Home Archive by category Difference Makers

Difference Makers

Class of 2022 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]

Class of 2022

By Reviving a Beloved Event, She’s Creating a More Vibrant Downtown

Leah Martin Photography

 

Ruth Griggs was having coffee with Amy Cahillane one day in 2017, when Cahillane, who had recently taken charge of the Downtown Northampton Assoc., posed a question.

“She said, ‘what do you think about the Jazz Festival?” Griggs recalled. “I said, ‘what do you mean?’”

Cahillane told Griggs that, in her interactions with people downtown, she kept getting asked questions like, “can we have the Jazz Festival back? We miss live music downtown. What happened to the festival? Can you get it back?”

Griggs had been involved in the first incarnation of the Northampton Jazz Festival, from 2011 to 2015, after returning to her hometown following a three-decade marketing career in New York City. “I went to the shows, and once they got to know I was a marketing professional, I kind of was an advisor to them. I was never on the board, but I was definitely an advisor and helped them out quite a bit, the last two years in particular.”

Then the festival went away for two years, and Cahillane was angling to get Griggs and others who had supported it in the past to bring it back to life, promising to help build stronger relationships between the festival and city leaders and boost marketing and fundraising efforts.

“Having a strong presence downtown and good relationships downtown was really important to me, and I also know all the jazz people who knew how to put on that festival, some of whom had been involved in previous festivals,” Griggs said. “So I set to work to rally some support.”

The biggest challenge at the time, she said, was not losing the event’s 501(c)(3) status, which had been achieved right before the final festival in 2015. “If you let a 501(c)(3) go without any kind of documentation to the feds or the state for three years, it’s gone. And I could not let that happen.”

So Griggs and others formed a board, pulled the festival back from the brink, and started planning for the return of the event in 2018. Oh, and that board put Griggs in charge.

“I really care about the vitality and the economy of Northampton. I’m hoping the Northampton Jazz Festival will continue to reaffirm and reinforce the unique entertainment value that Northampton offers.”

It made sense — since returning from New York in 2011, she had built a marketing firm, RC Communications, that focused on small to mid-sized businesses and especially nonprofits, which are, in many ways, the lifeblood of the region. She has also been a board member with the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce for the past six years and is currently its immediate past vice president.

“I am a marketing strategist by trade, and, as such, I am good at seeing the big picture, keeping my eye on the vision and mission of an organization,” Griggs told BusinessWest. “When you combine that with my work in nonprofits over the last 15 years, that adds up to the type of experience that enables me to lead a nonprofit, which, of course, is what the Jazz Fest is at the end of the day.”

Her leadership in the chamber and her role as an entrepreneur with RC Communications have helped her build a wide network in the business community, she added.

Ruth Griggs announces from the stage of the Academy of Music in Northampton during the headline Jazz Festival concert last October.
Photo by Julian Parker-Burns

“I also just have a knack for getting things done; I am a doer,” she went on. “Fundraising for the Jazz Fest, which is a big part of what I do, benefits from these relationships. As president of the board, I oversee all operations of the festival and keep everyone’s eye on the ball, but I have a particular focus on marketing and fundraising and community relations, with the help of Amy Cahillane.”

Within that model, she leaves the choosing and booking of the musicians and the running of the performances to five producers who serve on the board. And the model works, with the two-day October festival roaring back to life in 2018 and following that with successful outings in 2019 and 2021 as well; pandemic-disrupted 2020 saw a series of virtual performances instead.

But that success isn’t contained to the festival, or even to jazz lovers. As a two-day event held in locations scattered throughout the downtown (more on that in a bit), the event promotes the downtown corridor and boosts its businesses, making the festival’s success a true economic-development story, and Griggs a Difference Maker.

“I really care about the vitality and the economy of Northampton,” she said. “I’m hoping the Northampton Jazz Festival will continue to reaffirm and reinforce the unique entertainment value that Northampton offers.”

 

Taking It to the Streets

One key factor in the festival’s growing impact on downtown Northampton is a change in how it’s staged. From 2011 to 2015, it was presented in the Armory Street Parking Lot behind Thornes Marketplace. Along with the music stage was a beer tent, food vendors, a chef competition, and an art fair. It was a fun, multi-activity event, and attendees enjoyed it, Griggs said.

“What I felt was lacking was, if you were on Main Street, you had no idea anything was going on,” she explained. “It was tucked behind Thornes. It was efficient in that everything took place in one place, but there wasn’t a lot of space for an audience.”

Then, Cahillane and board member Paul Arslanian both came up with the same idea independently for the 2018 festival.

“In order to keep the cost down, which had gotten very high, and to be more all around town, they said, ‘let’s stage it in different places,’” Griggs said of the decision to schedule music acts inside downtown businesses, requiring attendees to move around to see them all.

The Art Blakey Centennial Celebration last October featured five original Jazz Messengers, including Robin Eubanks on trombone, Brian Lynch on trumpet, and Bobby Watson on saxophone.
Photo by Julian Parker-Burns

“The idea was to get people to walk from place to place and stop in at a gallery or stop in at a restaurant or stop in at a café, and we would leave time in between shows so people could do that,” she explained. “Half the mission is supporting the economy of Northampton and bringing vibrancy back, which is what people said they wanted.”

Saturday’s slate of performances ends with the only ticketed show of the festival, a nationally known headliner at the Academy of Music. In recent years, that show has featured the Paquito D’Rivera Quintet in 2018, the Kurt Elling Quintet in 2019, and the Art Blakey Centennial Celebration in 2021, featuring five original members of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

The model has worked well, Griggs said, although the board has talked about streamlining it by bringing the venues closer together. One thing that won’t change, however, is the Friday Jazz Strut, which features local and regional bands, including student bands, and overlapping performance schedules.

“We stage the music a half-hour apart, and every band plays for two hours,” she noted. “That definitely gets people all over town, patronizing the restaurants and breweries and cafés. And that’s important.”

Speaking of students, the festival board also supports jazz education through a program called Jazz Artists in the Schools, in which Arslanian secures jazz artists from big cities across the Northeast to workshop with local high-school jazz bands.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for students to learn from musicians who make music, who have successfully made music their life — active, performing musicians,” Griggs said.

While “the board is the Jazz Festival,” she said, noting that it’s certainly a working board with year-round responsibilities, the festival itself also pulls in dozens of young volunteers each year, and she’s been moved by the sentiments they’ve expressed.

Cocomama performs at Pulaski Park in Northampton in October

Cocomama performs at Pulaski Park in Northampton in October, one of many female-fronted acts who played last year’s Jazz Festival.

“One said, ‘I’ll do whatever you need me to do. I’ll be a runner, whatever you need for this to run smoothly; this is important,’” she recalled. A woman who had recently moved from Brooklyn said, “when I found out that Northampton has a jazz festival, I thought, ‘wow, this is a cool down, I want to live here, this is really cool.’

“That’s important for me to hear,” Griggs noted, adding that one vocalist who took part in the Jazz Strut clamored for more involvement and is now serving on the board.

“That’s critically important to me,” she went on. “I want this to last. I’ve been at this now since 2017, and I’ll be darned if, when I step down, it dies. That cannot happen. I would feel I failed if that happened. It’s critically important. So we need to keep bringing in the younger players and the younger musicians and the younger people who really care about keeping it alive. I think the Jazz Festival is now, and will be, an important feather in Northampton’s cap.”

 

Community Focused

Another volunteer and musician noted the 2021 festival’s increased slate of women performers, telling Griggs that was a definite plus for such an event in Northampton. She was impressed by young jazz enthusiasts pointing that fact out. “The goal is to continue to showcase women in jazz.”

Griggs has certainly shone over the years as a woman in marketing. As noted, she worked in New York City for 30 years, marketing for dot-com firms, mutual funds, and large corporations like American Express and Coca-Cola. She and her husband actually owned a firm for eight of those years, doing mostly financial-services marketing.

“That was lucrative, but totally intangible,” she said. “I got so tired of marketing credit cards and things like that.”

Then, while taking her teenage sons on college tours, she fell in love with higher education and the idea of “marketing people.” So she segued into higher-ed marketing for Queensboro Community College in the city.

“It totally changed my life. I felt like I got a crash course in nonprofit marketing and fundraising, because I reported to Development.”

When she returned to Northampton in 2011, she carried that experience with her into her new firm, RC Communications, working with a host of nonprofits in the Valley. She was also part of the Creative, a marketing enterprise she formed with Janice Beetle and Maureen Scanlon.

“But I was getting so involved in the chamber and the Jazz Festival, I felt like I needed to pull back and be semi-retired,” she told BusinessWest. While she still works with a few long-time clients, the rest of her time is split between the Jazz Festival, the chamber, her role chairing the investment committee at Edwards Church, and also Valley Jazz Voices, a group, formed in 2015, of 30 vocalists who sing exclusively jazz throughout region. “I just have so many initiatives I’m doing in the community, I just feel fortunate that I can spend more time doing them.”

She sees a symbiosis in these roles, just as she does between the Jazz Festival and the downtown environment it lifts up, and gets a lift from in return.

“The relationships I’ve made in the chamber are helpful to my business, and also helpful to the Jazz Festival, which is, in turn, helpful to the town. It’s a complete full circle.”

And a full life, one with the controlled, yet exciting, rhythm of a jazz performance — a life of true impact, note by note.

“I feel like I’m making a difference that people see most visibly — in the Jazz Fest — because of all the other things I do,” Griggs said. “It’s all of those things that I think make a difference together.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Class of 2022

His Decisions, and His Actions, Have Helped Move Society Forward

Leah Martin Photography

Leah Martin Photography

 

 

It wasn’t the most compelling moment in John Greaney’s long and distinguished career behind the bench. And it certainly wasn’t the most controversial.

But it was poignant, and it spoke volumes about who he is and how he does things.

As the opposing sides in a bitter power struggle for control of the Boston Red Sox gathered in Room 1006 of the Massachusetts Court of Appeals on Feb. 14, 1984, Greaney, the recently appointed chief justice of the Appellate Division, and his fellow justices could feel the tension rising.

“We had practically every major lawyer in Boston there either observing or arguing,” Greaney, currently senior counsel at Bulkley Richardson, recalled. “[Justice] Ami Cutter, who was sitting next to me, said, as the whole thing ended, ‘this was very tense; can you say something?’”

He did. Speaking specifically to the lawyer in front of him, but also all those present, he said, “it may take into the baseball season before a decision is rendered, so I Ieave you with this thought. I urge all of the disputing parties in the meantime to at least get together to do something about the pitching.”

The next day’s story on the court session in the sports section of the Boston Globe carried this headline:

 

May They Please the Court

Judge Offers Red Sox Litigants Advice on Pitching as Appeals Are Heard

 

The episode also found its way into Sports Illustrated, said Greaney, who said that, while his tongue may have been in cheek, he was speaking for all Sox fans thirsty for a pennant, and with a sense of humor that became a trademark.

Indeed, whether it was while he sat on the state Supreme Judicial Court — his next stop after the Appeals Court — or at the table for a meeting of the Noble Hospital board of directors, Greaney usually had a one-liner (or three or four) and a way of relieving tension in whatever courtroom he was serving in. And that’s just one of his many talents.

Only a small percentage of lawyers enter the profession with the hard goal of one day sitting on the bench, but Greaney did. He said he was influenced in a profound way by his experience serving working for Westfield District Court Judge Arthur Garvey the summer after his first year at New York University School of Law.

“I was basically just hanging around, observing the court,” he recalled. “So every morning, I sat and observed the court, and I was bewitched because he seemed to handle the cases that would come in — driving while intoxicated, small burglaries, those kinds of things — with relative ease. And he had a good demeanor about giving defendants a break; usually, if they had a job and had a family, he didn’t want to incarcerate them, so he’d give them warnings, tell them to behave, and maybe give them probation.

“I said ‘jeez, he’s certainly doing something worthwhile here,” he went on, adding that he went back to law school in the fall committed to finding a career path that would enable him to do the same.

And to say that he did would be an understatement. After serving in the military and then working for a decade at the law firm Ely and King in Springfield, Greaney was appointed the presiding judge of the Hampden County Housing Court, the second such court in Massachusetts. In 1976, the was appointed a justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court; in 1978, he was appointed a justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court; and in 1984, as noted, as that court’s chief justice.

“He had a good demeanor about giving defendants a break; usually, if they had a job and had a family, he didn’t want to incarcerate them … I said, ‘jeez, he’s certainly doing something worthwhile here.’”

In 1989, he was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court, and during his two decades on the court, during which he famously rode a Peter Pan Bus to work most days so he could work during his commute, he participated in many significant decisions, including the landmark Goodridge v. Department of Health, in which he wrote the concurrence to the opinion establishing Massachusetts as the first state to legalize same-sex marriage (more on that later).

He also wrote many other significant decisions, including the 1993 decision that recognized the rights of gay couples in Massachusetts to adopt children, a 1997 decision affirming the unconstitutionality of a statute prohibiting panhandling, and a 2007 decision upholding a $2 million libel verdict against the Boston Herald.

Slicing through all those cases and work on each of those courts, Greaney said he remembered what he learned back in Westfield District Court in the early ’60s and tried to make the same overall kind of impact on people’s lives.

Daniel Finnegan, managing partner for Bulkley Richardson, who nominated Greaney for the Difference Maker award, summed up Greaney’s career, and his broad impact, this way:

“Throughout each phase of his career, Justice Greaney has earned tremendous respect for his intellect, professional integrity, and commitment to the community. He has demonstrated compassion and understanding as an advocate to so many in need of a voice, influenced our societal values and ways of thinking, and continues to be a valuable mentor, sharing wisdom and insight deemed from his impressive career. Greaney has proven that he is a trailblazer, an agent of social change, and a true difference maker.”

 

Court of Opinion

Long before imploring those fighting for control of the Red Sox to get some pitching help, Greaney was making his mark in a different kind of setting.

That would be this region’s housing court, an assignment that would in many ways set the tone for all that would come later.

Indeed, Greaney would essentially create the Housing Court from scratch, making it into what he called a true ‘Peoples Court,’ with the help of an advisory committee that included another member of this year’s Difference Makers class, Herbie Flores (see story on page 30).

“People who came in were not going to be intimidated, if we could help it,” he recalled. “We were going to design simple, plain-English forms to be used in evictions and other actions, and we were going to print them in two languages, Spanish and English, and we were going to allow people to be pro se as much as we could. And I decided in Small Claims that I would write a decision in every case.

“I then took the court on the road, which was unheard of at the time,” he went on, adding that he had sessions in public buildings, such as city halls, schools, and other facilities, to make the court more accessible. Its home base, though, was the courthouse in Springfield, which had no room at the time, he recalled, noting that a small courtroom was eventually secured, and for a clerk’s office, “a janitor was kicked out, and we took that space — but it was a heck of a fight.”

As noted, that Housing Court assignment would enable Greaney to make his mark and forge a reputation as an imaginative, hard-working, people-oriented jurist. And these were some of the qualities that caught the attention of Mike Dukakis, who would play a huge role in his career trajectory.

The two first met when Dukakis was running for lieutenant governor and Greaney, long active with the state’s Democratic party, was a state delegate. Greaney backed Dukakis in that election, and he won the nomination, but the Democratic ticket lost the election. Two years later, Dukakis ran for governor and won, and not long after appointed Greaney to the state’s Superior Court. Later, he would appoint him to the Appeals Court, where he later became chief justice.

“Then he lost the next election to Ed King, and I thought, ‘that’s the end of that,’ Greaney recalled. “But he was back four years later, and he later appointed me to the Supreme Judicial Court, so I owe a lot to Mike.”

Looking back on his career and his legacy, Greaney said he carried on in the spirit of Judge Garrity, and with the same philosophy that defined his work when building the Housing Court.

“Simple principles of decency dictate that we extend to the plaintiffs, and to their new status, full acceptance, tolerance, and respect. We should do so because it is the right thing to do.”

“I was motivated by helping the little guy and helping society move forward, and the SJC gave me a great opportunity to do that,” he said, referring to several of those groundbreaking cases he heard and helped decide.

One was the 1993 decision that recognized the rights of same-sex couples to adopt children, and another was the historic Goodwin v. Department of Public Health case that led to Massachusetts becoming the first U.S. state to allow same-sex couples to marry, a ruling that has influenced many other states that have followed suit and the U.S. Supreme Court as well.

The wording used in his concurring opinion has not only brought tears to the eyes of many gay-rights activists, but they have reportedly found their way into the wedding vows used by many same-sex couples:

“I am hopeful that our decision will be accepted by those thoughtful citizens who believe that same-sex unions should not be approved by the state,” he wrote. “I am not referring here to acceptance in the sense of grudging acknowledgment of the court’s authority to adjudicate the matter. My hope is more liberating … we share a common humanity and participate together in the social contract that is the foundation of our Commonwealth. Simple principles of decency dictate that we extend to the plaintiffs, and to their new status, full acceptance, tolerance, and respect. We should do so because it is the right thing to do.”

Throughout his career, Greaney has demonstrated the right thing to do, whether it was on the bench or in service to the community — on the board of Noble Hospital and the Westfield Academy or while serving on commissions such as the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, the Alternative Dispute Resolution Task Force, and the Massachusetts Gender Bias Study Committee.

Today, he is back where he started with his career — sort of. As senior counsel at Bulkley Richardson, he’s been involved with a number of cases, including some involving some area colleges; and some mediation, although there is less call for it now with most courts still being closed; and even some work on the firm’s COVID-19 Response Committee to advise clients on the latest status of the law and matters ranging from vaccines to aid from the federal government.

He works two days a week on average, more if he has active projects he’s working on, and even works remotely on occasion, although he much prefers to be in the office. At 83, he’s still committed to staying busy — and making a difference in any way he can.

 

Bottom Line

While Greaney’s request probably wasn’t the reason, Red Sox ownership did eventually do something about the pitching, and the team delivered an American League pennant in 1986.

That plea for help doesn’t have much to do with Greaney being a Difference Maker, but, then again, it does. Looking back, he was able to seize that moment, as he was with so many other moments over the past 60 years, whether they were in Hampden County’s first Housing Court, on the Supreme Judicial Court, or as a professor of law at Suffolk University after his forced retirement from the bench at age 70. Suffice it to say, he wasn’t ready to leave.

As Finnegan noted, Greaney has demonstrated compassion and understanding as an advocate to so many in need of a voice. And that has made him worthy of inclusion in the Difference Makers class of 2022.

 

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

Class of 2022

She’s Put Her ‘Superpowers’ to Use to Help Those in Need

 

Leah Martin Photography

Tara Brewster says she’s probably bought more than 100 copies of the children’s book — and given them all away. She joked that she’s waiting for the author to call and thank her for her consistent support.

It’s called The Three Questions, and it’s based on a story by Leo Tolstoy. It’s about a young boy named Nikolai who sometimes feels uncertain about the right way to act. So he devises three questions to help him know what to do:

• When is the best time to do things?

• Who is the most important one?

• What is the right thing to do?

He then commences asking several different animal characters for the answers, and by book’s end he’s still asking, although one of those characters, a turtle, points out that, through the course of some recent actions — and especially his efforts to save an injured panda and its child — Nikolai had answered the questions himself.

Those answers are: ‘there is only one important time, and that time is now,’ ‘the most important one is always the one you are with,’ and ‘the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.’

And these, the turtle notes, are the answers to “what is most important in this world — why we are here.”

Brewster says the book and its message are more than a fun, informational, and inspirational story. The Three Questions sums up quickly and effectively how she has lived her life to this point — and what drives her, if you will, to lend her time and talents to several area nonprofits as a board member, cheerleader, and relentless fundraiser.

“These are questions that I really fall back on a lot in a day,” she explained. “They’re really simple, and they just help me think about what am I doing, who am I impacting, and when am I supposed to be doing the thing that matters most. When I get really stressed out and start thinking, I should do doing this, and I should be doing this, I realize that I can only focus on one thing at a time, and it’s the thing that you’re doing that you should be putting your heart and soul into.”

Brewster, who seems to possess enough energy to power all of Northampton by herself, is involved as a board member with several nonprofits in that area, ranging from the Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA) to the Hampshire Regional YMCA; from Double Edge Theatre to Cutchins Programs for Children and Familes.

“I can honestly say that I have never met anyone so dedicated to helping those that are less fortunate in our community than Tara. I’ve seen so many people join local not-for-profit boards for networking opportunities or to strengthen one’s résumé. Unlike anyone I’ve ever met, Tara works tirelessly to gain support and funding for the organizations that she serves.”

But she also volunteers for, and helps fundraise for, the Food Bank of Wester Massachusetts and Monte’s March, Tapestry Development Committee, Safe Passage and its Hot Chocolate Run, and the Cancer Connection and its Mother’s Day Half Marathon.

But it’s not what she does that makes her a Difference Maker, although that’s part of it, but how she does it. Bill Grinnell, president of Webber & Grinnell Insurance, who nominated her for this honor, explained it this way:

“I can honestly say that I have never met anyone so dedicated to helping those that are less fortunate in our community than Tara. I’ve seen so many people join local not-for-profit boards for networking opportunities or to strengthen one’s résumé. Unlike anyone I’ve ever met, Tara works tirelessly to gain support and funding for the organizations that she serves.”

To get some perspective on those comments, one needs only to listen to Brewster as she talks about how she set out to become the top fundraiser for the Hot Chocolate Run, and then made the goal reality.

Tara Brewster, right, poses for a promotional photo for the Treehouse Foundation’s ‘Stir Up Some Love’ fundraiser with A.J. Bresciano

Tara Brewster, right, poses for a promotional photo for the Treehouse Foundation’s ‘Stir Up Some Love’ fundraiser with A.J. Bresciano, first vice president and commercial lender at Greenfield Savings Bank, and Julie Kumble, director of Strategic Partnerships & Development for the foundation.

“Safe Passage has a leaderboard every year, and since I started doing the Hot Chocolate Run in 2009, it’s been my goal to be number one on the leaderboard,” she said. “And two years ago, I finally got there. How did I do that? I asked, and I asked, and I asked people that I knew — friends, family, those in the community — to donate to Safe Passage to help deal with domestic violence.

“That’s what it comes down to: doing what you can, and using your superpowers to help others,” she went on. “And everyone has the power to do something, some good, every day.”

Because she uses her power every single day, it seems, Brewster has earned her place in the Difference Makers class of 2020.

 

Buy the Book

Brewster grew up Florence, not far from where she lives now, which was certainly “not the plan,” she said.

She told BusinessWest that many of those she grew up with were firm of the belief that one had to leave this area to achieve whatever dreams they had made for themselves. And she came to that belief herself.

But her desired next destination was certainly different than most others had in mind.

“I wanted to go to Montana — I think Wyoming and Montana are my two favorites,” she recalled, adding that she had already been to several states by the time she was in high school, and had determined that the Rocky Mountain region was where she wanted to go to college. “I thought I would like Big Sky country and being out in the wilderness; I wanted to be a pediatrician, and I wanted to go the University of Montana Bozeman.”

But fate would keep her closer to home.

Indeed, her mother was diagnosed with stage-4 ovarian cancer when Tara was just 15, a turn of events that would not only alter her plans for college, but inspire her to continuously review how she was living her life, with the goal of reaching higher — professionally, but also in the way she was using her considerable talents to help others who were less fortunate.

“That completely changed the course of my entire life; I have no idea where I would be had that not happened. She fought like hell, and ultimately lost the fight,” she said, adding that, long before her mother died, she gave up the dream of going to Montana, knowing she could not leave her father and brother at that critical time.

Tara Brewster works a United Way annual campaign event with Markus Jones

Tara Brewster works a United Way annual campaign event with Markus Jones, senior Major Gifts officer at Northfield Mount Hermon School.

Brewster would eventually graduate from Smith College, majoring in government and anthropology, and found her way into the men’s clothing business. She started at Taylor Men, which had a store in Thornes Market, while she was at Smith, and would later be regional sales manager for seven stores in the Northeast before moving to Manhattan and working for a men’s wholesale apparel company and becoming what she called a “road warrior.”

Eventually, the road took her back to Northampton and where she started — sort of. Taylor Men in Thornes Marketplace had closed, and she began contemplating owning her own store on that site.

Later, she and partner Candice Connors would open Jackson & Connor, an entrepreneurial venture that would — with her already-significant involvement in the Greater Northampton community — earn Brewster her first honor from BusinessWest: a 40 Under Forty plaque. It would also help set the tone when it comes to how she would be “all in,” as she put it, with both her career and her involvement in the community.

“I call that business my ‘first child,’ because I gave it my all,” she said. “And Jackson & Connor really helped me understand purpose and place of myself as a human, as a community member, and as a business owner; it gave me a clear direction of how I wanted to be in my community and in my region, and how I wanted to use my resources, my influence, and my power to lead and have an impact. And from the epicenter, I’ve grown as a human, as a person, as an employee, as a member of a team.”

 

The Plot Thickens

Eight years after launching Jackson & Connor, the two partners sold the enterprise, which is still operating today, and commenced writing their own next chapters. Brewster segued into consulting before Mark Grumoli, senior vice president and commercial loan officer at Greenfield Savings Bank, who years earlier had helped the partners secure funding to launch Jackson & Connor when he was with Florence Bank, convinced her to become the new vice president of Business Development.

She recalls friends and family members saying she wouldn’t last long in that role, but five years later, she’s still in it. That’s because it gives her what she desires most in a job — a situation where each day is different, a role where she can flex her entrepreneurial muscles, and a position that gives her the time and opportunity to be ‘out in the community,’ in every aspect of that phrase. And it has allowed her to take both her career and her civic endeavors to a bigger stage.

When asked what a typical day is like for her, she said there is no such thing. Each day is different. But each one is filled with conversations — phone calls, e-mails, texts, and some old-fashioned, face-to-face meetings. And only some of them have to do with banking.

“They pertain to connection, encouragement, engagement, assistance, and more,” she explained. “I serve on five boards, and there are probably five boards that I do other things for. So a lot of my conversations are with community members, and nonprofits in particular.

“These nonprofits have a real piece of my heart because I believe that, if you focus on and encourage and support the nonprofits, then more of the people who need help in this world and this region will get the help they need, because they are the helpers,” she went on,” she went on. “The nonprofits, first and foremost, are the ones that are doing the professional helping in a day, so if you want to do something and you don’t feel you have the time or whatever, support a nonprofit — that’s the easiest way to ensure that you’re creating some impact for the people who need it most.”

Brewster has certainly lived by these words, assisting nonprofits in many ways, especially through leadership as board member and with the all-important task of fundraising, which is always critical, but particularly during COVID, when the need is greater and many nonprofits have been hurt financially.

As she does so, she said she draws inspiration from others who, like her, balance work, family, and giving back, and somehow find the time and energy for all three. She mentioned Monte Belmonte, the host and program director at WHMP radio, the creator of Monte’s March, and a Difference Maker himself in 2020.

“He has a job at the radio station that he gets paid for, but then he has this other thing that he doesn’t get paid for — it’s his heart desire, it’s his calling, it’s how he uses his day job to be more and do more, to make a larger stage, to make a greater impact for a call to action,” Brewster said. “I have some people in my life who I’ve looked to for guidance on how to live and how to make a greater social impact with the talents that we have, because we all have these spheres of influence, whether it’s connections, or an employer, or social awareness.

“We all have these superpowers that we have to tap into in order to do greater good, in order to make a difference,” she went on. “And people think, ‘oh, I don’t have anything, I don’t have the time, I don’t have the resources.’ But we do. We all do. We all have connections, we have have these superpowers. We just have to use them.”

 

The Last Word

When asked to list her superpowers, she mentioned ‘connectivity,’ ‘engagement,’ ‘compassion,’ ‘awareness,’ and even ‘caretaking,’ and she traces them to when her mother got sick and after she died.

“For me, I’m acutely aware of sorrow and pain and hardship and loss, and what that means to being a whole self and a whole person — how you show up and how other people show up,” she explained. “It’s impacted the way I serve the community and serve on boards.”

Brewster serves in a way that enables those fundraisers to carry on that work they do and provide the many kinds of help that are needed.

“There’s an old saying … “you only get one life to live, and if you do it right, one is enough,’” she said in conclusion.

She has certainly done it right, and because of that, she has earned her place as a Difference Maker.

 

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

Class of 2022

He’s Spent a Lifetime Investing in His Community — and People in Need

Leah Martin Photography

 

 

Herbie Flores could have become hardened, even embittered, by a tumultuous youth.

Instead, he’s spent a lifetime helping people overcome their own difficulties.

“I came from a very poor family in Puerto Rico,” he said, raised by his mother early on after his father died. “At some point, my uncle told my mother and sister it would be better if I had a male role model. That’s a cultural thing. So I ended up in Delaware with my uncle, who was a hardworking guy.”

Back in the ’60s, Delaware wasn’t the liberal bastion it is today, as it grappled, as all states did, with school desegregation and other racial issues. So he learned early on about race relations and the futility of racism.

After moving to Springfield in 1965, Flores entered the Army and shipped off to Vietnam, where certain images stick with him to this day. “It’s not a good feeling killing a human being. But as George Patton said, the mission is to go from point A to point B, and whatever gets in the way, get rid of it.”

He remembers servicemen being spit on and called baby killers back stateside, but he was more haunted by the sheer numbers of U.S. wounded and dying. “You just put that someplace, everything goes to a compartment — it’s the only way. You continue moving on. There were a lot of drugs. Many of my friends did not sleep.”

After his war experience, though, Flores wanted to focus on bettering lives, not dwelling on a war that ruined so many of them.

“Life is short, when you put it in perspective. And the time you have here, what do you do to make it better — not only in a selfish way, but for the next person?”

Specifically, his affinity with migrant farm workers that led to the development of an agency — the New England Farm Workers’ Council (NEFWC) — to help them out with various needs, from fuel assistance to job skills to education.

That agency, launched in 1971, eventually morphed into Partners for Community, a nonprofit with multiple departments under its umbrella, including the Corporation for Public Management, which seeks solutions to welfare dependency, chronic joblessness, and illiteracy, and also focuses on providing services to those with physical and developmental disabilities; and New England Partners in Faith, which seeks to provide sustainable development and capacity building for small faith-based organizations throughout New England through technical assistance and job-related training.

Herbie Flores’ office walls are filled with proclamations, awards, and photos of his interactions with state and national leaders.

Herbie Flores’ office walls are filled with proclamations, awards, and photos of his interactions with state and national leaders.

“All those experiences, from there to here to Vietnam, helped me see that things are bad, but they’re not real bad,” Flores said. “Life is short, when you put it in perspective. And the time you have here, what do you do to make it better — not only in a selfish way, but for the next person?

“I’ve been homeless, I’ve been without food, but you move forward,” he added. “Many people get stuck in the same place, but you can’t stay stagnant.”

For helping people move forward from adversity over the past 50 years, while continually investing in the vitality of Greater Springfield, explains why Flores is certainly a Difference Maker.

 

Taking Root

Established in 1971 as a small organization to support farm workers, NEFWC has become a multi-faceted human-services agency dedicated to improving the quality of life for thousands of low-income people throughout the Northeast.

Among its chief programs are home-energy assistance for income-eligible families in Hampden and Northern Worcester counties; emergency shelter assistance for at-risk families throughout Massachusetts; employment and job training for migrant seasonal workers in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, as well as welfare-to-work populations in Connecticut; and youth programs providing services to at-risk, low-income youth both in and out of school in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut.

And its programs, both under the NEFWC name or the Partners for Community umbrella, continue to evolve.

“We have different organizations still tied up with us,” he said, citing, as one example, Gándara Center, which arose from Partners for Community because a population of Latino and Puerto Rican veterans were struggling with heroin. “We were not trained psychologists, but we wanted to help those guys. So we started bringing people in who could.”

Many of the organization’s services, like its fuel-assistance program that helps low-income households with utility bills through subsidies and discounts, and its three homeless shelters for families eligible for emergency assistance, found growing need throughout the pandemic, but a more challenging environment to deliver services.

“I brought life to this building; it was a historical building, but it was empty. I like to use old buildings because you bring back the history.”

Take fuel assistance, for example. “There are federal regulations, paperwork, we give to people who give us money. But a lot of people in state government took off and were working at home. Before, you could talk to a human being. Now, you’re not talking to a human being — they give you a number, you call it, but the telephone is ringing all the time. For days, that information wasn’t transmitted,” he recalled.

“I’d have 1,600 applications here for fuel assistance ready to go, but I can’t get to the right person,” he went on. “And it’s not just me; all the state nonprofit agencies were dealing with that. The bureaucrats went home.

In other words, he said, communication broke down just as needs were rising. “It was tough, but we survived.”

Flores knows something about need. He was intimately acquainted with poverty as his family struggled for sustenance throughout his childhood in Puerto Rico. It was there, he said, that he began to identify himself with economically deprived groups and devote himself to service on their behalf — just as his experience in the military has spurred him to stay active in veterans’ causes; he was named Springfield Veteran of the Year in 2001.

Yet, through all his work with NEFWC and Partners for Community — whose services also extend to young people through HiSET support and mentoring programs, workforce-training programs for job seekers, and programs for adults with developmental disabilities or acquired brain injury — he remains humble.

“Everything we have done … I’m the figurehead, in a sense,” he said. “I have a whole team that works with me.”

 

Growing Recognition

This is the second time BusinessWest has honored Flores with one of its coveted awards; he was named Top Entrepreneur for 2011 for all his community-investment work, but particularly his real-estate projects that focused on urban renewal, housing, and other forms of economic development.

These included the Borinquen project in the impoverished North End of Springfield, which involved the renovation of 41 units of low-income housing, as well as six commercial spaces. The $11 million project combined federal tax credits, private-investment tax credits, Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development funds, city of Springfield HOME funds, and private financing — a good example of the tapestry of players Flores must weave together to turn one of his visions into reality.

“I brought life to this building; it was a historical building, but it was empty,” he said. “I like to use old buildings because you bring back the history.”

About 35 years ago, Flores made his first forays into real estate through Brightwood Development Corp. (BDC), a nonprofit formed with the goal of providing housing and economic development on the north side of Springfield. As president and CEO of the BDC, he developed a $2.5 million shopping center, La Plaza del Mercado, on Main Street in 1995, followed by a $3 million neighborhood medical clinic, El Centro de Salud Medico Inc., the next year. That was immediately followed by a $2 million rehabilitation of blighted, multi-family houses in the North End.

A more current project, a $38 million effort to transform Springfield’s historic Paramount Theater, which opened in 1926, into a performing arts center — and the adjoining Massasoit building, which was constructed before the Civil War, into a boutique hotel — has run into debt issues and delays in recent years, but remains a significant part of Flores’ downtown vision.

In addition to his other endeavors, he is president of the North End Educational Development Fund, which administers the largest Hispanic scholarship fund in New England, providing college scholarships for underprivileged, inner-city Springfield residents — and, hopefully, starts them on their own journeys of success.

All this earned him yet another honor in 2019, the prestigious Pynchon Medal from the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts and the Pynchon trustees. Now, being named a Difference Maker soon after NEFWC marked 50 years of service is especially gratifying.

“I feel honored and proud to have been chosen by BusinessWest as one of the 2022 Difference Makers,” he said, noting, again, that his board of directors and staff deserves much of the credit for what he’s been able to accomplish. “Our longevity and success is a direct result of their dedication to our clients and our organization. All that I have accomplished is with the assistance of those around me.”

He also credited a number of regional business and nonprofit luminaries; throughout a broad interview, he dropped names like Janis Santos, Dick Stebbins, Leon Pernice, Bill Dwight, Paul Doherty, Joe LoBello, and Ronn Johnson as examples of mentors, supporters, and influences.

“I needed to produce something positive, not for me or for a little group, but for all of society,” he said. “In doing that, you develop relationships.”

He’s also been willing to lend a hand — and his acumen — to other organizations. “I sit on Janis Santos’ board,” he said, referring to the recently retired leader of HCS Head Start. “It’s about the education of children. People like that ask, ‘can you give us some time and help us open some doors?’ Yes, I can.”

Or, as another example, “Sister [Mary] Caritas asked me, ‘Herbie, can you come sit on my board? I need some advice for only three months.’ And three years later, I’m still there.”

 

Harvest of Success

He’s still there, all right — fighting the good fight to help folks who are struggling, and raising the profile and well-being of Springfield as well.

“You might change something a little bit,” he said of his philosophy of taking on new projects. “But it’s better than nothing. If you have a vision, you have to see where it will go.”

Springfield, and its environs, are certainly better off because of the difference Herbie Flores has made over the past half-century.

“It’s our city,” he told BusinessWest. “Let’s make it better, and leave it better for the next generation.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Class of 2022

This Organization Has Harnessed the Exponential Power of Working Together

Leah Martin Photography

Leah Martin Photography

 

 

Convene and connect.

Those are the two words you hear most often when it comes to the mission of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, and how the agency carries it out.

Together, those words explain how and why this organization — one of hundreds of community foundations across the country — does much more than write checks to nonprofits and provide scholarships and interest-free loans to students — although those are certainly parts of what it does.

More crucially, by convening groups, individuals, and institutions from across the 413, and connecting those constituencies as well as donors with resources and opportunities, the Community Foundation is working to identify the issues and challenges confronting the region, and acting as a leader in ongoing work on matters ranging from helping students complete college to helping children get a solid start to their education; from assisting the creative-arts community to helping agencies addressing issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Katie Allan Zobel

Katie Allan Zobel

“Our whole mission is to improve quality of life for everyone in the Valley and create opportunity and equity for all members of our community.”

Add another word — partner — and one can understand the full impact of the foundation. It doesn’t merely support nonprofits and students, it partners with them to improve outcomes — and quality of life — on myriad levels to become what its president and CEO, Katie Allan Zobel has called a “catalyst for change.”

“Our whole mission is to improve quality of life for everyone in the Valley and create opportunity and equity for all members of our community,” Zobel said, noting that most of the foundation’s funding comes from individuals, not large entities. They contribute both while they’re alive and in their wills and estate plans because they recognize how this organization’s model of convening and connecting multiplies the impact of their dollars.

“If they want to support an arts organization that’s much beloved by them, they can do that themselves; they don’t need the Community Foundation,” she explained. “But if they want to support reducing poverty in a particular area, well, that’s hard for one person to do on their own; you have to pool resources. And that kind of effort isn’t going to take a year or two; it’s going to take a sustained effort. We provide an option to individuals to do something they can’t do on their own.”

Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy

“We were able to distribute funds without a formal grant-application process because we had to constantly get the money out the door so we could meet those needs.”

Paul Murphy, chair of the Community Foundation’s board of trustees, noted that the pandemic has not changed the agency’s mission, necessarily, but merely spurred it to pivot, as all businesses and nonprofits have, and look at ways to meet new and emerging needs within the community, including food insecurity, eviction prevention, and mental healthcare.

“The foundation had just completed development of a new strategic plan, and it was all set for adoption by the board of trustees in March of 2020, which was just as the pandemic was hitting,” he recalled. “And part of that strategic plan that we wanted to implement was around leadership, flexibility, and community engagement, and suddenly, even before the plan was officially adopted, we had to put all those things into play because of the pandemic.”

Elaborating, he said the Community Foundation was able to secure what he called “an outpouring of funds” from a variety of sources, and it went about calling nonprofits and elected leaders in the region to identify areas in need. Simultaneously, it streamlined its grant-funding process so it was able to manage applications more quickly — and effectively.

“The foundation brings together philanthropists and helps them understand what the needs are in our community.”

The result was a quadrupling of grant funding over a typical, pre-pandemic year, Zobel said, adding that the team called on partners at organizations like the Women’s Fund and the Davis Foundation and borrowed their program officers to help make decisions, while recruiting volunteers to pitch in as well. “This was a huge collaborative effort. But I’ve always felt the work of the Community Foundation is a total team effort, not just with the staff, but volunteers.”

Once the foundation had the information it needed, Murphy explained, “we were able to distribute funds without a formal grant-application process because we had to constantly get the money out the door so we could meet those needs. That was an example of how the pandemic forced us to pivot, act more quickly, listen more closely to the community, and make sure the needs were met.”

Listening has always been one of the more important qualities at the foundation, said all those we spoke with, and it is just one quality that helps it explain why it has been named a Difference Maker for 2022.

“We’re moving away from being transactional and just handing someone a check.”

Beyond listening, it has acted on what has heard, and in many areas, but especially education and the needs of area students, said Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College, a trustee of the foundation, and chair of its education committee. But perhaps its greatest quality, she and others noted, is as a connector.

“That’s a huge piece because there are a lot of organizations and a lot of great work happening in our region, and the foundation acts a connector between donors, students, and nonprofit agencies,” she explained. “The foundation brings together philanthropists and helps them understand what the needs are in our community.”

Denise Hurst, the foundation’s vice president for Community Impact and Partnerships, agreed, saying it’s her job, and the foundation’s mission, to not only write checks, but work to make sure such grants are used in ways that are, in a word, “transformational.”

“We’re engaging with nonprofits and having deep conversations about how the work can be more transformative and impactful,” she explained. “We’re moving away from being transactional and just handing someone a check for money but not necessarily ensuring that they have all the tools and the resources they need to make that money transformational for the region.”

“We came to understand that the majority of arts organizations in our region are quite small, they have really small budgets, a fair amount of turnover … and there was, and is, a real need for capacity support.”

Connecting the Dots

The headlines placed atop recent press releases issued by the agency go a long way toward helping to quantify and qualify its impact within Western Mass. and explain why it is a Difference Maker:

• “Community Foundation Awards $1.3 Million in New Grants for Eviction Prevention, Mental Health, Food Insecurity Programs” (Feb. 11, 2021)

• “Community Foundation Awards $860,000 in New Grants for Immigrant Populations Impacted by COVID-19” (March 5, 2021);

• “Over $818,000 in Grants Distributed by Community Foundation in Latest COVID-19 Response Rounds” (June 22, 2021);

• “Community Foundation Deepens Partnership to Support BIPOC Arts and Creativity Across Massachusetts” (Oct. 20, 2021); and

• “Community Foundation Announces $150,000 Grant to Healing Racism Institute” (June 10, 2021).

Funding for these projects and so many others have increased significantly during the pandemic, Zobel said. “It’s an anomaly, but people have really been incredibly generous. We’ve even received a lot of contributions from outside the community.”

The foundation reported that its FY21 contributions to the community, across all endeavors, totaled $24.6 million and involved 1,668 total donors. That number includes $16.7 million in grants and $1.6 million in scholarships and interest-free loans to 848 students.

Becky Packard

Becky Packard

“We’re not just looking at scholarships, but also looking at what kinds of mentoring and supports can help people cross the finish line.”

Beyond these numbers, and those press-release headlines, are copious amounts of convening, connecting, and partnering, said Zobel, adding that, to properly serve the region and responsibly distribute the funds it raises, with an eye on both today and tomorrow, the Community Foundation must do a lot of listening and then acting on what it hears.

This applies to many of the traditional areas of focus for the foundation, especially education, but also some new ones, such as the arts, through creation of the ValleyCreates program, which serves to connect (there’s that word again) the arts and creative communities across Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire counties.

“We started with a seed, a planning grant from the Barr Foundation, and we did a number of focus groups and surveys and interviews with key stakeholders in the arts sector in our three counties to understand what kind of support they needed, and also how best we can utilize our dollars to support that sector,” said Nicole Bourdon, program officer for ValleyCreates.

Elaborating, she said those research efforts revealed the need for not only grant writing — and the foundation has awarded hundreds of $1,000 grants that are combined with coaching and business-resiliency webinars — but also collaboration, across counties and across disciplines, to build capacity and enable this important sector to speak with a louder, more effective voice.

“We came to understand that the majority of arts organizations in our region are quite small, they have really small budgets, a fair amount of turnover … and there was, and is, a real need for capacity support,” said Bourdon, adding that the foundation continues to monitor and survey the sector to learn what tools it can offer so it can be what she called a “repository for artists and arts organization where they can gather resources and connect and collaborate.”

Zobel said Western Mass. doesn’t have as many large foundations or private philanthropy as the eastern part of the state, so corraling more support from outside Western Mass., such as the Boston-based Barr Foundation, is critical.

“There isn’t a large source of funding for the arts here,” she added. “That was a place the foundation felt we could be useful. We’ve been building that out and supporting not just the arts, but artists, especially artists of color.”

 

Degrees of Success

In many ways, ValleyCreates illustrates just how the Community Foundation works, said Zobel, adding that it first arms itself with information, then works with various constituencies to develop strategies for addressing region-wide issues and challenges.

Perhaps the best example of this process is the Western Mass Completes program, created with the understanding that it’s not enough to help students enter college — the bigger priority, for them and the region, is to see them to the finish line.

Faced with statistics that the average graduation rate at four-year institutions is 60% — and a staggering 25% at two-year institutions — the foundation commissioned a study and recruited Becky Packard, a trustee and professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Holyoke College, and a leading expert in research on factors that contribute to higher-education persistence, to lead it.

Ten local colleges and universities joined the endeavor, delving into the last eight years of student data on Community Foundation scholarship awardees, gathering information on the resources and systems in place at these schools, and collecting findings from national research and articles.

What became clear is that students often need more time and more resources to complete degrees; many are working full-time while in school and taking a reduced course load, while others are balancing school, work, and family responsibilities. Financial roadblocks create barriers that result in ‘stopping out,’ especially for high-need, first-generation students.

One example, Packard told BusinessWest, is a proliferation of “almost nurses” — nursing students who are close to a degree, “but have to sit out because they can’t afford licensing exams or can’t take the last set of courses because someone in their family lost their job. We’re not just looking at scholarships, but also looking at what kinds of mentoring and supports can help people cross the finish line.”

Royal agreed, noting that the foundation’s work to research the issues related to college completion has been critical in ongoing efforts regarding the direction of scholarships and who would benefit most from the scholarships that are awarded.

“You connect people, they apply, they get a scholarship … but then, what happens to them after?” she asked. “Did it contribute to increased retention or persistence within their educational pursuit? Did they go on to graduate? Being able to look at the impact beyond the scholarship is also really critical. That research contribution is also an important piece.”

Packard said data is still being gathered, and strategies formulated, to boost those graduation rates. She characterized Western Mass Completes as an economic-development issue at a time when companies of all kinds are in dire need of workers with specialized training.

“Usually foundations are charitable organizations and don’t always try to be catalyzers in the region like this, and that’s what I’m excited about.”

In every case — including its annual Valley Gives initiative, which focuses the region’s attention on nonprofits that need support — the foundation is doing this necessary work of convening and catalyzing, in so many critical areas.

“My role is to help convene the nonprofits in the three counties that we serve to help ensure that we are able to help provide them with funding to strengthen organizations that are doing the important work of helping to mitigate food insecurity, to stabilize housing, to provide our residents with opportunities for education, as well as workforce development training,” Hurst explained. “In addition to that, we are really committed to making sure we’re helping these nonprofits thrive and sustain themselves so they can do that important work.”

 

No Time to Rest

Zobel spends a lot of time thinking about inequity — not only in society, but in the philanthropic landscape of Western Mass.

“This is my life’s work: service to community. So I often see what’s missing and where the gaps are, what we’re not doing,” she told BusinessWest. “I guess it’s my job to keep my eye on who’s not part of this and who needs to be, and how to include others. I’m often thinking that way.”

That’s not to say she’s not gratified by this work. But she’s not satisfied, either, and there’s a difference.

“I’m proud of being a part of something that’s a movement for good, and for improvement and change and equity. I’m really proud of that,” she said. “Yet, I know there’s so much more work to do, so I stay focused on that.”

 

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

Class of 2021 Cover Story Difference Makers Event Galleries

Did you miss our 2021 Difference Makers event?

View the virtual event recording!

Congratulations to the Class of 2021 Difference Makers! Thank you to our sponsors and everyone who helped to make this event possible. We appreciate you all!

Thank you to everyone who participated in the #EverydayDifferenceMakers social media campaign. We had an overwhelming number of submissions and are extremely excited to share the good work being done in #the413 during our Difference Makers event!

View the 2021 Difference Maker Honoree Videos:

The 2021 Difference Makers

Kristin Carlson
President, Peerless Precision

Janine Fondon
Founder, UnityFirst.com; Professor, Bay Path University

Harold Grinspoon
Philanthropist; Founder, Aspen Square Management

 

Chad Moir
Founder and Owner, DopaFit Parkinson’s Movement Center

Bill Parks
CEO, Boys & Girls Club of Greater Westfield

Pete Westover
Founder and Partner, Conservation Works, LLC

EforAll Holyoke

Presented by:

Non-profit Partner:

Media Partner:

Sponsor Videos

Class of 2021

She Has in Many Ways Become the Face of Manufacturing Locally

Leah Martin Photography

Kristin Carlson calls it the ‘Boston Marathon bomber story.’

Because … it’s about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers who perpetrated those heinous crimes almost eight years ago now. More to the point, though, it’s about the role her company played in eventually apprehending him.

Indeed, Tsarnaev was found hiding in a boat in a backyard in Watertown, and he was discovered through the use of a thermal-imaging camera in a police helicopter flying over the area. Carlson’s company, Westfield-based Peerless Precision, makes several components for that camera, including one for the cryogenic cooling system that ensures that the camera doesn’t overheat during use.

As she held one up for BusinessWest to see, she said just showing people the part isn’t nearly as impactful as trying to explain what it’s used for — or, in this case, how it can play a significant role in writing history.

That’s why she tells the Boston Marathon bomber story often, although she admits that its days might soon be numbered. That’s because she usually tells it to young people in the hopes that they might be intrigued enough by it to perhaps pursue a career in precision manufacturing. And by young, she means high-school age, and preferably middle-school age. And those in that latter category are now, or soon will be, too young to really remember the 2013 bombing and its aftermath.

“I want to make sure that kids, and adults who are looking for another career option, are aware of what we do in Western Mass., and they know about the viability of a career in manufacturing and what it has to offer.”

But Carlson has other stories — perhaps not as dramatic or crystalizing. All of them are designed to show what precision manufacturing is all about, and also how companies in this area provide parts for helicopters, fighter jets and bombers, the Space Shuttle, medical devices, automobiles, submarines, and so much more. She often borrows the line used often by Rick Sullivan, now the president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council but formerly mayor of Westfield, who would say that, if you saw a plane flying over the city, there’s a good chance that tens of thousands of dollars worth of its parts were made in the city.

Other stories talk about how someone manufacturing these parts can make a very good living and have a job with real security — yes, even in the wake of a global pandemic. And she tells them often, too.

Kristin Carlson holds up one of the parts her company

Kristin Carlson holds up one of the parts her company, Peerless Precision, makes for thermal-imaging cameras, like the one used to locate one of the Boston Marathon bombers.

And then there’s her story — a 38-year-old woman now managing this precision manufacturer. We’ll get to that one in a minute. These stories help explain why Carlson has been named a Difference Maker for 2021. Indeed, while she has helped grow the company since she took over for her father, Larry Maier, as he battled and eventually succumbed to cancer, she has made an even bigger mark — on a regional and now national stage — in the ongoing effort to educate people about what gets made here and also about careers in manufacturing, thus addressing ongoing issues involving workforce and a skills gap.

“I want to make sure that kids, and adults who are looking for another career option, are aware of what we do in Western Mass.,” she said, “and they know about the viability of a career in manufacturing and what it has to offer.”

In a field where complaints about these issues have been going on for decades involving generations of shop owners and managers, she has distinguished herself by going beyond complaining. Well beyond. In fact, in many ways, she has become the face of manufacturing in Western Mass. — a much different face than has ever been associated with this sector locally.

“Instead of sitting idly by and talking and complaining, I wanted to do something about it,” said Carlson, who was recently appointed to the state’s Workforce Training Advisory Board and also sits on the National Tooling and Machining Association’s AMPED (Advanced Manufacturing Practices and Educational Development) Board.

And while there’s still much work to be done, she has, indeed, done something about it, and that’s why she’s a Difference Maker for 2021.

 

Making Her Mark

Despite everything you’ve read already in this piece about manufacturing, what a good career it is, and how Carlson has thrived in it, she readily admits she had to be talked into coming back to this this region and Peerless Precision after her father got sick.

And it took a lot of talk.

She was living in San Diego at the time, working for a fire-alarm contractor, handling everything from inside sales to building websites to being the runner to go to City Hall and get the fire-alarm building permits for new construction.

In 2009, her father was diagnosed with colon cancer. “At the time, he asked me … if something ever happened, would I come home from California and help my mom either decide to keep the company or sell it,” she recalled. “My dad always wanted me to be doing what I’m doing now, and I was pretty much in a place at that point in my life where I needed to decide what my path was going to be on my own; I didn’t want someone else to define that for me.

“Because he was stubborn and I’m just as stubborn as he was, I fought what he wanted tooth and nail until it came time for me to make that decision,” she went on. “So when he asked me if I would come home if something happened, I said ‘yes.’”

Kristin Carlson, seen here with Peerless Precision machinist Kaitlyn Fricke

Kristin Carlson, seen here with Peerless Precision machinist Kaitlyn Fricke, says progress has been made to inspire women to enter the manufacturing field, but more work must be done.

Something did happen. After undergoing surgery and chemotherapy and eventually earning a clean bill of health, her father’s cancer not only returned but spread to other parts of his body. And Carlson kept her promise to her dad, even if he didn’t remember her making that promise.

That was in 2012. Since that time, Carlson has verified the faith her father had her, establishing herself not only at the company — transitions such as these are rarely seamless — but also in the industry, and especially in the broad realm of helping to educate people (and especially young people) about precision manufacturing as a career path.

Such efforts have been going on for decades, and Carlson notes that, in many respects, she is simply carrying on the work of her father, who was extremely active with workforce initiatives in this sector. Indeed, the two of them share what could only be called a passion for such work.

Much of her work involves debunking myths, or at least long-standing beliefs. There are many of them, and they range from those concerning the death of manufacturing in this region (it’s not what it was 30 or 40 years ago, to be sure, but it’s not dead) to the presumption that women can’t or shouldn’t get into this field, to the opinion that one has to go to college to succeed in life.

“I was pretty much in a place at that point in my life where I needed to decide what my path was going to be on my own; I didn’t want someone else to define that for me.”

Carlson, who went to college because she was told she needed to, is working on all these fronts simultaneously. She confronts the problem with statistics, with stories — like the one about the Boston Marathon bomber — and sometimes just by showing up in a room.

Indeed, as a woman not just in this industry, but one leading a company and sitting on regional and national boards, she has become an effective role model, or ‘exhibit A,’ if you will, when it comes to everything she talks about. As in everything.

“For a kid whose father had bought a machine shop and was pushed to go to college when I’m better at hands-on things … I wish I had been given different options,” she told BusinessWest. “My parents told me that I couldn’t make anything of myself if I didn’t have a college degree; that’s not a good message, but it’s also the message that was being pushed across the board back then — and still, today.”

Like her father, Larry Maier, before her, Kristin Carlson has made workforce development a passion and a big part of her life and work.

While the pandemic is keeping people from touring the facilities at Peerless Precision in person, there are still virtual visits, where young people can meet not only Carlson, but her pit bull, Bruno. They can also see six women on the manufacturing floor (years ago, they would only have seen them in the front office or shipping and receiving). And they can see parts like the one that goes into the thermal-imaging camera that captured Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in that boat.

“My parents told me that I couldn’t make anything of myself if I didn’t have a college degree; that’s not a good message, but it’s also the message that was being pushed across the board back then — and still, today.”

And they can hear Carlson talk about other things made in this region — from toys at LEGO and Cartamundi to ketchup bottles at Meredith Springfield to coolers at Pelican Products. Overall, it’s a powerful message, she said, but one that needs to be reinforced and told to new audiences every year, several times a year, if possible. That’s because those old myths, those old perceptions, die hard.

 

Parts of the Whole

Before ever telling the Boston Marathon bomber story, Carlson wanted to make sure she had her facts straight.

“When I saw our customer’s logo on that camera shot, I called him right away and said, ‘do you think there’s a possibility that that part in the camera that found the bomber is from our shop?’ — and he said ‘absolutely,’” she recalled, adding that additional research verified what she suspected.

She’s told the story many times since, because it conveys what many people don’t know, but should — that the precision-machining sector in this region is making a difference in the lives of people across the country.

Likewise, Carlson is making a difference as well, carrying on the work of her father in so many ways, and, as noted, becoming the face — or at least one important, perhaps unexpected face — in a sector with a rich history and, thanks to her efforts, perhaps an equally rich future.

 

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

Class of 2021

This Nonprofit Ensures That Entrepreneurs Won’t Have to Go It Alone

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, executive director of EforAll Holyoke.  (Leah Martin Photography)

“If your dreams don’t scare you … they are not big enough.”

That’s the quote, attributed to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian president, economist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, that is stenciled onto one of the walls at EforAll Holyoke’s headquarters on High Street, in the heart of the city’s downtown.

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, executive director of this nonprofit since its inception, chose it for many reasons, but mostly because it resonates with her and also because it accurately sums up entrepreneurship in general, as well as the work that goes on in that facility.

In short, she said, dreams of running a business should scare someone, because there is nothing — as in nothing — easy about getting a venture off the ground … and keeping it airborne.

“Entrepreneurship is so terrifying,” she said. “And when our entrepreneurs come to us, they often don’t have the support of friends or families or big networks telling them to go for these dreams. That’s why we’re here — to tell them that they’re not alone … and that you have to be a little crazy to be an entrepreneur.”

Helping turn dreams into reality is essentially what EforAll is all about. This is a statewide nonprofit with offices in a number of cities with large minority populations and high unemployment rates — like Holyoke. Its MO is to blend education in the many facets of business with mentorship to help entrepreneurs navigate the whitewater they will encounter while getting a venture off the ground, to the next level, or even through a global pandemic (more on that last one later).

It will be many years, perhaps, before a city or a region can accurately gauge the impact of an agency focused on inspiring entrepreneurship and guiding entrepreneurs, but Murphy-Romboletti believes EforAll is already making a difference, especially with the minority population.

“The difference we make is very tangible for people who are seeking new sources of income for their families and themselves, and when you’re an entrepreneur who’s just getting started, it’s really hard to navigate where to go, who to talk to.”

“The difference we make is very tangible for people who are seeking new sources of income for their families and themselves, and when you’re an entrepreneur who’s just getting started, it’s really hard to navigate where to go, who to talk to,” she told BusinessWest. “The model that we use, providing really close mentorship, makes such a difference — you don’t have to go through the process alone.”

Her sentiments are backed up by some of those who have found their way to EforAll and been part of one of its many accelerator cohorts. People like Sandra Rubio.

Years ago, she started baking cakes for family members because she wasn’t happy with the quality and price of what she found in area stores. Soon, she was making cakes and other items for friends, neighbors, and even total strangers who had been exposed to her work. And her success promoted her to launch Totally Baked 413, which will soon open a location in the Holyoke Transit Center on Maple Street.

Sandra Rubio credits EforAll and its director, Tessa Murphy-Romboletti

Sandra Rubio credits EforAll and its director, Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, with helping her get her venture, Totally Baked 413, off the ground.

She credits EforAll with helping her make the leap from part-time activity to full-time enterprise — but not leap until she was ready and not make too big a leap too soon. She also credits her mentors and Murphy-Romboletti with getting her through those times when she was tempted to let the dream die.

“There were times when I just wanted to give up, say ‘forget it,’ and go back to work,” she recalled. “But then, I would meet with my mentors, meet with my class, and it got me right back on track — it gave me the push I needed to press on.”

And people like Jailyne Torres, who launched Shyguns, a creative clothing brand and seller of vintage clothing. She said she took part in the Spanish-speaking accelerator, called EsparaTodos, and credited EforAll with helping her gain consistency and take a concept she conceived when she was only 16 years old and make it into a business.

“I always had the idea, the concept, but I never really knew how to make it actually make it a brand,” she said. “But EsparaTodos helped me with all that.”

Such comments explain why EforAll, while still small and emerging, if you will, like the businesses it mentors, is already a Difference Maker in the community it serves.

 

Dream Weavers

As she talked with BusinessWest at EforAll’s facility, Murphy Romboletti said being there elicited a number of different emotions.

Indeed, while she said it always feels good to be in that space, COVID-19 has made the visits far more infrequent, and it has brought what is often an eerie quiet to a place that was always full of people and energy. The co-working space is now unused for safety reasons, and there are far fewer meetings and activities taking place there, with most programs carried out virtually. All this is made more frustrating by the fact that it took more than a year of hard work to secure the space and get it ready for its opening in the fall of 2019, only to have the world change and the space go mostly dark just a few months later.

“For those first couple of weeks when I would come back, it was like, ‘oh, man, this is tortuous — this is a hard pill to swallow,’” she noted before quickly taking the conversation in a different, more poignant direction. “The irony is that’s exactly what so many of my entrepreneurs were feeling; a lot of them, especially those in the cohort that we graduated that March, were just coming into the world as new entrepreneurs, and the world said, ‘hold on … we’ve got some other plans.’

“So, during the pandemic, we kind of became therapists for a while, listening to people’s concerns and what they needed help with, and trying to connect them with all the resources that were out there,” she went on. “But at the end of the day, there was so much that was out of our control; we tried to be as supportive as we could and continue to provide a community for them so they could survive this.”

COVID has changed some things, certainly, but when you get right down to it, EforAll Holyoke has always been about providing a community and helping entrepreneurs not only survive, but thrive.

Jailyne Torres says EforAll has been instrumental

Jailyne Torres says EforAll has been instrumental in helping her take Shyguns to the next level.

Launched five years ago as SPARK, the agency quickly became an important part of the region’s growing entrepreneurship ecosystem. In 2018, it affiliated with EforAll, short for Entrepreneurship for All, a network that now boasts eight offices across the state, including the most recent, in the Berkshires.

Like many of the other offices, the one in Holyoke now conducts accelerator programs in both English and Spanish (EsparaTodos), and graduates four cohorts of entrepreneurs each year, two in the spring and two in the fall.

Like most accelerators, these XX-week programs are designed to educate participants on the many aspects of starting and operating a business — everything from writing and updating a business plan to working with the media — while also connecting them with mentors who can impart their wisdom and first-hand experiences.

When asked what it’s like, Rubio said simply, “intense.” By that, she was referring to everything from the classwork to the back and forth with her mentors. And that intensity helped her persevere through the challenges of getting a plan in place, finding and readying the site for her bakery and café, and getting the doors open.

“So, during the pandemic, we kind of became therapists for a while, listening to people’s concerns and what they needed help with, and trying to connect them with all the resources that were out there. But at the end of the day, there was so much that was out of our control; we tried to be as supportive as we could and continue to provide a community for them so they could survive this.”

“Every time I was close to saying, ‘I’m done,’ they would say, ‘you’re on the right track; keep going,’” she recalled. “And we would keep going.”

Likewise, Carlos Rosario kept going with his venture, Rosario Asphalt, which specializes in residential driveways and repairs.

Rosario, speaking in English that is, like his bottom line, improving consistently from year to year, said EforAll has helped him make the big leap from working for someone else to working for himself.

He told BusinessWest that those at EforAll helped connect him with sources of capital, including banks and Common Capital, to secure loans that have enabled him to buy the equipment needed to handle more — and larger — jobs, including a trailer and a truck. And he’s hired his first employee, a truck driver.

“If it wasn’t for EforAll, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he said, adding that the agency and the mentors assigned to him have helped with all facets of running a business, but especially with making those all-important connections to professionals, capital, and potential clients.

Torres agreed. She said EforAll has helped her with aspects of her business that people don’t think about when they’re focused on an idea and maybe a brand. Things like data entry, pricing, marketing, and “allowing transformation to happen.”

“When I started the project, it was based on the creative clothing part,” she explained. “And then, I was able to add second-hand clothing, and not limit what the future might bring.”

That’s certainly another colorful and poignant way of summing up what EforAll does for those who participate in its programs.

 

Scare Tactics

Here’s the full quote attributed to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: “The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough.”

Most people have the capacity to dream as big as Johnson Sirleaf believes they should. But not everyone has what it takes to make those dreams become reality. Those who have entrepreneurial ambitions and spirit are among those who can.

But even such driven individuals can’t go it alone. EforAll exists to make sure they don’t have to. And that’s why it’s a true Difference Maker in Holyoke — and beyond.

 

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

Class of 2021

This Journalist, Educator, and Mentor Inspires Others with Her Unstoppable Energy

Leah Martin Photography

Karen Fisk, director of Marketing and Communication for the Springfield Museums, calls Janine Fondon a “connector.”

And that’s just one of many words that can be used to describe the founder of UnityFirst.com, a national distributor of diversity-related e-news to corporations and diverse communities. Indeed, she is also an educator — she’s currently chair of the Undergraduate Communications Department at Bay Path University and has been an adjunct professor at many area colleges and universities — as well as a journalist, public speaker, colleague, and mentor.

But ‘connector’ probably works best, and it most effectively sums up what she does in the Western Mass. community — and beyond.

“As a team player, she connects people in various institutions who could work together for positive change,” Fisk, who worked with Fondon to help bring the exhibit Voices of Resilience (more on that later) to the Museums, wrote in her nomination of Fondon as a Difference Maker. “As the Leader of UnityFirst, she connects the public with black-led, owned, and operated businesses and institutions. As a teacher, she connects young people to ideas that empower them … she helps nurture the seeds that grow into remarkable projects that make a difference.”

Through all this work connecting people, Fondon, who relishes this role, told BusinessWest that she strives to make the region a better place through the sharing of knowledge, ideas, goals, and dreams for the future.

“As a team player, she connects people in various institutions who could work together for positive change. As the Leader of UnityFirst, she connects the public with black-led, owned, and operated businesses and institutions. As a teacher, she connects young people to ideas that empower them … she helps nurture the seeds that grow into remarkable projects that make a difference.”

During her time at Colgate University, a liberal-arts college in Upstate New York, Fondon recalled that she was encouraged to “raise your voice, be part of the world, and make a difference.” She did so there — she became part of a gospel choir, for example — and has done so throughout her life.

Part of her MO, if you will, is to inspire others by telling the stories of those who came before, those who blazed a trail, and those who, well, made of difference in the community and the world. This is especially true when it comes to women, and women of color. Many of these stories haven’t been told, or told as much as they need to be, she said, adding that telling them was the broad goal behind Voices of Resilience, which is still on display at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts at the Quadrangle.

It features more than 70 stories of women — activists and businesswomen, mostly — ranging from Gwen Ifill, the longtime host of Washington Week (and Springfield native) who passed away a few years ago, to Lejuana Hood, who founded Springfield’s Pan African Museum, to Miriam Kirkaldy, Fondon’s grandmother, who came to Ellis Island in 1917 and forged a new life for herself.

“I decided to pull together some stories — some rooted in Springfield, others rooted around Springfield — and these are stories that needed to be told because we can learn from them,” Fondon explained, using her grandmother as an example.

“She came via Ellis Island from Jamaica, and she came the year before the 1918 pandemic,” she explained. “You think about the fortitude she displayed and her experience; I grew up with her experience, and I said, ‘we can learn from that experience.”

The exhibit also formed the backdrop for the fourth annual On the Move event in 2020. Organized by Fondon, this gathering, which will be staged virtually this year due to the pandemic, encourages conversation and networking among women, and it has become a well-attended tradition.

It’s also another example of how Fondon has devoted her time, energy, and imagination to finding new and different ways to bring people together, share ideas, and work individually and collectively to move the needle when it comes to diversity, inclusion, women breaking down barriers, and so much more.

In short, it’s just another case of how she connects and serves this region as a true Difference Maker.

 

Loud and Clear

If you look closely, as in very closely, you might be able to pick out Fondon in one of the pictures of real students from New York’s fabled High School of Music & Art at the end of the 1980 movie Fame.

She was in the choir, and the shot of that group was among many of the last class of that school before it merged with the School of Performing Arts and moved to Lincoln Center.

“I wouldn’t even call it a cameo,” said Fondon, who noted that she had some talent, but not enough to join the likes of famous alums such as Billy Dee Williams, Christopher Guest, Susan Strasberg, Hal Linden, or Steven Bochco and make it as a performer or producer.

But she left the school with an even deeper appreciation for the arts than what she already had, and it has remained with her throughout her life. And you might say she’s achieved a different kind of fame after first graduating from Colgate University, where she majored in sociology and anthropology and studied in London, Paris, and Barbados, among other places.

The exhibit Voices of Resilience

The exhibit Voices of Resilience is just one of many ways Janine Fondon has helped educate others and inspire them to find their own voices.

After leaving Colgate, she pursued work in the media, working first at CBS as a news intern and handling research for 60 Minutes, among other shows, then ABC in the Public Relations department, where she was encouraged to continue her education, and did so, earning her master’s degree at New York University.

Fondon worked in New York for some time before moving to an ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C. and eventually relocating to Massachusetts, where she has worked in a number of fields. She worked at Digital Equipment Corp., for example, and later at Bank of Boston, in its Corporate Communications department.

After starting a family, she desired more flexibility in her schedule and started freelance writing and then teaching on an adjunct level, with the former becoming the basis for UnityFirst.com, an information portal that shares topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion with more than 4,000 members of the national press, including top mainstream business publications, television, radio, and internet sources.

Recent pieces on the site include headlines like these:

• “Barbara Bush Foundation Celebrates Black History Month with the Release of New Anti-racist and Anti-bias Teaching Resources”;

• “Barefoot Celebrates and Supports Black Female Business Owners with the Return of #WeStandforHer Campaign”; and

• “Canada’s Black Loyalists Honored on Royal Canadian Mint’s New Silver Coin Celebrating Black History.”

“We go to thousands of people in a variety of formats, from our direct e-mails, the website, and collaborations that we have with others across the country,” she explained. “We’re just here engaging and sharing information.

“And we have one of the most loyal readership bases I can imagine — people have been with us for 20 years and continue to read with interest,” she went on. “People are engaged in our news, and it continues to grow every day. And I’m really proud that we have a really young base that’s coming in and engaging. That, to me, is the hallmark — sharing information, having people engage, learning, and using that information.”

This past year was certainly an important one for UnityFirst, she said, given all the racial turmoil in the country and new dialogue about equity and inclusion.

“I started to do some writing and speaking beyond our own circle,” she told BusinessWest. “And that engaged a lot of people as well. And I want to do more of that because engaging with others and beginning new dialogues … that brings about change.”

While she continues to byline new stories each week and teach at Baypath, she continues to look for new and different ways to use her voice, inspire others to use theirs, and further inspire an entire region by recalling some voices of the past.

“And we have one of the most loyal readership bases I can imagine — people have been with us for 20 years and continue to read with interest. People are engaged in our news, and it continues to grow every day.”

Such is the case with On the Move, which will again be staged on March 8, this time virtually. Fondon doesn’t like the word ‘conference’ to describe it, though, preferring ‘forum’ instead.

“We have a conversation, and sometimes there are breakouts that we do,” she said, adding that the setting has changed through the years — it has been staged at Bay Path, CityStage, and the Springfield Museums, for example — but the mission remains the same: to engage, educate, and inspire. “This year, we’re going to look at where we are and where we’re going.”

Looking ahead, and anticipating what might come next in a career that has taken her to different parts of the country and a host of different career opportunities, Fondon said she intends to keep doing what’s she always done — and maybe find even more ways to do it.

“There’s so much work yet be done,” she explained. “As long as we can keep sharing information that helps us make better decisions and get to a better place, there is room for all that I have to do.”

 

Hear and Now

Returning to that nomination of Fondon, Fisk wrote that “she listens, she encourages, she shares ideas, she shares remarkable, unstoppable energy. Most important, she cares, deeply cares, and she hopes, and then she takes action.”

And, above all, she connects. Indeed, all her life, Fondon has been doing what she was encouraged to do while in high school and college — find her voice. And not only find it, but use it.

She’s used it to educate and empower people. And with this knowledge and power, others can hopefully do what she has long been doing acting as a Difference Maker in the community and, in truth, everywhere one’s voice can be heard.

 

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

Class of 2021

By Highlighting and Supporting the Under-recognized, He’s Changing Lives

Leah Martin Photography

For almost three decades, Harold Grinspoon has built an impressive network of philanthropic endeavors by asking a key question: who deserves more help and recognition than they’re currently receiving?

The most recent major piece of that network, the Local Farmer Awards, are a perfect example.

“Farmers have a really hard time making a living, and they work so hard,” he told BusinessWest, citing, as an example, a farmstand he frequents in the Berkshires, whose proprietor once told him about her difficulties getting water from a nearby mountain to her farm.

“Selling corn at fifty cents an ear doesn’t leave too much extra for a pipeline,” he said. “She gave me an idea — what can we do for the farmers? Farmers need help. Farmers never ask for help. They’re the most humble, hardworking people in the world. And this idea came to me to help them with capital improvements.”

Since the 2015 launch of the Local Farmer Awards, the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation (HGCF) has given 375 awards — of up to $2,500 — to about 200 farmers in Western Mass. to aid with capital projects. In doing so, the foundation and its team of corporate partners has invested more than $885,000 in local farming.

“Farmers need help. Farmers never ask for help. They’re the most humble, hardworking people in the world. And this idea came to me to help them with capital improvements.”

“We don’t do anything alone,” said Cari Carpenter, director of the Local Farmer Awards and the Entrepreneurship Initiative, two key programs of the HGCF. “Big Y came on board right at the start because they’re such advocates for local products and wanted to support the local farmers.”

Other program partners — Baystate Health, Ann and Steve Davis, Farm Credit East, HP Hood, and PeoplesBank — have signed on over the years as well, making the Local Farmer Awards an ideal representation of what Grinspoon tries to accomplish with each of his charitable programs (and we’ll talk about several of them in a bit). That is, partnering with like-minded individuals, foundations, and businesses to not only support worthy causes, but stimulate philanthropy across the region.

In other words, making a difference shouldn’t be a solo performance.

“From my point of view, if you made the money in the Valley, you’d better give it back to the Valley,” he said. “You have to give back. This is where you made your living, and these are the people you need to support.”

In the case of farmers, that support is more critical now than ever.

“To show you just how significant the need is, we just closed out our application cycle on January 31, and we had 170 applications,” Carpenter said. “These are 170 unique projects in our region, and when you read through them, the words ‘COVID’ and ‘pandemic’ were repeatedly mentioned, and how they’ve really had to change their whole strategy of ‘how do I even deliver products to customers?’

“We just feel we’ve met a need in good times, and it’s even more of a need now during this pandemic,” she went on. “We really want to help the farmers reach their full potential. It’s a hard business, and by giving them these awards to help them purchase a tractor implement or netting to cover their blueberry bushes so birds won’t get at them, or whatever the project is, it’s to help the farm reach their full potential.”

Harold Grinspoon congratulates honorees at the Local Farmer Awards (top) and the Excellence in Teaching Awards.

Harold Grinspoon, now 91 years old, has been helping people — and communities — reach their potential in myriad ways for decades now. He’s a Difference Maker not only for where he directs his money, but for the thought and passion he puts behind each initiative — and for planting the seed for others to get involved, too.

 

Giving Back

Grinspoon made his fortune as a real-estate entrepreneur, founding Aspen Square Management almost 60 years ago and watching the company bloom into a nationally recognized housing group managing more than 15,000 properties across the country.

In 1991, he established the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, focused on enhancing and improving Jewish life and culture. The Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation, which raises funds and awareness for a number of educational and entrepreneurial activities in the Western Mass. region, followed soon after.

As he worked his way up in real estate, he told BusinessWest in a 2008 interview, he developed a great sense of appreciation for the average blue-collar worker, and for the opportunities this country has afforded him, and felt a real responsibility to give back.

“I always knew, if I made it, I was going to give it away. I didn’t want to spend the entirety of my life making money,” he said at the time. “Philanthropy has, in many respects, set me free.”

Perhaps the best way to examine his collective impact is through his foundations’ individual programs, such as the Grinspoon Entrepreneurship Initiative, a collaboration among 14 area colleges and universities.

Behind Harold Grinspoon are photos

Behind Harold Grinspoon are photos of his large, colorful sculptures created from dead trees, many of which can be seen around the region.

Since 2003, the program has recognized and awarded more than 1,000 students for their entrepreneurial spirit and business ideas, while its entrepreneurship education, competition, and celebration events have reached well over 10,000 students and members of the community.

“That’s very close to my heart,” he noted. “Every college and university in the Valley is involved with that.”

The program actually offers four awards each year, each aimed at a different stage of the startup experience: elevator-pitch awards for compelling ideas, concept awards for startups in the pre-revenue stage, Entrepreneurial Spirit awards for companies that have begun to generate revenue, and alumni awards for later-stage successes.

“Elevating the stature of entrepreneurs has been incredibly impactful among these college students,” Carpenter said. “It gives them the sense this could be a viable career option. On top of that, it recognizes the importance of creative thinking — one of Harold’s beliefs — to help people realize the importance of being curious and using their creativity, and that’s what these entrepreneurs are doing.”

The Pioneer Valley Excellence in Teaching Awards debuted the same year, and with the same idea: to recognize, inspire, and help a critically important group of people.

“Financially, because I’m a businessman, I can afford to financially give. But I know people who are very humble financially, but are very giving of their time and energy and their spirit, and their legacy is so important to them.”

“To be a great teacher is amazing,” Grinspoon said. “They’re molding children at a very impressionable age, and we’re recognizing them for the outstanding work they do. I think someone should stand up and applaud the teachers.”

Applaud he does, at three separate banquets each year, to accommodate all the winners and the friends, families, and colleagues who come out to support them.

“If you know anything about Harold, he wants to recognize under-recognized people,” said Sue Kline, who spearheaded the Excellence in Teaching Awards for many years. “He thinks of his own path and the difference that teachers made in his own life, and he saw an opportunity where not enough was being done.”

These days, the program recognizes more than 100 teachers each year from about 45 school districts. “Like everything he does, it has evolved over time,” Kline said, noting that, in addition to the $250 cash prize, each honoree has the opportunity to apply for a Classroom Innovator Prize to bring some form of project-based learning into the classroom.

Harold Grinspoon in his art workshop

Harold Grinspoon in his art workshop with fellow artist Alicia Renadette.

“This isn’t really intended for teachers about to retire, although districts can nominate anyone they feel is outstanding,” Kline said. “It’s meant to encourage mid-level teachers who want to do more. That’s what the project-based learning part does — to help them do something they’ve always wanted to try.”

It’s an extra touch that separates these awards from other recognition programs, just as the Local Farmer Awards ceremony invites each winner to bring $50 worth of products, to create ‘harvest swap bags’ that all guests receive at the end.

“These things represent his own creative thinking, his own energy — the way he cares about children and teachers, or about farmers not being well-supported,” Kline said. “That depth doesn’t come from every ordinary philanthropist, but it is reflected in everything his foundation and his charitable foundation do.”

 

Global Impact

Though Grinspoon, understandably, wanted to focus his recent interview with BusinessWest on the local efforts of the charitable foundation, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation — the arm that focuses on Jewish life — has quietly become a powerhouse across the country and around the world. For example:

• JCamp 180, launched in 2004, helps build the capacity of nonprofit Jewish camps through mentorship, professional-development opportunities, and challenge grants;

• PJ Library (2005) connects people to a colorful world of Jewish history, tradition, and values by delivering Jewish-themed books to hundreds of thousands of children and their families around the world each month;

• Voices & Visions (2010) is a poster series eliciting the power of art to interpret the words of great Jewish thinkers;

• Life & Legacy (2010) helps Jewish day schools, synagogues, social-service organizations, and other Jewish entities across North America build endowments that will provide financial stability; and

• PJ Our Way (2014), the ‘next chapter’ of PJ Library, provides tweens (ages 9-12) the gift of Jewish chapter books and graphic novels.

Several years ago, Grinspoon’s vast array of work attracted the attention of Warren Buffett, who invited Grinspoon and his wife, Diane Troderman, to join the Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest indivduals to dedicate at least half their wealth to philanthropy.

“I met some fantastic people through the Giving Pledge,” he said, and reiterated why he was already well on his way to fulfilling the pledge even before joining it. “I don’t understand how people with wealth don’t give it back. It’s foreign to me. And I’m not just talking about giving serious dollars; I’m talking about giving your time and energy.”

These days, Grinspoon has more time to work on his art — his large, colorful sculptures created from dead, reassembled trees can be seen throughout the region — while he enjoys seeing decades of work in philanthropy take root in other, very real ways.

“For me, it’s about developing your legacy,” he said. “Who do you want to be known as? Financially, because I’m a businessman, I can afford to financially give. But I know people who are very humble financially, but are very giving of their time and energy and their spirit, and their legacy is so important to them.”

In other words, anyone can be a Difference Maker — just look to Harold Grinspoon for inspiration, and get to work.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Class of 2021

He Helps People with Parkinson’s Disease Live Healthier, More Confident Lives

Leah Martin Photography

Chad Moir calls his mother his greatest teacher.

“She really, truly lived by the mantra that you never look down on someone, and that you always stick your hand out to help them,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough to be put in a position where I can help people while honoring my mother, and I can do it in a fun and exciting way.”

He’s referring to DopaFit Parkinson’s Movement Center, the business he started six years ago as the culmination of a tragic event — the premature passing of his greatest teacher, who was stricken with an aggressive form of Parkinson’s and was gone five years after her diagnosis.

Moir took his mother’s death hard. “I fell into a bit of a depression,” he told BusinessWest when we first spoke with him two years ago. “I hated Parkinson’s disease and everything to do with it. I didn’t even want to hear the word ‘Parkinson’s.’ But one day, something clicked, and I decided I was going to use my resentment toward Parkinson’s in a positive way and start to fight back.”

Today, DopaFit members, all of whom are at various stages of the disease, engage in numerous forms of exercise, from cardio work to yoga; from spinning to punching bags, and much more. On one level, activities are designed to help Parkinson’s patients live a more active life by improving their mobility, gait, balance, and motor skills.

“It has been proven through science that, when you do vigorous exercise while living with Parkinson’s disease, your symptoms won’t progress as quickly, and sometimes they are halted for a while as well. We have seen people whose symptoms have regressed.”

But research has shown, Moir said, that it does more than that: exercise releases the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain, slowing the progress of Parkinson’s symptoms.

“Exercise is the only proven method to slow down the progression of Parkinson’s disease,” he told BusinessWest. “It has been proven through science that, when you do vigorous exercise while living with Parkinson’s disease, your symptoms won’t progress as quickly, and sometimes they are halted for a while as well. We have seen people whose symptoms have regressed. The goal is for people not to progress, or progress slowly, but if we can reverse some of those symptoms, that’s a big win.”

Members are typically referred to Moir from their movement-disorder specialist, neurologist, or physical therapist. “A lot of times, for our older members, it can be one of their kids who finds us; their parent was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, they want to do anything they can to help, and they come across us online.”

Whatever the case, Moir and his team will meet with the individual and often a family member and discuss symptoms, their story, and how DopaFit might help.

“We have about a 99% success rate of people who try it and stay,” he said. But getting in the door — or online, as the case may be in this challenging time — is only the beginning.

 

Recognizing a Need

Moir’s own beginnings in a career focused on this deadly disease was a half-marathon in New York City to raise some money for the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. He ended up collecting about $6,000, and started to think about what else he could do for the Parkinson’s community.

Chad Moir says membership was climbing

Chad Moir says membership was climbing steadily before the pandemic, and it has been a challenge to keep everyone engaged, whether in person or virtually, over the past year.

While attending classes at American International College, he saw a need for a Parkinson’s exercise group in the area. “There is a lack of Parkinson’s services in general. I really, truly believed that if I built it, they would come. That was our motto, and I stuck to that motto through the hard times, and it certainly has brought us here. We thought there was a need, and we’ve proven there was a need.”

He started working with individuals in their homes, then opened the first DopaFit gym in Feeding Hills in 2015. He moved to the Eastworks building in Easthampton a year later, and then to the current location, at the Red Rock Plaza in Southampton, in 2018 — a site with more space, ample parking, and a handicapped-accessible entrance. He also launched a second, smaller DopaFit location in West Boylston.

When they first arrive at DopaFit, members undergo an assessment of where they are physically and where they would like to be in six months. Then they’re assigned to one of two exercise groups. One includes people who don’t need assistance getting in and out of chairs and can move about freely with no assistive equipment, like canes, walkers, or wheelchairs. The second group requires a little more assistance.

“With the group-exercise portion, that’s where we have to be very imaginative and come up with fun and different ways to work with you because there are different levels of disease progression,” he explained.

Programming has continued to expand. “Our goal is to provide every non-pharmalogical therapy that you can in one place for people with Parkinson’s disease,” Moir said. “So we have yoga, tai chi, our exercise classes and movement program, and the Art Cart.”

That latter piece, a nationally recognized creativity and movement program for individuals with Parkinson’s disease, was launched by Moir’s wife, Saba Shahid, who nominated him for the Difference Makers award.

The Southampton center is DopaFit’s third Western Mass. location, but Chad Moir envisions a larger space down the line, with more Parkinson’s treatment services in house.

“Chad is truly the definition of a Difference Maker,” Shahid wrote. “He has provided countless hours of free educational services for patients and assisted-living and nursing centers that provide support to people with Parkinson’s, and has spoken at a variety of seminars with the simple goal of spreading awareness about Parkinson’s and the importance of exercising for disease management. His dedication and love for others is seen in his daily efforts.”

Moir is always open to new modalities as well, such as a recent addition, ‘laughter yoga.’ A member brought the idea to him, and it turned out one of the practice’s leading instructors lives in East Longmeadow, and was happy to teach a class.

“Everybody loved it,” Moir said. “People said it made a difference that day, and in the days after, to be able to laugh again.”

Indeed, the past year has brought unforeseen stress to the lives of everyone, including business owners like Moir and the folks with Parkinson’s disease he serves.

“We had been growing exponentially prior to the pandemic; we had a little over 100 members, and we’d see about 80 of those members every week, at different sessions,” he recalled. And when COVID-19 shut down the economy, including DopaFit’s facilities, Moir had to pivot — fast.

“Yes, we do exercise, but we also educate, and then we empower. So we had to move the education online as well. Even though we couldn’t be in the space, we were able to support them physically and mentally.”

He quickly moved to an online model, starting with prerecorded exercise videos, daily e-mails, and phone calls. Zoom classes followed, which were more engaging and interactive than the videos, and trainers could work with members to make sure they were doing everything correctly.

“We did our best to keep our members engaged,” he added, through efforts like webinars with movement-disorder specialists to make sure members stayed current with the latest information. “Yes, we do exercise, but we also educate, and then we empower. So we had to move the education online as well. Even though we couldn’t be in the space, we were able to support them physically and mentally.”

While the West Boylston facility remains shuttered and programs are run completely virtually, DopaFit’s Easthampton site opened about four months ago to small, scaled-down classes — two groups of no more than four people each — who work out separated by distance and dividers, and all surfaces and equipment are sanitized between each use.

“People who come say they feel 10 times safer here than they do going to the grocery store,” Moir said.

Through it all, he had his worries about surviving such a difficult time.

“The rent didn’t stop. The space was closed, but the bills were still here. But we’re blessed with a tremendous community,” he said, noting that local groups ran fundraisers to support DopaFit, and he was able to keep the business in operation and pay employees through the pandemic. “You truly see the impact when it’s taken away. Even people who don’t come here but know what we do wanted this service to stay available to the people in this community.”

 

Moving Ahead

Through it all — the expanded membership, and then the obstacles posed by COVID-19 — DopaFit’s outreach in the community has only grown, Moir said. “We’ve made some great connections with the local physical therapists and neurologists in the area, which has helped tremendously. We are now well-known as a very viable and necessary option for someone with Parkinson’s disease.

“When it comes to being innovative and trying new things, that is something we will always do,” he added. “The world is ever-changing, and there are so many great people who do so many great things that can help someone with Parkinson’s disease.”

With that in mind, the next goal is a larger, standalone building that offers not just a big exercise room, but plenty of rooms for other services, from education to support groups to social work. In short, Moir wants to take what he’s learned in the past six years and build a truly one-stop destination for people with Parkinson’s disease to access the resources they need.

Some things he’s learned have been unexpected — like mastering Zoom.

“I helped so many people navigate Zoom, many of them older people,” he said. “I figure, if this doesn’t work out, I can go to Zoom and work for their technical support. I’ve got that down.”

Fortunately for so many, his day job seems to be working out just fine, despite the recent challenges. And he’s grateful his members have a place where they can come and, well, just be themselves.

“It pains me to hear someone stopped talking to their friends because ‘I don’t want them to pity me.’ Or, ‘we used to go out to dinner every Thursday, but I stopped going because I shake too much and don’t want people looking at me.’

“But after spending time here with other people with Parkinson’s disease, they come back and say, ‘you know what? I felt confident to go out and have dinner with my friends, and I felt better than I’ve felt in 10 years,’” he said. “So the exercise is a beneficial part of this; it can physically make someone better. But being able to feel better and be more confident gives them so much empowerment in other ways.”

That’s yet another difference Moir wants to make in people’s lives, as he continues to honor the legacy of one great teacher.

“Knowing that I can make a difference in someone’s life, just a little bit of difference, means the world to me,” he said. “It’s the fuel that keeps me going through the day. And that we’ve been able to figure out how to do it on a bigger scale is just very exciting.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2021

For This Youth Leader, Opportunities Make All the Difference

By Mark Morris

Leah Martin Photography

Bill Parks like to tell the story of a former ‘Youth of the Year’ at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Westfield who was discussing possible careers with a staff member.

“She wanted to be a marine biologist but said, ‘I know that will never happen,’” Parks recalled, but the staffer assured her that her desire was most certainly possible. This led to numerous conversations with the young woman about what she could do at the club and in her studies to make this dream a reality.

“He convinced her to think in terms of ‘yes, I can do this,’” Parks said. “Today, she is working in Florida as a marine biologist.”

And it’s not a surprising outcome to someone who believes life is about opportunities and relationships. As the club’s executive director, he follows this guiding principle, which, as much as anything else, is responsible for his being named a Difference Maker.

His own experience with the Boys & Girls Club actually began when he was a young boy attending the Marlborough Boys Club. He enjoyed going there because it was a place to meet up with friends, play basketball, and take part in activities. At that time, the club was for boys only, but Parks credits his sister with breaking the gender barrier and becoming the first girl to become a member.

“We snuck her into a Halloween party one year,” he said with a laugh. “After we did that, the staff decided to allow girls be part of the club.”

Once in high school, the club provided Parks his first job. “I worked at the gym, in the game rooms, and at the front desk,” he remembered. “It taught me how to deal with the public and how to work with kids.”

As a basketball player for Marlborough High School, Parks was recruited to play basketball at Fitchburg State College, allowing him the opportunity to become the first member of his family to attend college.

“That small gesture, to make sure I could go back to school, had a huge impact on my life. I’ve never forgotten it, and it’s been a goal of mine to always pay that forward.”

But the Division III college does not award scholarship money for athletes, and his parents — his father worked in a shoe factory, and his mother provided day-care services in the home — couldn’t afford to send him. To make matters worse, a local bank rejected his student-loan application.

Parks was worried he would have to give up his college plans, but when the club’s executive director heard about the rejection, he got involved, and gave Parks the name of a banker at First National Bank of Marlborough who was willing to approve the loan request. “You’re all set,” Parks recalled the director telling him. “You’re going back to school.”

It’s a story he recalls often as a moment that changed him forever. “That small gesture, to make sure I could go back to school, had a huge impact on my life,” he said. “I’ve never forgotten it, and it’s been a goal of mine to always pay that forward.”

By paying it forward through his role at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Westfield — by helping other young people act on opportunities they don’t see as possible — Parks is truly a Difference Maker.

 

View to the Future

While the story of the marine biologist is inspiring, Parks told BusinessWest, it’s not really about any particular job.

“It’s more important for young people to see the opportunities they have to develop their futures,” he said. “Our latest campaign is called ‘Building Futures’ because that’s who we are and what we do.”

Education has been a driving force in Bill Parks’s life

Education has been a driving force in Bill Parks’s life, and he emphasizes its importance to those he serves.

Parks’ professional career with the Boys & Girls Club began in Eastern Mass., serving as executive director for clubs in Billerica and Waltham. Before he joined the Westfield club in 2004, he spent two years with the Jason Foundation, where he helped introduce STEM programs to Boys & Girls Clubs on a national level.

While he enjoyed the work at the foundation, he missed the interaction with all the staff and families who form the culture of a Boys & Girls Club. He found that again in Westfield, which was, in some ways, a return to his geographic roots, as he was born in Springfield and moved to Marlborough as a young child.

Applying what he’d learned in his earlier executive roles, Parks began to lay out a vision and a course of action for the Westfield club. He also understood that he could not accomplish his goals alone but needed to convince others to get behind his vision.

“One of the things I am most proud of is that people in the community wanted to be part of the vision we had for the club,” he said.

When he started in Westfield, the club provided services for nearly 100 children every day with an annual budget of $600,000. Now the club provides day-care, educational, and meal services for 350 children and teens every day with an annual budget of nearly $3 million.

Parks credits his staff for helping to make the vision a reality. Many staffers have long tenures on the job, and several started there even before he arrived.

“When you can maintain your existing staff, it allows you to do big things because you are not constantly changing people and roles,” he said, adding that the staff has also grown to 12 full-time and more than 40 part-time workers, making the organization a “decent-size employer in the city.”

A dedicated and consistent staff that gets results, he noted, makes it easier to attract potential donors. One donor told Parks he supports the club because he is confident that the contribution will generate efforts to help young people succeed, adding, “I like what you are doing, and I believe it will have an impact on our community.”

The role of Boys & Girls Clubs today has greatly changed from the days when Parks played basketball with his friends in Marlborough. Once he began his career there, he saw education becoming a more vital part of the organization’s mission.

Bill Parks says, the club became a critical resource

During the pandemic, Bill Parks says, the club became a critical resource for both kids with their remote learning and their parents who had to work.

“It was easy to see that, in addition to having a gym director and game-room director, clubs also needed an education director,” he said, adding that relationships with the School Department and the community at large are essential to his club.

“We are a part of the city of Westfield,” he said. “We think about what’s outside the walls of our club and how to help the overall community because, in the long run, that’s going to help the kids who are members of the club and kids who are members of the community.”

In 2011, the Westfield club was licensed to provide daycare for 77 children. Concerned he was running out of space and anticipating increased demand, Parks led a $3 million fundraising campaign titled “Raise the Roof.”

“We literally took the roof off the gym, raised the gym up to the second floor, and built classrooms underneath for the licensed childcare program,” he said, adding that the club also expanded the education room and technology lab. Now, the facility is licensed to provide daycare services for 200 children.

 

Learning Experiences

When COVID-19 hit, the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Westfield was available for virtual learning for students, and in September, the club became a remote-learning site for the School Department. The city of Westfield provided every school-age child with a Chromebook tablet, and, with club staff making sure to keep age groups separated and properly distanced, students are linked into the school system for a full day of learning via their Chromebooks. Middle-school and younger kids make up most of the students in this program, which has proven to be a vital resource for families.

“Some of the students couldn’t link in from home, while others have parents who have to leave the house for work during school hours,” Parks said. “With no one at home to take care of them, they have the option to come here and not miss school.”

With all those young minds at work, the club has become a significant meal provider for children as well.

“Parents can drop off kids at 7:30 in the morning, and they will get breakfast, lunch, a snack, and a hot meal every day,” he explained. The club also provides meals at three public-housing sites, resulting in the staff serving nearly 600 meals a day. Like remote learning, Parks sees the meals program as essential to the organization.

“A working parent can pick up their kid at the club and know their homework is done and they’ve been fed,” he said. “It allows parents to interact more with their kids instead of rushing around to put a meal on the table.”

Right now, Parks has plans to expand the club and its services further with a 15,000-square-foot addition, which will allow the club to offer services to an additional 100 children.

“We think about what’s outside the walls of our club and how to help the overall community because, in the long run, that’s going to help the kids who are members of the club and kids who are members of the community.”

The building plans originally called for an 11,000-square-foot expansion, but the pandemic forced engineers to increase the square footage per child and redraw the now-larger plans. The addition is scheduled to be completed by August with a September opening, in time for the new school year.

For Parks, the new structures are exciting, but the real payoff is the impact the programs have on people’s lives. “One of the things I’m most proud of is that people in the community say, ‘let’s call the Boys & Girls Club because they can probably help us or help these kids.’”

Thinking back to the time he got some needed help, Parks said he learned, years after graduating from college, that the banker who approved his student loan was on the board of directors for the Marlborough club. Likewise, he credits his current board of directors as the “guiding force” that supports all the Westfield club’s efforts, and points with pride to the cross-section of community members who make up the board.

“It’s not always easy to encourage people to be on your board,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate that people have reached out to us with an interest in joining ours.”

They are people, he added, who are willing to step up and help a kid in the community, and who recognize the value of paying it forward. His future was changed when he was able to go to college, and he’s dedicated his career to changing lives and finding ways to truly make a difference.

Class of 2021

When It Comes to Land Preservation, He’s Been a Trailblazer

Leah Martin Photography

Pete Westover says his appreciation of, and passion for, outdoor spaces traces back to a family vacation trip to, among other places, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, or Rocky, as it’s called, when he was 12.

The park, which spans the Continental Divide, is famous for its grand vistas, high alpine meadows, and dramatic walking trails, some of them at elevations of 10,000 feet or more. And, suffice to say, the park made quite an impression on the young middle-school student.

“There’s bighorn sheep and mountain goats and all kinds of great wildlife and flora,” he noted, adding that he’s been back several times since. “The road goes well over 11,000 feet, so you’re up there among the peaks.”

It was this trip that pretty much convinced Westover he wanted to spend his working life outdoors. And if he needed any more convincing, he got it while working in a hospital just after high school, at a time when he was still thinking about going to medical school and following in the footsteps of his father, who became a doctor.

“I realized, there’s no way I want to spend my time in time in a hospital or a clinic,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he instead pursued a master’s degree in forest ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

“Pete has dedicated his entire career to conserving land and creating trails — the Valley’s forests and farms simply would not be as intact as they are today if Pete Westover hadn’t been a prime champion for their protection.”

Thus, as they might say in what has become his line of work, he took a different trail than the one he originally envisioned. Actually, those who know him would say he’s blazed his own trail — in every aspect of that phrase.

It has led to an intriguing and highly rewarding career that has included everything from work on a helicopter forest-fire crew in Northern California when he was in college to a 30-year stint as conservation director for the town of Amherst, to his current role as founder and partner of Conservation Works, a conservation firm involved with open space and agricultural land protection; ecological and land-stewardship assistance to land trusts, towns, colleges, and other entities; and other services.

Described as a “legend” by one of those who nominated him for the Difference Maker award, Dianne Fuller Doherty, retired executive director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network’s Western Mass. office (and a Difference Maker herself in 2020), Westover has earned a number of accolades over the years.

These include the Valley Eco Award for Distinguished Service to Our Environment, in his case for ‘lifetime dedication and achievement’; the Governor’s Award for Open Space Protection; the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission’s Regional Service Award; the Massachusetts Assoc. of Conservation Commissions’ Environmental Service Award; and even the Millicent A. Kaufman Distinguished Service Award as Amherst Area Citizen of the Year.

Pete Westover, center, with fellow Conservation Works partners Chris Curtis and Elizabeth Wroblicka

Pete Westover, center, with fellow Conservation Works partners Chris Curtis and Elizabeth Wroblicka in Springfield’s Forest Park, where the company is currently working on several projects.

And now, he can add Difference Maker to that list, a title that certainly befits an individual who has preserved thousands of acres of land, created hundreds of miles of trails, and even helped innumerable parks and other open spaces identify and hopefully eradicate invasive species.

“Pete has dedicated his entire career to conserving land and creating trails — the Valley’s forests and farms simply would not be as intact as they are today if Pete Westover hadn’t been a prime champion for their protection,” wrote Kristin DeBoer, executive director of the Kestrel Land Trust, a partner and client of Conservation Works on many of its projects, in her nomination of Westover. “The number of conservation areas and protected farms that Pete has been involved with are too many to name.”

While justifiably proud of what’s been accomplished in these realms over the past several decades, Westover stressed repeatedly that this work has never been a one-man show. Instead, it’s always been accomplished through partnerships and teamwork, especially when it comes to Conservation Works.

“This is such a great valley to work in,” he told BusinessWest. “There are so many dedicated people in our field; we’re just lucky to be in a place where there are so many forward-looking people.”

Westover is certainly one of them, and his work (that’s a broad term, to be sure) to not only protect and preserve land, but educate others and serve as a role model, has earned him a place among the Difference Makers class of 2021.

 

Changing the Landscape — Or Not

It’s called the Robert Frost Trail, and it’s actually one of several trails in the Northeast named after the poet, who lived and taught in this region for many years.

This one stretches 47 miles through the eastern Connecticut River Valley, from the Connecticut River in South Hadley to Ruggles Pond in Wendell State Forest. Blazed with orange triangles, the trail winds through both Hampshire and Franklin counties, and includes a number of scenic features, including the Holyoke Range, Mount Orient, Puffer’s Pond, and Mount Toby.

And while there are literally thousands of projects in Westover’s portfolio from five decades of work in this realm, this one would have to be considered his signature work, first undertaken while he was conservation director in Amherst, but a lifelong project in many respects.

Indeed, those at Conservation Works are working with Kestrel on an ongoing project to improve the trail. But the Robert Frost Trail is just one of countless initiatives to which Westover has contributed his time, energy, and considerable talents over the years. You might say he’s changed the landscape in Western Mass., but it would be even more accurate to say his work has been focused on not changing the landscape, and preserving farmland and other spaces as they are.

And even that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Indeed, Westover said, through his decades of work, he hasn’t been focused on halting or even controlling development, but instead on creating a balance.

“When I worked with the town of Amherst, our philosophy was, ‘we’re not trying to prevent development; we’re trying to keep up with it,’” he explained, adding that this mindset persists to this day. “For every time you see a new subdivision go up, it makes sense to address the other side of the coin and make sure there are protected lands that people can have for various purposes.

“When you see real-estate ads that say ‘near conservation area,’ or ‘next to the Robert Frost Trail’ … that’s important to the well-being of a town or the region to have that balance,” he went on, adding that it has essentially been his life’s work to create it.

Top, Conversation Works partner Dick O’Brien supervises volunteers at Lathrop Community in Northampton in bridge building on the Lathrop Trail off Cooke Avenue. Above, several of the company’s partners: from left, Fred Morrison, Dick O’Brien, Molly Hale, Chris Curtis, and Laurie Sanders.

Tracing his career working outdoors, Westover said he started at an environmental-education center in Kentucky, where he worked for three years. Later, after returning to Yale for a few more classes, he came to Amherst as its conservation director, a role he kept from 1974 to 2004. In 2005, he would partner with Peter Blunt, former executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council (now the Connecticut River Conservancy) to create Conservation Works. Blunt passed away in 2010, but a team of professionals carries on his work and his legacy, and has broadened the company’s mission and taken its work to the four corners of New England and well beyond.

But over the years, Westover has worn many other hats as well. He’s been an adjunct professor of Natural Science, principally at Hampshire College, where he has taught, among other courses, “Conservation Land Protection and Management,” “The Ecology and Politics of New England Natural Areas,” “Ecology and Culture of Costa Rica,” “Geography, Ecology, and Indigenous Americans in the Pacific Northwest, 1800 to Present,” and, most recently, “Land Conservation, Indigenous Land Rights, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge.”

He’s also penned books, including Managing Conservation Land: The Stewardship of Conservation Areas, Wildlife Sanctuaries, and Other Open Spaces in Massachusetts, and served on boards ranging from the Conservation Law Foundation of New England to the Whately Open Space Committee.

“When I worked with the town of Amherst, our philosophy was, ‘we’re not trying to prevent development; we’re trying to keep up with it. For every time you see a new subdivision go up, it makes sense to address the other side of the coin and make sure there are protected lands that people can have for various purposes.”

But while he spends some time behind the keyboard, in the lecture hall, or in the boardroom, mostly he’s where he always wants to be — outdoors — especially as he works with his partners at Conservation Works on projects across New England and beyond.

The group, which now includes seven partners, handles everything from conservation of open space and farmland to the development and maintenance of trails; from invasive-plant-management plans to what are known as municipal vulnerability-preparedness plans that address climate change and the dangers it presents to communities.

And, as Westover noted, teamwork is the watchword for this company.

“One of the things that attracted me to Conservation Works is that all of the professionals have very unique skills, and we all complement one another,” said Elizabeth Wroblicka, a lawyer and former director of Wildlife Lands for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “Land conservation is multi-faceted, from the acquisition to the long-term ownership to the stewardship, and with the wildlife biologists we have, the trail constructors, boundary markings … I do the contracts, but we all have a piece that we excel in.”

Chris Curtis, who came to Conservation Works after a lengthy career with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission as chief planner and now focuses extensively on climate-change issues, agreed. He noted that, in addition to land preservation, trail-building and improvement, and other initiatives, the group is doing more work in the emerging realm of climate resiliency — out of necessity.

“We’ve been working with the town of Deerfield for four years,” he said, citing just one example of this work. “We’ve helped it win grants for more than $1.2 million worth of work that includes a municipal vulnerability-preparedness plan, flood-evacuation plans, a land-conservation plan for the Deerfield River floodplain area, and education programs, including a townwide climate forum that was attended by 200 to 300 people.”

Such efforts to address climate change are an example of how the group’s mission continues to expand and evolve, and how Westover’s broad impact on this region, its open spaces, and its endangered spaces grows ever deeper.

 

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Reflecting back on that trip to Rocky, Westover said that, in many ways, it changed not only his perspective, but his life.

It helped convince him that he not only wanted to work outdoors, but wanted to protect the outdoors and create spaces that could be enjoyed by this generation and those to come. As noted, he’s both changed the landscape and helped ensure that it won’t be changed.

He’s not comfortable with being called a legend, but Difference Maker works, and it certainly fits someone whose footprints can be seen all across the region — literally and figuratively.

 

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

Class of 2021 Difference Makers
DifferenceMakers-Logo-2020-11

Our 2021 Difference Makers will be announced in the February 17, 2021 issue of BusinessWest

Save the Date!

We will be virtually celebrating the 2021 Difference Makers on April 1, 2021.

The event will be 100% virtual and streaming using the REMO platform. Wondering what the REMO platform is like? Click HERE for this awesome tutorial video to help you learn about it!

Stay tuned for more details about our awesome and engaging virtual event that will take place on April 1, 2021.

Presenting Sponsors

Nonprofit Partner

Class of 2020 Event Galleries Special Coverage

It was a different kind of event, to be sure, but BusinessWest’s Difference Makers class of 2020 was celebrated in style on Sept. 24 at the Upper Vista at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. Honorees, their guests, and sponsors were in attendance at an event where safety and social distancing were paramount, while hundreds more took in the ceremonies remotely. Download the Program Guide HERE

Difference Makers is sponsored by Burkhart Pizzanelli, Mercy Medical Center, The Royal Law Firm, and TommyCar Auto Group, while the Tom Cosenzi Driving for the Cure Charity Golf Tournament, MHA, and United Way of Pioneer Valley are partners.

The 2020 Virtual Event

Scenes from the 2020 Event

2020 Difference Makers

Christopher ‘Monte’ Belmonte

DJ at WRSI the River Radio

His March is Changing
The Conversation
on Food Insecurity

Ira Bryck

Consultant and Former Executive Director of the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley

He’s Helped Create
Fun, Imaginative
Learning Experiences

Sandy Cassanelli

CEO of Greeno Supply

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

Dianne
Fuller Doherty

Retired Director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center

She’s Retired … but Not from Her Role as a Difference Maker

Ronn Johnson

President and CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services Inc.

This Community Leader
Has Tackled Many Roles
With a Sense of Purpose

Steve Lowell

President and CEO of
Monson Savings Bank

Giving Back Has Always Been a Big Part of His Life — and His Work

Rick’s Place

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

2020 Sponsor Videos

2020 Sponsors

Pay it Forward Non-Profit Partners


Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

Class of 2020 Cover Story

Celebrating the 2020 Class

Back in late 2008, BusinessWest conceived a new recognition program.

It was called Difference Makers because, well, that’s the best way to describe those who would be honored. No matter what their career or field or passion — and, over the years, they have been myriad — the one common thread would be making a difference in the community.

Our goal was, and remains, to show the many ways in which an individual or group can make a difference, and suffice to say this goal has been met — as you’ll find out, once again, as you read the stories generated by the 12th such class of honorees.

The regularly scheduled gathering to honor our Difference Makers had to be post-poned because of the pandemic and ongoing bans on large gatherings.

But BusinessWest is now ready to move forward with an exciting virtual-hybrid event that will enable the region to celebrate this year’s honorees — and in settings that will comply with the state’s many guidelines for gatherings in the COVID-19 era.

Our 2020 Difference Makers event will take place on Thursday,  Sept. 24, 4 p.m.-5:30 p.m. and will honor the large and distinguished Difference Makers class of 2020. This will be a ‘virtual-hybrid’ event, with the honorees and sponsors to gather at the Upper Vista at the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House in Holyoke — 40 are allowed under the current guidelines — with the more than 300 other guests able to take the award program proceedings virtually. Guests who have purchased tickets to the original March event will have private access to view the virtual program.

The Difference Makers program for 2020 is sponsored by Burkhart Pizzanel-li, Mercy Medical Center/Trinity Health Of New England, Royal P.C., and Tom-myCar Auto Group, with nonprofit part-ners MHA Inc., the Tom Cosenzi Driving for the Cure Charity Golf Tournament, and United Way of Pioneer Valley

2020 Difference Makers Virtual-Hybrid Event
Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020; 4 p.m.-5:30 p.m.

 

2020 Difference Makers

Christopher ‘Monte’ Belmonte

DJ at WRSI the River Radio

His March is Changing
The Conversation
on Food Insecurity

Ira Bryck

Consultant and Former Executive Director of the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley

He’s Helped Create
Fun, Imaginative
Learning Experiences

Sandy Cassanelli

CEO of Greeno Supply

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

Dianne
Fuller Doherty

Retired Director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center

She’s Retired … but Not from Her Role as a Difference Maker

Ronn Johnson

President and CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services Inc.

This Community Leader Has Tackled Many Roles
With a Sense of Purpose

Steve Lowell

President and CEO of
Monson Savings Bank

Giving Back Has Always Been a Big Part of His Life — and His Work

Rick’s Place

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

2020 Sponsors

Pay it Forward Non-Profit Partners


Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

Class of 2020

His March is Changing The Conversation on Food Insecurity

Sean Barry recalls listening to the first few editions of Monte’s March on the radio. (Photo by Leah Martin Photography)

What he remembers most is how Monte Belmonte, the radio personality who created this unique publicity stunt to raise money for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, seemed to keep getting lost on his trek from Northampton to Greenfield.

“That first year, I was listening to him taking wrong turns … I thought to myself, ‘maybe he needs help,’” said Barry, owner of Four Seasons Wines & Liquors in Hadley. “The second year, the march snuck up on me, so I wasn’t able to sign up. So again I listened, and I believe I heard him getting lost again — he didn’t seem to have a clear idea of where he was.”

Anyway, the more Barry listened, the more he wanted to be part of what Belmonte was doing.

“I’m a true believer in what the Food Bank does and how unfortunately necessary it is,” he said, adding that he secured enough coverage at the store to be able to march in the third event, and he’s been back every year since. He now carries out an important role in this curious and all-important spectacle — keeping the souped-up shopping cart pushed by Belmote out of harm’s way.

“I’m the one you see in the pictures with my hand on the cart, steering it so Monte doesn’t have to worry about it hitting a tree or getting it stuck in a pothole,” he explained. “That leaves Monte to do what Monte does best.”

In a way, Barry’s growing involvement with the march is a microcosm of its growth and evolution over the past decade. It started small, but almost immediately it caught people’s attention — and kept it. And then, they wanted to be part of it in some way. And all kinds of groups and individuals have found a way, helping to raise more than $1.2 million to date.

“Through his various efforts and interviews, people come to understand the complexity of the problem and the diversity of the problem. It’s not a once-a-year thing — he’s creating a movement, and he’s creating awareness.”

The ranks include lawmakers, especially U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, the Democrat from Worcester, who marches alongside Belmonte every year, as well as state representatives and senators. And school children, who have been inspired to raise money for the cause in many different ways and even hand over their allowance to Belmonte as he marches by. And the famous UMass marching band, which has joined the trek in downtown Amherst.

While on his march, Belmonte is, as they might say in the military, on point. That means he’s at the front of the line — actually, Barry is at the very front — usually interviewing one of those elected officials or kids as he’s conducting a radio show. In other words, he’s multi-tasking and looking forward, to the real estate in front of him.

That means that he’s generally unaware of just how many people have joined him for the march in a manner that has prompted some to compare him to the pied piper and others to Forrest Gump in that famous scene where he’s repeatedly running across the country.

Later, after the march is over and he sees photos, he’s often taken aback by just how much company he has.

“When I see that breadth of humanity behind us, it’s really overwhelming to me,” he said, adding that he’s also quite struck by how many people have “taken ownership” of the need to raise money for the Food Bank through their own initiatives — ranging from one brewery owner’s 50-mile run to a solidarity march conducted by students and teachers at Conway Elementary School, to one woman’s march in Antarctica (because she was visiting there the week of the march).

Monte Belmonte, seen here with U.S. Reps. Richard Neal, left, and Jim McGovern, gets set to start another of his marches. (Photo from Matthew Cavanaugh)

But while this event has grown to attract hundreds, and perhaps thousands of participants and supporters, Belmonte has been the individual most responsible for its success and its ability to keep food insecurity front of mind — not for two days in November, but all year.

McGovern perhaps said it best when he told BusinessWest that Belmonte hasn’t created a march — he’s created a movement.

“It’s a movement to not just be there in this fight against hunger during Monte’s March, but all year round,” the congressman explained. “Through his various efforts and interviews, people come to understand the complexity of the problem and the diversity of the problem. It’s not a once-a-year thing — he’s creating a movement, and he’s creating awareness.”

And those sentiments clearly explain why Belmonte is a member of the Difference Makers class of 2020.

Walking the Walk

Belmonte calls it ‘Amity Hill Horror.’

That’s meant to be a blend of The Amityville Horror, the movie, and Heartbreak Hill, the notorious stretch of the Boston Marathon in Newton that taxes the runners because of its sharp incline, and describes one of the only real physical tests along Monte’s March — the climb up Amity Street to the center of Amherst.

“Pushing up that hill and trying to broadcast is a bit of challenge,” said Belmonte, noting that Barry, whom he refers to as his ‘Sancho Panza,’ helps him navigate that climb and, overall, keep him on track.

Belmonte now has plenty of company as he attacks that hill with his shopping cart — outfitted for long-distance travel by students at Smith Vocational High School in Northampton — and that’s just one way to measure how far this march has come, and how impactful it now is. But there are many others.

Starting with the number $333,333.33.

That was the fund-raising goal for the march in 2019. It’s an odd number, one packed with significance, because those at the Food Bank estimate they can provide three meals for each dollar raised for their organization. Thus, this became the ‘march for a million meals’ — and the money it takes to provide them.

Over the years, Monte’s march has drawn ever-growing numbers of marchers, one of many indicators of how it has become a force in the fight against food insecurity.
(Photo from Matthew Cavanaugh)

“We had a lot of fun with it. We used that number — $333,333.33 — a ton, and people really gravitated toward it; we got a lot of $33 donations and $333 donations,” he said, adding that bestselling author and illustrator Mo Willems and his wife, Cher, who live in Northampton, pledged $33,333.33 “because they’re generous, but also because they love the schtick.”

As he talked about the march, Belmonte said it was hard to imagine those kinds of numbers back in the beginning when this wasn’t actually a march. Indeed, efforts to help the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts with a fundraising ‘publicity stunt,’ as he called it, started with Belmonte standing with a shopping cart in front of Whole Foods Market soliciting donations of food items.

When those at the Food Bank noted that, with that organization’s buying power, it could do much more with cash than it could with donated food, the focus eventually shifted to Belmonte pushing a cart from Northampton to Greenfield, soliciting donations as he went over the air.

As Barry’s comments earlier indicate, it took a few years for this endeavor to find its way — figuratively, but also quite literally.

“The first two years, I basically did it all by myself,” Belmonte recalled. “It was me, a shopping cart, a station van to make sure I didn’t get hit from behind, and a guy with a flashlight when the sun went down to make sure people could see me well enough.”

But from the beginning, the march resonated with people — and raised healthy sums of money. Over the years, it continued to pick up speed — and supporters, and donations.

In recent years, it has become a truly regional phenomenon as the march was extended from one day to two, from 26 miles to 43, starting in Springfield’s Mason Square, specifically Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services, led by another of this year’s honorees, Ronn Johnson (see story, page 35).

Positive Steps

But while the march has succeeded in garnering donations of all sizes and from a wide range of individuals and groups, its impact has gone well beyond money and the meals it buys.

Indeed, those we spoke with said Belmonte, his march, and his efforts before and after the annual trek have shed much-needed light on the subject of food insecurity.

“One of the great things about the march and the lead-up to it is Monte spending a great deal time on the radio and in public forums talking about the problem of hunger and food insecurity, and talking about the faces of the hungry in our community,” said McGovern. “And by doing that, he helps dispel those stereotypes that have become common in right-wing media; the reality is, hunger defies stereotypes. We live in the richest country in the world, and yet there are 40 million of our fellow citizens who don’t know where the next meal is coming from.

“People you’re working with may fall into that category of being food-insecure or hungry,” he went on. “And if you talk with teachers, you’ll come to understand the realities they see in their classrooms — kids who come to school on Mondays and can’t concentrate because they haven’t eaten all weekend or who ask for food on Fridays so they’ll have something to eat. And there are people who work full-time but make so little money they still qualify for SNAP benefits.”

Through his platform as a radio personality, Belmonte has broadened the discussion on hunger and taken it to a higher level, said McGovern. “The fact that he has some celebrity enables him to bring in people who might not otherwise gravitate to this issue.”

Andrew Morehouse, executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, agreed, and said Belmonte, now a member of the Food Bank’s Coalition to End Hunger, has taken his efforts well beyond the fundraising level.

“He’s been involved in an ongoing effort over many years to conceptualize and put into action long-term solutions,” he noted. “He’s learned a lot from it, and he’s been involved in a very different way, not just raising money and awareness.”

When asked about what the march that bears his name has accomplished, Belmonte said that, beyond inspiring people to write checks, it has prompted them to rethink this problem and join the effort to confront it.

“My hope is that more people will think differently about what it means to be hungry, and what it means to be poor,” he told BusinessWest. “No one wants to be hungry forever; no one wants to be on SNAP or food stamps forever. Most of the people who are on it are working and need help for a short amount of time. To demonize those people, who are in many cases children, the elderly, disabled people, veterans, and others who just need help for a little while, is wrong.

“Overall, I want to people to know that the Food Bank, and hopefully our government, has their back and will give them help when they need it,” he went on. “But I’m hoping more people will hear these stories from these people during the march and surrounding the march and change the way they think about poverty, being poor, and needing help — and pitching in when they can.

“As Jim McGovern loves to say, we could end hunger in this country, but we lack the political will,” he said in conclusion. “So I guess the goal of the march is to change hearts and minds about what it means to be hungry.”

Food for Thought

Monte Belmonte doesn’t have to worry about getting lost anymore.

He knows the route by heart now, and besides, he has lots of company, including Barry, with his hand on the shopping cart, guiding it away from potholes.

All this company, and the many forms it takes, is symbolic of how the march has grown and evolved, and how it has come to do much more than raise money for the Food Bank.

As McGovern said, it’s more than a march, it’s a movement — one that’s bringing a problem to light and maybe, just maybe, someday to an end.

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

Class of 2020

He’s Helped Create Fun, Imaginative Learning Experiences

(Photo by Leah Martin Photography)

Ira Bryck started working in his family’s business — Barasch’s, a store on Long Island selling children’s clothes — when he was 5, and continued putting in hours there on weekends, after school, and during the summer through his college years.

He has a lot of memories from those days, including the fact that he generally had more money in his pocket than his friends because he was gainfully employed — even in middle school.

But he also remembers something his father — and boss; a tough boss at that — told him. Something that gnawed away at him in some respects and stayed with him as he embarked on a career path he probably couldn’t have imagined while he was folding jeans and T-shirts, one that has made him a Difference Maker.

“He told me when I was a little kid, ‘if all else fails, there’s always the family business,’” Bryck recalled. “And I took that to mean, ‘if you’re a failure, you can come work with me.’ It took a long time — several years, in fact — for me to realize that this did not mean I was a failure.”

Years later, his father’s line worked its way into a play Bryck wrote called A Tough Nut to Crack, a title chosen to reflect his father’s toughness and the difficulty of meeting monthly sales targets at the clothing store. Thus, it became one of the intriguing and imaginative methods Bryck has used for convincing those who became members of the UMass Family Business Center (now the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley) that, like him, they weren’t failures if they joined the family enterprise.

Of course, there were other times when he helped individuals come to the realization that being part of the family business wasn’t the best idea, and that they should be doing something else. Anything else.

“We’ve helped family businesses that shouldn’t be family businesses anymore get out of jail,” he explained. “Because there are a lot of people who are trapped in family businesses.”

It’s all part of what Bryck calls ‘frank talk,’ which he still provides today, roughly six months after retiring from his role as the center’s director. He provides it as a consultant, mostly to those in family businesses, but in some other realms as well — as a speaker as various events here and in other markets, and even as the host of a weekly radio program called the Western Mass. Business Show.

Ira Bryck is seen with his parents, Bill and Barbara, outside Barasch’s for a piece in Kids Fashions magazine published in 1977.

He is a Difference Maker not simply because of the frank talk and his ability to help those in family businesses see the light — whatever that might mean to them — but because he’s helped people become better business owners and managers and become more comfortable handling all the frank talk that accompanies those roles.

Indeed, to say that Bryck’s unique style has resonated with those he’s worked with in family businesses would be an understatement, as is made clear by comments from some members we spoke with. They refer to him as a ‘communicator,’ ‘connector,’ ‘facilitator,’ and even ‘entertainer.’ And they use adjectives such as ‘determined,’ ‘assertive,’ and ‘direct’ to indicate how he approaches his work.

“He has an approachable and entertaining and positive way to talk about many issues, even when they can be tense or controversial,” said Kari Diamond, third-generation partner of Astro Chemical, the East Longmeadow-based company led by not one but two families. “He has a way of lightening things up so you’re comfortable talking about them. He makes it fun; he makes it interesting.”

Brenda Olesuk, who operates Graduate Pest Solutions with her husband, Glenn, agreed.

“He has an approachable and entertaining and positive way to talk about many issues, even when they can be tense or controversial. He has a way of lightening things up so you’re comfortable talking about them. He makes it fun; he makes it interesting.”

“This is a man who has a passion for what he does and is eager to both accomplish his mission and help people along the way,” she said. “He has done that with great intellect, the ‘connector spirit,’ and love.”

Those sentiments make it clear why he’s been chosen as one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers for 2020.

Common Threads

In 1977, Kids Fashions traveled to Long Island to do what turned into a cover story on Barasch’s. While noting that the landmark was the oldest children’s clothing store in the country, the magazine described it as “well-organized clutter.”

“Which we all felt great about,” said Bryck, who can be seen with his parents — Bill and Barbara — standing in front of the store in one of the photos from the article. The piece came not long after he ran a “hippie K-6 free school” after graduating from SUNY Buffalo and eventually decided to return to the family business for what he thought would be the summer — or until he figured out what he was going to do next.

“That summer lasted 17 years,” he said with a laugh, noting that, at one point, he was the president, the tailor, and the window dresser for this venture all at the same time.

And while he managed in all those roles, Barasch’s ultimately couldn’t survive all the many forms of competition it faced, and Bryck oversaw its closing in 1993.

Soon after, he moved to Amherst and started looking for gainful employment.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said, adding that a high-school friend from Northampton saw an ad in the Daily Hampshire Gazette seeking someone to lead the recently created UMass Family Business Center. While the job had essentially been given to someone else, he was granted an interview anyway, and that interview changed the course of the center — and a number of businesses in the area as well.

“They hired me and unhired him,” Bryck said of what became a somewhat controversial hiring. “And he called me the next day and said, ‘I want to buy lunch for the bastard that stole my job.’ And that’s how we became friends.”

The UMass program, the 12th in the country at a time when such centers were gaining in popularity, had a number of large companies as members in the beginning, such as Peter Pan, Big Y, and American Saw.

“But they never came to the meetings anyway,” said Bryck, adding that, over the years, the center’s membership came to be dominated by small to mid-sized companies across all sectors, but especially manufacturing and construction. Collectively, they were grappling with the many issues common to all businesses, and some that are unique to family businesses.

“It’s one thing to read a paper from a professor who deals in theory, but is that reality? Can that be applied to the everyday businessperson? Ira was able to translate those kinds of things.”

To showcase them — and create an effective dialogue about them — Bryck created a host of imaginative programs and learning opportunities. These included plays — in addition to A Tough Nut to Crack, there was also Wait Till Your Father Gets Home and The Perils of Pauline’s Family Business — as well as dinner meetings with insightful speakers and roundtables that had a specific set of rules, right down to attendees being forbidden from telling their spouses what was said.

“You couldn’t even go up to the person after it was over and say, ‘I had another thought about that,’” he explained. “You’re able to have this conversation in that time and space, and they were very helpful.

“I’m a big fan of roundtables, where you get a bunch of people who are listening well to someone’s challenge and asking good questions and helping them think it through,” he went on. “I think that’s probably been the highest and best teaching that we’ve done.”

Off the Cuff

As for the plays, they’ve been performed at family business centers and other venues across the country and around the world, he said, noting that A Tough Nut to Crack was recently presented by a group in Catalonia, Spain. And they’ve become a different, very effective way of presenting — and, again, creating a dialogue about — issues facing family business.

With each learning opportunity he created, the goal was always to give attendees something they could bring to the office or the plant the next day. Bryck calls them “gems.”

As he talked about family businesses and helping to resolve issues and conflicts within them, Bryck first compared such companies to snowflakes — “no two are alike” — and then summoned that famous opening line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

“No two tragedies are the same, but you start to see patterns,” said Bryck, who, as director of the family business center and a consultant, has always addressed these patterns with creativity, that entertaining style that Diamond mentioned, and a tenacity that became the subject of a number of jokes at the Family Business Center’s 25th anniversary last fall, which doubled as a passing of the torch from Bryck to current Executive Director Jessi Kirley.

Steve Neveu, second-generation principal of Notch Mechanical Constructors in Chicopee, describes Bryck as a resource and a “connector.”

“Whenever I had an issue or something to talk out, he was a great listener,” he said. “And he’d point me toward other people that might be helpful. He knew a lot of people, not just other businesses owners, but consultants and experts in related fields; he’s a great resource.”

Diamond agreed, and said Bryck, while providing learning opportunities for others, has a thirst for learning himself, and this is reflected in what he brings to the table — whatever table that might be.

“While many people think of him as an expert in this field, that doesn’t stop him from exploring new things,” she noted. “When you’re around him, he’s always saying, ‘I was listening to this podcast,’ or ‘I was reading this book, and this is a really good concept,’ or ‘this might be theoretical, but I can see how it can be applied by doing XYZ.’

“He can take things that are very theoretical and make them realistic,” she went on. “It’s one thing to read a paper from a professor who deals in theory, but is that reality? Can that be applied to the everyday businessperson? Ira was able to translate those kinds of things.”

Olesuk concurred, and said that, through Graduate’s membership in the FBC and her interaction with Bryck, she been able to develop new business relationships and, more importantly, continue to learn and develop as a business owner.

“He’s created a unique, creative, and holistic approach to supporting family and independent business owners,” she said, adding that this model has continued with the transition to Kirley.

Dress for Success

Bryck was quick to note that, while his father voiced that opinion — the one about working in the family business “if all else fails” — more than a half-century ago, those thought patterns — and, indeed, a stigma about working for one’s parents — still exist today.

“In China, it exists at billion-dollar companies,” he noted. “Children don’t want to work with their parents, even it’s a billion-dollar business.”

But for some, this is the path they want to take. It’s not an easy road to get on and stay on, but Bryck, through his unique learning tools, has helped keep them on track.

And pretty much all those who have learned from him — and with him — have said the same as Diamond. “He makes it fun. He makes it interesting.”

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

Class of 2020

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

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Thirty-seven. 

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

Thirty-eight.

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

Thirty-nine.

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

Forty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, where does the rest of the money go?

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

But Cassanelli isn’t stopping there.

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

Determined to Fight

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

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

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

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

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chasing the Cure

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

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

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

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

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

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2020

She’s Retired … but Not from Her Role as a Difference Maker

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Dianne Fuller Doherty has her own working definition of ‘entrepreneur.’

“Someone who’s resourceful,” said the now … well, let’s call it semi-retired director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network’s Western Mass. office, before elaborating in some detail.

“Successful entrepreneurs are willing to ask for help; many people, particularly young people, think they have to have all the answers themselves,” she explained. “They don’t, and they need to develop the willingness to seek help and not be ashamed to ask. It is amazing how many people have struggled with that.”

For more than 20 years, it was the MSBDC — and quite often Fuller Doherty herself — that entrepreneurs, including BusinessWest founder John Gormally, would turn to for such help and guidance with everything from financing a venture to marketing a product, to simply deciding if a concept had legs. Often, it didn’t, and she would help them come to that important conclusion.

It was immensely rewarding work — and it still is.

Indeed, even though she officially retired from the MSBDC in 2016, Fuller Doherty remains quite active — with everything from mentoring young entrepreneurs, and especially women, to serving on the boards at Valley Venture Mentors, Tech Foundry, and Western New England University, where she sits on the committee now searching for a successor to long-time president Anthony Caprio.

Fuller Doherty — who bylined a piece for the New York Times in 2010, one in a series of pieces spotlighting people working past, or well past, what would be considered retirement age — has always believed in keeping the calendar full, and today, four years after retiring and also losing her husband, Paul Doherty, to cancer, she does so with everything from yoga and Pilates to consulting and mentoring.

“My feeling is that, as long as I’m doing something of value, why not continue doing it?’ she asked rhetorically in the piece she wrote for the Times. And those words ring true as she continues to do a number of things of value.

Especially in her role as a mentor and, yes, a role model to entrepreneurs, including a number of women who have been steered in her direction, continuing work to build the region’s economy through the development and maturation of small businesses.

“I love helping people, and I learn more from any job than I’ve ever given to people,” she told BusinessWest. “And that’s definitely true with mentoring; you learn about new industries, jobs, and approaches. I learn so much from my clients and mentees.”

Throughout her life and her career, Fuller Doherty has been a strong advocate for women — she was one of the founders of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts — and “ensuring they have full and equal share in economic, social, cultural, and political decision making,” as she put it. There is still some work to do, but overall, she believes great strides have been made.

And she feels the same about the region itself.

“We have a lot going for us here — there is quality of life, great colleges and universities, and wonderful communities in which to raise families,” she said. “It’s a great story, and we need to be telling it.”

For all that she has done — and all she continues to do — she’s a true Difference Maker.

Role Modeling

By now, most people know at least some of the Dianne Fuller Doherty story.

Born in upstate New York, she went to Mount Holyoke College, where she earned a degree in philsophy. She lived for a year in Boston after graduating and, while there, met third-year Harvard Law School student Paul Doherty and fell in love.

Paul contemplated heading west to Chicago and work in investments, but ultimately chose the law firm in Springfield where his father and grandfather both worked. And that’s where our story unfolds.

Dianne Fuller Doherty (second from left) and the other founders of the Women’s Fund of Western Mass., as well as its founding executive director, Kristi Nelson, were honored at an event in March 2019 at the Tower Square Hotel. Seen here are, from left, Donna Haghighat, CEO of the Women’s Fund, Fuller Doherty, founder Martha Richards, Nelson, Mimi Goldberg (accepting for the third founder, the late Sally Livingston), and Haydee Lamberty-Rodrigues, board chair of the WFMA.

Doherty admits to not knowing much about Springfield beyond its train station and the Student Prince restaurant, where her parents would take her to dinner while she was in college, but she quickly went about learning more. And by the ’90s, she was becoming a force in everything from business to helping women break through the glass ceiling.

Over the years, she became involved with institutions ranging from the Springfield Regional Chamber to the YMCA; from the World Affairs Council to Glenmeadow; from Bay Path University to the National Conference for Community and Justice.

When her four daughters were in their teens, Doherty, seeking to be a role model for them, first earned an MBA at Western New England College (20 years after she graduated from Mount Holyoke) and then went about looking for work — and maybe a career.

She started in Springfield City Hall working as a volunteer with the grants manager. “I wanted some experience, and I’d taken a grants course; I liked writing, and I liked to raise money,” she said, adding that all these talents would come into play later.

From there, she took a job with a marketing agency in Hartford, working primarily in business development.

“I didn’t know much about business development, but I could pretend pretty well,” she joked, adding that she enjoyed the work and, inspired to go into business for herself, partnered with Marsha Tzoumas and created a marketing firm that took their last names. The venture did well, eventually growing to 16 employees and a deep portfolio of clients, but it couldn’t survive the recession of the early ’90s.

“It was fun on the way up and hard when the economy changed and no one was spending any money on marketing,” she recalled, adding that she went on to work for Springfield Mayor Bob Markel before winning the job leading the regional office of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center.

Her intention was to stay for a few years “until I figured out what I really wanted to do.” She stayed nearly a quarter-century because she quickly discovered this was, indeed, what she really wanted to do.

“It was such a fun job, and I got to know so many people up and down the Valley, because I was in Northampton one day a week and Amherst one day a week,” she recalled. “I really got to know the region.”

She used all kinds of adjectives to describe her work with entrepreneurs, including ‘rewarding,’ ‘fulfilling,’ ‘exciting,’ and also ‘challenging’ — that last one because entrepreneurs don’t need someone telling them what they want to hear. They want, or should want, what amounts to tough love.

This 2010 New York Times article makes it clear Dianne Fuller Doherty plans to do things — including retirement — on her own schedule and in her own way.

“You have to be encouraging — you never want to say anything negative, but you also want to be honest and realistic,” he said. “The best advice I give to people is to ask enough questions so that they can come to the right conclusion on whether this is the right time, or the right place, or the right financial backing to go forward.

“You let them come to the decision about whether it’s a ‘no,’” she went on. “And if it’s a ‘yes,’ then you just try to be as encouraging as possible and let them know that there are going to be highs and lows in any business, and the challenges will come. But the rewards will come also.”

Thinking Big

Overall, Fuller Doherty said she believes the growth and evolution of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem — which she is now an integral part of — is one of the better economic-development stories unfolding in the region.

She told BusinessWest that, while MGM Springfield has been a solid addition to the landscape, and the eds and meds sectors remain pillars of the economy, the development of small businesses — with the hope that they that will bring jobs and perhaps grow into larger ventures — is the best economic-development strategy moving forward.

“When you think about MassMutual, it started with one man in a little building at 101 State St.,” she noted. “We don’t know what the next new thing or the next new business sector might be — it might be something not even known to us yet — but the key is to support and mentor people with ideas and help them turn those ideas into businesses and jobs.”

But there are many other good stories, she went on, listing everything from revitalization of Springfield’s downtown to new businesses emerging from the science labs at UMass Amherst and other area schools; from the growing strength of the area’s higher-education sector to this region emerging as a solid, affordable alternative to Greater Boston.

It’s a message that needs to be delivered — both to other markets in the Northeast and perhaps beyond, and in this market as well, she said, adding that a good deal of work remains to be done when it comes to building pride within the region.

“When I had my agency, my mantra was ‘marketing starts in the toes of the bus boy in the kitchen,’ and I truly believe that,” she said. “If you get him excited about what he’s doing serving people, he’s enthusiastic about not only his job but the region, and he shares that with other people, and they get excited; there’s a ripple effect. It’s the same with people living and working in this area.”

But perhaps the story she’s most intrigued by, and most proud of, is how the scene has changed for women over the decades.

For evidence, she points to the number of area colleges now led by women; in addition to the women’s schools, Springfield College, Holyoke Community College, Greenfield Community College, and Berkshire Community College all have a woman in the president’s office. And also to the number of businesses and nonprofits, as well as many new business ventures, being led by women.

‘When you look at the number of women leaders in this valley … it wasn’t this way 20 or 30 years ago; there’s been a real concentration of effort to promote women,” she explained. “Between women college presidents, not-for-profit CEOs, and for-profit CEOs, this is a very different place.”

Bottom Line

Fuller Doherty has had a lot to do with this region becoming that different place.

Over the years, she’s been a business owner, trusted consultant, mentor, role model, advocate for women, and cheerleader of sorts for the Pioneer Valley. And with most all of those titles, we can and do still use the present tense, which is a good thing for this region.

The headline placed over that aforementioned New York Times article from a decade ago read, “When She’s Ready to Retire, She’ll Know It.” Fuller Doherty may have retired from the MSBDC, but she hasn’t retired from being active in this region or from motivating and helping others to fulfill their specific dreams.

In short, she hasn’t retired from being a Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2020

This Community Leader Has Tackled Many Roles With a Sense of Purpose

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Back in the mid-’70s, Ronn Johnson recalls, he’d walk past a nondescript house on Wilbraham Road in Springfield, a few blocks down the road from both his home and his school. Sometimes he’d sit in the front room of that house, waiting for a dental appointment. In the neighboring Presbyterian church, a young, dynamic pastor, the Rev. Ronald Peters, had recently taken over a decidedly dwindling flock.

“I never thought this was a place I’d ever have a connection to,” Johnson told BusinessWest. “But I do believe that God has a plan for every one of us. I’m a very faith-driven person. I’ve been blessed to be in places where people see my interests and read my heart, and where I’m able to make some things happen.”

Today, he makes them happen in that same house. The dental office long gone, it now serves as the administrative center of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services Inc., where he’s been president and CEO for the past seven-plus years.

The neighborhood has changed much over the past half-century. Peters, who rebuilt that church by attracting kids and teenagers and then their parents, restored the church to vibrancy and oversaw the construction of the community center that became MLK Family Services.

Meanwhile, Johnson has spent much of the past four decades making a real difference for children and families in the community.

He’s done that through a variety of roles, all of which blended business acumen with a heart for service. He’s also done it through the Brianna Fund, a charity named after his daughter that has, over the past 22 years, helped children with disabilities access the tools and resources they need to achieve a better life (more on that later).

“I do what I do because I have a passion for making a difference for people,” Johnson said. “It’s that simple. And I’ve been fortunate enough where I’ve been able to make a career around doing that. So I feel I’m doubly blessed to have made a good life for myself, but in the context of being a professional helper.

“I do what I do because I have a passion for making a difference for people. It’s that simple.”

“It’s made my life more complete, more purposeful — not just crunching numbers for folks to get rich, but working on the side of creating opportunities that help corporations make good decisions about how to invest in our community and invest in people,” he went on. “And meeting the most basic needs people can have — food, sustenance, shelter, education — that’s very much what we’re about here.”

It’s a winding story with many stops, each of them worth visiting to understand why Ronn Johnson is a true Difference Maker — one whose influence will continue to resonate in the decades to come.

‘A Springfield Person’

Johnson’s family moved from Georgia to New England during the 1950s, part of the great African-American migration from the South in search of better economic opportunities, and he grew up along that stretch of Wilbraham Road.

“I’m a Springfield person. My formative years were right here,” he recalled. “I was part of a very caring community, as were most neighborhoods during that time. It wasn’t until later that we became so disparate and not as connected to our neighbors as we used to be. That laid the foundation for me to become very relationship-oriented. That has served me well.”

Indeed, each stop in his long career has been marked by building relationships between various entities — businesses, schools, social-service agencies, government — in the service of helping individuals and improving communities. “It’s not what I’ve done that’s so great, but other folks have sown seeds and shared a vision, and collectively we’ve come together to make it happen.”

He might have never made a career in Springfield had he followed through with an acceptance to Morehouse College in Atlanta. But when his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he decided to stay home with his mother and sisters, and attended Western New England College instead. “And I have no regrets,” he noted.

That’s due to the remarkable journey of service that followed. After graduating from WNEC, he was recruited to the W.W. Johnson Life Center, an organization that dealt in mental-health issues, and earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Cambridge College.

His next stop was the Dunbar Community Center, where he was involved in grant writing in an effort to meet the needs of an “underfunded community,” as he called it. “Poverty was at the core of what so many people were living with on a daily basis.”

His next role was vice president of Child and Family Services at the Center for Human Development (CHD), where he worked for 13 years — giving him a larger platform, a much broader range of financial supports, and a specific mandate.

Ronn Johnson has spent a lifetime improving the neighborhood of his youth — and impacting lives far beyond it.
(Photo by Leah Martin Photography)

“Leadership at the time wanted to make a stronger connection to community,” he recalled. “Yes, was important to do closed-referral programs, but we were getting referrals because of the dysfunction that existed in the communities, the poverty that was happening.”

Gang violence was also on the rise during the early part of the 1990s, and it was creeping into local schools, so he created a CHD program called the Citywide Violence Prevention Task Force.

“We had no contract for violence-prevention work, but we committed some resources to make some changes,” he said, adding that police, faith-based organizations, youth-serving agencies, concerned citizens, and businesses all wanted to be a part, as did college students who helped with marketing strategies and research projects.

“I got really tuned in to how to address violence from a public-health perspective because people don’t think about kids being shot in the street as a public-health issue — but, my goodness, for urban youth, it’s the number-one killer. Cancer is big, diabetes is big, but if you’re a young person in a certain urban environment, you’re more likely to be killed by violence.”

Part of that initiative was a street-outreach program that drew young people to environments where they could feel better about their lives, draw on community resources, and develop aspirations for a healthier future. That plan, dating back two decades, was recently used to write a proposal to fund a similar street-worker program, and the Department of Public Health issued grants to several organizations to launch it this year — including MLK Family Services.

“That made me feel old,” Johnson said with a laugh. “This thing has come full circle. I couldn’t have designed it that way.”

Measurable Results

Before his current role, however, Johnson had one more notable stop, as director of Community Responsibility at MassMutual.

“I moved from the micro side and case work to being a social worker in the macro context, setting policy and strategy around a corporation’s giving of millions of dollars to the community. It was a cultural difference, but I was happy. I got to spread my wings and be a positive contributor and see that these things we were funding were making a difference with people, and that they were measurable.”

He worked there for almost six years, until the economic downturn in 2009 forced cutbacks at many companies, and he was laid off. But he had no regrets, and he took advantage of relationships he had built in the worlds of higher education, healthcare, and other sectors and launched a consulting firm, RDJ Associates.

One of his clients was MLK Family Services, which approached him, during the summer of 2012, with an offer to take over leadership of the venerable but financially struggling agency. When he came on board, the first goal was simply to make payroll, but eventually he righted the ship — with the help of a business community that saw the organization’s value and quietly helped raise a half-million dollars.

“It was stressful, but I was committed. And I had a committed board of directors who hung in there and facilitated the change that needed to happen,” he said. “We regained credibility with funders. That was big.”

“It’s made my life more complete, more purposeful — not just crunching numbers for folks to get rich, but working on the side of creating opportunities that help corporations make good decisions about how to invest in our community and invest in people.”

Importantly, at MassMutual, he had learned the value of measurable results, and he’s been able to demonstrate that the agency’s programs — from helping people access healthier food to a College Readiness Academy that gives students tutorial help while bringing them to college campuses to raise their educational aspirations — do make a difference.

But no effort has been more personal to Johnson than the Brianna Fund, named for his daughter, who was born into the world with multiple broken bones from the brittle-bone condition known as osteogenesis imperfecta. Over the years, she would fracture dozens more. The family decided they needed an accessible van to keep Brianna in her wheelchair while moving from place to place, so they started a fundraiser.

“The community got behind us so significantly that we over-fundraised by about $30,000,” he recalled. “That was a message from God. I said all along that I didn’t want to do this if we’re not in it for the long haul. This needed to be ongoing, in perpetuity, for children in our community.”

Twenty-two years later, the Brianna Fund has raised more than $750,000 and helped 50 children. “Sometimes it’s advocacy, but in 90% of the situations, it’s to purchase a vehicle, renovate a home, widen hallways, install ramps,” he noted. The 50th recipient, Omer DeJesus, will use the funds to bring home a service dog.

The Brianna Fund also honors the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. each January with a benefit gospel concert, drawing thousands of attendees to the MassMutual Center.

“This is a ministry for me and my wife, something we do together that has a lot of benefit for folks,” Johnson said. “For us, it’s a gratifying experience to give something to folks that we know is going to move their life forward.”

Legacy of Service

These days, Johnson’s son, Ron, works as an attorney at Yale New Haven Hospital, while Brianna is living in a city she loves, Washington, D.C., working for an agency focused on issues that affect poor people, especially women. Often, someone will tell Johnson he saw Brianna wheeling around the capital, enjoying a life of service no doubt partly inspired by her difference-making dad.

He comes back repeatedly to the fact that he can’t do any of it alone. To serve 750 different people each week with after-school programs, college courses, family support, public-health outreach, sports programs, cultural activities, and more — with only about $1.6 million in annual funding — he relies not only on his team, but 114 active volunteers. “We could never do that kind of volume without the important role volunteers play.”

Still, he added, “small not-for-profits are under siege in this state and across the country,” because large funders want to give bigger contracts to fewer agencies, those with a broader infrastructure than MLK Family Services has. “In the meantime, those agencies who have the best relationships with the consumers on the ground, we get squeezed out of the game. So we need the support of our home communities and the business owners.”

In short, the challenge never ends. And Ronn Johnson, a man with a heart for the City of Homes, who works within shouting distance of his own childhood home, will keep working to meet his community’s needs.

After all, he’s a Springfield person. 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2020

Giving Back Has Always Been a Big Part of His Life — and His Work

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Steve Lowell vividly recalls the conversation he had with his wife, Anne, when he decided to apply for a position at a bank located on Cape Cod — roughly half the state away from their home in Upton.

“She said, ‘Steve, you can go ahead and take the job, but I’ll tell you right now that we are not moving Emily out of school to go to another place,’” he told BusinessWest, noting that his daughter was in the second grade at the time. “If I wanted the job, I was going to have to commute.”

Long story short, he took the job, and he did commute — 90 miles each way — for 16 years. And, as we’ll see, he didn’t just commute to the office. In fact, he was at so many community events, and became so involved with all that was happening in that area of the Cape, that people just assumed he lived there and were often shocked to find out he didn’t.

This ‘giving back’ has always been a big part of who Lowell is, as a person and as a financial-services professional. And he certainly brought this trait to another job he pursued and eventually won — president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank.

Pretty much since the day he took that job early in 2011, Lowell has been active not only in Monson and surrounding communities, but also across the region as a whole, through his work with agencies ranging from the United Way of Pioneer Valley to Link to Libraries.

And when we say ‘from the day he took the job,’ we mean it.

Indeed, just a matter of weeks after he arrived, a tornado ripped across the region — and downtown Monson. As the community began the arduous task of digging out, many looked to the bank, one of the pillars of the community, for guidance and support.

Lowell and the bank responded in all kinds of ways, from helping to clear debris — he remembers cutting up fallen trees himself — to providing some leniency on mortgage and loan payments for those who needed it to emergency loans to help businesses reopen their doors.

For Lowell, who recently announced that he’ll be retiring early next year, ‘giving back’ isn’t just something he does. It’s something he preaches, if that’s the right word. Over the course of his more than 40 years in banking, he told BusinessWest, he’s had mentors who taught him the importance of community banks — and the people who work for them — to be involved in the communities in which they do business. And for decades now, he’s been teaching others.

Steve Lowell, center, is among the many dignitaries cutting the ribbon at the YMCA of Greater Springfield’s new Learning Center in Tower Square, sponsored by Monson Savings Bank.

“I learned early on, if I was going to be successful in this work, that it was important to be involved and give back — not only your monetary contributions, but your time and talent,” he said. “I’ve tried to live by that, and it’s worked out well.”

Thus, he has been a very effective role model for countless young professionals, and also something else — a true Difference Maker in Western Mass.

Saving Grace

Lowell said he could hear the tornado roaring down Main Street in Monson that fateful afternoon, noting that it really did sound like a freight train — a phrase so many have used to describe it. And that sound told him he needed to move. Fast.

“I hid in that bathroom right over there,” he said, pointing to a door in his office within the 150-year-old Lyons House, a large, handsome former residence now home to a few businesses, including some of the bank’s offices. “I looked around at the glass chandelier and all these windows and decided this was not a good place to be. And when I came out…”

He started shaking his head for emphasis as be recalled what he saw as he ventured out of that bathroom and then onto the street.

“It was over quickly, and there was dead quiet; I went outside, and it looked like a war zone,” he recalled, noting that trees were down, roofs had been torn off buildings, and a peaceful, rural town had been turned on its side, figuratively, but almost literally.

Lowell, who, as noted, had only been on the job a few months, hadn’t had a chance to meet too many people or find out just what kind of community Monson was. Suffice to say, the tornado greatly accelerated that process, thus providing the only real bright spot he could see from that catastrophe.

Steve Lowell, seen here with Link to Libraries executive director Laurie Flynn and students at Elias Brookings School, has made Monson Savings one of the leading corporate supporters of LTL.

“As traumatic and as bad as that was for the community, it provided me with the opportunity to meet a lot of people right away,” he said. “People from the town were reaching out to us, saying, ‘how is the bank going to be able to help?’ I got to meet a lot of people that it would have taken me years to meet.”

Only a few months before the tornado, Lowell was taking Anne on a drive to see Monson. He was applying to be president of the community bank based there and admits now to not actually knowing where said community was.

A headhunter had alerted him to the opportunity, and he was eager to consider it because the president of that bank on the Cape was just a little older than him and not ready to retire any time soon.

The subject of community involvement came up repeatedly during the many interviews for the position, and Lowell recalls being eager to answer those questions.

“I told them what I did on the Cape — I had been chairman of the United Way, chairman of the local YMCA, involved with the EDC, and involved with a host of other things, even though I didn’t live on the Cape,” he recalled. “So it was easy for me to let the board know what kind of commitment I was willing to make.”

And, as noted, it didn’t take long for this commitment to manifest itself, in all kinds of ways.

Starting with the United Way of Pioneer Valley, a story that is also related to the tornado in some ways.

Active Interest

Indeed, Dora Robinson, then executive director of the United Way chapter, knowing of Lowell’s involvement with that organization earlier in his career, asked him about being on her board.

Before getting to that, he informed her that many people in the Monson area were critical of the United Way’s response — or a perceived lack of a response — after the tornado struck. Upon being informed the agency was highly involved in relief efforts, Lowell recalls telling Robinson, “no one knows that — and you have to tell them; you have to take credit.”

And so he became not only a board member, but a very active one, taking on a role as “advocate” (his word) for those living in the many smaller towns in the eastern part of Hampden County.

“I have a hard time saying ‘no’ when people ask me like that,” he told BusinessWest, adding that his stint with the board, including his recent work as president, has been one of extreme challenge as the United Way chapter has battled through fiscal woes (as many have) and leadership changes, eventually coming into a partnership agreement to essentially share an executive director with the United Way of MetroWest, a move that has brought about many economies of scale.

Like most others, Lowell found it impossible to say ‘no’ to Link to Libraries (LTL) founder Susan Jaye Kaplan when she came to talk with him about that still-fledgling nonprofit soon after he arrived in the area. The occasion was a check presentation; soon after Lowell arrived, the bank created a program whereby the public could help decide how the bank gave back to the community through cash donations by voting for nonprofits via Facebook. Link to Libraries was one of the highest vote gatherers.

But upon learning more about the agency, Lowell took the bank’s involvement to a much higher plane.

“I was fascinated by the mission,” he said, adding that, through introductions made by Kaplan, the bank soon sponsored two schools — one in Monson and the other in Hampden — as part of LTL’s Community Book Link program. Today, the bank sponsors five schools — Elias Brookings School in Springfield, Springfield Public Day Elementary School, Springfield Public Day Middle School, Quarry Hill Community School in Monson, and Stanley M. Koziol Elementary School in Ware — the most of any company in the region.

“Steve Lowell’s generosity and passion for this community, particularly with regard to children and education, has had an enormous impact on our work at Link to Libraries,” said Laurie Flynn, president and CEO of LTL. “Through their sponsorships, community-giving initiatives, and emphasis on volunteering, Steve has created a culture of giving at Monson Savings Bank. Through their sponsorship of five local elementary schools in need and the numerous Monson Savings Bank employees who volunteer to read in classrooms each month, Steve Lowell and the bank have impacted the lives of more than 1,000 underserved children.”

Lowell has also become involved with Baystate Health, serving as chairman of its Eastern Region, as well as with the Monson Free Library, the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, and a number of other groups and institutions.

But what really makes him a Difference Maker is that culture of giving that he has helped create and the way he mentors others to give back.

“One of the things I really enjoy is helping my staff move up within the organization,” he said. “And I tell them all, ‘if you want to get ahead here, you’re going to have to be involved in the community.’ I tell them it’s not really important to me what they do, but I encourage them to find something they’re interested in and that they enjoy. I tell them they need to buy into that, and they need to be part of it.”

Common Cents

Returning to that commute from Upton to the Cape, Lowell said that, over the course of those 16 years, he became quite fond of books on tape — “I was very well read” — and adept at knowing when the traffic would be worst and how to avoid it.

“I made it work,” he said simply, adding that those years helped cement a legacy of giving back and getting involved.

But in Monson, he has taken that philosophy to an even higher level, putting the bank at the forefront of a number of efforts to improve quality of life and secure a strong future.

Today, he enjoys a much shorter commute, affording him time to be even more of a Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Support System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shedding Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2020 Difference Makers

Celebrate with Us!

2020 Difference Makers
Thursday, March 19, 2020
5 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
The Log Cabin, Holyoke

This program, initiated in 2009, is a celebration of individuals, groups, organizations, and families that are positively impacting the Pioneer Valley and are, as the name suggests, making a difference in this region. As previous classes have shown, there are many ways to do this: through work within the community on one or many initiatives to improve quality of life; through success in business, public service, or education; through contributions that inspire others to get involved; through imaginative efforts to help solve one or more societal issues; or through a combination of the above.

Our 2020 Difference Makers will be announced in the Feb. 3, 2020 issue of BusinessWest

Tickets are $75 per person/$750 for a table of 10.

Purchase Tickets Below:

Difference Makers Event Tickets

"*" indicates required fields

Name*
Address*
Price: $75.00
Name Email Actions
   

 2020 Difference Makers Sponsors

 

 

 

 

Pay it Forward Non-Profit Partners

 

Class of 2019 Difference Makers
A look back at this year’s celebration at the Log Cabin on March 28  
Class of 2019 Cover Story Difference Makers

Celebrating the 2019 Class

It was almost a decade ago now when Bill Ward, then the executive director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, stepped to the podium at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke to accept the first Difference Maker award presented by BusinessWest.

Much has happened since then. Ward retired a few years later, and the REB is now known as the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board. 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 are a great many ways to make a difference. And the class of 2019, the program’s 11th, makes this even more abundantly clear, as the stories clearly show.

The six members of the class of 2019 were honored on Thursday, March 28 at the Log Cabin. View the Program Guide HERE.

Submit Nominations Here!

2019 Emcee

Tony Cignoli
President of A.L. Cignoli Company

Tony Cignoli is the President of the A. L. Cignoli Company, the public relations, political and governmental affairs company he founded in 1992. The company serves political and corporate clients across America with bases of operation in Boston, Massachusetts, clients’ operations centers, and home base being Springfield, Massachusetts.

A.L. Cignoli Company has built a reputation creating success for both political and corporate clients in challenging situations; taking on tough assignments, from referendum campaigns other firms will not touch to assisting in turning around political and corporate campaigns in trouble. The firm is recognized for a holistic approach to public and governmental affairs solutions, melding Tony and his associate’s contacts and hands-on approach with an understanding of how to utilize modern applications of data mining, polling data and social media.

Tony is a veteran of over 350 political campaigns, including presidential elections in Peru, Prime Minister and Parliamentary campaigns in Italy and many referendums in Massachusetts and throughout New England. He is a frequent commentator and political analyst for newspapers, radio and television news programs.

2019 Sponsor Videos

2019 Difference Makers

Carla Cosenzi, Co-president, TommyCar Auto Group

She’s Been a Driving Force in Business and Philanthropy

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts

This Essential Agency Helps the Region Contend with a ‘New Normal’

Peter Gagliardi, President and CEO, of Way Finders

He’s Spent a Career Bringing Home the Power of Collaboration

Frederick and Marjorie Hurst

They’ve Shared a Lifetime Working for Social Change

Joe Peters, Vice Chairman, Former President, Universal Plastics

This Business Leader Has Made a Career of Finding Ways to Give Back

The Springfield Museums

Institution Has Mastered the Art and Science of Being Entrepreneurial

2019 Presenting Sponsor

2019 Sponsors

Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography
Class of 2019 Difference Makers

She’s Been a Driving Force in Business and Philanthropy

Carla Cosenzi, Co-president, TommyCar Auto Group

Carla Cosenzi, Co-president,
TommyCar Auto Group

Carla Cosenzi says many people who think they know her story believe she segued from a career in healthcare to one selling cars and eventually managing dealerships because her father, Tommy Cosenzi, had been diagnosed with brain cancer.

That’s not really how it happened, said Cosenzi, adding quickly that her father, well before he was diagnosed, changed her career course when he convinced her to put plans to pursue her doctorate in clinical psychology on hold temporarily and spend some time at the family business.

“He said, ‘just come home and do some stuff around the dealership with me,’” she recalled, adding that she was living in New York at the time, having just earned her master’s at Columbia, and was trying to figure out the next chapter in her life. “In retrospect, I know now exactly what he was doing, but at the time I didn’t. He said, ‘I want you help me get our internet department up and going, and I want you to help with the sales process inside some of the dealerships, and just help me do some stuff that I need to get done that I haven’t been able to accomplish.’”

Long story somewhat short, she did all that and really enjoyed it, putting a career in clinical psychology on the shelf, if you will, and starting down a much different road.

“At the time, I felt he was really supportive of my ambitions, but he had a different plan for me, and he was re-routing me,” she went on, adding that she would “fall in love with the business.”

Carla Cosenzi says she shares her father’s ‘wanting more’ attitude

Carla Cosenzi says she shares her father’s ‘wanting more’ attitude, which drives her work in both business and philanthropy.

But while her father’s illness wasn’t exactly the impetus for what has become a career in auto-sales management, it was certainly the inspiration of what has become a very important part of her life.

That would be the Tommy Cosenzi Driving for the Cure Charity Golf Tournament, which she started, along with her brother, also named Tommy, in 2010.

“I think I share a lot of his ‘wanting more’ attitude. If we set a goal and we hit it, we’d set another goal and work to attain that goal. It’s that attitude of ‘it’s never enough and always looking for more.’ I’m not sure that’s a good thing or a bad thing in life, but that’s where I am.”

Over the past eight years, the tournament has raised more than $900,000 to support Dr. Patrick Wen (her father’s doctor) and his research colleagues at the Center for Neuro-Oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and it will certainly top the $1 million mark with this year’s tournament in August.

That money helps Dana-Farber researchers design novel clinical trials to test and develop targeted therapies that have not previously been studied in brain tumors, initiating several clinical trials in immunotherapy and conducting groundbreaking basic research to guide new therapeutic approaches, said Cosenzi, adding that these initiatives are an ambitious extension of her father’s efforts to find a cure for the disease that took his life.

Carla Consenzi and her brother, Tommy, left, with Dr. Patrick Wen

Carla Cosenzi and her brother, Tommy, left, with Dr. Patrick Wen, who is annually awarded the proceeds from the Driving for the Cure charity golf tournament.

“These funds are unrestricted — he can take them and try anything with research that he wants to try,” she explained. “It’s almost impossible to get money like that, and they’ve done a lot of testing and trial drugs with the money.

“I wish I could say that there were positive results from the work that’s been done,” she went on, “but every dollar helps in that effort to find a cure.”

Cosenzi said the tournament has become a labor of love, much like the car business itself, with planning for the following year’s event beginning literally within days after the trophy is handed out and the proceeds presented to Wen from the just-completed tournament.

And it represents just one of the many ways Cosenzi, now a winner of multiple BusinessWest awards — she was the top scorer in the Forty Under 40 class of 2012 — has become a Difference Maker in the region. Others include her success in business, her emergence as a role model of sorts for young women pursuing careers in business and mothers trying to balance life and work, and her commitment to following in her father’s footsteps not only as a manager of people but as one who gives back to the community.

“I think I share a lot of his ‘wanting more’ attitude,” she explained, referring to her father. “If we set a goal and we hit it, we’d set another goal and work to attain that goal. It’s that attitude of ‘it’s never enough and always looking for more.’ I’m not sure that’s a good thing or a bad thing in life, but that’s where I am.”

And that ‘wanting more’ and setting higher goals refers not only to selling Volkswagens, Nissans, and Volvos, but also to raising money to fight cancer.

In each realm, she does, as they might say in this business, put the pedal to the metal.

Getting Up to Speed

As she talked about the all that planning that goes into the charity golf tournament, her level of involvement, and whether she puts a tee in the ground and plays herself, Cosenzi offered a quick yet effective response: “I’m a control freak.”

She could have left it at that, but didn’t.

“I’m very particular when it comes to how the day is run,” she told BusinessWest. “I want to make sure it’s set up properly and that we’re running on the right schedule. No, I don’t play; I’m there running the event. I hand out our roses, I shake everyone’s hand at registration … I greet them when they arrive and make sure everyone’s having a good time.”

Carla Cosenzi says the charity golf tournament named in honor of her father

Carla Cosenzi says the charity golf tournament named in honor of her father, like the family business itself, has become a labor of love for her.

But, and this is a big but, she went on to explain that her control-freak nature, while certainly not restricted to golf-tournament management, doesn’t really extend to management at the TommyCar Auto Group.

Indeed, she said that over the years — and it hasn’t been all that many years, to be sure (she’s only 39) — she’s learned that good managers master the art of delegation.

“A lot of people think of a leader as someone coming in, being a control freak, and yelling at everyone,” she said. “But really, if you’re a good leader, you’re relinquishing more control and you’re putting more trust into other people.”

Knowing when and when not to delegate is one of the many things Cosenzi has learned in a career that is many ways just getting started and still adding intriguing chapters.

“There’s a huge difference between being a manager for my father and being a leader and managing other managers.”

Like most all second- (or third- or fourth-) generation members of auto-business owning families, Cosenzi remembers practically growing up at the dealership, in this case Springfield Chrysler Plymouth on Boston Road in Springfield, one of several stores her father would eventually own and manage.

“I spent a lot of summers at the dealership and would come in on weekends; one of my first memories is of the Christmas parties my father would have for employees and underprivileged children,” she recalled, adding that giving back certainly runs in the family. “I remember spending a lot of time playing in the cars and in the office-supplies room. I don’t know why office supplies are so attractive to kids, but they are — my children love them, too — the Post-its, stapling, making photocopies, coloring … it’s all fun.”

Later, when she would return to this region for summer break from high school, she would work at the dealership moving cars, making sure they were clean, and related tasks. And as she got a little older, she drifted into sales and quickly developed both an affinity for, and a passion for, that side of the business.

“I always loved the idea of selling cars — it was fun, and I was making decent money,” she said, recalling that, by this time, the mid-’90s, it was still rare to see women in positions other than the back office in auto sales, primarily because the industry didn’t work very hard to attract women. Today, the situation is much different, a climate we’ll get to later. First, back to how Cosenzi arrived at the large office at Northampton Volkswagen, managing four dealerships and more than 150 employees.

That was certainly not the plan when she enrolled at Northeastern University and studied clinical psychology. With her undergraduate degree, she worked at a hospital in the area, and eventually enrolled at Columbia to earn her master’s in clinical psychology and lived in New York City for a year and a half.

It was when she had that diploma in her hand — and started looking at options for attaining a doctorate — that she had a talk with her father that she remembers vividly. It went this way:

“I remember saying to my dad, ‘I think I might go on; I really enjoy this,’” she recalled. “And he said, ‘we’re going to put on the brakes here; you’re going to pack up, you’re going to come home, we’re going to reset, and we’re going to make sure this is what you really want to do before we invest in any more schooling.”

And that’s exactly what happened, she went on, adding that she missed one window for applying for doctorate programs, and in the eight or nine months before the next window would open, her career outlook would change dramatically.

Indeed, as noted earlier, as her father got her involved in more aspects of the business, she was drawn into it and decided she wanted to stay in — before her father was diagnosed. She spent a year going back and forth to McLean, Va. and the National Automotive Dealer Association’s Dealer Academy.

“At this point, I really fell in love with the business, like I never knew I could,” she told BusinessWest. “I loved selling cars, I loved working for my dad … I really just fell in love with all aspects of the dealership.”

She progressed from being a salesperson at Patriot Buick GMC in Charleton to being a finance manager, to sales manager, and was moving to the point of “managing the managers, rather then being a manager,” as she put it, when her father got sick in 2007 at only 49 years of age.

To a Higher Gear

Doctors gave Tom Cosenzi less than a year to live. He would actually live another 2½ years.

Over that time, Carla would learn still more about the business from him and, with her brother, complete a transition of the business to the next generation.

Over the past several years, they’ve expanded the TommyCar Auto Group to its present four dealerships, the latest addition being Volvo Cars Pioneer Valley in South Deerfield, acquired last summer. Along the way, Carla has become the marketing face of the business, and even her young children, Talia, 4, and Nico, 3, have become well-known to those listening to the radio or watching local television.

Far less well known is how Carla said she grappled with the transition from car sales to managing a sales team to managing managers and ultimately making her mark in an industry dominated by men.

“There’s a huge difference between being a manager for my father and being a leader and managing other managers,” she said. “Luckily, I think I earned the respect of the people here after working in the business for so long.

“Still, being female, it was a very interesting dynamic,” she went on, adding that she was now managing people who had worked for her father for long time — some a very long time. “I struggled — I mean I really struggled — to earn their respect, figure out how to be a good leader to them, and hold them accountable; I would not want to go back to those days.”

But figure it out she did, she said, adding that there was a lot of learning by doing — but also some restaffing, as she had to replace some people whose respect she couldn’t seem to earn and who didn’t want to do some of the things she suggested — things that her father might not have wanted to do.

Ultimately, she said she’s much like in her father in many respects, especially in how she wants a dealership run and customers treated, but also in how employees are respected and business goals set and made.

While transitioning to management of the family business, Cosenzi and her brother have also followed their father in another respect — giving back to the community.

For Carla, such efforts have taken many forms, from work to create scholarships in her father’s name for students at several area high schools, to mentoring of young women, to public speaking on topics related to women in business and work/life balance.

But much of her time and energy goes to the Drive for the Cure golf tournament, which has earned the support of a number of area businesses and individuals. She said the event is in some ways a continuation of an annual golf tournament her father ran as an outing for his employees.

“That’s why it was so important for us to take that idea of all coming together and getting out and having some fun and turn it into a way to honor him and also raise money for a good cause,” she explained.

And while her work at the four dealerships and with the golf tournament absorbs much of her time, she still finds some to occasionally mentor young women in various ways.

For example, she frequently speaks at the region’s trade schools, offering words of advice and encouragement to young women looking at careers that been traditionally dominated by men. And she uses her own story to help get her points across.

“I tell them about my own struggles coming up as a woman in the business,” she said. “And I tell them that it’s possible to succeed and that they should never give up on whatever their dream might be.”

She’s also spoken before a number of women’s groups about subjects ranging from leadership to attracting women to her business, to the all-important issue of achieving work-life balance, something that is elusive and that she still struggles to attain.

“My kids are growing up quick, and I work hard to make sure I’m there for what they need, but am also still here for the business,” she said. “The key is to be organized — very organized — and I am.”

A Leader Who’s Driven

When she visits the office-supplies area at Northampton Volkswagen, Cosenzi can usually find signs that her children have been there — and have enjoyed themselves.

That takes her back about 35 years or so to the Springfield Chrysler Plymouth dealership, where she started learning the ropes from a man who inspired her —and keeps on inspiring her — in all kinds of ways.

Today, she’s inspiring others, as a business leader, a woman achieving balance in her life, an aggressive fighter against cancer, and an individual always looking for different ways to give back to her community.

In short, as a Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2019 Difference Makers

This Essential Agency Helps the Region Contend with a ‘New Normal’

Andrew Morehouse, executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts

Andrew Morehouse, executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts

As Andrew Morehouse talks about the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, its history, mission, and future, he makes early and frequent use of numbers.

And for a good reason — actually, several of them.

They bring this story into focus better than any words probably could, said Morehouse, executive director of the Hatfield-based nonprofit since 2005. The numbers punctuate the tremendous amount of need in this region, and … well, they usually wind up surprising people and then inspiring them.

Here are just a few:

Over the past calendar year, the Food Bank has served more than 225,000 people seeking what is known as ‘food assistance.’ That’s not necessarily 225,000 different people, Morehouse acknowledged; that number is at least 100,000 and probably closer to 200,000 — significant no matter what the actual total is, because the population of this region is only about 900,000. Nearly one-third of those served (30%) are children, 14% are seniors, and the rest are adults ages 19-64.

“Do the math. People working at minimum wage or near minimum wage working full-time can’t meet all their basic expenses, including food, so something has to give. And often, it is food.”

As for meals distributed, that number is more than 9.6 million for the four Western Mass. counties, and more than 5 million for Hampden County alone. Those meals add up to 11.6 million pounds of food, or the equivalent of 145 tractor-trailers packed from one end to the other.

And here are perhaps the most surprising, disturbing, and inspiring numbers. The total amount of food distributed in 2005 was 5.6 million pounds, just over half what it is today. Meanwhile, the number of people served spiked after the Great Recession to more than 200,000, and in the decade since, it hasn’t gone down, even though the economy has recovered significantly by every statistical measure.

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts relies on a small army of volunteers to carry out its broad mission.

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts relies on a small army of volunteers to carry out its broad mission.

“That’s certainly alarming,” said Morehouse, adding that all these numbers add up to three simple yet also quite complex words: ‘a new normal.’

“There’s been an economic restructuring, as often happens after recessions, which has brought about a dramatic change in the workforce,” he explained. “Many people, if they are working, are in lower-paying jobs. And that results in a lot of families not being able to support themselves, even if people are working full-time.

“Do the math,” he went on. “People working at minimum wage or near minimum wage working full-time can’t meet all their basic expenses, including food, so something has to give. And often, it is food.”

Confronting this new normal in a proactive manner could be considered the unofficial mission of the Food Bank, which was created in 1982 and first housed in a tobacco barn in Hadley.

And this mission is carried on in a number of ways, said Morehouse, noting that collecting and then distributing food for more than 9 million meals is obviously the most visible and impactful manifestation of the agency’s work and the quickest, most profound explanation for why this agency is being honored as a Difference Maker.

“People are not going to wear a sign around their neck saying, ‘I’m hungry.’ There is a lot of stigma and shame attached to not being able to meet your basic needs, especially food. So there’s a real challenge there in terms of public education.”

Indeed, Monte Belmonte, program director and morning show host at WHMP radio and architect of Monte’s March, an annual trek during which he pushes a shopping cart to raise money for the Food Bank, called the agency ‘mother ship hunger’ that provides food to a number of area food pantries and soup kitchens, and essentially enables them to carry out their work.

“When I go into these emergency food providers across our region, all of them say they couldn’t do their work; that’s how essential the Food Bank is to fighting hunger here,” he said. “If it weren’t for this huge piece of the puzzle, all those other dominoes would be in huge trouble.”

But the Food Bank is also attacking the root causes of this large and persistent problem through an ambitious initiative called the Coalition to End Hunger.

Launched in 2017, the coalition is a collaborative network of leaders and organizations focusing on providing integrated services for those who need them, erasing the stigma associated with hunger and advocating for public policy solutions.

As just one example, he noted the agency’s work to bring awareness to — and a possible solution for — the so-called ‘cliff effect.’ Not a recent phenomenon but certainly a growing problem, this cliff effect refers to a situation where people who want to work, and are often being given help to join the workforce, often don’t because the income they would earn would make them ineligible or less eligible for benefits such as food assistance.

Andrew Morehouse says the Food Bank is coping with what a ‘new normal’

Andrew Morehouse says the Food Bank is coping with what a ‘new normal’ when it comes to the number of area residents needing help and the volume of food it distributes.

Looking toward the future, the Food Bank is blueprinting ambitious expansion plans, said Morehouse, adding that, given the ‘new normal’ this region is facing, the agency will need to nearly double the size of its 30,000-square-foot Hatfield headquarters to effectively carry out its broad mission.

Plans are preliminary, he went on, adding that a capital campaign will certainly be needed for this expansion to become reality. When asked for a price tag, he said he didn’t know what that number might be at this time.

What he does know is that all those other numbers cited earlier are expected to increase in the months and years to come. The food bank will go on being a Difference Maker in this region, he said, but the challenge will only continue to grow in scope.

Crunching the Numbers

Morehouse told BusinessWest that hunger is what he called “an invisible problem.”

By that, he meant that, in many ways, it’s not easy for many people to see or fully comprehend the scope of the problem in this area, especially in times like these, when the economy is, in most ways, doing well and unemployment rates are approaching record-low levels. And also because of the persistent stigma attached to hunger.

“People are not going to wear a sign around their neck saying, ‘I’m hungry,’” he said. “There is a lot of stigma and shame attached to not being able to meet your basic needs, especially food. So there’s a real challenge there in terms of public education.”

Meanwhile, beyond being invisible in nature, hunger, or the need for food assistance, is an often misunderstood problem.

Indeed, the common perception is that many of those seeking such assistance are capable of working and are not, opting instead for a handout. There are certainly a few that might fit into that category, said Morehouse, but the vast majority of people receiving assistance would rather not be. However, circumstances dictate that they must, so they do, although pride does keep some away who are truly in need.

“We need to debunk that myth that people go hungry because of their fault,” he explained, adding that battling this stigma, as well as the many misperceptions about those seeking food assistance, has been part of the Food Bank’s mission since it was created more than 35 years ago by area church leaders. It is now one of 200 food banks across the country under the umbrella of a national organization called Feeding America.

As noted, it started in a tobacco barn in Hadley (a location chosen because the intent was for the agency to also serve Southern Vermont, although it did that for only a short time), but within a year, land was purchased in Hatfield for a headquarters facility that includes a large warehouse and administrative offices.

As he offered a tour of that warehouse, Morehouse noted that the food distributed by the agency comes from a number of sources and agencies with like-sounding acronyms. These include the state government (MEFAP), the federal government (TEFAP), local farms, the agency’s own farm, retail and wholesale food businesses (including CNS Wholesale Grocers, which built a huge warehouse literally next door in Hatfield), community organizations, and individual donations.

“With state funding and food donations from local farmers, we receive more than 1 million pounds of fresh vegetables every year,” he explained, while pointing to cases and large storage bins of food that arrived from a host of various sources, and correcting another misperception about food banks. “Contrary to the stereotype that food banks distribute unhealthy food, a third of the food that we distribute is fresh vegetables; we get vegetables from supermarkets, and we actually buy vegetables from Canada over the winter months because they know how to store the harvest up there.”

Once received and processed, the food is distributed to a number of member agencies or through the Food Bank’s own direct-to-client programs such as its Mobile Food Bank or its Brown Bag: Food for Elders program. These member agencies, located across the four counties of Western Mass., include pantries, meal sites, shelters, rehabilitation facilities, senior centers, and more.

And this is where some confusion exists, said Morehouse, noting that many believe the Food Bank is one of these pantries, such as Rachel’s Table, Kate’s Kitchen in Holyoke, or the Amherst Survival Center.

“Our strategic plan is to continue to increase the amount of food we distribute every year, until or unless we see things get better. But here we are in a period of dramatic economic growth, and there are still 225,000 people receiving food — and we know that another recession will come.”

Instead, it is, as Belmonte described, the mother ship for those smaller distribution facilities, a ship that needs fuel — in the form of donations of food, money, time, and energy; indeed, the Food Bank relies on a small army of volunteers to keep its multi-faceted operation running smoothly.

Meanwhile, donations from the public, attained through a host of fundraisers, including Monte’s March, are used to support the infrastructure that enables the Food Bank to carry out its mission, said Morehouse.

“Those donations support the capacity we have, between staff and trucks and warehousing, to be able to receive the food that’s either donated or paid for by the public sector,” he explained. “That’s the magic that enables us to turn $1 that is donated into the equivalent of three meals.”

But while food distribution is at the heart of the agency’s mission, there is much more to the work known as food assistance, said Morehouse, adding that the Food Bank is engaged in helping area residents on a number of fronts, including SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) outreach and enrollment, nutrition outreach, and the broad realm of advocacy.

Educating the public about the problem of hunger and its vast dimensions is a big part of the mission, said Morehouse, adding that many of the families being served by the agency have incomes that exceed the thresholds established for SNAP benefits, but are not high enough to adequately feed that family. He offered an example.

“For a family of four, that threshold is about $44,000,” he said, in reference to the ceiling for SNAP benefits. “So if you’re making $45,000 a year, you can’t make ends meet, yet you’re not eligible for SNAP benefits. So if you can’t feed yourself, you can go to a local food pantry or meal site and get some food to get through the week or the month until the next paycheck comes. To get by, a family of four would need to earn about $56,000; so there’s a gap of $12,000.”

Word-of-Mouth Referrals

That gap, and, more specifically, the steady, alarmingly high number of people facing such a gap, explains not only the need for the Food Bank but why the long-term strategic plan calls for an expansion of the Hatfield facility, said Morehouse.

Elaborating, he said that, when the Food Bank goes about calculating how much food it will need to distribute, either to area member agencies or through its own programs, it takes that number cited earlier — 225,000 people — and multiples it by the number of times each individual might visit. This takes us to that other number — 11.6 million pounds of food — which, he said, is almost certain to increase in the years to come.

“Every year that I’ve been at the Food Bank, we’ve increased the amount of food we’ve distributed,” he explained. “In 2005, we were distributing 5.6 million pounds of food; last year, it was over twice that amount.

“Our strategic plan is to continue to increase the amount of food we distribute every year, until or unless we see things get better,” he went on. “But here we are in a period of dramatic economic growth, and there are still 225,000 people receiving food — and we know that another recession will come.”

This reality, and the need to be able to respond to it, is one of the forces that started Belmonte on his march back at the start of this decade. The program has its roots in a food drive staged by the radio station, he explained, but was inspired by the knowledge that the Food Bank, with its enormous buying power, can do more with dollars than it can with donated cans of soup.

So Belmonte started marching from Northampton to Greenfield with a shopping cart souped up (pun intended) by students at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, broadcasting and raising money as he went.

In its first year, the march raised $13,000 for the Food Bank. The latest installment, staged last November, raised $294,000. The numbers are just one manifestation of how the event has grown in size — and meaning.

Indeed, the march now covers two days and much more ground; the trek is now from Springfield to Greenfield. And Belmonte, who likened himself to Forrest Gump in the scenes where that movie character is running across the country, has picked up a lot of company in his march.

“There were hundreds of people joining us at various points along the 43-mile route, including all the newly elected legislators in Western Mass. and U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern, who has done this march at least six times now,” said Belmonte, adding that this strength in numbers has helped bring more than money to the Food Bank — it’s helped raise awareness of its all-important mission.

And still more awareness comes with some stops those marching make to a few of the member agencies served by the Food Bank.

“Some of these people who are marching along with us have never been to a food pantry and seen how one works,” he said. “So it brings the pieces to the puzzle together in a rather interesting way for people.”

Thus, the march has become part of Belmonte’s work as a member of the Coalition to End Hunger, an important extension, if you will, of the Food Bank’s mission. The coalition is focusing on three primary areas of work:

• A policy team that identifies and supports changes that will help resolve the underlying causes of hunger;

• A service-integration team that develops a network that will help those who are food-insecure through initiatives ranging from integrating nutrition programs into other safety-net programs to increasing access to healthy food in food deserts and food swamps; and

• A communication and education team (Belmonte’s a member) that addresses the lack of understanding and education about food insecurity, and the stigma attached to the problem, through a targeted media campaign.

“We’ve invested in a public media-education campaign to drive traffic to a website called coalitiontoendhunger.org,” Morehouse explained, “where we’re telling real stories of real people that will help shatter the myth that people are hungry because they’re lazy or they don’t want to work or because they have a drug problem.

“One would do better to not assume or judge, but to understand this problem and come up with smart ways to address it,” he went on, adding that this is the essence of the coalition and its work.

Belmonte agreed, and said his efforts to assist the food bank have certainly evolved over the years and expanded beyond the physical pushing of a shopping cart and asking for donations, and into the realm of education.

“I’ve learned so much about food insecurity and the myths surrounding it, and I wanted to do much more than a publicity stunt,” he said of his work with the coalition. “Using the tools of marketing to help destigmatize this issue is really important to me.”

Food for Thought

As he put the Food Bank and its broad spectrum of work in perspective, Morehouse recalled (he said it was something he’d never forget) a tour of the Charlemont area he was given by a woman who runs a food pantry there.

“She drove me around the rural roads of Charlemont to show me where people lived and tell the stories of the people who lived in those houses and also frequented the pantries,” he told BusinessWest. “It was eye-opening to see the condition of those houses, but it’s just one example of how there’s lots of people in rural communities, and urban communities, who are just scraping by — really struggling.

“People who don’t experience that and don’t live in those circumstances, just don’t have a clue of how much people are struggling to survive,” he went on, adding that it is part of the Food Bank’s mission to not only give people a clue but create enough momentum to confront that new normal he described, in the manner in which it needs to be confronted.

And that’s why, beyond those 9.6 million meals and 11.6 million pounds of food distributed, this agency is a true Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2019 Difference Makers

He’s Spent a Career Bringing Home the Power of Collaboration

Like most school teachers working in the early ’70s, Peter Gagliardi needed something to do during the summer — not just to keep him busy, but to help with cash flow during those 10 weeks when there were no paychecks coming in.

Early in the summer of 1973, his search for such an employment opportunity took him to a nonprofit called Rural Housing Improvement Inc. in Winchendon. After being told there were no part-time, temporary jobs to be had at the agency, he was further informed of a full-time, permanent position as director of property management that he might pursue if he was interested.

After doing a little soul searching — OK, a lot of soul searching — he convinced himself that he was interested.

“I had just signed a tenured contract, but I resigned and took a job with an organization that had secure funding for 30 days,” he said in a voice that didn’t accurately reflect the sizable risk he was taking. “And I’ve been doing housing ever since.”

It was a big decision for the Gagliardi family, and, as things would turn out, a big one for countless other families as well.

Indeed, that job with a fledgling nonprofit would, as he said, lead to a career in housing. But actually, it’s been a career in much more than that. In the nearly 30 years he’s been president and CEO of Way Finders, the agency formerly known as HAPHousing and before that the Housing Allowance Project, he has helped to greatly expand both the mission and the nonprofit’s influence far beyond its original charge — providing housing vouchers for those in need.

“I had just signed a tenured contract, but I resigned and took a job with an organization that had secure funding for 30 days.”

While it still helps individuals and families secure a roof over their heads through vouchers and creation of new affordable-housing projects, it now helps people in many other ways, as its relatively new name suggests.

It helps them secure employment through job-training initiatives, for example, and also enables individuals to become homeowners by helping them save money, improve their credit, and take the other steps needed to buy a house. And it has stepped forward to help change the trajectory of entire blocks and neighborhoods.

That was the case on Byers Street in Springfield, a half-mile-long stretch that borders the Springfield Armory property and, ironically enough, sits across Pearl Street from Springfield Police headquarters. Ironic because, by the late ’90s, Byers Street had become a hot spot for crime and, in most all ways, a blighted area.

It was (note the past tense) defined by perhaps its most famous, or infamous, piece of real estate — the Rainville Hotel.

Finders-managed properties on Byers Street in Springfield

Peter Gagliardi stands in front of the Way Finders-managed properties on Byers Street in Springfield, an area that has become a “different place” since the agency became involved.

“It was notorious,” said Gagliardi, flashing back 15 to 20 years, adding that it had become a center for drug dealing and other illegal activities, and just one of several properties that were causing problems for abutters that included Springfield Technical Community College, the Quadrangle, St. Luke’s Home (operated by the Sisters of Providence), the Diocese of Springfield, the Armory Street Commons apartment complex, and others.

HAPHousing stepped forward, partnered with other agencies (more on this later), and changed the fortunes of that area by taking down some derelict buildings and fixing up others. Today, it manages the Rainville, now an apartment complex, and several other properties, and the change on the street is palpable.

“You’re seeing other property owners on the street investing in their homes,” said Gagliardi, pointing out such initiatives as he walked the length of Byers Street with BusinessWest recently. “It’s a much better place now.”

The same can be said of the Old Hill section of the city, another area where Way Finders worked, again in partnership with other agencies and especially Springfield Neighborhood Housing Services, to bring about positive change in many ways. Dozens of new homes have been built, dozens more have been renovated, and scores of vacant lots have been put to better uses. Most importantly, residents are taking pride in their neighborhood — as well as responsibility for it — and the fabric of that neighborhood is becoming stronger.

“You’re seeing other property owners on the street investing in their homes. It’s a much better place now.”

“There’s always more to do, but Old Hill is a different place,” said Gagliardi. “Since the houses were built that we’ve been involved with, people are choosing to buy homes there; that was just not happening before.”

In a way, Byers Street, Old Hill, and what’s happened in those areas have become living symbols of Gagliardi’s energetic and imaginative approach to fulfilling and expanding the stated mission at Way Finders — “to light pathways and open doors to homes and communities where people thrive.”

And they serve to help explain why he has long been a real Difference Maker in this region.

Keys to Success

They call them ‘Success Stories,’ and that’s pretty much an understatement.

These are poignant vignettes, if you will, created to help convey the many ways that Way Finders has evolved as an agency and how it has helped change the lives of the people it has touched.

People like Charles Winston, the single father of a 7-year-old boy, who was unemployed and living in a one-bedroom apartment with his son when he enrolled in Way Finders’ Family Self-sufficiency (FSS) Program in 2014. He knew what he wanted to do — buy a home of his own someday — but also knew he had a laundry list of things he needed help with, from reliable childcare to a dependable vehicle; from full-time employment to credit repair. Long story short, Way Finders and its FSS program helped with all that. He secured a job with UPS, improved his credit score to 738, saved $22,391 in an escrow account established for him to buy a house, and in 2017, he became a home owner.

Peter Gagliardi and his staff at Way Finders have helped write many different kinds of success stories in recent years.

Peter Gagliardi and his staff at Way Finders have helped write many different kinds of success stories in recent years.

And also people like Minerva Gonzalez, who witnessed a sharp decline in the neighborhood in Holyoke in which she grew up and was now raising a family, and became determined to do something about it, only she didn’t know where or how to begin.

After enrolling in Way Finders’ Resident Leadership Program, she soon learned that community leaders often have a stronger voice than city officials. And she used hers to bring about change at H.B. Lawrence Elementary School and, specifically, a host of improvements to its playground.

You don’t see Peter Gagliardi’s picture accompanying these success stories. Instead, you see Charles Winston proudly holding up the keys to his house, and Minerva Gonzalez sitting atop a piece of playground equipment at her kids’ school.

But he had a big hand in writing them, a pattern that began way back in 1973 when he decided to leave the classroom and take that full-time job with Rural Housing Improvement Inc.

But our story actually begins several years earlier, when Gagliardi was attending college. He met a volunteer with VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) who was working in his hometown of Athol, and she introduced him to a housing problem he never knew existed.

“She showed me some atrocious housing conditions that people were living in and really brought the issue home,” he recalled. “I never thought about us having poor people as neighbors — they were all friends. I didn’t think about people living in really terrible living conditions, but there were some, and there weren’t a lot of alternatives for people.

“I learned a little bit, and then I went off and finished school, did the teaching thing, and along came a job that was pretty much serendipity,” he went on, retracing the start of his new career. “It got me involved in housing, and it became clear pretty quickly that this is where I should be.”

At Rural Housing Improvement Inc., Gagliardi worked for a boss who gave him what he called “a wide-open portfolio,” and he took full advantage, spending 13 years at the organization, rising to the rank of associate executive director, and, most importantly, learning a number of lessons he would apply later in his career, starting with his next stop.

“Along came a job that was pretty much serendipity. It got me involved in housing, and it became clear pretty quickly that this is where I should be.”

That would be at the recently created Mass. Housing Partnership, part of the Executive Office of Communities and Development, in 1986.

There, he worked under Amy Anthony, who was, ironically enough, the first executive director of the Housing Allowance Project and would become a titan within the affordable-housing industry, transforming Massachusetts into a national leader in that realm (she passed away last December).

Gagliardi was recruited to be director of field operations for the Mass. Housing Partnership, and his job was to work with communities across the state to develop what were known as ‘local housing partnerships.’

the Healthy Hill Initiative in Springfield’s Old Hill neighborhood is just one example of the power of collaboration.

Peter Gagliardi says the Healthy Hill Initiative in Springfield’s Old Hill neighborhood is just one example of the power of collaboration.

“The concept was, if you bring people together from different sectors and start focusing on the problem, then the interaction will add to the value of the work that you do,” he explained. “You have the private sector, the public sector, and representatives of the community … you’re tackling a common problem, and by doing it together, you get a better result than if any one of those sectors tried to do it on their own.”

And results were achieved, he said, adding that Massachusetts soon set the tone for affordable-housing programs nationwide through imaginative, partnership-driven initiatives that changed the landscape in all kinds of ways.

“That was a very dynamic time in housing in Massachusetts,” he recalled. “The governor [Michael Dukakis] was putting resources into it — these were the days of the Massachusetts Miracle — and allotted programs were created in Massachusetts, many of which still exist today,” he told BusinessWest. “We became the envy of all the states in the country with the variety of programs we had and the effectiveness of those programs.”

Living Proof

Gagliardi would eventually take the role of director of Private Housing at the Mass. Housing Partnership and would stay in that role for roughly a year.

By the end of 1990, however, the Dukakis administration was coming to an end, and he was looking for his next challenge.

He found it as president and CEO of the Housing Allowance Project, a position that, in many ways, took him back to his work with Rural Housing Improvement Inc. and the front lines of the housing problem in the western part of the state.

Over the past 28 years, the agency has grown and diversified its portfolio of services largely out of necessity, in a way that makes its mission more holistic in nature and worthy of that name Way Finders.

Gagliardi put all this into some kind of perspective:

“I think the most significant thing we’ve done is bring together a variety of services, all of which are complementary,” he explained. “We’ve built the strength and the reputation to take on new challenges as they arise. More than any one specific program, what we’ve been able to do is generate impact for the community and the people we work with across a wide range of programmatic activities.”

To explain this expansion of the mission, he returned to Byers Street, literally, where he pointed to the buildings, including the Rainville, that have been transformed from eyesores into attractive affordable housing, and talked about how it happened.

“This was one of Springfield’s darkest hours in a lot of ways,” he said, while setting the tone and explaining how Byers came to be the way it was. “Jobs had been declining for many years, people left their housing, places were vacant and abandoned; it was very difficult circumstances.”

The agency’s work there is a solid example of the importance of partnerships and bringing together groups with common goals to accomplish something they could not have done on their own, he said, adding that efforts to revitalize the area led to the creation of the Armory/Quadrangle Civic Assoc., which is still active today.

“We took the experience of doing some affordable-housing development, but in an urban setting, to use it as a way of bringing positive change to a neighborhood,” he said, adding that the agency brought various officials and groups to see what was done there. And the results would inspire an even bigger initiative.

“When we had an open house for our second project there on Byers Street, we brought some people down in a bus from the Old Hill neighborhood,” he recalled. “And I can remember the head of the Old Hill Neighborhood Council saying, ‘why can’t we do this in my neighborhood?’”

Soon thereafter, they did, in what became perhaps an even better example of the power of partnerships.

By the early 2000s, there were 150 vacant lots in Old Hill, a neighborhood in the vicinity of Springfield College, which represented maybe 10% of all the residential lots.

“We knew we couldn’t just go in, do a couple of houses, and make a difference — we needed a different strategy,” he explained, adding that, in collaboration with a host of partners, including the college, Habitat for Humanity, the neighborhood council, Springfield Neighborhood Housing Services, Revitalize Community Development Corp., and others, a plan was crafted to acquire many of the vacant lots (often from the city in tax title) and putting new homes on them.

Meanwhile, many other homes were rehabbed, and a host of agencies came together for what became known as the Healthy Hill Initiative, a project focused on two of the primary social determinants of health — public safety and access to physical activity.

“The secret to success, in my mind, is collaboration,” he told BusinessWest. “One of the things that I’m mindful of is that we would not have done any of this on our own.”

He was talking about Old Hill, but that sentiment applies to many of the initiatives the agency involves itself with, and collaboration is just one of the managerial mindsets that Gagliardi has brought with him to work for the past 45 years or so.

“We’ve built the strength and the reputation to take on new challenges as they arise. More than any one specific program, what we’ve been able to do is generate impact for the community and the people we work with across a wide range of programmatic activities.”

Overall, he said his goal has been to hire people who, like him, have a passion for this kind of work and can realize that, while the work is often difficult and bound tightly in red tape, there are many rewards.

“We’re working here because, at the end of the day when we go home, sometimes tired from all the complexities of the programs we run, we can take pride in the fact that, because of what we did today, somebody is in housing they wouldn’t otherwise have had,” he told BusinessWest. “It might be a homeless family has found a place to call home or a family that was in danger of being evicted has solved their problem. That’s much different than coming home and saying, ‘well, I made another buck for the shareholders,’ and that’s what keeps us coming back the next day.”

Looking back on that fateful decision he made back in 1973, he said he has no regrets at all and is simply thankful for that bit of serendipity.

“It’s been good work,” he said with a wide smile on his face. “There is where I should have been.”

Bottom Line

As he talked about his work with Mass. Housing Partnership, Gagliardi took a few minutes to reflect on the many ways Amy Anthony influenced his career.

“She was inspiring,” he told BusinessWest. “She was full of energy and open to ideas. I would go to her with an idea, she’d think about it, we’d talk about it, and she’d say, ‘OK, I like it; run with it.’”

One could use many of those same descriptive words and phrases when talking about her eventual successor. Also full of energy and open to ideas, he has built upon her legacy and helped write countless success stories like those mentioned earlier.

And he’s come a long way since he stepped into the offices of the Rural Housing Improvement Inc. looking for a summer job. Instead he found a career and, indirectly, a path to the stage at the Log Cabin on March 30, where he’ll be honored for what he has truly become.

A real Difference Maker.

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