For 15 years now, BusinessWest has been recognizing the work of individuals, groups, businesses, and institutions through its Difference Makers program, with one goal in mind: to show the many ways one can, in fact, make a difference within their community.
The stories below convey a desire to help others, go above and well beyond, and set the bar higher when it comes to what people can accomplish when they work together. That’s true whether we’re talking about Steve and Jean Graham, owners of Toner Plastics, or Claudia Pazmany and Gabrielle Gould, dynamic leaders in Amherst. Or Gary Rome, the charismatic local auto dealer recently named TIME magazine’s Dealer of the Year. Or Nate Costa, whose hockey team, the Springfield Thunderbirds, and his staff working behind the scenes are changing the dynamic in downtown Springfield and beyond. Or the Springfield Ballers, a nonprofit helping to get young people in the game.
His Life Story Is One of Creating Opportunities for Others
Leah Martin Photography
“This is my life story.”
That’s what Henry Thomas said as he gestured to a piece of furniture in his living room — an end table with a compartment under its glass top that contains dozens of items that, indeed, trace many points along his life’s journey.
It’s a story told by business cards and nametags. Badges from his days as Springfield’s Fire and Police commissioner. A ticket to President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. A campaign button from Mike Dukakis’ unsuccessful presidential run in 1988, which Thomas worked on. His Ubora Award from Springfield Museums, along with various other medals and ribbons. A baby-dedication program for one of his five grandchildren. A miniature saxophone, representative of the music he would like to pursue more fully when he has more time.
And two objects that are oddly related. One is a 1950s-era box from a product called Asthmador, a powder that was burned and inhaled in the days before aerosol asthma inhalers. “It looked like I was doing hash,” he laughed. The other object is his draft card for military service during the Vietnam War.
“I got a waiver when I was in college, so that saved me from having to go right away,” he recalled. But when it came time to visit the draft board, “they said, ‘sorry, we can’t take you.’ I said, ‘why not?’ They said, ‘you’ve got asthma.’”
“If you’re trying to get into the end zone for a touchdown, you can’t run out at the five-yard line, back to the coach, and say, ‘hey, Coach, I’m trying to get in the end zone, but this guy keeps stopping me.’ There’s always going to be a defense in life, and that’s what I’ve preached to my kids as well.”
Coming from a long line of men who had seen military service, from the Civil War through two world wars, Thomas felt … well, disappointed. And he argued about it, but was told that an asthma attack could get not just him killed, but other soldiers as well.
“That’s what saved me from going. But I shouldn’t say ‘saved me,’ because I do consider it an honor to serve your country,” he said.
After excelling in football, track, and gymnastics in his youth — he’s a member of the Springfield High School Sports Hall of Fame — he also aspired to play football professionally, but a severe ankle injury derailed that goal as well. But he took lessons from those days that have served him well all his life.
“In a sport like football, all the principles of life are embedded — I think you can say that about other sports as well, but I’m more familiar with football,” said Thomas, who was a running back at Technical High School and American International College. “If you’re trying to get into the end zone for a touchdown, you can’t run out at the five-yard line, back to the coach, and say, ‘hey, Coach, I’m trying to get in the end zone, but this guy keeps stopping me.’
This table contains many of the meaningful items that tell Henry Thomas’s life story.
“There’s always going to be a defense in life, and that’s what I’ve preached to my kids as well,” he went on. “A lot of guys were bigger and better than I was. But I had a lot of willpower, and I think that was the difference sometimes.”
So, thanks to his asthma and his ankle, Thomas chose a different course after his graduation from AIC in 1971: he got to work on his master’s degree; married Dee, his wife of 51 years; and went to work for the Urban League.
Fifty-two years later, he’s still there, with almost a half-century at the helm. It’s a life marked by profound changes in society, with myriad opportunities to make a deep impact throughout this region. It’s the life of a Difference Maker.
Thomas’ first role at the Urban League was youth coordinator, and he immediately saw the impact the organization could have on youth, as well as older people.
“The late Vernon Jordan told me, ‘Henry, this is the best job in black America, because you have an opportunity to meet a host of interesting folks, and you become more sensitized to the challenges and issues that impact the lives of the people you know, or even in your family.’”
In 1974, at age 25, Thomas became the nation’s youngest leader of a national Urban League affiliate. One of his key areas of focus throughout his career has been education, and not just through Urban League programs; he also served for 13 years on the UMass Amherst board of trustees — including two and a half years as board chair — and was a co-founder of New Leadership Charter School.
In all Urban League initiatives — its programs include education and youth-development initiatives, as well as programs for economic and workforce development, health and wellness, and seniors — Thomas has been driven by an understanding of the importance of equity.
“No equity, no excellence,” he simply said. “I always had a feeling that things could be better, as it relates to equity, everyone getting the treatment that others are getting.”
From co-founding a charter school to chairing the UMass Amherst board of trustees, Henry Thomas has made education central to his work throughout the decades. Leah Martin Photography
Even today, programs like Youth STEM Enrichment, Digital Connectors, a partnership with UMass Amherst IT, and access to STEM programs at Springfield College speak to the need to break barriers to technology adoption by urban teens.
“Technology has had an impact on the Urban League, as it has with many other business,” Thomas said. “Technology is a real game changer in how well are you going to adapt to doing a new job — or an old job, because even the old job has to get upgraded. It’s major, because I’ve seen so many people working inefficiently, and that can limit you. If you want to climb, you’ve got to learn how to do these things.”
Thomas’ leadership and advocacy on the UMass board of trustees was instrumental in UMass Chan Medical School’s establishing its first-ever regional campus, UMass Chan Medical School – Baystate, in downtown Springfield, and its focus on improving the health and well-being of the region’s medically underserved rural and urban communities.
For that effort, he recently earned an honorary doctorate there, to go along with similar honors from UMass Amherst, Bay Path University, Westfield State University, and Nichols College. In addition to his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from AIC, he also earned a juris doctor degree from Western New England University School of Law.
Also in the vein of education and workforce development, Thomas established Step Up Springfield, a teacher-development program in Springfield; is funding (along with his wife, Dee, a former teacher and principal herself) a $50,000 scholarship for Black youth from Springfield; and tackled a two-year assignment with the National Urban League as its vice president for Youth Development, with a primary focus of youth development within inner-city communities.
Another one of Thomas’ successes was bringing Camp Atwater in North Brookfield — the oldest overnight camp for Black youth in the U.S. — back to life in 1980 after a period of dormancy. The camp, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2021, is especially meaningful to him because he attended as a youth.
“I don’t feel desperate. I feel like we can get to where we need to be. I’m optimistic.”
“It had an impact on me; this was the place where I learned that I don’t have to make a selection between being cool or being smart. I found out that I could do both.”
The lesson he took from his own experience at camp was that kids need to see other kids making the right choices in life.
“These kids knew all the contemporary dances. But they were talking about becoming a doctor, becoming a lawyer, and at the same time shooting three-point shots. And I said, ‘wow, I really don’t have to make a choice. I could do both.’”
But it’s not just showing teens positive pathways, but helping them get on them, that really matters, he added. He said his parents did that for him, and it’s been his life’s work at the Urban League to help others achieve their dreams.
“Like I said before, it’s equity. If you don’t have a chance to be as good as the next woman or guy, then you’re not going to achieve the excellence that you think you’re capable of. So I should give my parents a little credit.”
A Very Good Life
When considering his long list of achievements of impact, Thomas boils it down simply.
“It’s been a very good life,” he said, before expressing pride in his wife and his children; his son works for OppenheimerFunds in South Orange, N.J., and his daughter is an assistant school superintendent in Richmond, Va. And, as noted, Thomas’ own responsibilities have taken him beyond the Urban League, such as his role as first African-American to chair the Springfield Police and Fire commissions.
“I’ve actually marveled at all the various hats this man has worn through the years, particularly as Police commissioner,” Dee Thomas said. “Those were really rough times when he was in that position, and he met a lot of opposition in trying to change the face of the police force and make it more diverse. I will never forget those days. But I’ve seen all the people that he’s touched, and we still see officers come up and thank him for allowing them to be on the commission, because they know, if were not for him, they wouldn’t be there.”
It’s just another example, Henry said, of sometimes having to run the ball through a defense in life.
And he’s hopeful that the younger generation will continue to pick up his mantle, understanding that equity has not yet been achieved in all areas of life, no matter how much various corners of society — in government, education, and elsewhere — would like the conversation to go away, as evidence by the current tussles over critical race theory and what students are allowed to learn and read.
“I think it is doing an injustice to young people when they are not getting the kind of access that they need — and that they deserve — to help them understand the world and how it operates: the good, the bad, and the ugly. You can make better choices when you know all three,” he said. “I do think that there’s too much of a passive approach by people who are self-sufficient and feel, well, ‘that’s not my problem. I hate to see it, but I’ve got to move on.’”
Thomas is not moving on from those goals, even after his time with the Urban League is done. He’s seen enough to recognize the power of arming young people with education, creating access to opportunities, and continuing the conversation.
“But I don’t feel desperate,” he said — largely because of those young people with the potential to be difference makers themselves, as he certainly is. “I feel like we can get to where we need to be. I’m optimistic.”
That’s a life story — and a continuing legacy — much bigger than a glass-covered end table.
James Gee grew up in Springfield, in a single-parent household.
He remembers his mother having to hold down several jobs and work very long hours — 70, maybe 80 a week by his count. He also remembers sports, and especially basketball, being … well, much more than a game at that critical time in his life.
Sports were something to look forward to at a time when there wasn’t much in his life that fell into that category, he told BusinessWest, and something that provided a number of invaluable life lessons — on everything from the value of teamwork to overcoming adversity; from learning from role models to understanding the importance of working hard to achieve one’s goals.
“I had sports as something to keep me engaged and focused,” said Gee, head coach of the women’s varsity basketball team at Central High School, which won the state championship in 2022; a former player at Central himself; and a history teacher at the school. “I had coaches who would pick me up and drop me off and be there as role models as well. Mom was always there for me and always pushing the importance of academics, but the reality was, she had to go to work to pay the bills. I understood that, but when you have that much time, you can get in trouble and find the wrong friends and the wrong crowds. For me, because I had sports, I didn’t have time to get in trouble; my focus was much different.”
It is this basic understanding of the importance of sports in the development of young people that led to the creation of Springfield Ballers, a nonprofit that got its start with an all-girls basketball team (the Lady Ballers) back in 2006 — and also led to Gee to join the effort, become a pivotal force in its growth and development, and become passionate about its mission.
“I believe that sports correlates with life in so many ways. Everything from just being on time to handling adversity, dealing with different situations, dealing with different individuals, learning how to work through struggle; it’s huge. There are so many lessons that sports provide — and it also gives young people something to look forward to.”
Today, through the leadership of Gee, who now serves as president and CEO of the nonprofit; fellow coach Mike Anderson; and a strong board of directors, the Ballers has expanded its mission in many different ways.
Indeed, there are now 27 basketball teams involving boys and girls of all ages; other sports, including golf, lacrosse, and softball; clinics; competitions; and more. Access to sports and competition is now year-round.
From left, Omar Almodovar, James Gee, and Tim Allen attend a Biddy Ball practice in Springfield. Leah Martin Photography
Summing it up, Gee said it’s about making sports affordable and accessible, and thus enabling young people to enjoy the many benefits of sports and competition. But the equation also includes exposure to coaches and other positive role models, support with academics, and much more.
“I believe that sports correlates with life in so many ways,” he explained. “Everything from just being on time to handling adversity, dealing with different situations, dealing with different individuals, learning how to work through struggle; it’s huge. There are so many lessons that sports provide — and it also gives young people something to look forward to.
“With a lot of the coaches, they become a really important figure in the kids’ lives. And they provide a lot more than just coaching them on the court.”
“With all the challenges people face today, sports gives them something to distract them, especially children in lower socioeconomic and demographic areas,” he added. “Sports gives them something to look forward to after school; sports teaches you so many lessons.”
Sports also helps break down racial barriers, he noted, adding that, when young people from communities with different demographic characteristics come together to play ball, eyes are opened, preconceived notions melt away, and there are learning experiences, and forms of acceptance, on many levels.
“When they play together, the best relationships are formed,” Gee explained. “It’s just people, kids playing basketball or playing sports together; when they finally interact with other, it knocks down barriers and builds so many great relationships.”
Amy Royal, a principal with the Springfield-based Royal Law Firm, long-time supporter of the Springfield Ballers, and one-time coach of a team, agreed.
“It’s so important in so many ways because the Ballers programming does so many different things in the community,” said Royal, who worked with Gee to create the 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity for the agency. “It’s not just about playing basketball or getting instructional lessons in golf; it’s not just about the sports — it’s about learning to be on a team, be with other kids, getting exposure to a diversified group.
“When they play together, the best relationships are formed. It’s just people, kids playing basketball or playing sports together; when they finally interact with other, it knocks down barriers and builds so many great relationships.”
“Also, the Springfield Ballers do a lot of different camps, providing an opportunity to do something when school is out of session — and do something that’s good and positive and productive,” she went on. “There’s also the mentorship and the mentoring programs, the academics, and beyond; it’s all very essential.”
It certainly is, and that reality goes a long way toward explaining why the Springfield Ballers are part of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers class of 2023.
Nothing but Net
They call it ‘Biddy Ball.’
That’s the name given to the basketball program for the youngest of the young people served by the Springfield Ballers — those in preschool up to grade 2.
They gather for clinics at Kiley Middle School in Springfield on Saturday mornings. Gee, who is on hand himself for these clinics, said some youngsters who took part in Biddy Ball years ago are now playing at Central and other area high schools and even at the college level.
James Gee says his life-changing experiences with sports when he was young inspired him to become part of, and now lead, Springfield Ballers. Leah Martin Photography
This is one example of how the program shapes lives, not for the short term, but for the long term, by not just showing participants how to pass, shoot, rebound, and defend, but also about how to work as a unit, work together to achieve a common goal, and stay on track, as Gee put it. Indeed, when asked to try to at least quantify the impact that involvement with the Ballers has had on participants over the years, Gee said he sees the results very day.
“When kids have a purpose and a reason and a ‘why,’ they start to focus a little better,” he explained. “We’ve had kids that were struggling in middle school … people would think that they didn’t have a shot. But some became college graduates and have their own business.
“I believe involvement has helped reduce teen pregnancy,” he went on. “You have young ladies who are now engaged in sports — they have goals. Young men, the same thing. Participation in sports helps improve attendance and their academic achievement. I’ve seen first-hand how the program has helped.”
This is what organizers had in mind when they started a girls basketball team 17 years ago and gave the initiative the name Springfield Ballers. The program was soon expanded to include girls and boys from across the region, and, eventually, it moved well beyond basketball to those other sports mentioned earlier.
As Gee said, the mission boils down to providing affordable access to sports, and the Ballers program has done that for thousands of young people of all ages and from across the region.
Indeed, many of the participants are from Greater Springfield, but they are also from Greenfield and other points north and west, and the next expansion initiative is into Northern Connecticut, to meet demonstrated need for such a program.
Meeting needs has been the goal from the beginning, said Gee, adding that those needs vary, from financial support to transportation to an introduction to sports such as golf and lacrosse that are expensive, but important in the way they can provide opportunity — to make connections, make friends, and possibly even earn a college scholarship.
The organization, which partners with a number of organizations and institutions, including area YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs, American International College, USA Lacrosse, and Dick’s Sporting Goods, does all this mostly through donations from individuals and businesses, but it has applied for and received some grants, said Royal, adding that there is an annual fundraising gala, and this year will include a golf tournament as well. Meanwhile, individual teams stage their own fundraisers.
These funds are used to provide what are called ‘scholarships’ — up to 100% — for those who don’t have the ability to pay the costs associated with playing for various teams, especially those that travel to play teams in other parts of the state and other regions of the country. Funds are also used to provide participants with equipment, especially for the more expensive sports such as lacrosse and golf, she went on, adding that the agency received a grant from Dick’s Sporting Goods for that purpose.
“The money is absolutely needed because we have so many kids, and so many dollars being spent on scholarships,” said Royal, adding that, last year, the Ballers awarded more than $25,000 in scholarships.
Over the years, the agency has continuously looked for ways to broaden its mission and its many forms of assistance to make organized sports even more affordable and accessible, said Gee and Royal. It has done that by adding more sports to the portfolio, and also by extending its geographic reach.
And, moving forward, it will do this by providing more assistance with transportation — to practices, games, events, and even visits to colleges by high-school athletes getting ‘looks’ from recruiters. With the help of some grant money, the Ballers will look to add some vans, said Royal, adding that the need is obviously great.
And it is great in many areas, she went on, adding that sports — and the Springfield Ballers —have the ability to meet many of them.
“It’s not just about putting kids on teams so they can play sports, which obviously is important for exercise, health, well-being, and all of that; there’s so much more to it. A big part of it is forming relationships and connections.
“I know that, with a lot of the coaches, they become a really important figure in the kids’ lives,” she went on. “And they provide a lot more than just coaching them on the court.”
As he added up all that sports has provided him in life, Gee said that, in addition to all those lessons he mentioned earlier and the manner in which sports helped keep him out of trouble, they have provided him friendships that have endured for many years.
“I was able to have friends in different communities, not just in Springfield, and I have great relationships to this day,” he said, adding that he’s not sure how his life would have turned out if sports hadn’t intervened, but he’s quite sure he wouldn’t be where he is today.
His goal is to have sports intervene in as many young lives as possible. Springfield Ballers exists to do just that, and it has created a formula for winning — in every sense of that phrase.
And that’s what makes this organization a Difference Maker in this region.
When It Comes to Community Involvement, He Puts the Pedal to the Metal
Gary Rome Jeffrey Byrnes Photography
Gary Rome says it was like the Oscars — or at least what he’s seen of the Oscars on TV.
He was referring to the recent ceremonies at which he was named TIME magazine Dealer of the Year.
The Oscars reference was a nod to everything from the size of the crowd gathered for the National Automotive Dealers Assoc. Show at the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center in Dallas — roughly 3,000 — to the butterflies that were in his stomach when, as one of four finalists for the coveted award (from among 48 nominees), he stood on stage awaiting the announcement of the winner.
“It was very nerve-wracking,” recalled Rome, who can now add being on the cover of TIME (not to mention BusinessWest) and the back of Automotive News to his long list of accomplishments. “My heart rate was like 100; I was really nervous, and then they pulled out that envelope and said, ‘from Holyoke, Massachusetts, our award winner is Gary Rome.’”
With the Dealer of the Year Award now on prominent display at his Hyundai store, Rome now has an even more crowded calendar for the months ahead. Indeed, representatives of TIME and Ally Financal, sponsor of the program, will be coming to Holyoke to celebrate the award, and officials from Hyundai corporate will be coming in from California to mark the occasion as well.
“If it were up to me, I’d give the money to an organization focused on animals, in honor of Jack. But … it’s not up to me. It’s not about me; it’s about my team — that’s who I attribute our success to.”
And he also has a big decision to make — only, he’s quick to note that he won’t make it himself.
The prize comes with a check from Ally Financial for $10,000, to be awarded to the charity of Rome’s choice. But, as a reflection of how he operates his dealerships, Rome will let his team help him decide.
“If it were up to me, I’d give the money to an organization focused on animals, in honor of Jack,” he said, referring to his beloved companion, spokesdog, and customer favorite, who passed away in October. “But … it’s not up to me. It’s not about me; it’s about my team — that’s who I attribute our success to.”
The TIME award was announced just a few weeks after Rome was chosen by BusinessWest to be one of its Difference Makers for 2023. The juxtaposition of the two honors is significant, and he was chosen by two different sets of judges for essentially the same reasons.
They are summed up in comments from Doug Timmerman, president of Ally Financial, who said of Rome — and the other auto dealers nominated — “they go above and beyond for their customers, communities, and employees.”
Gary Rome was recently honored as TIME magazine’s Dealer of the Year.
In Rome’s case, it’s well above and beyond, especially when it comes to communities and his employees.
With the former, Rome is omnipresent, it seems, serving as a foundation board member at Holyoke Community College (HCC); presenting a car annually to a graduating high-school student in Holyoke; carrying on a holiday tradition called the Trees of Hope event, which raises funds for the Ronald McDonald House; and presenting, in collaboration with other Western Mass. Hyundai dealers, an honor called Salute to Heroes, among many other initiatives. The latest such hero, who received a new Hyundai in gratitude for his work in the community, is Bob Charland, a/k/a the Bike Man, who was named a Difference Maker himself in 2018.
With the latter, Rome’s operating philosophy is perhaps best summed up in the company’s core values — excellence, passion, integrity, caring, and especially the last one, ‘we have fun.’
“My involvement with cars started at the age of 9 — I was just enthralled with my father and his business, so I wanted to be around him all the time. My father would go to work, and I would chase him down the hallway at home to make sure he would take me with him. I was very excited about being there, being around him … it got into my blood.”
This is made clear by the monthly calendar for the business, printed out for all employees. It lists birthdays and anniversaries of employment, but also regular raffles staged at the dealership, which coincide with ‘holidays’ such as (in January) ‘Time to get Organized Day’ and ‘National Cuddle Up Day,’ as well as ‘National Peanut Butter and Jelly Lunch Day,’ for which the company provided peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to Providence Ministries — and to employees as well.
That philosophy is also represented in monthly newsletters that profile specific employees in a ‘Get to Know’ section, spotlight employees of the month (and employees of the year in the December issue), as well as collections of photos involving events and company involvement in the community. The December issue included shots from the Mayflower Marathon (Gary Rome Hyundai was a presenting sponsor), Gary and Daisy (another spokesdog) at a Springfield Thunderbirds sponsor-appreciation day, and a Gary Rome Auto Group employee-appreciation party at the Castle of Knights in Chicopee.
Gary Rome, Eastern Region board member for Hyundai Hope on Wheels, Hyundai’s philanthropic initiative to raise funds for research for childhood cancer, presents a $300,000 check to Massachusetts General Hospital last fall.
All this — and it’s just a sample, to be sure — helps explain why Rome is not just Dealer of the Year, but a true Difference Maker.
Getting back to Jack, he took the title ‘official greeter’ for the Gary Rome Auto Group. That title is still held by Daisy, who has her own business cards and is often sought out by customers (most of whom want photos) as they look over models or come to pick up a vehicle they’ve purchased.
“Some people will say they’re not buying a car until they meet the dog,” Rome said. “When Jack passed away, we put it on social media, and it reached 220,000 people; I received more than 6,000 messages on Facebook, hundreds of cards, letters, flowers, chocolate. We put it on LinkedIn, and it reached almost 60,000 people, and I had almost 2,000 people reach out to me, saying they grew up with Jack, and he was a big part of their life.”
Dogs have been prominent in this business for years, from their barking heard on radio and TV commercials to the company’s marketing slogan — ‘the best doggone place to buy a car’ — and their presence is seen everywhere, from the dealership itself to all those events highlighted in the newsletters. In fact, in addition to a new car wash being planned for the Hyundai store, there will a dog wash as well.
“Why would you put your dirty dog in a clean car?” he asked rhetorically, not waiting for an answer.
And dogs are just part of an intriguing story that most know by now. It starts with a young Gary working odd jobs at his father Jerry’s Datsun (later Nissan) dealership in Holyoke.
“My involvement with cars started at the age of 9 — I was just enthralled with my father and his business, so I wanted to be around him all the time,” he recalled. “My father would go to work, and I would chase him down the hallway at home to make sure he would take me with him. I was very excited about being there, being around him … it got into my blood.”
Gary Rome Hyundai sold a record 306 cars last August, and to celebrate, the staff was treated to lunch, one example of how the company values its employees.
So much so that plans to pursue a law degree were eventually shelved, and he followed his father into the business.
By 1985, he was general manager of Jerry Rome Nissan, which would eventually move to Riverdale Street in West Springfield. In 1997, Gary bought the old dealership in Holyoke and opened Gary Rome Hyundai, at a time when that brand was more of a punchline than the respected name it is today. In 2006, he bought a Kia dealership in Enfield, thus creating the Gary Rome Auto Group.
In 2016, the Hyundai store was moved to its present location on Whiting Farms Road, where it has become one of the most successful Hyundai dealerships in the country — ranking fifth in sales in the Northeast and 28th in the country, out of 820 dealers. It has also become a model for others in the brand, he said, noting that Hyundai’s regional manager recently brought his entire team of 65 to Holyoke for a day in October “so they could see what this dealership looks like, take photos, and show their other dealers what a dealership should look like.”
Those numbers, and those tours (there have been many over the years), help explain how Rome has gone from his humble beginnings to TIME’s Dealer of the Year. His work in the community — make that his team’s work in the community — and the culture he has created at his dealerships are perhaps even bigger reasons.
Let’s start with that culture. It is embodied in those newsletters and that monthly calendar of events. It’s an attitude more than anything else, encapsulated by that core value, ‘we have fun.’
Gary Rome (and Jack) read to fourth-graders at Peck Middle School in Holyoke as part of the read-aloud program created by the nonprofit Link to Libraries.
As for his work in the community, he said it takes many forms, from his involvement at Holyoke Community College, which he called a ‘crown jewel’ in the region, to support of Providence Ministries, to the Trees of Hope program for Ronald McDonald House, which this past year raised more than $175,000. On a shelf behind his desk is an array of stuffed dogs that resemble Daisy, Jack, and another predecessor, Buddy. The dealership sells them for $25 each, with proceeds going to the Jimmy Fund; more than $15,000 has been raised to date.
As with the $10,000 check coming his way from being Dealer of the Year, Rome said decisions about community involvement and where to put time, effort, imagination, and money are made as a team.
“We try to find charities that are near and dear to our employees’ hearts because we want them to be invested, and we want to them to participate,” he explained, adding that this strategy, which includes a special emphasis on Holyoke, where the company is a large corporate citizen, has proven itself very effective over the years.
Within the city, he’s on Mayor Joshua Garcia’s transition team, he’s a member of the Holyoke Taxpayers’ Assoc., and he’s on the governmental affairs committee for the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, among many other forms of involvement.
“When people ask me where I live, I say I live in Holyoke — I just sleep somewhere else,” he explained.
It’s Been Quite a Ride
Rome said his father had a few favorite sayings and words to live by. There are a few that he lives by and will recite quite often.
“He always said that your education is something that no one can take away from you,” he noted, adding that this sentiment helps explain his heavy involvement in education, be it at HCC, the Holyoke public schools, or other initiatives.
Gary Rome presents the keys to a new car to a graduating senior at Holyoke High School, one of many initiatives to support education and area young people.
“He also used to say, ‘it doesn’t cost any extra to be nice,’ and he would say it over and over and over again,” Rome went on, adding that this is a mindset he has bought to work, and to the community, every day.
“For 61 years, I heard, ‘Gary, it doesn’t cost any extra to be nice,’” he said. “And that’s why I have an excessively positive outlook on things. If you tell me there’s a 70% chance of rain, I don’t even hear you; I just hear there’s a 30% chance of sun.”
That outlook on life, work, and community explains not only why Rome is TIME’s Dealer of the Year for 2023, but why he’s always been a Difference Maker.
These Amherst Leaders Work in Partnership to Build a Stronger Community
Leah Martin Photography
March 13, 2020.
Both Claudia Pazmany and Gabrielle Gould remember that date, and they say they’re not likely to ever forget it.
It was the day when Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID) received word that the Downtown Amherst Foundation she created had officially received its 501(c)(3) status. But that long-awaited good news was rendered all but moot by what else was happening that day — the shutting down of the Commonwealth by Gov. Charlie Baker as the COVID-19 pandemic reached the Bay State and the first deaths were being reported.
“I was thinking, ‘I did all this work to create this foundation that was going to do all these amazing things, and now we’re in lockdown, and we’re not going to be doing anything,’” Gould recalled.
She and Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, who share space in the chamber offices on South Pleasant Street in the heart of the community’s downtown, remember walking out the door together that afternoon, turning off the lights, and setting the heat at 56 degrees as they went.
What they were walking into … well, they had no idea, really.
Turns out, they were walking into what would become a deep (or deeper, to be more precise) and quite extraordinary partnership, through which they would help lead a community that was devasted by the pandemic perhaps more than any other in this region, and maybe the entire state, out of that darkness.
A partnership that makes them true Difference Makers in the Greater Amherst area.
Working separately on some initiatives, but hand-in-hand in most all others, they have helped change the landscape in Amherst and its downtown in all kinds of ways, as we’ll see. But they are also being honored for ensuring that the landscape didn’t change more than it did. Indeed, it is through their efforts that many businesses were able to survive that storm.
“It was a devastating time, but from that, we forged this great partnership,” Pazmany said of the early days of the pandemic. “And we put our collective talents and resources together to put information out there and help people and businesses in need. It was remarkable to see how people came together in that time of crisis.”
By Gould’s count, Amherst “lost more than 45,000 people overnight” that fateful day in March 2020. That number includes students at the three colleges that call the community home — UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College — but also thousands of people who came to work at those institutions and other businesses in town. It also includes tourists who wouldn’t be coming, parents of students and alumni who wouldn’t be attending sporting events or anything else, visiting lecturers who wouldn’t be on campus, performing artists who wouldn’t be coming … you get the idea.
“It was a devastating time, but from that, we forged this great partnership. And we put our collective talents and resources together to put information out there and help people and businesses in need. It was remarkable to see how people came together in that time of crisis.”
In the wake of this exodus, businesses were left dazed and looking for some kind of answers — and any kind of help. Pazmany and Gould helped provide both, with everything from PPE (which they delivered themselves) to virtual ‘tip jars’ to help those out of work; from small-business microgrants to grant-application coaching. They bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of meals from restaurants and gift cards and other items from businesses to both help them survive and assist families and individuals in need.
With this assistance, and their own sheer will to survive, many businesses have made it through the pandemic and to the other side.
But this story, this partnership, is not just about COVID and helping businesses ride out that storm. Indeed, it’s an ongoing story of bringing new businesses and new vibrancy to downtown Amherst and beyond. Businesses like the live-performance venue known as the Drake, an initiative of the Downtown Amherst Foundation, which, in less than a year, has brought roughly 1,000 performers and more than 15,000 patrons to the community.
Claudia Pazmany arranges meals that were bought from Amherst-area restaurants and given to those in need as part of the Dinner Delights program staged during the height of the pandemic.
This informal partnership’s philosophy is summed up in a branded campaign launched in 2021 and funded by a Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism grant, called, appropriately, “What’s Next? Greater Amherst.” It includes a YouTube video and a website — www.greateramherst.com — that highlights the natural beaty, global cuisine, and arts and culture in the community and helps people who are planning a visit.
“Without our collaborative help and willingness to sit in these offices at 7 o’clock at night with business owners with masks on and help them upload their documents and write grants, I think you would have seen a lot more businesses throughout Amherst close.”
Overall, these partners continue to work to make Greater Amherst both a destination and a place to put down business roots. Thanks to them, what’s next is more creative programing, more opportunities for growth, and more vibrancy.
And that makes them true Difference Makers.
The Power of Two
Returning to the dark days of the start of the pandemic — and they were dark … the lights literally went out in downtown Amherst — isn’t exactly easy for Gould and Pazmany.
These were extraordinary and, in many ways, desperate times when business just stopped. There was a great deal of uncertainty about what would happen, they recalled, and for several weeks after the state was shut down, businesses suffered mightily.
But as they looked back, these two partners said that was also a time of what could, in some ways, be called triumph, when people, and a community, reached down deep to find ways to support one another and help them through that darkness.
Stamell Stringed Instruments was one of dozens of Amherst-area businesses to receive gifts of PPE — free safety posters, gloves, sanitizer, and more — as a part of the #IAMherst campaign, through monies raised through the Downtown Amherst Foundation.
Before we elaborate on that, let’s set the stage by talking about the two organizations and their missions.
Like several other communities in the area, Amherst has both a chamber and a business-improvement district. The former, as most know, exists to promote and support businesses, and it does this through everything from advocacy (at the local, state, regional, and national levels) to education and providing forums for businesses to gather, network, learn, and perhaps do business with one another.
The BID, meanwhile, is charged with everything from cleaning up downtown and watering the plants growing from hanging baskets to handling holiday lighting displays and marketing the community through initiatives such as Destination Amherst.
But it was during the pandemic that the two organizations really came together, pooled their resources, and put their various skills sets to work.
Pazmany and Gould were working remotely at the time — the chamber office, like most businesses, was closed — but they were together often, working long days (and a great many nights) to help businesses. Here are just some examples of what they were able to do together:
• Raise close to a half-million dollars and distribute what became known as Relief and Resiliency microgrants to 67 small businesses throughout Amherst, the lion’s share of the money coming from residents, with donations from $25 to $50,000;
• Buy bulk PPE (masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and more) at a time when it was difficult for businesses to attain it, and deliver it to businesses;
• Create a virtual tip jar so residents could support the many who were out of work — rom artists to hairdressers to bartenders;
• Launch the Dinner Delights program, through which the two agencies raised more than $100,000 and used those finds to purchase dinners and lunches from area restaurants to keep them in business, and hand out the meals to families in need;
• Provide those same families with gift bags filled with toys, puzzles, and gift cards purchased from a wide array of businesses — from hair salons to convenience stores — to help those small ventures;
• Continue some time-honored traditions, albeit virtually, such as the lighting of the Merry Maple, a maple tree on the North Common, during the holidays;
• Encourage takeout business at a time when the restaurants needed it and when there was some resistance to such efforts from the colleges and elsewhere in the community;
• Register close to 200 individuals within the business community, including many for whom English is their second language, for vaccination; and
• Provide assistance with state and federal grants. Together, by Gould’s estimates, they were able to help businesses secure more than $2.1 million in state and federal grants by sitting down with them and helping them write grants.
“Without our collaborative help and willingness to sit in these offices at 7 o’clock at night with business owners with masks on and help them upload their documents and write grants, I think you would have seen a lot more businesses throughout Amherst close,” Gould said. “While many people were at home staying safe, which they should have been doing, Claudia and I came to work every day; we showed up, we went out in public, we hand-delivered grants.”
Pazmany agreed, noting that both agencies looked beyond their respective missions and beyond the downtown itself to help a decimated community at a time of dire need.
Gabrielle Gould and Claudia Pazmany have worked tirelessly to promote Amherst and the surrounding area as a destination. Leah Martin Photography
“We all had PPE in our cars for two months — and we delivered it door-to-door,” she recalled. “I looked beyond my membership, and she looked beyond the downtown, and together we were able to look at the collective impact of our shared work around the entire town of Amherst.”
As significant as the work during the pandemic was, this partnership, as noted earlier, is about much more than those efforts.
Indeed, it’s about ongoing work to put Greater Amherst on the map and make it even more of a destination for visitors and home for businesses of all kinds. Here again, the agencies have worked independently of one another, but mostly in concert, to get a number of things done.
Things like the Drake, a venue that has brought people from across New England and beyond to downtown Amherst and provides ample proof of the power of the arts as an economic-development engine.
“I truly believe that arts and culture in a community builds economic development,” Pazmany told BusinessWest. “And it builds reasons for people to come to your community and be part of your community, to want to live here and do business here.”
Looking ahead, Gould said the BID is working on several initiatives, including a spring block party in the downtown with a focus and arts and culture, a summer music series on the Commons, revitalization of the North Common, and creation of more anchors in the downtown.
As for the chamber, Pazmany said a great amount of momentum was generated in 2022 as a number of popular events, from After 5 gatherings to the annual fundraiser Margarita Madness, returned to the calendar. The goal for 2023 is to build on this momentum, generate new membership, and continue to support businesses across Greater Amherst.
“I truly believe that arts and culture in a community builds economic development. And it builds reasons for people to come to your community and be part of your community, to want to live here and do business here.”
“For us, it’s getting back to what we normally do as a chamber,” she explained. “We’re focusing on getting all our events back, making them better than ever, and connecting businesses.”
Gould told BusinessWest that she’s learned that Amherst’s response to the pandemic — the various programs created and carried out by the chamber and the BID — has been hailed as one of the best in the Commonwealth and a model of cooperation and innovation for other communities to follow.
Likewise, the Drake project has become a model itself — of how an organization like the BID can take a concept, raise the money needed, and make it a reality, all in roughly a year’s time.
Pazmany and Gould weren’t thinking about creating models or case studies when they undertook these programs. They were thinking about their community, and how to make it stronger, more resilient, and more of a destination. The fact that they have become models for other towns is testimony to the high levels of imagination, determination, and perseverance these two have brought to their ongoing work.
She’s Guiding an Arts Renaissance That Will Reverberate Beyond Easthampton
Looking back over two decades in Easthampton, and her current work with a volunteer organization called CitySpace, Carol Abbe Smith saw, in its leader, someone who is making a difference in myriad ways.
“If you came to Easthampton in 2000, you would see empty storefronts and no foot traffic,” said Smith, owner of Delap Real Estate. “Today, Easthampton has restaurants, interesting shops, and music venues, in part due to the vision, energy, and leadership skills of one person: Burns Maxey.”
She’s right, though Maxey is quick to share credit — and share it with a lot of people — for the revitalization of Easthampton’s downtown in the form of an intriguing project to transform Old Town Hall into an arts and performance space, and the ways in which that project has caused, and will continue to generate, economic ripples far beyond the center of town.
“I think artists have the capability of making change happen on a smaller scale and creating reverberations with communities,” Maxey told BusinessWest. “And imagination is the key to thinking outside of the box and really considering what the possibilities are — or beyond the possibilities.”
“I think artists have the capability of making change happen on a smaller scale and creating reverberations with communities.”
Maxey has been heavily involved in Easthampton’s arts culture for the better part of two decades, including serving as arts coordinator for Easthampton City Arts from 2011 to 2016; during her tenure, she oversaw the creation of events like Bear Fest, Cultural Chaos, and the Easthampton Book Fest, securing grants in the process.
Also in 2011, she joined the all-volunteer board of CitySpace, which had been tasked with creating a flexible arts and community space in Old Town Hall, which was built in 1869 and housed the town’s municipal offices until 2003. In 2015, she became board president, and since then, she has helped secure Community Preservation Act funds, multiple foundation grants, and historic tax credits, as well as heading the capital campaign and events committee in an effort to raise about $8.5 million for the project.
Phase one involved renovation of the first floor, including the creation of a small, 80-seat rental performance space called the Blue Room. In conjunction with that, Maxey established a program called Pay It Forward to allow low-income artists the resources, space, and support to create or collaborate on a project, or have a residency to complete a project prior to public performance. After a successful trial in 2022, the program will roll out more fully in 2023, with the help of a $30,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.
“This gives access to this space for rehearsals or performances to artists who need it — underserved artists, artists of color, low-income artists, really — anyone who doesn’t have the capacity to pay for the affordable rates we have,” she explained.
It’s also a sort of incubator space, she said. “It’s used for performing-arts groups and everything from community meetings to nonprofit fundraisers to exercise classes and rehearsals. Last year, we had close to 100 events within the space, different populations coming into the building. They get to see what’s happening here and really get to learn about what CitySpace does. So it’s kind of a neat way for us to test some ideas.”
Burns Maxey stands in the Blue Room, which hosted about 100 events in its first year. Leah Martin Photography
One Pay It Forward recipient, Amherst-based musician Kim Chin-Gibbons, brought her band, Sunset Mission, to CitySpace for a three-day intensive to practice, hone their sound, create a video, and play for a crowd, followed by an audience talk-back session.
“We discovered things about our tech and performances I don’t think we would have for months or maybe years,” Chin-Gibbons said. “It was the perfect place to control all our variables and grow as musicians and people.”
The next phases of the Old Town Hall revival include the restoration of a 350-seat space on the second floor (likely double that capacity for standing-room shows). But that takes fundraising, and Maxey and her board continue that effort, seeing the impact a broadened arts culture has already had on the town’s vitality, and understanding how the completed project will multiply that impact.
“This was established in 1869 to be the hub for community, for performances, for meetings, for dances. It was the place where people gathered.”
“I believe everyone has a place to live and thrive in Western Massachusetts, and now we have a great opportunity to plan smartly to create both affordability and economic flourishing,” she told BusinessWest. “I believe CitySpace is a partial solution to concerns like gentrification by creating long-term affordability to creative space on Main Street, right in the middle of the region.”
By fostering the arts and community she added, “we can make a destination where people want to be, and this, in turn, has economic reverberations. It’s that cycle of reciprocity that will allow this region to fully lift itself up to its potential.”
One Step at a Time
While touring Old Town Hall with BusinessWest, Maxey stopped by Big Red Frame, a business owned by Jean-Pierre Pasche that moved into the building around 2007, a few years after the municipal offices moved out.
“I fell in love with this place 17 years ago when I heard that it was going to be transformed into an arts center,” Pasche said. “I approached the people submitting RFPs to the town, and I said, ‘if you need a tenant on the project, I’ll go in. And I’m still here.”
Maxey credits town officials at the time for having the foresight to envision an arts and culture hub in the building, and recognize the impact that could have on economic development in town.
“I could see the potential for this building,” she added. “And when they showed me the second floor, I was like, ‘oh yeah, I’m really interested in this project.’”
Old Town Hall
The first floor, which includes a number of art spaces and the Blue Room, is largely completed. “When you look at the second floor,” Maxey said, “you see where the funding stopped.”
Elaborating, she explained, “when the pandemic hit, we started to think about phasing the project and what our options would be to continue the work. So we talked to our architects, and they said, ‘yes, you can phase it.’ Initially, we thought that it would be one project as a whole, but it grew from a $6.6 million project to an $8.5 million project, which is a lot, but compared to a lot of other projects within the region and beyond, it’s not too far off from where we originally started.”
Phase two of the project, which has already seen the HVAC system upgraded and modernized, will also add an elevator and newly accessible entryway in front of the building; Maxey said CitySpace needs about $170,000 to get there.
Phase three, easily the most expensive part of the $8.5 million project, will complete the second floor, restoring the ceiling and floors, adding restrooms, installing new electrical and fire-safety systems, and investing in state-of-the-art theatrical and lighting equipment. Amid the modern amenities, Maxey wants to retain as much history as possible, including the mahogany balcony.
“Easthampton, historically, wasn’t a wealthy town,” she explained. “Unlike Holyoke or Springfield or Northampton, we really don’t have a plethora of beautiful buildings throughout the city. This was established in 1869 to be the hub for community, for performances, for meetings, for dances. It was the place where people gathered.”
It’s Maxey’s vision to see that happen again, and she intends to maintain affordable rental rates, not just in the small space currently open, but in the large performance hall on the second floor, once it’s complete.
“That’s part of our mission, to keep this building affordable for arts and community programming,” she said of the Blue Room. “When somebody comes into the space, there’s a flat, hourly rate. But they get everything, like the PA, the projector, tables, chairs. So it’s not like an a la carte menu where we’re adding dollars for each item.”
That model will continue upstairs. “We’re thinking of keeping it very similar to what we’re doing in the Blue Room. It’s a rental space with affordable rates, attracting and really serving artists throughout Western Massachusetts, and we want some traveling artists to come in as well. It’s really a place for people who want to produce events, and it’s also allowing for CitySpace to have our own programming.”
The 350-seat capacity is a “sweet spot” for the area, she added, larger than compact spaces like the Parlor Room in Northampton and the Drake in Amherst, but smaller than the Academy of Music in Northampton, which seats about 800. “Sometimes that’s too much to fill for some artists, and there are a lot of 150-seat locations throughout the region, so this is one step above that.”
CitySpace has a 44-year lease with the city on the building, and Maxey is looking long-term, including applying for Massachusetts historic tax credits after the building is completed, to go toward its continual upkeep.
“Even though we’ll be restoring the second floor,” she said, “we know that having a long-term plan for maintenance on the building will allow it to be here for another 150 years.”
Labor of Love
Maxey, like all the others on her board, serves CitySpace as a volunteer. Meanwhile, her career — which has taken her from Williston Northampton School as communications associate from 2005 to 2011 to her role as Easthampton’s arts coordinator from 2011 to 2016, to the positions of manager, then director, of Digital and Creative Marketing at New England Public Radio from 2016 to 2020 — has entered a new phase with BurnsMax, the art and design business she launched last year. She is also an adjunct professor of Marketing at the Arts Extension Service at UMass Amherst, teaching a class titled “Marketing the Arts.”
In a sense, that’s what she’s doing at CitySpace, too, a role she called “a joy because of the people who surround me.” In doing so, she singled out several other board members, including former Easthampton Mayor Mike Tautznik, Nikki Beck, Peggy Twardowski, and Smith, as well as an artist advisory committee including Trenda Loftin, Emily Ditkovski, Kyle Boatright, Amber Tanudjaja, and Pamela Means, not to mention a capital-campaign team led by Alison Keller and Tara Brewster.
“Seriously, CitySpace is a labor of love,” Maxey said, “and there are so many more that could be named since we are all volunteers right now — me included — as we kickstart this organization into adulthood.”
And pump some energy into the region as well, she added, noting arts organizations and venues opening up from Greenfield to Springfield, all holding the potential of boosting economic development through the arts.
“You can go to all of these locations, and it’s kind of like this renaissance; you see the potential for performing arts to really enliven and connect the whole Western Massachusetts region. And because of that, we have the capability for incredible economic growth within the region — not just a lovey-feely connection, although that exists too.”
Economic development and its many reverberations. The renovation of a historic building. Creating long-term affordability and accessibility for artists. That’s a lot of differences to make, and Maxey and her team are far from done.
“I’ve made my home here, and it’s such a fantastic place to live and work and play,” she said. “And I think we have a lot of potential to make it even better.”
From Wrestling to Ice Cream, They’ve Made a Community-wide Impact
Steven and Jean Graham Leah Martin Photography
As he talked about wrestling and how it can help shape young people, Steve Graham offered a wry smile, a cock of the head, and then a look that spoke volumes.
Indeed, it conveyed everything from the many ways the sport helps build character and provides lessons in perseverance, to just how grueling and difficult wrestling practice can be in high school. And Graham, who wrestled in high school and college, has coached the sport on many levels, and helped create the Grit & Gratitude Wrestling Academy in Springfield’s North End, backed up the look with some commentary grounded in those decades of experience.
“The sport is really nice because there are weight classes, so all sizes fit from day one,” he explained. “And that’s unusual. You don’t have to be tall, you don’t have to be big, you don’t have to be anything. But you do have to be tough mentally because wrestling is physically very taxing, and you’re literally fighting with your teammates every single day. And, inevitably, when you start, you’re getting your butt kicked as a freshman and a sophomore by the older kids. Eventually, you become more proficient and stronger and more mature.
“But wrestling also teaches you discipline, and it teaches you control,” he went on. “So when someone does beat you and throws you on your back, you can’t start punching them, you can’t start kicking them, you can’t start actually fighting with them. You have to control yourself, and you have to get back up and face them again.”
Those are great life lessons, and lessons for business as well, he noted, adding that, for anyone in business, there are days when you get knocked down and you must get back up again. And to persevere, one must be mentally tough. He and his wife, Jean, who together started Toner Plastics, now based in East Longmeadow, would know all that, too.
“You don’t have to be tall, you don’t have to be big, you don’t have to be anything. But you do have to be tough mentally because wrestling is physically very taxing, and you’re literally fighting with your teammates every single day.”
In different ways, separately in some cases, but mostly as a team, Steve and Jean Graham have been real difference makers in their community — as an employer, as a wrestling coach and indefatigable promoter of the sport, as supporters of countless nonprofits and education-related causes and organizations, and, yes, as purveyors of ice cream.
Indeed, the Grahams turned an East Longmeadow landmark, the old train depot in the center of town, into an ice-cream shop, but also much more. It has become a gathering spot in the community and a place where children and families can hear music, take in car shows, ride a miniature train, play cornhole, and get a cup or cone of sea-salt caramel. (Much more on that later).
Steve Graham was instrumental in creation of the Grit & Gratitude Wrestling Academy in Springfield’s North End, which introduces young people to a sport that provides many life lessons.
BusinessWest talked with the Grahams about all this, and, well, it wasn’t easy. Both would much prefer to just do what they do than talk about it. Humble and unassuming, they both said, in essence, that they have been simply motivated to help others and improve quality of life in this region.
“We are happy to help out other people if they need it, and we have the means,” Jean said. “It’s nice to help other people out.”
The old train depot in the center of East Longmeadow is a small, rather non-descript structure. But it is loaded with history, much of which can now be seen in photos on its renovated walls.
Built in 1876, this was where people gathered to catch two commuter trains each day, back when the train was how people got from here to there — and there to here. One train, which originated from Hartford, left at 10:57 in the morning. The other, which started in Springfield, left the station at 3:21 in the afternoon. Meanwhile, freight trains, which also passed through the station twice a day, carried a wide range of goods in and out of the community, but especially the sandstone and brownstone that came from more than 100 quarries in town and was used to build many historic structures, including Boston’s Trinity Church; the original Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York; buildings at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton; and East Longmeadow Town Hall.
Later, after the last train came through in the late ’60s, the depot was converted into the Community Feed Store, where area residents could buy grain, coal, farming supplies, and more.
Steve and Jean Graham learned or witnessed much of this history after moving to the town in the ’90s, and that’s one of the reasons why they became determined to somehow preserve the station for future generations. Steve told BusinessWest that they decided to buy the depot from a developer who planned to create an apartment complex on the site, not knowing where they would move it if the need arose — and it probably would.
Steve and Jean Graham inside the old train depot they have converted into an ice-cream shop and gathering place for the community. Leah Martin Photography
“We thought … we’ll move it to our backyard if we have to,” he noted, adding that this wasn’t necessary, as he and Jean eventually bought the property around the station as well, as those development plans failed to materialize. And they created an ice-cream shop that opened in the spring of 2021.
Its called the Depot at Graham Central Station, and has since expanded in several ways, including a café where lunch is now served and a small railroad that runs on a track around a portion of the property.
It’s a moderately successfully business, but turning a profit is not really what motivated the Grahams in this effort to not only rescue the station but transform it into something for the community.
“We wanted to create a place for families,” said Jean, who played a lead role in renovating the station and providing a new, warm, and inviting look. “Communities need places to gather, where people can come together and have a good time. That’s what we wanted to do here.”
Those sentiments effectively sum up what drives the Grahams and the many ways they have been involved in the community. There has always been a desire to help children and families through initiatives that include:
• Work with other parents to launch the East Longmeadow Educational Endowment Fund, which today stands at more $1 million and has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the town’s schools. The couple, and especially Jean, helped stage the annual dinner dance that raised money for the fund and raised awareness as well;
• Work building stronger minds and bodies through wrestling. From 2005 to 2015, Steve, who wrestled in high school in New Jersey and then at Princeton, was a volunteer and eventually head coach of the wrestling team for six years at East Longmeadow High School. In 2021, in the middle of the pandemic amid the suspension of interscholastic sports, he worked with other coaches in the area to open (and fund) the nonprofit Grit & Gratitude Wrestling Academy, where they work with young people ages 5 and up;
• The train depot, which has a become a community gathering place, with park benches, live music, and more; and
• Support to a wide range of area nonprofits, from Link to Libraries to the Ronald McDonald House; from the Springfield Jaycees to the National Epilepsy Foundation (Steve’s brother suffered from the disease, so for him it was personal).
One Word: Plastics
Meanwhile, the Grahams have been difference makers as business owners and employers as well, providing opportunities on many levels.
As for their business, Toner Plastics, it started small, as in very small — “we had one sale for $200 the first six months,” Steve noted — but eventually they garnered some regular customers, first the old Woolworth’s department store and then eventually Walmart, Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, and others.
Today, the company manufactures everything from point-of-purchase displays to radiator covers to filament for 3D printing equipment. It is still headquartered in East Longmeadow, but has other locations in Pittsfield, Rhode Island, and Florida. While growing the company, the Grahams have amassed a strong track record of providing not only job opportunities, but opportunities to thrive, personally and professionally, after being hired.
Frank Valazquez, operations manager at Toner Plastics, explains.
“I had never met a man like Steve, with a pure heart, humble, fair, quick to listen, patient, wise, consistent, and willing to help anyone willing to help themselves — and who genuinely enjoys helping others by doing good. And for me, a young kid with no sense of direction, 22 years old at the time from Springfield’s North End, he was a difference maker.
“All I needed was a chance,” Valazquez continued, “an opportunity for someone like Steve Graham to truly listen and say, ‘I believe in you, and I am here to help you through the process as long as you are patient and put in the work.’”
Steve said he and Jean have helped script many similar stories at Toner Plastics, where they provide employees more than a job and a paycheck. Often, there are other forms of support and other types of doors they’ve helped to open.
“We have a program that allows employees to borrow money for any reason without divulging why, and they set the payment schedule,” he noted. “The money is loaned interest-free; in the more than 30 years of business, I can’t recall anyone not paying the money back. We encourage employees to invest their money not just in a 401(k) but in the stock market in a conservative manner, and show them the value of compounding. Most of the people who work for us on the factory floor have been able to buy a home and send their kids to college if they so choose. It is wonderful to see.”
Added Jean, “to me, it’s like a family here. Everyone works very hard, and we appreciate everything they do. And we love to see them progress in their lives.”
As noted earlier, the Grahams don’t like to talk about themselves. They would rather let their actions and deeds do the talking for them. When prodded, Jean noted that they are motivated, primarily, to help children and families and “do the best we can.”
Most would say this is a classic understatement.
Pinning Him Down
While he doesn’t like talking about himself, Steve Graham really enjoys discussing wrestling and all that it can do to help shape the lives of young people.
In short, he said, it teaches them about much more than maneuvers like the single-leg takedown and the front quarter nelson. Indeed, it also provides important lessons in perseverance, teamwork (even though they’re on the mat themselves), and, yes, humility.
“Wrestling is special because you know that the person in the mirror is the only one responsible for success or failure,” he told BusinessWest. “It is special because, no matter how tough you think you are in street clothes, someone is going to beat you on the mat. And getting beat physically and mentally on the mat is very beneficial; it makes you humble, teaches you respect, and makes you tougher mentally.”
Speaking of special, that’s a word you would need to describe the Grahams, although they probably wouldn’t use it themselves. They put their time, their talents, their resources, and their experience to work helping others and building a stronger, better community.
He’s Netting Wins in the Community, Regardless of the Score on the Ice
When the Springfield Thunderbirds shut down the 2020-21 season in the midst of a raging pandemic, Nate Costa understood the impact — and the longer-term risk.
“It was an awful period because I had to lay off half of my staff, and the staff that stayed with me were on reduced hours,” he recalled. “And we really didn’t know what we were facing.”
That was the initial impact — which also included serious revenue losses. The longer-term risk had to do with momentum — more accurately, a complete halt to it.
“COVID affected our business like few others. You need people to get together to come to sporting events, to have success in this business. So COVID was a scary thing,” Costa continued. “And we weren’t sure how long it was going to take to have people come back together again.”
Looking back to 2016, when a large ownership group comprised of local business owners brought the Thunderbirds to Springfield just two months after the Falcons moved to Arizona, Costa said it was critical to move that quickly, as other cities that had lost AHL teams, including Worcester and Albany, never replaced them, so maintaining momentum was paramount.
Which is why late 2020 posed such a concern. But Costa understood that the way the organization was constructed would put it in the best position to succeed when hockey returned — and return it did, with a late-season surge in both wins and attendance in the spring of 2022, and a playoff run that stopped just a couple wins short of an AHL championship.
“We had taken the right steps to build the business the right way … to do things that were going to put us in a position to be sustainable long-term,” he said. “And that was really focusing on community activity, being visible in the community, and giving fans a good experience here at the building.”
By continuing with those efforts — and for leading a team that positively benefits community organizations, an enthusiastic fanbase, and the economic vitality of downtown Springfield — Costa has been named a Difference Maker for 2023, though he’s always quick to deflect credit to a hardworking staff and a committed ownership group.
“We had taken the right steps to build the business the right way … to do things that were going to put us in a position to be sustainable long-term. And that was really focusing on community activity, being visible in the community, and giving fans a good experience here at the building.”
“I’m a young person — I have a lot of life to go,” he said, contrasting his experience with Ted Hebert, a member of the T-Birds’ ownership group, who was honored as one of last year’s Difference Makers for a lifetime of work in the community. “It’s cool to be recognized, obviously, but it’s a humbling thing because it’s not what I got into it for.
“I grew up in Springfield,” Costa continued. “I used to come to games. I always thought it would be the coolest job in the world if I could run the hockey team one day, and it happened. And the extension of that is that I get to do things that are going to be the right thing for the community.”
Raising Their Game
It’s called Pink in the Rink.
It’s a national effort across the AHL to raise awareness of breast cancer; teams dye the ice pink, wear pink jerseys, and often highlight local efforts.
“Some teams partner with national organizations; some teams don’t partner with anybody — they just host an event, and there’s not a lot of teeth to it,” Costa said. “But when I came here, I knew that the way to make that event as effective as possible is to partner with somebody locally. It’s like an amplification of messages.”
Nate Costa credits his staff of salespeople
In the T-Birds case, the local partners include Rays of Hope and the Baystate Health Foundation, and the event isn’t held in October, the traditional month for breast-cancer awareness, but in March.
“We do it during a time of the year where there isn’t a lot of focus on the breast-cancer cause. That’s strategic. October is a time when there’s already a spotlight on that cause. Our idea was, ‘well, why don’t we have a second event that brings just as much attention as we would in October to a whole different group of people?’”
Last month, the team hosted a Stair Climb as part of its Hometown Heroes night, celebrating first responders and raising money for the T-Birds Foundation, with support from the American Lung Assoc. “That night, at the game, we have police vehicles and fire vehicles on the ice, and we recognize people that have made a contribution to our community throughout the night.”
Back in November, the team partnered with Rock 102 on the Mayflower Marathon, raising thousands of dollars to battle food insecurity locally. December saw the annual Teddy Bear Toss, when players collected thousands of stuffed animals thrown by fans onto the ice and delivered them to several local nonprofits serving children. The list continues: Military Appreciation Night; St. Pawdy’s Day, which raises money for the Foundation for TJO Animals; a sensory-friendly game in February; and so on.
“Obviously, you want to win a championship, and you want to bring that excitement to the city and to your fans. But I do think, on a day-to-day basis, we put a lot of focus and time and effort into creating value regardless of the score on the ice.”
Many of these events generate a quantifiable community impact, as opposed to the team’s emotional impact on individual fans. But that’s just as important, Costa said.
“We’re getting to the point where COVID is behind us, and getting back to providing experiences for kids and giving them access to players — high-fiving the players, lining up with the players, doing interactive things. Those are things we couldn’t do all last year.”
Costa noted one young girl who attends games all the time, and a member of Costa’s staff gave her a signed stick from one of the players as a reward for her achievements in school. The girl was thrilled.
“I waited behind because I wanted to see the whole thing, because that’s the stuff that you don’t necessarily get to see every single day,” he said. “But that’s what our organization really means. You have an ability to make a real impact on someone’s life. You don’t know what they’re going through; you don’t know what they’ve been through; you don’t know what they’re striving for. But at that one moment, giving someone a stick from their favorite player, it’s a really meaningful experience.”
He recalled his employee was in tears after the encounter. “Those moments that get burned into your mind … that’s what it’s about,” he went on. “Where else in this area can a little kid go and get to sing the national anthem in front of 6,500 people? Where else can you go and high-five professional hockey players that tomorrow night might be on the ice at the NHL level? You can’t do that elsewhere in Western Massachusetts. How many times can we make a difference in someone’s life? How many times can we provide them with an experience they can’t get anywhere else? We want to sell that story to people, and by extension create lifelong fans by the experiences that we’re providing.”
And although it’s not the main factor — as roster decisions are up to the St. Louis Blues — fielding a winning team is a net positive, he added.
“It definitely helps. People have been spoiled in this market because of the success of the major four,” he said, referring to the raft of titles won by the Bruins, Celtics, Patriots, and Red Sox over the past two decades. “So that’s a good thing at the end of the day. But are we reliant on it? No. I think we have built an organization that could be sustainable even if we’re not necessarily going to the Eastern Conference championship.
Nate Costa says he was gratified, post-pandemic, to see the return of opportunities for young fans to have experiences on the ice.
“That was the goal from the beginning,” he added. “Obviously, you want to win a championship, and you want to bring that excitement to the city and to your fans. But I do think, on a day-to-day basis, we put a lot of focus and time and effort into creating value regardless of the score on the ice.”
The third major impact the Thunderbirds — and Costa — have had is on Springfield itself, especially its downtown.
“We take a lot of pride in being sort of the centerpiece for the downtown renaissance, I think, hand in hand with MGM Springfield; I mean, none of this would be possible without their investment in downtown, too. They’re driving as much of that renaissance here as we are,” Costa said, again trying to distribute credit. “I think a good example of showing how much we mean to the downtown area is this brand-new garage going up across the street. I don’t think it would be possible if it weren’t for the success of the franchise. We’re averaging more than 5,000 people, 40 nights a year. So we’re bringing bodies downtown.”
And that benefits restaurants like Red Rose, Nadim’s, Theodores’ and others, as well as bars and other attractions — and contributes to an ongoing effort to change long-held misconceptions about being downtown, especially at night.
“I think we’ve really changed the perception. Very rarely now do I hear, ‘I don’t want to come downtown because it’s not safe.’ That is not something we deal with, ever.”
It’s not just hockey and gambling driving the renaissance, he added, noting projects like the renovation of the former Court Square Hotel into mixed-use space. “It’s great to see that local people are trying to invest in living downtown; I think more people living downtown makes our job easier. Everybody coming to our games now, they’re driving downtown. If we have more people living downtown, they can just walk across the street.”
He went on to cite continuing investments by MGM, the revitalization of Tower Square, and new places to eat and drink on Worthington Street as examples of why downtown Springfield is on the rise, and he knows the Thunderbirds are a big part of that. That potential is what the ownership team recognized when they moved quickly to draw another AHL franchise to the MassMutual Center after the departure of the Falcons.
“They understood the need for this,” Costa said. “Yes, we want to have a successful franchise; obviously, that’s our mission for long-term sustainability. But at the end of the day, these guys have successful businesses and were able to take on the risk because they wanted to do something for the city of Springfield — for this renaissance of this area.”
And while championship runs may not happen every year, Costa said, there’s no reason why the fan experience can’t be stellar all the time.
“I think if you come to one of our games and then you go to any other rink, you’ll see we’re putting on, if not the best, one of the best experiences in the American Hockey League. And it doesn’t matter that we’re in a small city; in fact, we take a lot of pride in that. It’s pretty cool that I get to go to the league meetings, and we’re winning awards and getting recognized next to teams that run the same type of business in cities like Chicago, Austin, San Diego. Look at Hartford — we’re outdrawing them almost two to one. There’s a reason for that: we’re really investing in the entire experience.”
He may balk at being singled out as a Difference Maker, but for leading a staff that continues to impact lives and communities — both inside and outside the rink — Nate Costa certainly lives up to that title.
For More Than 150 Years, This Agency Has Been Giving Kids a Chance
Leah Martin Photography
John Pappas doesn’t know exactly when (he’s now somewhat committed to finding out), but he does know that his maternal grandmother served on the board of the Children’s Study Home and, for a time, as its president.
Likewise, his father followed that same pattern. And his paternal grandmother served on the board as well.
And now, he’s making it three generations in a row. He joined the board in 2016, and he became its chair just last year. This tradition of service speaks to just how much this family believes in the mission of the Children’s Study Home, now known as Helix Human Services, following a needed rebranding that we’ll get into later.
“There’s certainly a lot of connection over the years with my family,” he said in a classic bit of understatement. “Things have changed mightily from then to now, but the underlying mission has not.”
But as long as this continual pattern of service to the agency on the part of Pappas and his predecessors might be, it still covers only a small fraction of its long history.
Indeed, this is the oldest social-service agency in Western Mass., tracing its roots back to 1865, when it was known as the Springfield Home for Friendless Women and Children, and its purpose was to provide care, comfort, and healing to destitute women and children orphaned by the Civil War.
And there were many of them, said John Morse, the now-retired president of the Springfield-based dictionary maker Merriam Webster and long-time member of the agency’s board, who noted that Rachel Capem Merriam, wife of the company’s co-founder, was the agency’s first director.
Over the past 157 years, the agency, which has programs in Western Mass., the Berkshires, and Cape Cod, has moved well beyond its original mission, while remaining true to its purpose — providing relief to families and especially children in need.
“We all believe in the mission, which hasn’t changed over all these years,” Pappas said. “You have to give kids a chance — that’s what we’re all about. Your heart has to go out to kids that were born in less-fortunate circumstances; they have the power to create their own path and their own destiny, and you love to see it when they blossom.”
“This is an organization that has always thought outside the box. When you’re doing this kind of care, it really makes a lot of sense to not just take care of the kids and get them in a better place.”
Need comes in many forms, he went on, and so do the programs created to address it. They include:
• The Mill Pond Schools, with locations in Springfield and the Berkshires. These facilities serve students — kindergarten through age 22 — who have social-emotional and/or behavioral challenges, a learning disability, or who may have a diagnosis of high-functioning autism, and they serve the ‘whole child,’ including the child’s family;
• The SHARP residential program, which is designed to support young people who identify with the LGBTQIA+ community. The program supports youth who have experienced trauma, with moderate to severe mental-health and behavioral-health challenges, and may be struggling with their personal identity;
• The Family Wellness Center. A recent addition to the portfolio, the facility, located in Holyoke, offers a wide array of outpatient mental-health services, including individual therapy for anyone over age 5, family therapy, couples therapy, community-based therapy, telehealth, and parent education, among others;
• The Cottage residential program, an inclusive environment designed to support male clients, regardless of how they identify, who have experienced trauma, with moderate to severe mental and behavioral challenges;
• The Family Reunification Support Program (FRSP), which supports Department of Children and Families-involved families whose children are not currently living at home but who are expected to return home within six months; and
• Fathers in Trust (FIT), a parent-education initiative that helps men ages 16 to 60 develop skills central to positive parenting, yielding healthy outcomes for children and families.
Will Dávila, outgoing president and CEO of Helix Human Services, center, with several staff members. Formerly the Children’s Study Home, the nonprofit is the oldest social-services agency in Western Mass.
Slicing through all that, one reads the words ‘trauma,’ ‘youth,’ and ‘family’ early and quite often, and these are themes that defined this agency from the beginning, and continue to define it more than a century and a half later.
And the agency’s evolution continues even today. Indeed, between the time BusinessWest selected the Children’s Study Home as a Difference Maker for 2023 and this announcement issue, the agency rebranded to Helix Human Services and launched a search for a successor to Executive Director and CEO Will Dávila, who will become president and CEO of Rochester, N.Y.-based Villa of Hope in the spring.
Helix is coping with challenge the same way it has from the beginning, said Pappas — through a focus on the future, innovation, and … giving kids a chance.
A Long History of Service
There are many words than can sum up what it takes to persevere and serve those in need for 157 years, but none do it better than this one.
The Children’s Study Home has shown as much resilience as those it serves, said Pappas, noting that, over the past century and a half, it has endured myriad challenges on the way to delivering it various services.
And the challenges have continued into this century, and this decade, with everything from COVID and its many side effects to leadership changes and struggles with maintaining strong census at its homes and the Mill Pond Schools.
The agency perseveres because of the importance of its mission, said Pappas, adding that an agency doesn’t live to celebrate its sesquicentennial unless it is able to evolve, adapt, and cope with adversity. His grandmother and father could have told him that — and they probably did.
“This is an organization that has always thought outside the box,” he told BusinessWest. “When you’re doing this kind of care, it really makes a lot of sense to not just take care of the kids and get them in a better place, but also take care of the family that they’re going home to, making sure that services are provided there and that the path they were on is not going to be traumatic moving forward.
“As we think of children, we don’t want to be thinking of them in isolation — we have to be thinking of them as being parts of families, parts of communities, parts of systems, and addressing all those aspects of children’s experiences.”
“The mission is to do that for as many people as we can while also providing quality service,” he went on, adding that the process of change, evolution, and focusing on not just children but the family has continued into this century, with new programs and initiatives created to meet emerging needs.
Morse agreed. “Over the years, what the agency has gotten right is making subtle, or sometimes not-so-subtle, shifts to its mission in order to best address the needs of the community,” he said. “If you go back to when they adopted the name Children’s Study Home, I think they were focused on diagnosis and treatment of children with some kind of behavioral or emotional challenge. As admirable as that is, what the agency has been doing steadily since then is broadening its view of ‘how do you best meet the needs of children facing a broad range of challenges for a broad range of reasons?’
“What I see when I look at the Children’s Study Home now is about a dozen different kinds of programs that we’re running that tackle issues facing children and families in a variety of different directions,” he went on. “And I think that’s the right way to be thinking; as we think of children, we don’t want to be thinking of them in isolation — we have to be thinking of them as being parts of families, parts of communities, parts of systems, and addressing all those aspects of children’s experiences.”
As an example, Pappas and Morse both cited the Family Wellness Center in Holyoke. It was established to address the surging need for outpatient mental-health services, a need that was there before COVID but made even more apparent by the pandemic, which strained families and individuals in many different ways.
“This is a walk-in clinic that anyone can use,” Pappas explained, adding that it was a timely and much-needed addition to the portfolio, and part of an overall operating philosophy he described in this simple yet poignant way: “leave people in a better place than when they came to the organization.”
Elaborating, he said this process of leaving people in a better place is never easy. Results come over time, and the road to progress is rarely smooth. The goal is to get them there.
“We’ve always been dynamic when it comes to looking to the future and where we can expand, strategically, not just for the sake of doing so,” he noted. “We know what we do best, and it’s really trauma-informed care. If we can be on the cutting edge of trauma-informed care, that’s where we want to be, with initiatives like the mental-health clinic.
“We don’t want people to be with the Children’s Study Home forever,” he went on. “But we want them to be at the Children’s Study Home for as long as they need to feel like they’re on solid ground again.”
Name of the Game
It was Shakespeare’s Juliet who famously asked the question, “what’s in a name?” and then followed it up with … “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Perhaps, but when it comes to nonprofits and their need to effectively convey who they are and what they do for a broad range of constituencies, a name carries plenty of weight.
And it is with that perspective that that the need to rebrand the Children’s Study Home was identified during a seven-month strategic planning process involving representatives of the board and the staff.
“Certainly, the agency’s work is known and appreciated by our referral and funding sources, our donors, board members, and sponsors,” Pappas said. “But we recognized there was work to be done to make sure our story and our brand reflects who we are today.”
Elaborating, he said none of the three words in the name — ‘children,’ ‘study,’ and ‘home’ — really work anymore, at least when it comes to shedding light on the agency’ broad mission.
Yes, they work to some extent, he said, noting, for example, that there is still a heavy focus on serving children, but something new and different was needed to get the message across.
“The goal isn’t to erase history, but to build upon it,” he went on. “I think we need to be dynamic; the name Children’s Study Home … while it has history and it had great intentions years and years ago, today it seems quite antiquated.”
By whatever name the agency is called, it will carry on as it has for the past 157 years, said Pappas, adding that there has always been a simple philosophy guiding it: “there’s no such thing as a bad kid — just kids who are brought up in tough circumstances.”
This organization now known as Helix Human Services exists to help change the equation so they are no longer in those circumstances, he went on, and it has been able to do that for several generations of young people.
And this clearly explains why this agency belongs in the category of Difference Makers.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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 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.
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.
“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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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, 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.”
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.”
His Decisions, and His Actions, Have Helped Move Society Forward
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.
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.
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, 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, 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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
This Organization Has Harnessed the Exponential Power of Working Together
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
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
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!
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, 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, 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.
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, 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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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 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.”
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.
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 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.”
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.”
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, 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.