community impact, as opposed to the team’s emotional impact on individual fans. But that’s just as important, Costa said.

“We’re getting to the point where COVID is behind us, and getting back to providing experiences for kids and giving them access to players — high-fiving the players, lining up with the players, doing interactive things. Those are things we couldn’t do all last year.”

Costa noted one young girl who attends games all the time, and a member of Costa’s staff gave her a signed stick from one of the players as a reward for her achievements in school. The girl was thrilled.

“I waited behind because I wanted to see the whole thing, because that’s the stuff that you don’t necessarily get to see every single day,” he said. “But that’s what our organization really means. You have an ability to make a real impact on someone’s life. You don’t know what they’re going through; you don’t know what they’ve been through; you don’t know what they’re striving for. But at that one moment, giving someone a stick from their favorite player, it’s a really meaningful experience.”

He recalled his employee was in tears after the encounter. “Those moments that get burned into your mind … that’s what it’s about,” he went on. “Where else in this area can a little kid go and get to sing the national anthem in front of 6,500 people? Where else can you go and high-five professional hockey players that tomorrow night might be on the ice at the NHL level? You can’t do that elsewhere in Western Massachusetts. How many times can we make a difference in someone’s life? How many times can we provide them with an experience they can’t get anywhere else? We want to sell that story to people, and by extension create lifelong fans by the experiences that we’re providing.”

And although it’s not the main factor — as roster decisions are up to the St. Louis Blues — fielding a winning team is a net positive, he added.

“It definitely helps. People have been spoiled in this market because of the success of the major four,” he said, referring to the raft of titles won by the Bruins, Celtics, Patriots, and Red Sox over the past two decades. “So that’s a good thing at the end of the day. But are we reliant on it? No. I think we have built an organization that could be sustainable even if we’re not necessarily going to the Eastern Conference championship.

Nate Costa says he was gratified, post-pandemic, to see the return of opportunities for young fans to have experiences on the ice.

Nate Costa says he was gratified, post-pandemic, to see the return of opportunities for young fans to have experiences on the ice.

“That was the goal from the beginning,” he added. “Obviously, you want to win a championship, and you want to bring that excitement to the city and to your fans. But I do think, on a day-to-day basis, we put a lot of focus and time and effort into creating value regardless of the score on the ice.”

 

Downtown Goals

The third major impact the Thunderbirds — and Costa — have had is on Springfield itself, especially its downtown.

“We take a lot of pride in being sort of the centerpiece for the downtown renaissance, I think, hand in hand with MGM Springfield; I mean, none of this would be possible without their investment in downtown, too. They’re driving as much of that renaissance here as we are,” Costa said, again trying to distribute credit. “I think a good example of showing how much we mean to the downtown area is this brand-new garage going up across the street. I don’t think it would be possible if it weren’t for the success of the franchise. We’re averaging more than 5,000 people, 40 nights a year. So we’re bringing bodies downtown.”

And that benefits restaurants like Red Rose, Nadim’s, Theodores’ and others, as well as bars and other attractions — and contributes to an ongoing effort to change long-held misconceptions about being downtown, especially at night.

“I think we’ve really changed the perception. Very rarely now do I hear, ‘I don’t want to come downtown because it’s not safe.’ That is not something we deal with, ever.”

It’s not just hockey and gambling driving the renaissance, he added, noting projects like the renovation of the former Court Square Hotel into mixed-use space. “It’s great to see that local people are trying to invest in living downtown; I think more people living downtown makes our job easier. Everybody coming to our games now, they’re driving downtown. If we have more people living downtown, they can just walk across the street.”

He went on to cite continuing investments by MGM, the revitalization of Tower Square, and new places to eat and drink on Worthington Street as examples of why downtown Springfield is on the rise, and he knows the Thunderbirds are a big part of that. That potential is what the ownership team recognized when they moved quickly to draw another AHL franchise to the MassMutual Center after the departure of the Falcons.

“They understood the need for this,” Costa said. “Yes, we want to have a successful franchise; obviously, that’s our mission for long-term sustainability. But at the end of the day, these guys have successful businesses and were able to take on the risk because they wanted to do something for the city of Springfield — for this renaissance of this area.”

And while championship runs may not happen every year, Costa said, there’s no reason why the fan experience can’t be stellar all the time.

“I think if you come to one of our games and then you go to any other rink, you’ll see we’re putting on, if not the best, one of the best experiences in the American Hockey League. And it doesn’t matter that we’re in a small city; in fact, we take a lot of pride in that. It’s pretty cool that I get to go to the league meetings, and we’re winning awards and getting recognized next to teams that run the same type of business in cities like Chicago, Austin, San Diego. Look at Hartford — we’re outdrawing them almost two to one. There’s a reason for that: we’re really investing in the entire experience.”

He may balk at being singled out as a Difference Maker, but for leading a staff that continues to impact lives and communities — both inside and outside the rink — Nate Costa certainly lives up to that title.

Class of 2023

For More Than 150 Years, This Agency Has Been Giving Kids a Chance

Leah Martin Photography

Leah Martin Photography

John Pappas doesn’t know exactly when (he’s now somewhat committed to finding out), but he does know that his maternal grandmother served on the board of the Children’s Study Home and, for a time, as its president.

Likewise, his father followed that same pattern. And his paternal grandmother served on the board as well.

And now, he’s making it three generations in a row. He joined the board in 2016, and he became its chair just last year. This tradition of service speaks to just how much this family believes in the mission of the Children’s Study Home, now known as Helix Human Services, following a needed rebranding that we’ll get into later.

“There’s certainly a lot of connection over the years with my family,” he said in a classic bit of understatement. “Things have changed mightily from then to now, but the underlying mission has not.”

But as long as this continual pattern of service to the agency on the part of Pappas and his predecessors might be, it still covers only a small fraction of its long history.

Indeed, this is the oldest social-service agency in Western Mass., tracing its roots back to 1865, when it was known as the Springfield Home for Friendless Women and Children, and its purpose was to provide care, comfort, and healing to destitute women and children orphaned by the Civil War.

And there were many of them, said John Morse, the now-retired president of the Springfield-based dictionary maker Merriam Webster and long-time member of the agency’s board, who noted that Rachel Capem Merriam, wife of the company’s co-founder, was the agency’s first director.

Over the past 157 years, the agency, which has programs in Western Mass., the Berkshires, and Cape Cod, has moved well beyond its original mission, while remaining true to its purpose — providing relief to families and especially children in need.

“We all believe in the mission, which hasn’t changed over all these years,” Pappas said. “You have to give kids a chance — that’s what we’re all about. Your heart has to go out to kids that were born in less-fortunate circumstances; they have the power to create their own path and their own destiny, and you love to see it when they blossom.”

“This is an organization that has always thought outside the box. When you’re doing this kind of care, it really makes a lot of sense to not just take care of the kids and get them in a better place.”

John Pappas

John Pappas

Need comes in many forms, he went on, and so do the programs created to address it. They include:

• The Mill Pond Schools, with locations in Springfield and the Berkshires. These facilities serve students — kindergarten through age 22 — who have social-emotional and/or behavioral challenges, a learning disability, or who may have a diagnosis of high-functioning autism, and they serve the ‘whole child,’ including the child’s family;

• The SHARP residential program, which is designed to support young people who identify with the LGBTQIA+ community. The program supports youth who have experienced trauma, with moderate to severe mental-health and behavioral-health challenges, and may be struggling with their personal identity;

• The Family Wellness Center. A recent addition to the portfolio, the facility, located in Holyoke, offers a wide array of outpatient mental-health services, including individual therapy for anyone over age 5, family therapy, couples therapy, community-based therapy, telehealth, and parent education, among others;

• The Cottage residential program, an inclusive environment designed to support male clients, regardless of how they identify, who have experienced trauma, with moderate to severe mental and behavioral challenges;

• The Family Reunification Support Program (FRSP), which supports Department of Children and Families-involved families whose children are not currently living at home but who are expected to return home within six months; and

• Fathers in Trust (FIT), a parent-education initiative that helps men ages 16 to 60 develop skills central to positive parenting, yielding healthy outcomes for children and families.

Will Dávila, outgoing president and CEO of Helix Human Services

Will Dávila, outgoing president and CEO of Helix Human Services, center, with several staff members. Formerly the Children’s Study Home, the nonprofit is the oldest social-services agency in Western Mass.

Slicing through all that, one reads the words ‘trauma,’ ‘youth,’ and ‘family’ early and quite often, and these are themes that defined this agency from the beginning, and continue to define it more than a century and a half later.

And the agency’s evolution continues even today. Indeed, between the time BusinessWest selected the Children’s Study Home as a Difference Maker for 2023 and this announcement issue, the agency rebranded to Helix Human Services and launched a search for a successor to Executive Director and CEO Will Dávila, who will become president and CEO of Rochester, N.Y.-based Villa of Hope in the spring.

Helix is coping with challenge the same way it has from the beginning, said Pappas — through a focus on the future, innovation, and … giving kids a chance.

 

A Long History of Service

Resilience.

There are many words than can sum up what it takes to persevere and serve those in need for 157 years, but none do it better than this one.

The Children’s Study Home has shown as much resilience as those it serves, said Pappas, noting that, over the past century and a half, it has endured myriad challenges on the way to delivering it various services.

And the challenges have continued into this century, and this decade, with everything from COVID and its many side effects to leadership changes and struggles with maintaining strong census at its homes and the Mill Pond Schools.

The agency perseveres because of the importance of its mission, said Pappas, adding that an agency doesn’t live to celebrate its sesquicentennial unless it is able to evolve, adapt, and cope with adversity. His grandmother and father could have told him that — and they probably did.

“This is an organization that has always thought outside the box,” he told BusinessWest. “When you’re doing this kind of care, it really makes a lot of sense to not just take care of the kids and get them in a better place, but also take care of the family that they’re going home to, making sure that services are provided there and that the path they were on is not going to be traumatic moving forward.

“As we think of children, we don’t want to be thinking of them in isolation — we have to be thinking of them as being parts of families, parts of communities, parts of systems, and addressing all those aspects of children’s experiences.”

“The mission is to do that for as many people as we can while also providing quality service,” he went on, adding that the process of change, evolution, and focusing on not just children but the family has continued into this century, with new programs and initiatives created to meet emerging needs.

Morse agreed. “Over the years, what the agency has gotten right is making subtle, or sometimes not-so-subtle, shifts to its mission in order to best address the needs of the community,” he said. “If you go back to when they adopted the name Children’s Study Home, I think they were focused on diagnosis and treatment of children with some kind of behavioral or emotional challenge. As admirable as that is, what the agency has been doing steadily since then is broadening its view of ‘how do you best meet the needs of children facing a broad range of challenges for a broad range of reasons?’

“What I see when I look at the Children’s Study Home now is about a dozen different kinds of programs that we’re running that tackle issues facing children and families in a variety of different directions,” he went on. “And I think that’s the right way to be thinking; as we think of children, we don’t want to be thinking of them in isolation — we have to be thinking of them as being parts of families, parts of communities, parts of systems, and addressing all those aspects of children’s experiences.”

As an example, Pappas and Morse both cited the Family Wellness Center in Holyoke. It was established to address the surging need for outpatient mental-health services, a need that was there before COVID but made even more apparent by the pandemic, which strained families and individuals in many different ways.

“This is a walk-in clinic that anyone can use,” Pappas explained, adding that it was a timely and much-needed addition to the portfolio, and part of an overall operating philosophy he described in this simple yet poignant way: “leave people in a better place than when they came to the organization.”

Elaborating, he said this process of leaving people in a better place is never easy. Results come over time, and the road to progress is rarely smooth. The goal is to get them there.

“We’ve always been dynamic when it comes to looking to the future and where we can expand, strategically, not just for the sake of doing so,” he noted. “We know what we do best, and it’s really trauma-informed care. If we can be on the cutting edge of trauma-informed care, that’s where we want to be, with initiatives like the mental-health clinic.

“We don’t want people to be with the Children’s Study Home forever,” he went on. “But we want them to be at the Children’s Study Home for as long as they need to feel like they’re on solid ground again.”

 

Name of the Game

It was Shakespeare’s Juliet who famously asked the question, “what’s in a name?” and then followed it up with … “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Perhaps, but when it comes to nonprofits and their need to effectively convey who they are and what they do for a broad range of constituencies, a name carries plenty of weight.

And it is with that perspective that that the need to rebrand the Children’s Study Home was identified during a seven-month strategic planning process involving representatives of the board and the staff.

“Certainly, the agency’s work is known and appreciated by our referral and funding sources, our donors, board members, and sponsors,” Pappas said. “But we recognized there was work to be done to make sure our story and our brand reflects who we are today.”

Elaborating, he said none of the three words in the name — ‘children,’ ‘study,’ and ‘home’ — really work anymore, at least when it comes to shedding light on the agency’ broad mission.

Yes, they work to some extent, he said, noting, for example, that there is still a heavy focus on serving children, but something new and different was needed to get the message across.

“The goal isn’t to erase history, but to build upon it,” he went on. “I think we need to be dynamic; the name Children’s Study Home … while it has history and it had great intentions years and years ago, today it seems quite antiquated.”

By whatever name the agency is called, it will carry on as it has for the past 157 years, said Pappas, adding that there has always been a simple philosophy guiding it: “there’s no such thing as a bad kid — just kids who are brought up in tough circumstances.”

This organization now known as Helix Human Services exists to help change the equation so they are no longer in those circumstances, he went on, and it has been able to do that for several generations of young people.

And this clearly explains why this agency belongs in the category of Difference Makers.

Class of 2022 Event Galleries Special Coverage

View the Video of 2022 Celebration Here

Presenting Sponsors:

It’s been well over a decade since the first Difference Maker award was presented by BusinessWest.

Much has happened since then, but the Difference Maker award remains a constant — and a symbol of excellence and dedication to improving quality of life in this region.

Since the very beginning, this recognition program has shown conclusively that there are a great many ways to make a difference. And the class of 2022, the program’s 14th, makes this even more abundantly clear, as the stories clearly show.

The 2022 Difference Makers

Click on each NAME to read their story!

Tara Brewster

Vice President of Business Development, Greenfield Savings Bank


The Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts


Heriberto Flores

President, New England Farm Workers’ Council


John Greaney

Retired State Supreme Court Justice; Senior Counsel, Bulkley Richardson

Ruth Griggs

President, Northampton Jazz Festival; Principal, RC Communications


Ted Hebert

Founder and Owner, Teddy Bear Pools and Spas


I Found Light Against All Odds and Its Founder and CEO, Stefan Davis


Roca Holyoke and Springfield

Click on each NAME to watch their Video!

Class of 2022 Cover Story

For 14 years now, BusinessWest has been recognizing the work of individuals, groups, businesses, and institutions through its Difference Makers program, with one goal in mind: to show the many ways one can, in fact, make a difference within their community. Their stories are sure to enlighten and also inspire others to find their own ways to make a difference.

View BusinessWest Difference Makers Special Section HERE

The 2022 Difference Makers

Click on each NAME to read their story!

Tara Brewster

Vice President of Business Development, Greenfield Savings Bank


The Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts


Heriberto Flores

President, New England Farm Workers’ Council


John Greaney

Retired State Supreme Court Justice; Senior Counsel, Bulkley Richardson

Ruth Griggs

President, Northampton Jazz Festival; Principal, RC Communications


Ted Hebert

Founder and Owner, Teddy Bear Pools and Spas


I Found Light Against All Odds and Its Founder and CEO, Stefan Davis


Roca Holyoke and Springfield

Come party with us as we celebrate the 2022 Difference Makers

March 24, 2022, 5-8:30 pm at the Log Cabin in Holyoke

PURCHASE YOUR TICKETS HERE

Tickets cost $75 and can be ordered at businesswest.com. The sponsors for this year’s program are Burkhart Pizzanelli, the New England Farm Workers’ Council, the Royal Law Firm, TommyCar Auto Group, and Westfield Bank

Supporting Sponsors:

Class of 2022

This Unique Nonprofit Helps At-risk Youths Find a Way Out of Darkness

Leah Martin Photography

 

 

Stefan Davis has a scar on his leg.

The mark was left by his stepfather, who lashed at him with a hook of some sort, as he recalls, tearing at the skin. While Davis remembers that physical attack, one of many he endured, he also never forgot what his stepfather then said — and the emotional trauma it created: “if you ever tell anyone about this … you’ll never say anything to anyone again.”

Actually, Davis has several scars. There’s also one above his right eye from when he was beaten out of the gang he joined — the Bloods. And there’s another one on his right wrist from when things became so dark in his life, he attempted suicide.

“I was done … I was ready to give up,” said Davis, now an educator, football coach, and behavioral interventionist for at-risk students and families at Springfield High School of Science and Technology. “And I show this scar to people who are in darkness and think there is no other way out.”

Davis made it out of his dark place — through the help of others, but mostly his own strong will — and into the light. And today, he helps others bearing different types of scars — everything from homelessness to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, to seemingly insurmountable life challenges — do the same through a nonprofit agency he created called, appropriately enough, I Found Light Against All Odds.

“He always gave me that push that no other teacher would. And he’s been there for hundreds of students. There’s a lot of kids that were in his program who looked at him not as a teacher or as a coach, but as a father figure.”

Its stated mission is to “provide high-risk youth and families with the tools and opportunities to break the cycle of poverty, desperation, and dependence that dominates their lives, enabling them to become contributing members of our society.”

These tools vary, but the most important one is the sheer will and determination it takes to overcome the often very long odds against finding the light. And when you talk to people who have been helped and guided by Davis, or ‘Coach,’ as they all call him, they say he essentially coaxes it out of them, compelling them to find strength and determination they didn’t know they had.

That was certainly the case with Destiny Cortez, who, as she was entering her senior year at Sci-Tech, found out that she was six weeks pregnant. Graduation now became a much steeper climb, she said, but ‘Coach’ helped her find the will to press on and handle all that life was throwing at her.

Stefan Davis is seen here with a group of Sci-Tech students

Stefan Davis is seen here with a group of Sci-Tech students at a recent visit to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.

“He always gave me that push that no other teacher would,” she recalled. “And he’s been there for hundreds of students. There’s a lot of kids that were in his program who looked at him not as a teacher or as a coach, but as a father figure.”

Ethan Deleon, a current student at Sci-Tech, tells a similar story.

“Coach gives you that little sense of hope,” he said, adding that hope is often a missing ingredient in the lives of many young people having trouble seeing the light.

Before he launched the nonprofit agency, Davis created a the aptly named Fresh Start program, which would eventually draw praise from President Obama for its work to help students on the verge of dropping out of school. And he also hosted a show on Focus Springfield Community TV called Against All Odds. The show allowed young people and families to share encounters they had during a time in their lives when they overcame and conquered serious issues. The goal was to inspire others, and Davis and his guests accomplished that with shows on topics ranging from teen fathers to incarceration to bullying.

Desiring to reach, inspire, and help a larger audience, Davis launched I Found Light in 2016. The agency has succeeded in gaining the support — both financially and from a volunteer perspective — from a number of area businesses, including Monson Savings Bank.

MSB President Dan Moriarty said the agency’s mission, to help young people with social, emotional, and economic issues in their lives, resonates with the institution, and fits into its broader strategy for giving back to the community.

“That mission really hits home for us,” he told BusinessWest. “Helping out young people, in general, is important, but also, giving the youths who have a difficult situation an opportunity to overcome that and achieve a capacity to do the best they can — that’s very important to us, and this the difficult and important work that I Found Light Against All Odds is doing.”

Such sentiments certainly help explain why this inspiring, life-changing nonprofit has become a true Difference Maker — for young people, families, and this region.

 

‘I’m Them’

Before telling the story of I Found Light Against All Odds, one must first tell Davis’s story — and for many reasons,

He is the founder of the nonprofit and its heart and soul. But beyond that, his story echoes that of so many others he has helped over the years, from the perspective of how one can move from the darkness and into the light.

“I’m them,” Davis said, adding that he was the victim of physical and emotional abuse in his youth, and was in the foster-care system for two months before being sent to live with his grandparents in Beacon, N.Y. He developed a passion for football — “I hid the trauma through sports,” he said — and eventually won a full scholarship to play at American International College.

The problem was … he didn’t know exactly where the school was located.

“I was leaning toward Syracuse, and my coach called and said, ‘come on up to Springfield,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘Springfield, Illinois?’ and he said, ‘no, Springfield, Massachusetts.’”

Davis eventually found his way to the campus on State Street, but found his way into trouble as well.

“I lost that structure — for whatever reason, my past caught up to me.”

“I lost that structure — for whatever reason, my past caught up to me,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while he eventually lost his scholarship, he stayed all four years, with his grandmother paying for his education. He left with 69 credits and, later, an associate degree, but in the meantime, the ‘street,’ as he called it, started taking over his life.

“It was really dark,” he explained. “I didn’t want to go back home to live because I felt that my grandmother raised me — she did her job — and it is was up to me to deal with my life on my own. Which wasn’t good.”

He joined the Bloods, and gang life led to many problems, but he eventually moved on from the gang (with the scar over his eye to prove it) and landed a position with the Westover Job Corps working with young people to help them find employment opportunities, and then with Brightside for Families and Children.

“And that’s where I found myself,” he went on, “because those young kids I saw every day, and the abuse, the trauma … reminded me of myself, and there was a connection. When people couldn’t connect with a child who was highly at-risk, I went in, and there was like something from God — the child just felt safe and started talking about their issues with me.”

Fast-forwarding a little, Davis would eventually land at the Center School, an alternative school for at-risk youths. He became a liaison to public schools, going to a number of different districts to work with students who were losing their way. Later, he coached at Cathedral High School and Western New England University (WNE), while still battling depression and eventually attempting suicide.

He fought his way through those dark times and landed more coaching opportunities, first during a two-year internship with the NFL’s Houston Texans, and then at WNE, before taking a job at Springfield’s Sci-Tech as a paraprofessional and coaching the football team.

He was encouraged to go back to school to get the degree he needed to teach — and he did. And while teaching, he continued his work with at-risk young people, launching Fresh Start, a credit-recovery program that successfully turned around dozens of students who were close to dropping out of school.

“The program was based around at-risk youths who were about to get kicked out of high school. I was their last alternative; if they couldn’t make it with me, they were going to be kicked out of mainstream and put into the alternative school,” said Davis, adding that these were young people involved with gangs who were skipping school, getting into fights, and landing in trouble.

 

School of Thought

Fresh Start would eventually evolve and expand into I Found Light Against All Odds, which helps today’s young people address social, emotional, and economic issues. The agency acts as a multi-faceted resource, providing information; referrals to partnering agencies such as Mental Health Associates, the Center for Human Development, Unify Against Bullying, and many others; and assistance that comes in many forms, including:

• Individualized trauma-informed care;

• Education counseling and coaching;

• Assistance with employment opportunities;

• Reinforcement of effective daily-living skills;

• Skill development for financial literacy; and

• Creation of a robust ‘transition plan’ for each individual as they move on with the next steps in life.

The agency steps in to help young people and families in all kinds of ways, from scholarships and help finding employment to providing families with turkeys at Thanksgiving and gifts for children — and even Christmas trees — during the holidays.

As she talked about Davis, I Found Light, and how the agency helps those in need, Jenny Lebron, Ethan’s mother, said the agency has helped both her sons find the motivation to move beyond depression and other issues and get to a better place. For her older son, this place was a high-school degree and, now, a solid job as a corrections officer. For Ethan, it was a place where he simply wanted to go to school to do the work needed to graduate.

“He had no motivation left — I couldn’t get him motivated for school, or anything else,” she recalled. “Every time he went to school, his teachers would call; he felt no one understood him, and in his mind, everyone was against him and didn’t understand what he was going through.”

In part because he did know what Ethan was going through, Davis was able to get him motivated.

“He understands my son, and he’s such a big motivation for him,” Lebron said. “Since Coach has been in his life, he talks differently, he acts differently, and he brings everything that Coach tells him and teaches to others.”

Stefan Davis is seen with recent Sci-Tech graduates

Stefan Davis is seen with recent Sci-Tech graduates Cassandra Rivera, left, and Destiny Cortez.

An emerging next chapter for the agency is the I Found Light Against All Odds Lighthouse project, which will support homeless girls in the region. The goal is to create a transitional home for such girls, while also providing a variety of resources to the residents and assisting in the development of self-sufficiency and independent living, said Davis, adding that there is a story behind Lighthouse — or a story that inspired it, to be more precise.

It’s about a girl he identified only as ‘Faith.’

“She was homeless … a beautiful young girl,” said Davis, pointing her out in a photograph of several young girls on display in his office. “She was living in the port-a-potties at Blunt Park — she was homeless for a year and a half. There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts near Sci-Tech … Faith would crawl in the dumpster there to eat.”

Unfortunately, there are more people like Faith in Springfield and other are communities than most people can imagine, he said, adding that there is a real need for a facility where they can not only live, but get the many other types of support they need.

“There’s another type of pandemic that’s going on right now, and that involves homeless teen girls,” Davis said. “And I wanted to be a beacon, or a voice, for those girls, and give them an opportunity to find their potential in themselves, and not worry about whether they’re going to be able to eat tomorrow. I want to be able to give them a home where they’ll have the proper tools to become successful young women. And that’s what the Lighthouse will do for these young women.”

Plans for the Lighthouse are in the formative stage, he said, adding that I Found Light is looking to partner with other agencies to identify potential participants in the program and with area businesses to secure a site and finance the initiative.

Overall, he said his goal is to continually grow I Found Light and expand both its mission and impact across the region — because there are many now in the dark and looking for a way to bring some light into their lives.

 

Shedding Some Light

Davis, both while while speaking to large audiences during motivational talks or conversing with students one-on-one, will talk about the scar on his leg. All of his scars, actually.

He does so to drive home the point that most young people, and especially those who are at risk, have scars themselves, whether they are visible or not.

Such scars are permanent, he stressed, but they can be overcome. He’s living proof of that, and through I Found Light Against All Odds, he has created considerably more proof.

Overcoming challenge, especially in the form of physical and emotional trauma, is never easy, Davis said in conclusion, and no one can really do it alone. A strong, reliable support system is needed, and I Found Light has become one.

And that’s why it is a Difference Maker.

 

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

Class of 2022

He’s Always Made a Difference, but Not a Very Big Splash

 

By Mark Morris

Leah Martin Photography

When discussing his favorite movies, Ted Hebert includes the Frank Capra classic and holiday tradition It’s a Wonderful Life.

He says he’s always been inspired the movie’s message about how one person’s life can impact so many others — and he sees a little (or maybe more than a little) of himself in the film’s main character, George Bailey. Indeed, their lives took some similar paths, as we’ll see.

Like Bailey, Hebert — the founder and president of Teddy Bear Pools — has spent his life serving his community and being a Difference Maker for thousands of his neighbors.

Hebert’s office is located above the Teddy Bear Pools and Spas store in Chicopee. Recognition plaques, thank-you notes, and photos cover nearly every inch of every wall in the area leading to his office, where those walls are covered, too.

It’s not unusual for community leaders to devote all or most of their philanthropic efforts to one specific cause or organization. Hebert does not have one favorite, saying “I love all the causes we’ve supported.” Indeed, the walls are lined with dozens of plaques recognizing years of support for the Children’s Miracle Network, the Jimmy Fund, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and several animal-welfare groups.

“As human beings, I feel we have a responsibility and an obligation to take care of our furry friends,” Hebert said, noting that his efforts on behalf of animals have included support of and involvement with agencies ranging from the MSPCA to the Thomas J. O’Connor Animal Control and Adoption Center to the Zoo in Forest Park, which he serves as a board member, an invitation he accepted as a tribute to his mother.

“My mom grew up in the Great Depression, and to earn money for the family, she would babysit neighborhood kids and bring them to Forest Park,” he recalled. “When I was young, she brought me to the zoo, so I have those special memories as well.”

Hebert’s position on the Forest Park Zoo board goes well beyond sitting around a conference table. On the day he spoke with BusinessWest, the zoo had enlisted his help to repair the metal bucket on its Bobcat tractor. Just before this interview commenced, Hebert was making calls to enlist Tom O’Sullivan, a welder friend, to take on the job. When the repair to the bucket was successful, Hebert contacted Bernie Croteau, another friend, and arranged to put four new tires on the tractor.

“I’m blessed to be part of a circle of friends who are good people and whom I respect,” Hebert said. “It’s not about me; they simply helped solve a problem for the zoo. It’s all about helping people.”

For all the high-profile and public contributions that Hebert makes in the community, there are just as many that are, like that fixing of the tractor at the zoo, efforts that are out of the spotlight but critically important to those involved.

“I always share with the audience that I used to stutter and that I still battle insecurity and low self-esteem. All of a sudden, people connect with you because many of them are facing similar struggles.”

When Hebert takes part in community activities, he is often accompanied by his wife, Barbara, who also does a great deal of work in the community. For many years, the couple volunteered to deliver Thanksgiving meals at a senior center in West Springfield.

Rather than just dropping off the food and moving on to the next apartment, the Heberts would introduce themselves, start up a conversation, and spend time with each resident. That extra attention became something the residents looked forward to every year, and they would remark on how the couple made Thanksgiving special for them. Hebert said he and Barbara enjoyed the visits as much as, if not more than, the seniors.

Ted and Barbara Hebert

“What does it cost to give your time?” he asked, adding that he’s spent a lifetime finding ways to give back that go above and beyond writing checks — although he’s done a lot of that, too.

For all these efforts, and for the way he has inspired others to follow his lead, Hebert has certainly earned his place in BusinessWest’s Difference Makers class of 2022.

 

Diving Right In

While many residents know that Hebert started Teddy Bear Pools from his parents’ carport and built it into a hugely successful business, fewer know the insecure kid with the stutter.

Hebert described himself as someone with low self-esteem who felt good only when he was working.

“Whether it was mowing lawns, washing cars, or doing my paper route, having a job made me feel better about myself,” he said. “I liked the feeling, so I kept trying hard to challenge myself. I still do that to this day.”

Hebert’s “first real job” came at age 14 as a busboy at the Hu Ke Lau restaurant after he told the owners he was 16. “They didn’t question my age because my friend worked there.”

In his early 20s, Hebert signed up for karate lessons, which provided another big boost to his self-esteem and self-confidence. All these experiences contributed to gradually overcoming his stutter.

A lifelong car aficionado, Hebert joined a local Corvette club and found himself voted in as the youngest president of the group. One time, at a gathering of Corvette clubs in Vermont, he found his voice.

Clubs from around the Northeast had come to Thunder Mountain racetrack for the event. When announcements were taking place, Hebert wasn’t pleased with the way they were handled and decided that, since he was a good ad-libber, he would take on the emcee role.

“Sure, we’ve had our challenges, but it’s like being in a boxing ring. You take your punches, you get knocked down, and then you get back up.”

“I felt comfortable because these were all racing people just like me,” he recalled. “When I finished, it suddenly hit me — ‘oh my God, I was speaking in front of all these people.’”

Now a confident speaker in demand at settings ranging from swimming-pool industry conferences to local schools, Hebert said his goal in speaking is not to motivate, necessarily, but to inspire others to succeed in their lives.

“I always share with the audience that I used to stutter and that I still battle insecurity and low self-esteem,” he told BusinessWest. “All of a sudden, people connect with you because many of them are facing similar struggles.”

During his college years, Hebert spent his summers as a subcontractor working day and night on installing swimming pools — he literally worked at night with spotlights to finish some installations. It’s hard to believe now, but Hebert’s career in swimming pools almost didn’t happen.

After attending Holyoke Community College (where he is currently a trustee), then Springfield Technical Community College, Hebert completed his degree at Worcester State College, and then committed himself (sort of) to continuing a family legacy; 11 generations of Heberts, before his father, were doctors.

Ted had studied pre-med and had above-average scores on his medical boards. He applied to 15 medical schools and received 14 rejections. The University of Southern California extended an invitation only after another candidate dropped out. But Hebert had conflicted emotions about leaving for Los Angeles.

“I had started a little business, I had a girlfriend, and I had planned to travel the country,” he said. The decision became clearer one day, while working at a friend’s house, when he received a call that his mother had been taken to the hospital with an aneurysm.

“I never left, and I have no regrets,” he said.

Like George Bailey, Hebert put off his dreams of traveling to take care of family matters. As his business outgrew the carport, Hebert rented space in a former car wash on Memorial Avenue in Chicopee. When the owner was foreclosed upon, Hebert then bought a vacant building on East Street that once housed a Studebaker dealership back in the 1940s. Today, customers from all over Western Mass., as well as parts of Connecticut and Vermont, know the East Street location as Teddy Bear Pools and Spas.

Since the pandemic hit, homeowners have invested much more in their backyards, which often means adding a swimming pool or hot tub. Business at Teddy Bear has skyrocketed with Hebert’s main challenges, which involve a lack of products due to supply issues and finding installers for all the orders when they arrive.

Though his business is booming, Hebert is quick to empathize with the many businesses that have struggled to survive in the COVID era. “We’ve been blessed to be buried with business,” he said.

It’s easy to look at Hebert’s success today without appreciating the many challenges he faced along the way. Most notably, back in the 1980s, several employees embezzled more than $1 million dollars from the business in two separate incidents. Experiences like this can leave a person cold and cynical, but not Hebert.

“Sure, we’ve had our challenges, but it’s like being in a boxing ring. You take your punches, you get knocked down, and then you get back up.”

For Hebert, it all starts with a belief that, if you have faith, then you can find hope. “I don’t necessarily mean religious faith, but a belief that there is something bigger than us.”

He called being chosen as a Difference Maker one of the more important honors he has received.

“In some ways, Difference Makers brings together all the community efforts Barbara and I have been involved in,” he said. “As much as we appreciate it, we don’t do this for recognition, but because we feel it’s our responsibility as people in our community.”

 

The Deep End

Among the inspirational sayings posted in Hebert’s office is one that reads: “Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”

From the busboy who battled his stutter to the successful businessperson and community leader, Ted Hebert exemplifies the ability to make a new ending and reflects the spirit of a Difference Maker.

“I know it’s a cliché,” he said, “but I believe, as long as you are a good person and treat others like you want to be treated, how can you go wrong?”

Yes, he does sound a whole lot like George Bailey. And he has had a wonderful life.

Class of 2022

This Unique Program Proves That Meaningful, Lasting Change is Possible

 

 

When BusinessWest first caught up with Trevor Gayle in the winter of 2015, he was a relatively new employee of Chase Management in Springfield.

A recent ‘graduate’ of the Roca program, which helps high-risk individuals — those who have been incarcerated, are in gangs, have substance-abuse issues, or have dropped out of school — Gayle was handling a wide range of duties for Chase, a property-management firm, from painting to snow removal to apartment-turnover work.

He was also learning what it took to be a good employee and putting to work lessons learned while in Roca that would help him keep his past — he spent six months in jail for sitting in the seat next to a friend who shot and wounded an individual as he approached their vehicle — from becoming his future.

Today, he is superintendent of a huge — as in 447-unit — apartment complex in Groton, Conn., and has several people working under his supervision.

As he reflects on his Roca experience and how it helped him get from where he was — behind bars — to where he is today, he said simply, “I learned how to be my own leader.”

Not all Roca stories have such positive trend lines, but many of them do. And it is transformations like this that Molly Baldwin had in mind when she started Roca in Chelsea in 1988 to help transform the lives of young, at-risk men. The concept, as summed up in the marketing slogan “less jail time, more future,” is simple — use street outreach, data-driven case management, stage-based education, and employment training to reduce individuals’ involvement in crime, keep them out of jail, and help them get jobs — and perhaps a career.

In recent years, the program has been expanded to include young mothers facing challenges ranging from a lack of education and work experience to gang involvement, drug and alcohol use, violence, abuse, trauma, and more. And the goals for this constituency are the same — to help participants heal from their hurt and anger and gain the tools needed to achieve success later on.

“Our mothers’ program is really about parenting,” said Christine Judd, the indefatigable director of Roca’s programs in Springfield and Holyoke. “It’s helping them be better parents. It’s helping them overcome substance abuse. Many of them are victims of domestic violence, and some are victims of sexual violence. These are trauma-based services aimed at making them better parents.”

Roca’s official mission is to “disrupt the cycle of incarceration and poverty by helping people transform their lives,” Judd said. And it does this through an intense, three- or four-year intervention model (more on it later) that, at its core, recognizes that meaningful, lasting change does not happen overnight.

Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni

Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni says Roca works to help people “disentangle” themselves from the trauma in their lives.

And it also does it through partnerships — with constituencies ranging from law-enforcement officials to private business owners and managers who employ participants — that essentially involve the entire community in the work to keep young people on a path to success.

Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni is one of those partners. Over the years, and especially through a new program he created, the Emerging Adult Court of Hope (EACH), he has helped many at-risk young people find the Roca program.

And what they find, he said, is a support system like none other in this region, one committed to helping them traverse the whitewater in their lives and get on a course that enables them to be productive members of society.

“Our young people, and the young people in EACH in particular, have had so many disadvantages and so many hurdles put in front of them, from day one — lack of parenting, lack of mentorship, lack of positive role models, lack of opportunity — just tough environments,” Gulluni explained. “They’ve suffered so much trauma, and that’s stuff that lives with people. And Roca works to disentangle that and works to support these young people and help them see better things and do better things.”

As noted, a number of area employers have also become partners with Roca, providing employment opportunities to participants. Several area companies, large and small, have hired graduates or have plans to do so. They include manufacturers such as Meredith Springfield in Ludlow, maker of plastic products, and McKenzie Vault in East Longmeadow, which produces cremation urns; distributors such as J. Polep in Chicopee; landscaping firms; municipal public-works departments; and Baystate Health, which expects to soon have some graduates of the program for young mothers working in its Hospitality Department.

AnnaMarie Golden, director of Community Relations at Baystate Health, said the system was already a partner with Roca, with members of its trauma and social-work teams meeting with participants, including those in the young mothers’ program. Through that involvement, the system became aware of another need — for employment opportunities for these women.

“One of the entry doors at Baystate is our Hospitality department — food services and guest services,” she explained. “Our goal is to have them get their foot in the door at Baystate, but the ultimate goal is to have them think about what the next steps might be and consider career steps within the organization if there is interest to stay in the healthcare field.”

Trevor Gayle

Trevor Gayle says Roca has helped him put his past — and the streets — behind him.

It is sentiments like these that certainly help explain why Roca is worthy of that designation Difference Maker. It is making a huge difference in the lives of participants in its programs, and a huge difference in this region as well.

 

Change Agents

Judd told BusinessWest that, while words can be used to sum up Roca’s mission and its importance to the region, numbers tell the story effectively as well. And she has plenty of them at the ready. Here are some, courtesy of a recent study involving participants:

• While more than 85% of Roca’s young men come to the agency with a violent record, four out of five stop engaging in violent crime;

• Only 33% of Roca’s young men who served from 2012 to 2019 recidivated within three years, compared to the state’s recidivism rate of 47% to 56%;

• 54% who practiced cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) made measurable emotional-regulation gains;

• 74% who completed the first two years were placed in jobs, and 71% held their job for six months or longer; and

• 95% who completed the first two years were not reincarcerated.

As for the programming involving young mothers:

• 52% of open child-welfare (MA-DCF) cases closed;

• 85% demonstrated workforce-readiness gains;

• 74% who completed the first two years placed in outside jobs; and

• In Springfield, between 2010 and 2020, the program served 761 participants and boasts a 78% employment-placement rate; 82 of participants retained employment for three months or longer, 74% had no new arrests, and 88% had no new incarcerations.

Together, these numbers back up what Gulluni, Golden, Judd, and others said about Roca’s ability to make all-important change possible for its participants.

It does this, Judd said, through an intervention model that is rooted in evidence-based practices of community corrections, deep studies of behavior-change models (stages of change and CBT, among others), brain development, and three decades of critical data collection and on-the-ground work with young people.

“They’ve suffered so much trauma, and that’s stuff that lives with people. And Roca works to disentangle that and works to support these young people and help them see better things and do better things.”

The model, she explained, has five core components: relentless outreach, transformational relationships, tailored programming designed to withstand relapse and the comings and goings of young people in traditional learning or work environments, an engaged-institutions strategy to support young people and help them move out of the criminal-justice system, and performance-based management.

One of the keys to the program, Judd said, is that cognitive behavioral theory, which she described as a way to understand how situations affect what people think and say in their heads, what they feel in their bodies, and what they do in response. Practicing CBT helps individuals identify a cycle, stop, use a skill, and make a choice instead of reacting.

Gayle credited CBT with helping him put street reflexes to situations — those that often lead to violence and incarceration — behind him, to be replaced by more measured, reasoned responses. And he continues to practice CBT in his current position in Connecticut.

 

Finding Hope

Perhaps the best way to fully appreciate how Roca is changing lives is to talk with current participants in the program.

People like Tyreice Harper, 25, from Springfield.

He’s actually in his second stint with Roca. The first came when he was 17, and he admits that he just wasn’t ready for the regimen and the “environment” at the time, and wound up reverting back to a life that landed him in several different Department of Youth Services (DYS) facilities across the region.

“I was locked up … for armed robbery,” he said, adding that, after a three-and-a-half-year stint at the state’s maximum-security prison in Shirley, he was ready to give Roca another try, especially after conversations with ‘lifers’ at the ‘max’ — those who would never be going home — left him yearning for another chance.

“My whole mindset is that I’m not a child anymore, so I want to do better, not just for myself, but for the community and for my child,” he told BusinessWest. He’s now part of a work crew at Roca, handling snow removal and other odd jobs, while also working toward his high-school equivalency.

When asked where he can see himself in a few years, he paused and eventually said, “maybe buying a home and working a real good job,” in a voice that revealed that he knows there’s plenty of hard work ahead to achieve those goals.

And he believes the intervention model at Roca can help him get where he wants to go.

“Roca helps us young men after incarceration to not only get back on our feet, but to keep out of trouble by having work programs and having work crews for us to go on,” he said, adding that there are layers of accountability he has never encountered before, and they are helping him to remain focused.

Mabbie Paplardo agreed. She’s a young mother, age 17, from Holyoke, who found out about Roca from some friends already in the program. She said her advisor helps her with everything from getting her to driving lessons to studying for her HiSET test, or simply to get to the store for formula or diapers.

“There really isn’t a program like this,” she said. “I’ve been in a lot of programs that say they’re going to help, but they really don’t; Roca is different — it’s a support network that is helping me be a much better parent.”

One of the keys to creating real, lasting change for people like Paplardo and Harper is securing employment opportunities, said Judd, adding that the Roca offices in Springfield and Holyoke work with a number of area employers to create such opportunities, and anticipate working with more as the workforce crisis in the region continues.

Many of them, like J. Polep in Chicopee and Meredith Springfield, have hired several Roca participants over the years and have had good success, in part because the program strives to prepare these people for the world of work, stressing the importance of both hard and soft skills, starting with showing up on time, ready to work.

Evelyn Arroyo, a recruitment and retention specialist at Meredith Springfield, agreed. She said the company currently has two Roca graduates currently working as inspector/packers.

“What I like about Roca is that it’s there to not only advocate for these men, but to support them and prepare them for the workforce,” she explained. “They prepare them for what to expect in an interview and what do expect on the job. And, for the most part, those they refer to us are better-prepared than other individuals.”

Golden agreed. “Roca has an approach like no other,” she told BusinessWest. “It works to set up the participants for success long-term.”

 

Taking the Lead

Summing up Roca and its impact within the region, Gulluni said it is meeting a critical need at a critical time.

“We have a young population, young adults and juveniles in this region that need a lot of help,” he noted. “And we are not going to incarcerate our way out of the problems we have in cities like Springfield, Holyoke, and elsewhere. We need organizations and leaders to think creatively and put forth the effort and work to help young people find themselves through so many challenges.”

Roca is an organization that has become a leader in these ongoing efforts to provide that needed help. The numbers listed above regarding everything from recidivism to job placement show that Roca is clearly making a difference.

But it’s stories like Trevor Gayle’s that rise above the statistics. As he said, the program has gone beyond keeping him out of trouble and in a good job. It has shown him how to be his own leader, and as a result, he has been able to change his life in profound ways.

 

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