Celebrating the 2019 Class
It was almost a decade ago now when Bill Ward, then the executive director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, stepped to the podium at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke to accept the first Difference Maker award presented by BusinessWest.
Much has happened since then. Ward retired a few years later, and the REB is now known as the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board. But the Difference Maker award remains a constant — and a symbol of excellence and dedication to improving quality of life in this region.
Since the very beginning, this recognition program has shown conclusively that are a great many ways to make a difference. And the class of 2019, the program’s 11th, makes this even more abundantly clear, as the stories clearly show.
The six members of the class of 2019 will be honored on Thursday, March 28 at the Log Cabin. For information about the event, sponsorship opportunities, or to purchase tickets, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100, or go HERE.
2019 Difference Makers
She’s Been a Driving Force in Business and Philanthropy
Carla Cosenzi says many people who think they know her story believe she segued from a career in healthcare to one selling cars and eventually managing dealerships because her father, Tommy Cosenzi, had been diagnosed with brain cancer.
That’s not really how it happened, said Cosenzi, adding quickly that her father, well before he was diagnosed, changed her career course when he convinced her to put plans to pursue her doctorate in clinical psychology on hold temporarily and spend some time at the family business.
“He said, ‘just come home and do some stuff around the dealership with me,’” she recalled, adding that she was living in New York at the time, having just earned her master’s at Columbia, and was trying to figure out the next chapter in her life. “In retrospect, I know now exactly what he was doing, but at the time I didn’t. He said, ‘I want you help me get our internet department up and going, and I want you to help with the sales process inside some of the dealerships, and just help me do some stuff that I need to get done that I haven’t been able to accomplish.’”
Long story somewhat short, she did all that and really enjoyed it, putting a career in clinical psychology on the shelf, if you will, and starting down a much different road.
“At the time, I felt he was really supportive of my ambitions, but he had a different plan for me, and he was re-routing me,” she went on, adding that she would “fall in love with the business.”
But while her father’s illness wasn’t exactly the impetus for what has become a career in auto-sales management, it was certainly the inspiration of what has become a very important part of her life.
That would be the Tommy Cosenzi Driving for the Cure Charity Golf Tournament, which she started, along with her brother, also named Tommy, in 2010.
“I think I share a lot of his ‘wanting more’ attitude. If we set a goal and we hit it, we’d set another goal and work to attain that goal. It’s that attitude of ‘it’s never enough and always looking for more.’ I’m not sure that’s a good thing or a bad thing in life, but that’s where I am.”
Over the past eight years, the tournament has raised more than $900,000 to support Dr. Patrick Wen (her father’s doctor) and his research colleagues at the Center for Neuro-Oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and it will certainly top the $1 million mark with this year’s tournament in August.
That money helps Dana-Farber researchers design novel clinical trials to test and develop targeted therapies that have not previously been studied in brain tumors, initiating several clinical trials in immunotherapy and conducting groundbreaking basic research to guide new therapeutic approaches, said Cosenzi, adding that these initiatives are an ambitious extension of her father’s efforts to find a cure for the disease that took his life.
“These funds are unrestricted — he can take them and try anything with research that he wants to try,” she explained. “It’s almost impossible to get money like that, and they’ve done a lot of testing and trial drugs with the money.
“I wish I could say that there were positive results from the work that’s been done,” she went on, “but every dollar helps in that effort to find a cure.”
Cosenzi said the tournament has become a labor of love, much like the car business itself, with planning for the following year’s event beginning literally within days after the trophy is handed out and the proceeds presented to Wen from the just-completed tournament.
And it represents just one of the many ways Cosenzi, now a winner of multiple BusinessWest awards — she was the top scorer in the Forty Under 40 class of 2012 — has become a Difference Maker in the region. Others include her success in business, her emergence as a role model of sorts for young women pursuing careers in business and mothers trying to balance life and work, and her commitment to following in her father’s footsteps not only as a manager of people but as one who gives back to the community.
“I think I share a lot of his ‘wanting more’ attitude,” she explained, referring to her father. “If we set a goal and we hit it, we’d set another goal and work to attain that goal. It’s that attitude of ‘it’s never enough and always looking for more.’ I’m not sure that’s a good thing or a bad thing in life, but that’s where I am.”
And that ‘wanting more’ and setting higher goals refers not only to selling Volkswagens, Nissans, and Volvos, but also to raising money to fight cancer.
In each realm, she does, as they might say in this business, put the pedal to the metal.
Getting Up to Speed
As she talked about the all that planning that goes into the charity golf tournament, her level of involvement, and whether she puts a tee in the ground and plays herself, Cosenzi offered a quick yet effective response: “I’m a control freak.”
She could have left it at that, but didn’t.
“I’m very particular when it comes to how the day is run,” she told BusinessWest. “I want to make sure it’s set up properly and that we’re running on the right schedule. No, I don’t play; I’m there running the event. I hand out our roses, I shake everyone’s hand at registration … I greet them when they arrive and make sure everyone’s having a good time.”
But, and this is a big but, she went on to explain that her control-freak nature, while certainly not restricted to golf-tournament management, doesn’t really extend to management at the TommyCar Auto Group.
Indeed, she said that over the years — and it hasn’t been all that many years, to be sure (she’s only 39) — she’s learned that good managers master the art of delegation.
“A lot of people think of a leader as someone coming in, being a control freak, and yelling at everyone,” she said. “But really, if you’re a good leader, you’re relinquishing more control and you’re putting more trust into other people.”
Knowing when and when not to delegate is one of the many things Cosenzi has learned in a career that is many ways just getting started and still adding intriguing chapters.
“There’s a huge difference between being a manager for my father and being a leader and managing other managers.”
Like most all second- (or third- or fourth-) generation members of auto-business owning families, Cosenzi remembers practically growing up at the dealership, in this case Springfield Chrysler Plymouth on Boston Road in Springfield, one of several stores her father would eventually own and manage.
“I spent a lot of summers at the dealership and would come in on weekends; one of my first memories is of the Christmas parties my father would have for employees and underprivileged children,” she recalled, adding that giving back certainly runs in the family. “I remember spending a lot of time playing in the cars and in the office-supplies room. I don’t know why office supplies are so attractive to kids, but they are — my children love them, too — the Post-its, stapling, making photocopies, coloring … it’s all fun.”
Later, when she would return to this region for summer break from high school, she would work at the dealership moving cars, making sure they were clean, and related tasks. And as she got a little older, she drifted into sales and quickly developed both an affinity for, and a passion for, that side of the business.
“I always loved the idea of selling cars — it was fun, and I was making decent money,” she said, recalling that, by this time, the mid-’90s, it was still rare to see women in positions other than the back office in auto sales, primarily because the industry didn’t work very hard to attract women. Today, the situation is much different, a climate we’ll get to later. First, back to how Cosenzi arrived at the large office at Northampton Volkswagen, managing four dealerships and more than 150 employees.
That was certainly not the plan when she enrolled at Northeastern University and studied clinical psychology. With her undergraduate degree, she worked at a hospital in the area, and eventually enrolled at Columbia to earn her master’s in clinical psychology and lived in New York City for a year and a half.
It was when she had that diploma in her hand — and started looking at options for attaining a doctorate — that she had a talk with her father that she remembers vividly. It went this way:
“I remember saying to my dad, ‘I think I might go on; I really enjoy this,’” she recalled. “And he said, ‘we’re going to put on the brakes here; you’re going to pack up, you’re going to come home, we’re going to reset, and we’re going to make sure this is what you really want to do before we invest in any more schooling.”
And that’s exactly what happened, she went on, adding that she missed one window for applying for doctorate programs, and in the eight or nine months before the next window would open, her career outlook would change dramatically.
Indeed, as noted earlier, as her father got her involved in more aspects of the business, she was drawn into it and decided she wanted to stay in — before her father was diagnosed. She spent a year going back and forth to McLean, Va. and the National Automotive Dealer Association’s Dealer Academy.
“At this point, I really fell in love with the business, like I never knew I could,” she told BusinessWest. “I loved selling cars, I loved working for my dad … I really just fell in love with all aspects of the dealership.”
She progressed from being a salesperson at Patriot Buick GMC in Charleton to being a finance manager, to sales manager, and was moving to the point of “managing the managers, rather then being a manager,” as she put it, when her father got sick in 2007 at only 49 years of age.
To a Higher Gear
Doctors gave Tom Cosenzi less than a year to live. He would actually live another 2½ years.
Over that time, Carla would learn still more about the business from him and, with her brother, complete a transition of the business to the next generation.
Over the past several years, they’ve expanded the TommyCar Auto Group to its present four dealerships, the latest addition being Volvo Cars Pioneer Valley in South Deerfield, acquired last summer. Along the way, Carla has become the marketing face of the business, and even her young children, Talia, 4, and Nico, 3, have become well-known to those listening to the radio or watching local television.
Far less well known is how Carla said she grappled with the transition from car sales to managing a sales team to managing managers and ultimately making her mark in an industry dominated by men.
“There’s a huge difference between being a manager for my father and being a leader and managing other managers,” she said. “Luckily, I think I earned the respect of the people here after working in the business for so long.
“Still, being female, it was a very interesting dynamic,” she went on, adding that she was now managing people who had worked for her father for long time — some a very long time. “I struggled — I mean I really struggled — to earn their respect, figure out how to be a good leader to them, and hold them accountable; I would not want to go back to those days.”
But figure it out she did, she said, adding that there was a lot of learning by doing — but also some restaffing, as she had to replace some people whose respect she couldn’t seem to earn and who didn’t want to do some of the things she suggested — things that her father might not have wanted to do.
Ultimately, she said she’s much like in her father in many respects, especially in how she wants a dealership run and customers treated, but also in how employees are respected and business goals set and made.
While transitioning to management of the family business, Cosenzi and her brother have also followed their father in another respect — giving back to the community.
For Carla, such efforts have taken many forms, from work to create scholarships in her father’s name for students at several area high schools, to mentoring of young women, to public speaking on topics related to women in business and work/life balance.
But much of her time and energy goes to the Drive for the Cure golf tournament, which has earned the support of a number of area businesses and individuals. She said the event is in some ways a continuation of an annual golf tournament her father ran as an outing for his employees.
“That’s why it was so important for us to take that idea of all coming together and getting out and having some fun and turn it into a way to honor him and also raise money for a good cause,” she explained.
And while her work at the four dealerships and with the golf tournament absorbs much of her time, she still finds some to occasionally mentor young women in various ways.
For example, she frequently speaks at the region’s trade schools, offering words of advice and encouragement to young women looking at careers that been traditionally dominated by men. And she uses her own story to help get her points across.
“I tell them about my own struggles coming up as a woman in the business,” she said. “And I tell them that it’s possible to succeed and that they should never give up on whatever their dream might be.”
She’s also spoken before a number of women’s groups about subjects ranging from leadership to attracting women to her business, to the all-important issue of achieving work-life balance, something that is elusive and that she still struggles to attain.
“My kids are growing up quick, and I work hard to make sure I’m there for what they need, but am also still here for the business,” she said. “The key is to be organized — very organized — and I am.”
A Leader Who’s Driven
When she visits the office-supplies area at Northampton Volkswagen, Cosenzi can usually find signs that her children have been there — and have enjoyed themselves.
That takes her back about 35 years or so to the Springfield Chrysler Plymouth dealership, where she started learning the ropes from a man who inspired her —and keeps on inspiring her — in all kinds of ways.
Today, she’s inspiring others, as a business leader, a woman achieving balance in her life, an aggressive fighter against cancer, and an individual always looking for different ways to give back to her community.
In short, as a Difference Maker.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]
This Essential Agency Helps the Region Contend with a ‘New Normal’
As Andrew Morehouse talks about the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, its history, mission, and future, he makes early and frequent use of numbers.
And for a good reason — actually, several of them.
They bring this story into focus better than any words probably could, said Morehouse, executive director of the Hatfield-based nonprofit since 2005. The numbers punctuate the tremendous amount of need in this region, and … well, they usually wind up surprising people and then inspiring them.
Here are just a few:
Over the past calendar year, the Food Bank has served more than 225,000 people seeking what is known as ‘food assistance.’ That’s not necessarily 225,000 different people, Morehouse acknowledged; that number is at least 100,000 and probably closer to 200,000 — significant no matter what the actual total is, because the population of this region is only about 900,000. Nearly one-third of those served (30%) are children, 14% are seniors, and the rest are adults ages 19-64.
“Do the math. People working at minimum wage or near minimum wage working full-time can’t meet all their basic expenses, including food, so something has to give. And often, it is food.”
As for meals distributed, that number is more than 9.6 million for the four Western Mass. counties, and more than 5 million for Hampden County alone. Those meals add up to 11.6 million pounds of food, or the equivalent of 145 tractor-trailers packed from one end to the other.
And here are perhaps the most surprising, disturbing, and inspiring numbers. The total amount of food distributed in 2005 was 5.6 million pounds, just over half what it is today. Meanwhile, the number of people served spiked after the Great Recession to more than 200,000, and in the decade since, it hasn’t gone down, even though the economy has recovered significantly by every statistical measure.
“That’s certainly alarming,” said Morehouse, adding that all these numbers add up to three simple yet also quite complex words: ‘a new normal.’
“There’s been an economic restructuring, as often happens after recessions, which has brought about a dramatic change in the workforce,” he explained. “Many people, if they are working, are in lower-paying jobs. And that results in a lot of families not being able to support themselves, even if people are working full-time.
“Do the math,” he went on. “People working at minimum wage or near minimum wage working full-time can’t meet all their basic expenses, including food, so something has to give. And often, it is food.”
Confronting this new normal in a proactive manner could be considered the unofficial mission of the Food Bank, which was created in 1982 and first housed in a tobacco barn in Hadley.
And this mission is carried on in a number of ways, said Morehouse, noting that collecting and then distributing food for more than 9 million meals is obviously the most visible and impactful manifestation of the agency’s work and the quickest, most profound explanation for why this agency is being honored as a Difference Maker.
“People are not going to wear a sign around their neck saying, ‘I’m hungry.’ There is a lot of stigma and shame attached to not being able to meet your basic needs, especially food. So there’s a real challenge there in terms of public education.”
Indeed, Monte Belmonte, program director and morning show host at WHMP radio and architect of Monte’s March, an annual trek during which he pushes a shopping cart to raise money for the Food Bank, called the agency ‘mother ship hunger’ that provides food to a number of area food pantries and soup kitchens, and essentially enables them to carry out their work.
“When I go into these emergency food providers across our region, all of them say they couldn’t do their work; that’s how essential the Food Bank is to fighting hunger here,” he said. “If it weren’t for this huge piece of the puzzle, all those other dominoes would be in huge trouble.”
But the Food Bank is also attacking the root causes of this large and persistent problem through an ambitious initiative called the Coalition to End Hunger.
Launched in 2017, the coalition is a collaborative network of leaders and organizations focusing on providing integrated services for those who need them, erasing the stigma associated with hunger and advocating for public policy solutions.
As just one example, he noted the agency’s work to bring awareness to — and a possible solution for — the so-called ‘cliff effect.’ Not a recent phenomenon but certainly a growing problem, this cliff effect refers to a situation where people who want to work, and are often being given help to join the workforce, often don’t because the income they would earn would make them ineligible or less eligible for benefits such as food assistance.
Looking toward the future, the Food Bank is blueprinting ambitious expansion plans, said Morehouse, adding that, given the ‘new normal’ this region is facing, the agency will need to nearly double the size of its 30,000-square-foot Hatfield headquarters to effectively carry out its broad mission.
Plans are preliminary, he went on, adding that a capital campaign will certainly be needed for this expansion to become reality. When asked for a price tag, he said he didn’t know what that number might be at this time.
What he does know is that all those other numbers cited earlier are expected to increase in the months and years to come. The food bank will go on being a Difference Maker in this region, he said, but the challenge will only continue to grow in scope.
Crunching the Numbers
Morehouse told BusinessWest that hunger is what he called “an invisible problem.”
By that, he meant that, in many ways, it’s not easy for many people to see or fully comprehend the scope of the problem in this area, especially in times like these, when the economy is, in most ways, doing well and unemployment rates are approaching record-low levels. And also because of the persistent stigma attached to hunger.
“People are not going to wear a sign around their neck saying, ‘I’m hungry,’” he said. “There is a lot of stigma and shame attached to not being able to meet your basic needs, especially food. So there’s a real challenge there in terms of public education.”
Meanwhile, beyond being invisible in nature, hunger, or the need for food assistance, is an often misunderstood problem.
Indeed, the common perception is that many of those seeking such assistance are capable of working and are not, opting instead for a handout. There are certainly a few that might fit into that category, said Morehouse, but the vast majority of people receiving assistance would rather not be. However, circumstances dictate that they must, so they do, although pride does keep some away who are truly in need.
“We need to debunk that myth that people go hungry because of their fault,” he explained, adding that battling this stigma, as well as the many misperceptions about those seeking food assistance, has been part of the Food Bank’s mission since it was created more than 35 years ago by area church leaders. It is now one of 200 food banks across the country under the umbrella of a national organization called Feeding America.
As noted, it started in a tobacco barn in Hadley (a location chosen because the intent was for the agency to also serve Southern Vermont, although it did that for only a short time), but within a year, land was purchased in Hatfield for a headquarters facility that includes a large warehouse and administrative offices.
As he offered a tour of that warehouse, Morehouse noted that the food distributed by the agency comes from a number of sources and agencies with like-sounding acronyms. These include the state government (MEFAP), the federal government (TEFAP), local farms, the agency’s own farm, retail and wholesale food businesses (including CNS Wholesale Grocers, which built a huge warehouse literally next door in Hatfield), community organizations, and individual donations.
“With state funding and food donations from local farmers, we receive more than 1 million pounds of fresh vegetables every year,” he explained, while pointing to cases and large storage bins of food that arrived from a host of various sources, and correcting another misperception about food banks. “Contrary to the stereotype that food banks distribute unhealthy food, a third of the food that we distribute is fresh vegetables; we get vegetables from supermarkets, and we actually buy vegetables from Canada over the winter months because they know how to store the harvest up there.”
Once received and processed, the food is distributed to a number of member agencies or through the Food Bank’s own direct-to-client programs such as its Mobile Food Bank or its Brown Bag: Food for Elders program. These member agencies, located across the four counties of Western Mass., include pantries, meal sites, shelters, rehabilitation facilities, senior centers, and more.
And this is where some confusion exists, said Morehouse, noting that many believe the Food Bank is one of these pantries, such as Rachel’s Table, Kate’s Kitchen in Holyoke, or the Amherst Survival Center.
“Our strategic plan is to continue to increase the amount of food we distribute every year, until or unless we see things get better. But here we are in a period of dramatic economic growth, and there are still 225,000 people receiving food — and we know that another recession will come.”
Instead, it is, as Belmonte described, the mother ship for those smaller distribution facilities, a ship that needs fuel — in the form of donations of food, money, time, and energy; indeed, the Food Bank relies on a small army of volunteers to keep its multi-faceted operation running smoothly.
Meanwhile, donations from the public, attained through a host of fundraisers, including Monte’s March, are used to support the infrastructure that enables the Food Bank to carry out its mission, said Morehouse.
“Those donations support the capacity we have, between staff and trucks and warehousing, to be able to receive the food that’s either donated or paid for by the public sector,” he explained. “That’s the magic that enables us to turn $1 that is donated into the equivalent of three meals.”
But while food distribution is at the heart of the agency’s mission, there is much more to the work known as food assistance, said Morehouse, adding that the Food Bank is engaged in helping area residents on a number of fronts, including SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) outreach and enrollment, nutrition outreach, and the broad realm of advocacy.
Educating the public about the problem of hunger and its vast dimensions is a big part of the mission, said Morehouse, adding that many of the families being served by the agency have incomes that exceed the thresholds established for SNAP benefits, but are not high enough to adequately feed that family. He offered an example.
“For a family of four, that threshold is about $44,000,” he said, in reference to the ceiling for SNAP benefits. “So if you’re making $45,000 a year, you can’t make ends meet, yet you’re not eligible for SNAP benefits. So if you can’t feed yourself, you can go to a local food pantry or meal site and get some food to get through the week or the month until the next paycheck comes. To get by, a family of four would need to earn about $56,000; so there’s a gap of $12,000.”
That gap, and, more specifically, the steady, alarmingly high number of people facing such a gap, explains not only the need for the Food Bank but why the long-term strategic plan calls for an expansion of the Hatfield facility, said Morehouse.
Elaborating, he said that, when the Food Bank goes about calculating how much food it will need to distribute, either to area member agencies or through its own programs, it takes that number cited earlier — 225,000 people — and multiples it by the number of times each individual might visit. This takes us to that other number — 11.6 million pounds of food — which, he said, is almost certain to increase in the years to come.
“Every year that I’ve been at the Food Bank, we’ve increased the amount of food we’ve distributed,” he explained. “In 2005, we were distributing 5.6 million pounds of food; last year, it was over twice that amount.
“Our strategic plan is to continue to increase the amount of food we distribute every year, until or unless we see things get better,” he went on. “But here we are in a period of dramatic economic growth, and there are still 225,000 people receiving food — and we know that another recession will come.”
This reality, and the need to be able to respond to it, is one of the forces that started Belmonte on his march back at the start of this decade. The program has its roots in a food drive staged by the radio station, he explained, but was inspired by the knowledge that the Food Bank, with its enormous buying power, can do more with dollars than it can with donated cans of soup.
So Belmonte started marching from Northampton to Greenfield with a shopping cart souped up (pun intended) by students at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, broadcasting and raising money as he went.
In its first year, the march raised $13,000 for the Food Bank. The latest installment, staged last November, raised $294,000. The numbers are just one manifestation of how the event has grown in size — and meaning.
Indeed, the march now covers two days and much more ground; the trek is now from Springfield to Greenfield. And Belmonte, who likened himself to Forrest Gump in the scenes where that movie character is running across the country, has picked up a lot of company in his march.
“There were hundreds of people joining us at various points along the 43-mile route, including all the newly elected legislators in Western Mass. and U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern, who has done this march at least six times now,” said Belmonte, adding that this strength in numbers has helped bring more than money to the Food Bank — it’s helped raise awareness of its all-important mission.
And still more awareness comes with some stops those marching make to a few of the member agencies served by the Food Bank.
“Some of these people who are marching along with us have never been to a food pantry and seen how one works,” he said. “So it brings the pieces to the puzzle together in a rather interesting way for people.”
Thus, the march has become part of Belmonte’s work as a member of the Coalition to End Hunger, an important extension, if you will, of the Food Bank’s mission. The coalition is focusing on three primary areas of work:
• A policy team that identifies and supports changes that will help resolve the underlying causes of hunger;
• A service-integration team that develops a network that will help those who are food-insecure through initiatives ranging from integrating nutrition programs into other safety-net programs to increasing access to healthy food in food deserts and food swamps; and
• A communication and education team (Belmonte’s a member) that addresses the lack of understanding and education about food insecurity, and the stigma attached to the problem, through a targeted media campaign.
“We’ve invested in a public media-education campaign to drive traffic to a website called coalitiontoendhunger.org,” Morehouse explained, “where we’re telling real stories of real people that will help shatter the myth that people are hungry because they’re lazy or they don’t want to work or because they have a drug problem.
“One would do better to not assume or judge, but to understand this problem and come up with smart ways to address it,” he went on, adding that this is the essence of the coalition and its work.
Belmonte agreed, and said his efforts to assist the food bank have certainly evolved over the years and expanded beyond the physical pushing of a shopping cart and asking for donations, and into the realm of education.
“I’ve learned so much about food insecurity and the myths surrounding it, and I wanted to do much more than a publicity stunt,” he said of his work with the coalition. “Using the tools of marketing to help destigmatize this issue is really important to me.”
Food for Thought
As he put the Food Bank and its broad spectrum of work in perspective, Morehouse recalled (he said it was something he’d never forget) a tour of the Charlemont area he was given by a woman who runs a food pantry there.
“She drove me around the rural roads of Charlemont to show me where people lived and tell the stories of the people who lived in those houses and also frequented the pantries,” he told BusinessWest. “It was eye-opening to see the condition of those houses, but it’s just one example of how there’s lots of people in rural communities, and urban communities, who are just scraping by — really struggling.
“People who don’t experience that and don’t live in those circumstances, just don’t have a clue of how much people are struggling to survive,” he went on, adding that it is part of the Food Bank’s mission to not only give people a clue but create enough momentum to confront that new normal he described, in the manner in which it needs to be confronted.
And that’s why, beyond those 9.6 million meals and 11.6 million pounds of food distributed, this agency is a true Difference Maker.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]
He’s Spent a Career Bringing Home the Power of Collaboration
Like most school teachers working in the early ’70s, Peter Gagliardi needed something to do during the summer — not just to keep him busy, but to help with cash flow during those 10 weeks when there were no paychecks coming in.
Early in the summer of 1973, his search for such an employment opportunity took him to a nonprofit called Rural Housing Improvement Inc. in Winchendon. After being told there were no part-time, temporary jobs to be had at the agency, he was further informed of a full-time, permanent position as director of property management that he might pursue if he was interested.
After doing a little soul searching — OK, a lot of soul searching — he convinced himself that he was interested.
“I had just signed a tenured contract, but I resigned and took a job with an organization that had secure funding for 30 days,” he said in a voice that didn’t accurately reflect the sizable risk he was taking. “And I’ve been doing housing ever since.”
It was a big decision for the Gagliardi family, and, as things would turn out, a big one for countless other families as well.
Indeed, that job with a fledgling nonprofit would, as he said, lead to a career in housing. But actually, it’s been a career in much more than that. In the nearly 30 years he’s been president and CEO of Way Finders, the agency formerly known as HAPHousing and before that the Housing Allowance Project, he has helped to greatly expand both the mission and the nonprofit’s influence far beyond its original charge — providing housing vouchers for those in need.
“I had just signed a tenured contract, but I resigned and took a job with an organization that had secure funding for 30 days.”
While it still helps individuals and families secure a roof over their heads through vouchers and creation of new affordable-housing projects, it now helps people in many other ways, as its relatively new name suggests.
It helps them secure employment through job-training initiatives, for example, and also enables individuals to become homeowners by helping them save money, improve their credit, and take the other steps needed to buy a house. And it has stepped forward to help change the trajectory of entire blocks and neighborhoods.
That was the case on Byers Street in Springfield, a half-mile-long stretch that borders the Springfield Armory property and, ironically enough, sits across Pearl Street from Springfield Police headquarters. Ironic because, by the late ’90s, Byers Street had become a hot spot for crime and, in most all ways, a blighted area.
It was (note the past tense) defined by perhaps its most famous, or infamous, piece of real estate — the Rainville Hotel.
“It was notorious,” said Gagliardi, flashing back 15 to 20 years, adding that it had become a center for drug dealing and other illegal activities, and just one of several properties that were causing problems for abutters that included Springfield Technical Community College, the Quadrangle, St. Luke’s Home (operated by the Sisters of Providence), the Diocese of Springfield, the Armory Street Commons apartment complex, and others.
HAPHousing stepped forward, partnered with other agencies (more on this later), and changed the fortunes of that area by taking down some derelict buildings and fixing up others. Today, it manages the Rainville, now an apartment complex, and several other properties, and the change on the street is palpable.
“You’re seeing other property owners on the street investing in their homes,” said Gagliardi, pointing out such initiatives as he walked the length of Byers Street with BusinessWest recently. “It’s a much better place now.”
The same can be said of the Old Hill section of the city, another area where Way Finders worked, again in partnership with other agencies and especially Springfield Neighborhood Housing Services, to bring about positive change in many ways. Dozens of new homes have been built, dozens more have been renovated, and scores of vacant lots have been put to better uses. Most importantly, residents are taking pride in their neighborhood — as well as responsibility for it — and the fabric of that neighborhood is becoming stronger.
“You’re seeing other property owners on the street investing in their homes. It’s a much better place now.”
“There’s always more to do, but Old Hill is a different place,” said Gagliardi. “Since the houses were built that we’ve been involved with, people are choosing to buy homes there; that was just not happening before.”
In a way, Byers Street, Old Hill, and what’s happened in those areas have become living symbols of Gagliardi’s energetic and imaginative approach to fulfilling and expanding the stated mission at Way Finders — “to light pathways and open doors to homes and communities where people thrive.”
And they serve to help explain why he has long been a real Difference Maker in this region.
Keys to Success
They call them ‘Success Stories,’ and that’s pretty much an understatement.
These are poignant vignettes, if you will, created to help convey the many ways that Way Finders has evolved as an agency and how it has helped change the lives of the people it has touched.
People like Charles Winston, the single father of a 7-year-old boy, who was unemployed and living in a one-bedroom apartment with his son when he enrolled in Way Finders’ Family Self-sufficiency (FSS) Program in 2014. He knew what he wanted to do — buy a home of his own someday — but also knew he had a laundry list of things he needed help with, from reliable childcare to a dependable vehicle; from full-time employment to credit repair. Long story short, Way Finders and its FSS program helped with all that. He secured a job with UPS, improved his credit score to 738, saved $22,391 in an escrow account established for him to buy a house, and in 2017, he became a home owner.
And also people like Minerva Gonzalez, who witnessed a sharp decline in the neighborhood in Holyoke in which she grew up and was now raising a family, and became determined to do something about it, only she didn’t know where or how to begin.
After enrolling in Way Finders’ Resident Leadership Program, she soon learned that community leaders often have a stronger voice than city officials. And she used hers to bring about change at H.B. Lawrence Elementary School and, specifically, a host of improvements to its playground.
You don’t see Peter Gagliardi’s picture accompanying these success stories. Instead, you see Charles Winston proudly holding up the keys to his house, and Minerva Gonzalez sitting atop a piece of playground equipment at her kids’ school.
But he had a big hand in writing them, a pattern that began way back in 1973 when he decided to leave the classroom and take that full-time job with Rural Housing Improvement Inc.
But our story actually begins several years earlier, when Gagliardi was attending college. He met a volunteer with VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) who was working in his hometown of Athol, and she introduced him to a housing problem he never knew existed.
“She showed me some atrocious housing conditions that people were living in and really brought the issue home,” he recalled. “I never thought about us having poor people as neighbors — they were all friends. I didn’t think about people living in really terrible living conditions, but there were some, and there weren’t a lot of alternatives for people.
“I learned a little bit, and then I went off and finished school, did the teaching thing, and along came a job that was pretty much serendipity,” he went on, retracing the start of his new career. “It got me involved in housing, and it became clear pretty quickly that this is where I should be.”
At Rural Housing Improvement Inc., Gagliardi worked for a boss who gave him what he called “a wide-open portfolio,” and he took full advantage, spending 13 years at the organization, rising to the rank of associate executive director, and, most importantly, learning a number of lessons he would apply later in his career, starting with his next stop.
“Along came a job that was pretty much serendipity. It got me involved in housing, and it became clear pretty quickly that this is where I should be.”
That would be at the recently created Mass. Housing Partnership, part of the Executive Office of Communities and Development, in 1986.
There, he worked under Amy Anthony, who was, ironically enough, the first executive director of the Housing Allowance Project and would become a titan within the affordable-housing industry, transforming Massachusetts into a national leader in that realm (she passed away last December).
Gagliardi was recruited to be director of field operations for the Mass. Housing Partnership, and his job was to work with communities across the state to develop what were known as ‘local housing partnerships.’
“The concept was, if you bring people together from different sectors and start focusing on the problem, then the interaction will add to the value of the work that you do,” he explained. “You have the private sector, the public sector, and representatives of the community … you’re tackling a common problem, and by doing it together, you get a better result than if any one of those sectors tried to do it on their own.”
And results were achieved, he said, adding that Massachusetts soon set the tone for affordable-housing programs nationwide through imaginative, partnership-driven initiatives that changed the landscape in all kinds of ways.
“That was a very dynamic time in housing in Massachusetts,” he recalled. “The governor [Michael Dukakis] was putting resources into it — these were the days of the Massachusetts Miracle — and allotted programs were created in Massachusetts, many of which still exist today,” he told BusinessWest. “We became the envy of all the states in the country with the variety of programs we had and the effectiveness of those programs.”
Gagliardi would eventually take the role of director of Private Housing at the Mass. Housing Partnership and would stay in that role for roughly a year.
By the end of 1990, however, the Dukakis administration was coming to an end, and he was looking for his next challenge.
He found it as president and CEO of the Housing Allowance Project, a position that, in many ways, took him back to his work with Rural Housing Improvement Inc. and the front lines of the housing problem in the western part of the state.
Over the past 28 years, the agency has grown and diversified its portfolio of services largely out of necessity, in a way that makes its mission more holistic in nature and worthy of that name Way Finders.
Gagliardi put all this into some kind of perspective:
“I think the most significant thing we’ve done is bring together a variety of services, all of which are complementary,” he explained. “We’ve built the strength and the reputation to take on new challenges as they arise. More than any one specific program, what we’ve been able to do is generate impact for the community and the people we work with across a wide range of programmatic activities.”
To explain this expansion of the mission, he returned to Byers Street, literally, where he pointed to the buildings, including the Rainville, that have been transformed from eyesores into attractive affordable housing, and talked about how it happened.
“This was one of Springfield’s darkest hours in a lot of ways,” he said, while setting the tone and explaining how Byers came to be the way it was. “Jobs had been declining for many years, people left their housing, places were vacant and abandoned; it was very difficult circumstances.”
The agency’s work there is a solid example of the importance of partnerships and bringing together groups with common goals to accomplish something they could not have done on their own, he said, adding that efforts to revitalize the area led to the creation of the Armory/Quadrangle Civic Assoc., which is still active today.
“We took the experience of doing some affordable-housing development, but in an urban setting, to use it as a way of bringing positive change to a neighborhood,” he said, adding that the agency brought various officials and groups to see what was done there. And the results would inspire an even bigger initiative.
“When we had an open house for our second project there on Byers Street, we brought some people down in a bus from the Old Hill neighborhood,” he recalled. “And I can remember the head of the Old Hill Neighborhood Council saying, ‘why can’t we do this in my neighborhood?’”
Soon thereafter, they did, in what became perhaps an even better example of the power of partnerships.
By the early 2000s, there were 150 vacant lots in Old Hill, a neighborhood in the vicinity of Springfield College, which represented maybe 10% of all the residential lots.
“We knew we couldn’t just go in, do a couple of houses, and make a difference — we needed a different strategy,” he explained, adding that, in collaboration with a host of partners, including the college, Habitat for Humanity, the neighborhood council, Springfield Neighborhood Housing Services, Revitalize Community Development Corp., and others, a plan was crafted to acquire many of the vacant lots (often from the city in tax title) and putting new homes on them.
Meanwhile, many other homes were rehabbed, and a host of agencies came together for what became known as the Healthy Hill Initiative, a project focused on two of the primary social determinants of health — public safety and access to physical activity.
“The secret to success, in my mind, is collaboration,” he told BusinessWest. “One of the things that I’m mindful of is that we would not have done any of this on our own.”
He was talking about Old Hill, but that sentiment applies to many of the initiatives the agency involves itself with, and collaboration is just one of the managerial mindsets that Gagliardi has brought with him to work for the past 45 years or so.
“We’ve built the strength and the reputation to take on new challenges as they arise. More than any one specific program, what we’ve been able to do is generate impact for the community and the people we work with across a wide range of programmatic activities.”
Overall, he said his goal has been to hire people who, like him, have a passion for this kind of work and can realize that, while the work is often difficult and bound tightly in red tape, there are many rewards.
“We’re working here because, at the end of the day when we go home, sometimes tired from all the complexities of the programs we run, we can take pride in the fact that, because of what we did today, somebody is in housing they wouldn’t otherwise have had,” he told BusinessWest. “It might be a homeless family has found a place to call home or a family that was in danger of being evicted has solved their problem. That’s much different than coming home and saying, ‘well, I made another buck for the shareholders,’ and that’s what keeps us coming back the next day.”
Looking back on that fateful decision he made back in 1973, he said he has no regrets at all and is simply thankful for that bit of serendipity.
“It’s been good work,” he said with a wide smile on his face. “There is where I should have been.”
As he talked about his work with Mass. Housing Partnership, Gagliardi took a few minutes to reflect on the many ways Amy Anthony influenced his career.
“She was inspiring,” he told BusinessWest. “She was full of energy and open to ideas. I would go to her with an idea, she’d think about it, we’d talk about it, and she’d say, ‘OK, I like it; run with it.’”
One could use many of those same descriptive words and phrases when talking about her eventual successor. Also full of energy and open to ideas, he has built upon her legacy and helped write countless success stories like those mentioned earlier.
And he’s come a long way since he stepped into the offices of the Rural Housing Improvement Inc. looking for a summer job. Instead he found a career and, indirectly, a path to the stage at the Log Cabin on March 30, where he’ll be honored for what he has truly become.
A real Difference Maker.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]
They’ve Shared a Lifetime Working for Social Change
Frederick Hurst clearly recalls where he was the April afternoon in 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. It was a job interview — a job he decided not to take.
That day, he said, changed the course of his life, and that of his wife, Marjorie. The trajectory of those lives has been a winding one, with many stops along the way, but one common thread — a constant focus on making a difference, in myriad ways.
For the past 15 years, the most visible vehicle for that change has been An African American Point of View, the ‘newsmagazine,’ as Rick calls it, that blends community news with often-unsparing commentary, every word of it edited by Marjorie. We’ll let his note in a recent issue explain the dynamic.
“We didn’t start this paper without knowing what we want to accomplish. We knew where we wanted to go in terms of content and impact. And we still feel we provide a point of view that is not provided anywhere else.”
“Like any journalist, I have an editor who pushes back at me. She pisses me off sometimes, but I often acquiesce. I’m not easy. She often recoils at stuff that truly expresses what I mean to say even though it might upset some folks. I am most responsive when she can show me a milder way to say the same thing and less responsive when she suggests a change simply because, without it, someone will get mad. I write it as I see it. And sometimes, I want to make someone mad because it is a legitimate part of my message and it tells the story best.”
“We didn’t start this paper without knowing what we want to accomplish,” Rick told BusinessWest. “We knew where we wanted to go in terms of content and impact. And we still feel we provide a point of view that is not provided anywhere else.”
It’s a perspective that remains badly needed, he added.
“The African-American point of view is so diluted in every medium you can find around here. I don’t think that has been malicious; I just think folks generally don’t understand what that means, even though they do the best they can,” he continued. “Sometimes I write to educate, sometimes I write to provoke, and sometimes I write to just express my opinion.”
Pointing out ways that political, educational, and economic infrastructures present barriers to success for the black community is nothing new to the Hursts.
“These things need to be discussed without equivocation,” Rick continued. “And most people I know — good people — are equivocal. They’ve been raised to be equivocal, and approach things like race with such delicacy that the story doesn’t get out there. One way we can make a solid impact as a newspaper is to deal with these race issues unequivocally. And I think we’re having an impact. Sometimes my good friends get mad at me — but it doesn’t bother me. I learned, if you have another point of view, write it, and we’ll print it.”
Marjorie noted that the newspaper had long been on the couple’s five-year plan — for way more than five years, actually — before they actually launched it in 2003.
“It was always part of what we were going to do,” she said. “He always had something to say, always had thoughts, always had ideas and a need to express them.”
And a need for an editor — even when they were dating as teenagers and engaged as college students.
“I’d send her love letters, and she’d send them back with corrections in red,” he laughed. “And she’s still doing that with anything else I write.”
A Life Together
In fact, the Hursts have known each other from their days as Buckingham Junior High School students in Springfield. Marjorie went to the High School of Commerce, Rick to Technical High School, and they had been dating for five years when they decided to tie the knot as undergrads at Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1967.
“I was planning to go into speech therapy and audiology,” she recalled. “I had started out in journalism, but decided not to do that. It felt too intrusive to ask people all these questions.”
King’s death when the couple were seniors at Howard palpably altered both their career paths. An economics major with his eye on law school, Rick was sitting at a table with executives from D.C.-based Riggs National Bank, who were making him an offer to manage their trust department — and offering to pay his way through law school — when he heard King had been shot.
“People came running in, screaming and hollering — everyone was all upset,” he recalled. “It changed everything. I listened and was very cool, but I knew I wasn’t going to work for a bank, and we made a decision to come back to Springfield.”
“Most people I know — good people — are equivocal. They’ve been raised to be equivocal, and approach things like race with such delicacy that the story doesn’t get out there.”
With a new sense of mission, Rick got involved in poverty and unemployment programs, and they both taught school. He was recruited by Digital Equipment Corp. to run its planning department in Springfield and did well there for several years, but grew frustrated by the steady flow of white employees being promoted ahead of him. They both attended a graduate program at UMass, after which time an intriguing opportunity arose in Chicago.
It was an experimental, relatively new school on the west side of the city — a rough area to say the least — called Daniel Hale Williams University. Rick became facilities manager in 1975, while Marjorie worked as registrar.
“We sold our house, packed up our furniture, and moved to Oak Park,” he recalled. “The school had campuses all over the west side and south side, into the projects. We struggled to make that thing survive — but it didn’t survive. We had cashed in everything, and we were out in the middle of the country, when the school went bankrupt. Both of us were out of a job, and Marge was pregnant with our third child, Justin.”
That was the low point in their early part of their marriage, but again, they were energized by a planned return to Springfield. This time, they turned to law, Rick’s original goal as an undergrad at Howard. He enrolled at DePaul University School of Law — also working part-time while Marjorie worked full-time — and then both returned to Springfield, where she enrolled in Western New England College School of Law.
She opened a law office with a friend, while then-Gov. Mike Dukakis appointed Rick a commissioner at the Mass. Commission on Discrimination, overseeing 171 communities in the western half of the state for the next nine years.
“It was a very powerful commission then,” he said, explaining that MCAD had a judicial unit and a civil-rights unit. The latter, which no longer exists, allowed commissioners to essentially police every municipality and require them to develop diversity programs for employment, housing, and contract compliance — and authority to bring charges if they didn’t comply.
Holyoke and Springfield were both recalcitrant when it came to instituting such programs, he noted, and Holyoke has been more progressive over the years than Springfield, which Hurst feels remains somewhat stuck in old-school politics when it comes to systemic change.
“It was a great time in my life. We saw some positive changes,” he said. “And when I left, I went with my love” — specifically, to join her in the law firm that would eventually be known as Hurst and Hurst, P.C.
“It was an interesting time,” Marge said regarding those early years. “We just started off young and involved, and we continued to be involved. We got involved in civil rights. We were part of high-school walkouts over the lack of minority teachers and a black-focused curriculum. We set up an alternative school. We’ve always been extremely active and dedicated to moving the ball forward in whatever way we could. But we’ve always worked closely together and been supportive of each other, and there’s always been the feeling we’re equal partners.”
Hot Off the Presses
By the turn of the century, they both agreed their newspaper idea couldn’t stay on the five-year plan forever. So, in 2003, they took the plunge — with a little extra motivation from a black newspaper based in Framingham that was sniffing around Springfield. “That sped us up,” Rick said. “We knew we had a better product.”
The paper was originally published quarterly, then bimonthly in its second year, then monthly in its third, which it remains to this day. When the Great Recession hit, the paper struggled somewhat — advertisers began pulling back, loath to spend money during those difficult years — but Af-Am Point of View survived and eventually thrived, rebranding as a newsmagazine and pouring resources into producing more — and more diverse — content, while also developing an online presence.
“I’d send her love letters, and she’d send them back with corrections in red. And she’s still doing that with anything else I write.”
“We entered the market as African-American emphasis paper, but we always knew we’d expand and broaden it out,” Rick said. “We felt the paper would never grow in reader interest without a diversity of writers, to make it interesting to everybody.”
Indeed, those writers represent diverse races, genders, and ages, too — in fact, a recent issue featured an essay by the Hursts’ 12-year-old grandson, Tristin.
Through it all, Rick has never been one to pull punches, whether speaking broadly about systemic racism in the U.S. or calling out local leaders on political matters.
“I’m more the warrior type than Marge,” he said. “Not in a wild and crazy way — I’m more measured than that. But I fight for change. I understand what change means. All my adult life, I’ve been fighting for political change, broader cultural change in the way people think. And the paper has made a difference. I think we’ve impacted the way people see black people and the way black people see themselves. I know we’re not there yet, but nothing makes me feel better than to know we have started something in that direction that’s meaningful.”
The Hursts have a long political history in the city, including Rick’s unsuccessful effort in the mayoral race of 1969, and City Council bids after that. Meanwhile, Marjorie served 12 years on the Springfield School Committee. Their youngest son, Justin, has followed suit over the past few years, most recently being named president of the City Council, while his wife, Denise, serves on the School Committee.
That legacy is gratifying for Marjorie, who had her kids knocking on doors from an early age supporting local candidates for office. “They had a history of being active and involved in politics.”
“They were very much involved,” Rick added. “We were sophisticated — we could break wards down, break streets down; we understood the value of door to door, face to face. They grew up with that in their heads, and the work was natural to them. But they take it to a new level with technology.”
That civic investment by the next generation is a source of pride, he added.
“That’s what I live for. I want to see my kids get involved in the body politic, and not just them. A whole lot of other minorities, black, Hispanic — and women, too — should get involved so Springfield is run like it should be run.”
Marjorie calls Rick conservative when it comes to his feelings about family structure, but he considers their family proof that a two-parent home — with two educated parents, no less — gives kids a great advantage in life. Their daughter and oldest child, Tiffani, is an assistant to the public defender in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, following years as a federal appellate attorney in Las Vegas. Their first son, Frederick Jr., has a CPA background and works for the public school system locally.
“I made a promise to myself, years before I met Marge, that I’d meet a good woman who’d want to marry me, and I’d stay with her for the rest of my days,” Rick said. “I’ve always preached it to my kids — take your time, find a good woman you’re compatible with, and commit to stay with her for the rest of your life and raise your kids right.”
He explained that Marjorie represented something aspirational to him, whose wisdom he has long relied on.
“I’m more the warrior type than Marge. Not in a wild and crazy way — I’m more measured than that. But I fight for change. I understand what change means. All my adult life, I’ve been fighting for political change, broader cultural change in the way people think.”
“I’m a kid from the hood; I really am — fisticuffs and gambling and all that,” he said. “When I made a decision to go to college, I had all that baggage. And at every critical point in my life, I can point to Marge being there as incredible support. Whether I would have made it anyway, I don’t know. But, my God, most people who came up with me … I’ve got more dead than alive, and many of them died decades ago.”
Even at Howard, he vascillated in his goals and considered dropping out to join his brother in the Army. “But she helped me struggle through, and I finished college. If I ever write my story, it’ll be a story about Marge.”
The Next Chapter
But Rick has written a book already: A History of Blind Industries and Services of Maryland, the century-spanning account of a program in Maryland dedicated to putting blind people to work — a success story that reflects his own philosophy about how government programs should support, but never replace, organic economic development in a community.
“You’ve got to introduce an economic-development element into every program you put on the table, or they’re all going to fail,” he said “These people figured out how you do it, how to integrate government money into private operations and grow the private sector much bigger than the original government investment.”
In some ways, the Hursts’ life together has been a microcosm of that kind of growth, constantly planting seeds — from a newspaper influencing public opinion to the development of black-centric curriculum in the public schools, to the raising up of future generations who will continue making a difference.
“Justin and Denise surround themselves with people of all races; they’re comfortable with everyone,” Marge said of the two Hurst family members with the most public profile these days. “That gives you hope for the future — how seamlessly they move into the fabric of the city, into all areas of the city. It makes you feel good that you might have contributed to an element of change in the city. So we’re extremely proud to be here at this point in time and still be contributing through the newspaper.”
Not that the work is ever truly done, Rick was quick to add, arguing that Springfield will never grow to political maturity until it fully shakes off its history of crony politics and embraces more diversity and openness to change. “I know it sounds idealistic, but change never came about through people who weren’t idealistic. The only way you change that stuff is to keep picking at it.”
He admires a quote by Thomas Jefferson — a man, it must be said, with his own racial complexities — who once noted that, if he had to choose between a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, he would not hesitate to choose the latter.
“That’s the power of the media,” Rick said. “Jefferson knew what he was talking about. If we didn’t have the press today, we’d be well on our way to a dictatorship. I’ve come to understand the power of the press.
“We’ve had an impact in that respect,” he went on. “The Hursts never set out to be prominent. We set out to make a difference, and we have made a difference. And that impact will continue long after we’re gone.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]
This Business Leader Has Made a Career of Finding Ways to Give Back
That’s what the people of Guayape, Honduras started calling Joe Peters — according to his son, anyway, who relayed this bit of news while he was spending the summer of 1999 in that remote town working to help build a medical clinic.
That was about eight months after Hurricane Mitch parked itself over the country and dropped nearly six feet of rain on it, and about six months after his father came to visit, bringing much-needed medical supplies and, even more importantly, a pledge of sorts to help buy an ambulance for the impoverished community.
“‘El Gordito?’ … I’m thinking, ‘what the heck does that mean?’” Peters recalled, still laughing heartily as he retold a story he’s told dozens of times. “I’m thinking in my head that I’m some kind of big shot now, they’ve given me a nickname. Turns out, it means ‘short, fat guy’ — but in the nicest possible way.”
Actually, the good people of Guayape (pronounced guy-up-eh) have much more flattering phrases with which to describe Peters, who would eventually ride triumphantly, and pretty much to the point of embarrassment, from the airport into that town in the ambulance he raised money for (much more on that later), in a poignant episode that serves as a microcosm for his life, his service to the community — a term with broad meaning, to be sure — and the pattern he’s established for stepping in and making a difference in the lives of others.
Other examples abound — starting with the family business, Universal Plastics, which his father created and Joe started working for when he was a teenager. He grew it exponentially over the years, and while he and his brothers sold it to Jay and Pia Kumar in 2012, he remains active, representing the company in the community and still figuring some quotes here and there.
“Our goal here has always been to take all the good that Joe has done and build upon it further. I’m inspired by Joe’s commitment to our community and feel a strong sense of responsibility to continue his ongoing legacy. Joe doesn’t just make a difference, he also inspires others to do so, and this only amplifies his impact.”
But he’s always been active outside the walls of the plant, whether it was in Chicopee, where it was launched and remained until 2003, or in Holyoke, where it resides today. And active in many different ways, from being involved with the chamber of commerce or the Rotary Club to being the face of regional efforts to create summer jobs for young people; from getting involved regionally, and now on the state level, in a host of workforce issues to becoming a deacon at his church.
And then, there’s the ‘sandwich ministry,’ a name that certainly helps tell the story.
It’s an outreach program for the homeless in Chicopee, created to fill a gap when another soup kitchen relocated from the city’s downtown area to the Willimansett section and, eventually, had to stop serving meals on weekends as one of the conditions for its operation. And, yes, it’s mostly about sandwiches. Peters, one of its principal architects, explains:
“We saw this as an issue for the less-fortunate people in downtown Chicopee who couldn’t get to Willimansett,” he explained. “On weekends, they had nowhere to go, so we talked about it with the pastor and went about finding a solution.
“That was 10 years ago,” he went on. “We have a group of about 20 people who get together at the school and make lunches; we’re up to 160 sandwiches, which makes 80 lunches. We put two sandwiches in a bag with a banana and some cookies … it’s a little well-oiled machine at this point; we have a good staff of people, and we’re adding new volunteers regularly.”
The sandwich ministry is another example of how Peters has seemingly always been there to help the city he still calls home — Chicopee — and be an employer willing to give people a chance, sometimes changing their life in the process.
People like Manny Cruz. He had been struggling for some time in his efforts to secure a job because of mistakes made earlier in his life, when he came to Universal Plastics via CareerPoint, now MassHire Holyoke, another organization to which Peters has given his time, energy, and talent. Today, he’s one of the company’s best CNC programmers.
He and Peters were honored by the state in 2014 as a success story when it comes to workforce development and manufacturing training. Peters has helped script many similar stories over the years, winning a number of different awards and citations. He now has another — BusinessWest’s Difference Makers award, which is given for many reasons, including the recipient’s ability to inspire others to want to make a difference as well.
Peters has been able to do just that, said Pia Kumar.
“Our goal here has always been to take all the good that Joe has done and build upon it further,” she told BusinessWest. “I’m inspired by Joe’s commitment to our community and feel a strong sense of responsibility to continue his ongoing legacy. Joe doesn’t just make a difference, he also inspires others to do so, and this only amplifies his impact.”
True to Form
The Universal Plastics saga — and therefore Joe Peters’ story — have been told more than a few times on the pages of BusinessWest since the magazine started publishing nearly 35 years ago.
The company’s story, and in some ways Joe’s as well, was forged by his father, James, the son of a farmer from Wisconsin, and one who knew early on that he didn’t want to be a farmer.
Instead, he joined the Army Air Corps and was assigned to work at Westover Air Force Base in the mid-1940s. He met Frances Ogarzalek at a polka dance and fell in love.
When the Westover facility became a major support base during the Berlin Airlift, James Peters, a flight engineer, served in Germany as an interpreter. He eventually became a sheet-metal worker with the Air Force repairing airplanes, his son recalled, later worked at Pratt & Whitney in the broad realm of R&D and prototype development, and eventually joined a plastics company in Chicopee.
“After 12 years there, he decided he could do this himself — and he did; he borrowed a little bit of money and started Universal Plastics in 1965,” said Peters, who was 15 at the time, and remembers going to his father’s shop with him as he was getting things off the ground.
“We’d go down at night while he was still working and building his first machine,” he recalled. “I had no idea what the machine was going to do, but I helped with the wrenches and screwdrivers, I’d light his cigarette when his hands were all greasy, and I’d answer the phone when my mother called to ask when we were coming home.
“It was a very humble beginning, but I fell in love with manufacturing,” he went on, adding that this love affair continues to this day, and he’s spent the latter part of his career trying to convince others to become equally enamored.
Over the years, Peters would lead Universal Plastics to steady growth and status as one of the leading producers of precision thermoformed plastics in this region, and the country, for that matter. The company produced everything from jet-engine covers to kayaks; from housing for computers and medical equipment to visors for riot helmets.
But while that one word — plastics — neatly sums up what went on at the family business, it doesn’t begin to define what would have to be considered Peters’ life’s work.
For that, we would need two words — giving back. Peters has been doing that consistently, and in many different ways, over the past several decades.
Examples abound, and one could start anywhere, but maybe the most appropriate place would be with one of the many things his father gave him, and he helps provide for countless others — a summer job.
Indeed, Peters has become the face and in many ways the driving force behind efforts to create summer jobs for area young people — positions that provide not just a paycheck, but invaluable lessons about the world of work and teamwork.
“These jobs are so important,” he said, adding that his father would always hire several young people for the summer, and he has continued that tradition while also working hard to help secure the funding needed to put more people to work. “The statistics bear it out — kids who work in summer jobs do a lot better in life than those who never did. Kids who have the perspective of having to work find it easier to get jobs later on and keep them.”
But summer jobs constitute just one facet of Peters’ work in the broad realm of workforce development, a task he took up as the manufacturing sector began to decline in the ’70s and ’80s and the profession became a harder sell for young people and their parents.
He was first appointed to the REB by Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos (during his first stint in the corner office at the start of this century) and has been there ever since.
And just a few months ago, he was named one of two Western Mass. representatives on the Mass. Workforce Assoc., a 15-member panel with a broad and significant charge that Peters boiled down to helping to make sure that the state’s employers have the workers they’ll need in the years to come.
“As a workforce board, we’ll have to be able to see two or three years into the future and say, ‘what are we going to need for employees — where is the market going?” he explained. “Healthcare has become a huge issue for the Regional Employment Board in terms of training and securing money from the federal government so that people are properly trained. Advanced manufacturing is another area of concern, among many others.
“Training is the probably biggest issue facing this region and the state as a whole,” he went on. “There are three populations we’re working with — young people, individuals who are working but are underemployed, and people who have been laid off and are missing from the workforce because they’ve just given up. In each case, training is the key to getting them into the workforce.”
Making His Mark
It’s been just over 20 years since Peters made that first trip to Guayape, but the memories are still etched in his mind.
So are the events leading up to it and all that has happened since. Telling the story as quickly as he could, he said it all started with a missionary friar from upstate New York, the Rev. Ronald Roll, who was doing a lot of work in Honduras and had been invited — via Peters and his long-time friend, the Rev. Placid Kaczorek, a priest from Chicopee — to speak to the Chicopee Rotary Club about his work and solicit some help.
“I was sitting in my office one day, and this little woman walked in and said to the secretary, ‘does the guy who’s trying to raise money for the ambulance work here?’”
Indeed, he was involved with a number of efforts in that country, from building bridges to securing safe water supplies, said Peters, adding that, in the weeks running up to his talk at the Rotary Club, he hinted that he would solicit help for one of those initiatives.
But when he reached the podium, he flipped the script somewhat. “He said, ‘I thought that maybe you guys would like to do a bigger project … they really need an ambulance in this particular village,’” Peters recalled, adding that, in the months afterward, Roll regularly e-mailed him with requests to come to Honduras for a visit.
Plans were eventually made for Peters, Kaczorek, and others to visit in December, he continued, and in between, Hurricane Mitch visited the country and stayed for several days.
“It flooded the country out … virtually every bridge was washed out; it was a mess,” he recalled. “We were trying to talk him out of letting us go, but he said, ‘no, no, you’ve got to come now.’”
They did, and the work of ‘El Gordito’ began.
Fast-forwarding significantly, he said the need for an ambulance was quickly verified — the nearest hospital was in the capital city of Tegucigalpa, more than 30 miles away, and there was often no way to transport people there — and Peters took the lead in a very ambitious effort to raise half the cost of the $45,000 ambulance and write a grant application to the Rotary Foundation to cover the other half.
The second part of the equation was relatively simple, and the first part … well, it wasn’t that difficult, either, thanks in part to a large story in the Republican — a reporter actually accompanied them on the trip to Honduras — and Peters’ energy, drive, and ability to inspire others.
One story that he loves to tell sums it all up.
“I was sitting in my office one day, and this little woman walked in and said to the secretary, ‘does the guy who’s trying to raise money for the ambulance work here?’” he recalled. “She sat down opposite me and said, ‘I want to give you some money for your ambulance.’ She pulled out her checkbook, wrote out ‘5,’ then ‘0,’ and I’m thinking to myself, ‘50 bucks, that’s great’ … then she writes another zero, and then another zero — 5,000 bucks! I was like, ‘can I hug you?’”
Throughout his life, Peters has been able to not only give back, but get others to join him as he does so, be it fellow Rotary Club members, his own sons, who went to Honduras in subsequent years, or fellow sandwich makers, including his wife, Jan, who have joined him in his new ministry.
“It’s meaningful to everyone … I think part of the reason people do things like this is that they get more out of them than they give,” he told BusinessWest. “When you see the gratitude on the faces of people, it reminds you why you’re there.
“We have days when we have more people than we do sandwiches,” he went on. “People will open their bags, and they’ll share their sandwiches with others. It really is a remarkable program.”
What’s in a Name?
Guayape, Honduras is a long way from Chicopee — and in all kinds of ways.
But Joe Peters found an important common denominator. In both places, he’s encountered people in need, and he’s stepped in to help — in a fashion that could be described as humble yet determined.
As he was on his way to the airport to return home from Honduras 20 years ago, a tired Peters, when asked about the plight of the people in that country, told that reporter from the Republican who went along on the trip, “I don’t have answers. I don’t think I can make a tremendous difference, but a little is better than no difference at all. I just wish there was more I could do.”
He was right with regard to that specific moment and place. But with regard to his career and all that he’s done within the community … he was way off the mark.
‘El Gordito’ has made a tremendous difference, and better still, he’s shown everyone that they can, too.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]
Institution Has Mastered the Art and Science of Being Entrepreneurial
Kay Simpson says it wasn’t long after the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden opened to the public in 2002 when the Springfield Museums first considered creating a special license plate to commemorate Seuss — and his hometown of Springfield.
That effort didn’t really get very far, she told BusinessWest, adding that the process of getting the state to produce these specialty license plates — there are now almost 30 of them that help raise money for causes and institutions ranging from the Jimmy Fund to Blackstone Valley to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — was more involved then, and the thresholds to be met in terms of minimum numbers of subscribers were considerably higher. And 2002 was before the age of social media, when marketing such an effort was a much different proposition.
That was then.
With the opening in 2017 of the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, which has drawn visitors from across the state and around the world, Simpson and others at the Springfield Museums believe that threshold can be far more easily reached.
“We have 130 people signed up, and we need 750 signed on before we can actually put the plates into production; we’re well on our way, and there is considerable interest,” she explained, adding that there will eventually be an auction at which individuals can bid on the low plate numbers bearing the Seuss imagery.
A Dr. Seuss specialty plate could yield perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for the Museums over the next several years, said Simpson, but that windfall only begins to explain what the plate might mean for the institution and the City of Homes.
“It’s like a billboard, not just for the Museums, but for Springfield,” she told BusinessWest, in reference to the plate, which will bear an image of the most famous of all the Seuss characters, the Cat in the Hat. “The image says ‘seussinspringfield.org,’ which is our website, which tells the story of the Dr. Seuss museum, but it also celebrates Ted Geisel growing up in Springfield and all the connections he had to the city through his boyhood.
“This is not only going to be promoting the Quadrangle, the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, and the sculpture garden, but the city of Springfield as well,” she went on. “People living across the state can get one of these license plates, but people living in Massachusetts drive to all kinds of locations throughout the country, so this is a way of promoting the Museums and the city nationwide.”
“People living across the state can get one of these license plates, but people living in Massachusetts drive to all kinds of locations throughout the country, so this is a way of promoting the Museums and the city nationwide.”
So, in essence, a specialty license plate will only further amplify the already profound impact the Springfield Museums have had on the city and this region since the first collections, housed then in the Springfield Library, went on view back in 1857.
In the ensuing 162 years, the Museums have been a source of culture, history, and pride for generations of area residents, and they have also brought people from far outside this region into Springfield, effectively putting the city on the map.
And with many recent additions, especially the Dr. Seuss Museum, which doubled the institution’s visitation numbers in the first year it was open, the Museums’ overall impact has increased tremendously.
To the point where the decision makers at BusinessWest are making the Museums part of the Difference Makers class of 2019, thus taking the recognition program to a different dimension.
Indeed, over the past decade, the program has recognized individuals, families, a host of nonprofits (from Girls Inc. to Big Brothers Big Sisters), some of the region’s institutions of higher learning (UMass Amherst and the area’s community colleges, to be specific), and even a corporation — MassMutual.
But a cultural institution? The Museums would be the first. But they have collectively been a Difference Maker from the very beginning. Lyman Wood, retired business owner, philanthropist, mentor to many young professionals, and long-time supporter of the Museums — he and late wife, Merrie, have their names on the Museum of Springfield History — put things in their proper perspective:
“The Museums put us on the map,” he said, adding that the Seuss museum has made the city and the region only more visible in that respect. “But it’s more than that. The Museums touch every aspect of people’s lives, from the arts to the science to the culture; it’s a focus point for everyone.”
Moving forward, as it strives to go on being this focus point, the Museums will continue a pattern of thinking and operating that Kate Kane, chair of the Museums’ board of directors, described simply as “being entrepreneurial.”
Examples of this entrepreneurial mindset abound, from the license-plate initiative to the recent purchase of property adjacent to the history museum on Chestnut Street with the goal of transforming it into another potential attraction and revenue stream; from new exhibits like the current offerings ToyTopia (an interactive look at the history of toys) in the history museum and Dinosaur Discoveries in the Science Museum, to new, lower-priced, often-Seuss-themed items in the museum store that have triggered huge increases.
At a time when many museums are struggling to lure visitors and make ends meet, the Springfield Museums are enjoying considerable momentum and looking toward an even brighter future.
In short, an institution that has always been a Difference Maker is poised to become even more of one in the years and decades to come.
As she talked about the Museums, their history, and their evolution over the years, Simpson said that, while the individual museums are architectural masterpieces and many of the items on display within them have been under the same glass — figuratively and in some cases literally — for 50 or 100 years or more, they are far from static.
“The Museums touch every aspect of people’s lives, from the arts to the science to the culture; it’s a focus point for everyone.”
Indeed, they must change with the times in order to stand the test of time, she said, pointing out, as just one example, the Art of Discovery Center on the second floor of the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, a 21st-century addition, if you will, to a late 19th-century facility, and that new Dinosaur Discoveries exhibit in the Science Museum.
The center provides drop-in activities during hours when the museum is open. Decorated with colorful and intricately painted floor-to-wall murals, the center’s hands-on activities provide insights into the culturally diverse collections on display in the museum’s galleries.
There are many other examples of how the old and the new — the past, the present, and sometimes the future — rush together in an almost seamless fashion at the museums, said Simpson, adding that this quality is one of many that make the collection of museums, which offer free admission to city residents, a historic landmark, a center for culture, and one of the leading tourist attractions in the region.
Evolution and building on past successes have been the blueprint for the Museums since the first items were put on display in the middle of the 19th century.
Indeed, the Springfield Museums trace their origins to 1857, when the Springfield and the Young Men’s Library Assoc. were joined to form the City Library Assoc. The earliest museum collections were housed in a room in City Hall.
In 1871, the museum collections were moved into a new library building, said Simpson, adding that, in 1888, George Walter Vincent Smith and his wife, Belle Townsley Smith, offered their collection to the association — a philanthropic act and one that would set the tone for many to come — that led to the construction of Springfield’s first museum.
The George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, an Italian palazzo-style building, opened its doors in 1896. The next addition to what would become a cluster of museums, or the Quadrangle, as it came to be called, was the Springfield Science Museum, which was founded in 1859 in City Hall and then moved in 1899 into a classical revival building that was expanded in 1932 and again in 1970, with the Tolman addition that included a public observatory.
Subsequent additions to the Quadrangle included the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum (1927), the Michelle and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts (1933), the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden (2002), the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History (2009), and the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, created in the original history museum, which opened in 2017.
And opened to considerable fanfare, said Simpson, adding that there was considerable, pent-up demand for a Seuss facility — visitors to the sculpture garden would habitually ask where the museum dedicated to the children’s book author was located and were disappointed when told there wasn’t one — and this was reflected in both the number of visitors and the long distances they traveled to walk under the arch at the front of the building.
Simpson told BusinessWest that, while the numbers speak loudly about the impact of the Seuss museum — attendance rose 110% in 2017 — it’s sometimes difficult to put into words exactly what that facility means for the Museums. But she tried, as did Wood.
“The opening of the Dr. Seuss Museum elevated the Museums in so many ways,” she explained. “It of course increased our attendance and, as a result, our revenue from ticketed admissions, which was very positive. But it also changed the character of our visitation; it really made us national and international, and while that might sound like an exaggeration, it really isn’t.
“We have the visitor-comment books that demonstrate that people travel here from Indiana and California and London because they wanted to see the Dr. Seuss Museum,” she went on, adding that, when they come — and those comment books indicate they’re also making repeat visits — they generally visit the other museums on the Quadrangle and often get out to see other parts of the city as well.
Wood agreed, and said that, collectively, the Museums, bolstered by the Dr. Seuss facility, will play a huge role in what he sees as the city’s best bet from a business and economic-development standpoint moving forward: tourism.
“To me, the future of Springfield, and I’ve been arguing this for 25 years, is going to be tourism,” he told BusinessWest. “We tried to get Fidelity out here, we’ve tried to be a tech center, we’ve made some good progress with communications, but if we’re really going to be on the map and have the vibrancy we all want, it’s going to come from tourism.”
And the Museums, along with MGM Springfield, the Basketball Hall of Fame, and other large attractions, will play a huge role in these efforts.
Entrepreneurship on Display
Overall, the Seuss Museum brings not only those aforementioned revenues — from not only admissions, but also the sale of items in the gift shop and, hopefully, those license plates — but also momentum and opportunity to expand and enhance its mission and do more to continue the evolutionary process of the individual museums.
In short, said Simpson, the Museums will continue to echo the entrepreneurial spirit so readily on display in the history museum, with its displays of Smith & Wesson guns, Indian motocycles, some of the first automobiles made in this country, several of Milton Bradley’s toys and games, and other products made in the city.
“The opening of the Dr. Seuss Museum elevated the Museums in so many ways. It of course increased our attendance and, as a result, our revenue from ticketed admissions, which was very positive. But it also changed the character of our visitation; it really made us national and international, and while that might sound like an exaggeration, it really isn’t.”
Plans to renovate and modernize the Science Museum are one example of being entrepreneurial and seizing opportunities, she said, adding that some of the halls are being improved in preparation for the opening of a Smithsonian SPARK Lab, a maker’s space that will bring more hands-on activities to the facility.
That lab is similar in nature to both the Art of Discovery Center in the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum and the so-called Cat’s Corner (named after the Cat in the Hat) in the Seuss Museum, a space on the second floor where children and families can take part in a host of facilitated art and literacy activities. Such facilities help prompt return visits, said Simpson, by providing new experiences each time one comes.
“With the SPARK Lab, you have this wonderful space with a changing curriculum where kids can go and engage in these open-ended activities that tie to STEM,” she explained. “And it is the Smithsonian, so it has that wonderful brand.”
The building on Chestnut Street that was acquired recently is still another example of the Museums being entrepreneurial, said Simpson. The space, currently occupied by a liquor store and a convenience store, could be put to a number of uses that could advance the institution’s mission and bring more people to the Quadrangle.
Possibilities include another maker’s space or perhaps a small bakery, much like the one operated by Ted Geisel’s maternal grandparents more than a century ago.
Overall, the broad goal for the Museums moving forward is to maintain their relevance, something many institutions, especially the living-history museums, are struggling to do in this day and age, she said, noting that, nationwide, attendance is down roughly 20% at museums across the board.
“When you talk about strategic planning, you can see it in terms of the evolution of the Quadrangle,” she said, referring to many of the recent changes, additions, and new, family-oriented exhibits. “You’re looking for those opportunities to make sure that what you’re offering is relevant to today’s audiences; you’re always building on the past.”
And building toward the future as well, said Kane, the board chair, who returned to that notion of being entrepreneurial.
“And what better place to follow that path than in Springfield?” she said, referencing the city’s long history of innovation and ‘firsts.’ “We can provide people with experiences that they can relate to and have value for them; it’s about making memories.”
Wood agreed. He said the Seuss Museum has brought attention to Springfield from across the state, across the country, and even from around the world, and it’s now incumbent on the institution to take full advantage of this development and build momentum moving forward.
“What happened with the attendance that first year was remarkable, and it put us on the map with Boston,” he said. “We’ve received much more attention from the governor and the lieutenant governor — they’ve been out here to the Museums many times — and that means more people in the city and far outside the city are more aware of us. We have to build on that.”
Simpson concurred, and as she talked about the future, she returned once more to the past.
“When the Museums first opened, there was a statement made by one of the early founders that this was the ‘people’s college,’” she recalled, noting that phrase reflected a time when few people went to college. “I think that’s a wonderful expression, but I like to think of us more as the ‘people’s museum’ — there’s something for everyone, and we provide really substantial educational experiences for people of all ages.”
And it is now in a much better position to do that for generations to come.
Simpson said a date will soon be set for the auction involving those low, much-sought-after numbers for the Seuss specialty license plates. A few opportunistic individuals will emerge as big winners in that competition.
But over the past 161 years or so, the residents of Springfield and the region as a whole have all been big winners because of the Museums and all they have brought to the region — from art, science, and history to thousands of visitors and greater vibrancy.
Springfield was already on the map before 1857, when the first of the Museums’ exhibits went on display, but this institution has kept it there and promoted more people to circle that spot.
The Dr. Seuss Museum has taken the Quadrangle to a new and exciting place and made it a national and international attraction. But the reality is that this special collection of museums has always been a Difference Maker.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]
Celebrate with Us!
This program, initiated in 2009, is a celebration of individuals, groups, organizations, and families that are positively impacting the Pioneer Valley and are, as the name suggests, making a difference in this region. As previous classes have shown, there are many ways to do this: through work within the community on one or many initiatives to improve quality of life; through success in business, public service, or education; through contributions that inspire others to get involved; through imaginative efforts to help solve one or more societal issues; or through a combination of the above.
Our 2019 Difference Makers will be announced in the Feb. 4, 2019 issue of BusinessWest
Tickets are $75 per person/$750 for a table of 10.
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