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Class of 2021 Cover Story Difference Makers

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The 2021 Difference Makers

Kristin Carlson
President, Peerless Precision

EforAll Holyoke

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

Harold Grinspoon
Philanthropist; Founder, Aspen Square Management

 

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

Bill Parks
CEO, Boys & Girls Club of Greater Westfield

Pete Westover
Founder and Partner, Conservation Works, LLC

Presented by:

Non-profit Partner:

Media Partner:

Class of 2021

She Has in Many Ways Become the Face of Manufacturing Locally

Leah Martin Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kristin Carlson holds up one of the parts her company

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Making Her Mark

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

And it took a lot of talk.

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

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

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

Kristin Carlson, seen here with Peerless Precision machinist Kaitlyn Fricke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Parts of the Whole

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

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

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

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

 

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

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dream Weavers

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

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

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

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

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

Jailyne Torres says EforAll has been instrumental

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Scare Tactics

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

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

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

 

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

Class of 2021

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

Leah Martin Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Loud and Clear

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

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

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

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

The exhibit Voices of Resilience

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

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

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

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

Recent pieces on the site include headlines like these:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hear and Now

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

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

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

 

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

Class of 2021

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

Leah Martin Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Giving Back

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

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

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

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

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

Behind Harold Grinspoon are photos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harold Grinspoon in his art workshop

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

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

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

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

 

Global Impact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Class of 2021

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

Leah Martin Photography

Chad Moir calls his mother his greatest teacher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Recognizing a Need

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

Chad Moir says membership was climbing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Moving Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2021

For This Youth Leader, Opportunities Make All the Difference

By Mark Morris

Leah Martin Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

View to the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Parks says, the club became a critical resource

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

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

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

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

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

 

Learning Experiences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class of 2021

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

Leah Martin Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Changing the Landscape — Or Not

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Save the Date!

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

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

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

Presenting Sponsors

Nonprofit Partner

Class of 2020 Event Galleries Special Coverage

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

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

The 2020 Virtual Event

Scenes from the 2020 Event

2020 Difference Makers

Christopher ‘Monte’ Belmonte

DJ at WRSI the River Radio

His March is Changing
The Conversation
on Food Insecurity

Ira Bryck

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

He’s Helped Create
Fun, Imaginative
Learning Experiences

Sandy Cassanelli

CEO of Greeno Supply

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

Dianne
Fuller Doherty

Retired Director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center

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

Ronn Johnson

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

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

Steve Lowell

President and CEO of
Monson Savings Bank

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

Rick’s Place

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

2020 Sponsor Videos

2020 Sponsors

Pay it Forward Non-Profit Partners


Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

Class of 2020 Cover Story

Celebrating the 2020 Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2020 Difference Makers

Christopher ‘Monte’ Belmonte

DJ at WRSI the River Radio

His March is Changing
The Conversation
on Food Insecurity

Ira Bryck

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

He’s Helped Create
Fun, Imaginative
Learning Experiences

Sandy Cassanelli

CEO of Greeno Supply

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

Dianne
Fuller Doherty

Retired Director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center

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

Ronn Johnson

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

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

Steve Lowell

President and CEO of
Monson Savings Bank

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

Rick’s Place

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

2020 Sponsors

Pay it Forward Non-Profit Partners


Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

Class of 2020

His March is Changing The Conversation on Food Insecurity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking the Walk

Belmonte calls it ‘Amity Hill Horror.’

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

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

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

Starting with the number $333,333.33.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Positive Steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for Thought

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

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

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

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

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

Class of 2020

He’s Helped Create Fun, Imaginative Learning Experiences

(Photo by Leah Martin Photography)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Threads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off the Cuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dress for Success

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

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

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

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

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

Class of 2020

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

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Thirty-seven. 

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

Thirty-eight.

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

Thirty-nine.

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

Forty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, where does the rest of the money go?

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

But Cassanelli isn’t stopping there.

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

Determined to Fight

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

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

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

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

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chasing the Cure

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

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

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

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

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

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2020

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

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

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

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

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

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

It was immensely rewarding work — and it still is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she feels the same about the region itself.

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

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

Role Modeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking Big

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

Class of 2020

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

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A Springfield Person’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Measurable Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legacy of Service

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

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

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

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

After all, he’s a Springfield person. 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2020

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

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saving Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting with the United Way of Pioneer Valley, a story that is also related to the tornado in some ways.

Active Interest

Indeed, Dora Robinson, then executive director of the United Way chapter, knowing of Lowell’s involvement with that organization earlier in his career, asked him about being on her board.

Before getting to that, he informed her that many people in the Monson area were critical of the United Way’s response — or a perceived lack of a response — after the tornado struck. Upon being informed the agency was highly involved in relief efforts, Lowell recalls telling Robinson, “no one knows that — and you have to tell them; you have to take credit.”

And so he became not only a board member, but a very active one, taking on a role as “advocate” (his word) for those living in the many smaller towns in the eastern part of Hampden County.

“I have a hard time saying ‘no’ when people ask me like that,” he told BusinessWest, adding that his stint with the board, including his recent work as president, has been one of extreme challenge as the United Way chapter has battled through fiscal woes (as many have) and leadership changes, eventually coming into a partnership agreement to essentially share an executive director with the United Way of MetroWest, a move that has brought about many economies of scale.

Like most others, Lowell found it impossible to say ‘no’ to Link to Libraries (LTL) founder Susan Jaye Kaplan when she came to talk with him about that still-fledgling nonprofit soon after he arrived in the area. The occasion was a check presentation; soon after Lowell arrived, the bank created a program whereby the public could help decide how the bank gave back to the community through cash donations by voting for nonprofits via Facebook. Link to Libraries was one of the highest vote gatherers.

But upon learning more about the agency, Lowell took the bank’s involvement to a much higher plane.

“I was fascinated by the mission,” he said, adding that, through introductions made by Kaplan, the bank soon sponsored two schools — one in Monson and the other in Hampden — as part of LTL’s Community Book Link program. Today, the bank sponsors five schools — Elias Brookings School in Springfield, Springfield Public Day Elementary School, Springfield Public Day Middle School, Quarry Hill Community School in Monson, and Stanley M. Koziol Elementary School in Ware — the most of any company in the region.

“Steve Lowell’s generosity and passion for this community, particularly with regard to children and education, has had an enormous impact on our work at Link to Libraries,” said Laurie Flynn, president and CEO of LTL. “Through their sponsorships, community-giving initiatives, and emphasis on volunteering, Steve has created a culture of giving at Monson Savings Bank. Through their sponsorship of five local elementary schools in need and the numerous Monson Savings Bank employees who volunteer to read in classrooms each month, Steve Lowell and the bank have impacted the lives of more than 1,000 underserved children.”

Lowell has also become involved with Baystate Health, serving as chairman of its Eastern Region, as well as with the Monson Free Library, the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, and a number of other groups and institutions.

But what really makes him a Difference Maker is that culture of giving that he has helped create and the way he mentors others to give back.

“One of the things I really enjoy is helping my staff move up within the organization,” he said. “And I tell them all, ‘if you want to get ahead here, you’re going to have to be involved in the community.’ I tell them it’s not really important to me what they do, but I encourage them to find something they’re interested in and that they enjoy. I tell them they need to buy into that, and they need to be part of it.”

Common Cents

Returning to that commute from Upton to the Cape, Lowell said that, over the course of those 16 years, he became quite fond of books on tape — “I was very well read” — and adept at knowing when the traffic would be worst and how to avoid it.

“I made it work,” he said simply, adding that those years helped cement a legacy of giving back and getting involved.

But in Monson, he has taken that philosophy to an even higher level, putting the bank at the forefront of a number of efforts to improve quality of life and secure a strong future.

Today, he enjoys a much shorter commute, affording him time to be even more of a Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Support System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shedding Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2020 Difference Makers

Celebrate with Us!

2020 Difference Makers
Thursday, March 19, 2020
5 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
The Log Cabin, Holyoke

This program, initiated in 2009, is a celebration of individuals, groups, organizations, and families that are positively impacting the Pioneer Valley and are, as the name suggests, making a difference in this region. As previous classes have shown, there are many ways to do this: through work within the community on one or many initiatives to improve quality of life; through success in business, public service, or education; through contributions that inspire others to get involved; through imaginative efforts to help solve one or more societal issues; or through a combination of the above.

Our 2020 Difference Makers will be announced in the Feb. 3, 2020 issue of BusinessWest

Tickets are $75 per person/$750 for a table of 10.

Purchase Tickets Below:

 2020 Difference Makers Sponsors

 

 

 

 

Pay it Forward Non-Profit Partners

 

Class of 2019 Difference Makers
A look back at this year’s celebration at the Log Cabin on March 28  
Class of 2019 Cover Story Difference Makers

Celebrating the 2019 Class

It was almost a decade ago now when Bill Ward, then the executive director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, stepped to the podium at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke to accept the first Difference Maker award presented by BusinessWest.

Much has happened since then. Ward retired a few years later, and the REB is now known as the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board. But the Difference Maker award remains a constant — and a symbol of excellence and dedication to improving quality of life in this region.

Since the very beginning, this recognition program has shown conclusively that are a great many ways to make a difference. And the class of 2019, the program’s 11th, makes this even more abundantly clear, as the stories clearly show.

The six members of the class of 2019 were honored on Thursday, March 28 at the Log Cabin. View the Program Guide HERE.

Submit Nominations Here!

2019 Emcee

Tony Cignoli
President of A.L. Cignoli Company

Tony Cignoli is the President of the A. L. Cignoli Company, the public relations, political and governmental affairs company he founded in 1992. The company serves political and corporate clients across America with bases of operation in Boston, Massachusetts, clients’ operations centers, and home base being Springfield, Massachusetts.

A.L. Cignoli Company has built a reputation creating success for both political and corporate clients in challenging situations; taking on tough assignments, from referendum campaigns other firms will not touch to assisting in turning around political and corporate campaigns in trouble. The firm is recognized for a holistic approach to public and governmental affairs solutions, melding Tony and his associate’s contacts and hands-on approach with an understanding of how to utilize modern applications of data mining, polling data and social media.

Tony is a veteran of over 350 political campaigns, including presidential elections in Peru, Prime Minister and Parliamentary campaigns in Italy and many referendums in Massachusetts and throughout New England. He is a frequent commentator and political analyst for newspapers, radio and television news programs.

2019 Sponsor Videos

2019 Difference Makers

Carla Cosenzi, Co-president, TommyCar Auto Group

She’s Been a Driving Force in Business and Philanthropy

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts

This Essential Agency Helps the Region Contend with a ‘New Normal’

Peter Gagliardi, President and CEO, of Way Finders

He’s Spent a Career Bringing Home the Power of Collaboration

Frederick and Marjorie Hurst

They’ve Shared a Lifetime Working for Social Change

Joe Peters, Vice Chairman, Former President, Universal Plastics

This Business Leader Has Made a Career of Finding Ways to Give Back

The Springfield Museums

Institution Has Mastered the Art and Science of Being Entrepreneurial

2019 Presenting Sponsor

2019 Sponsors

Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography
Class of 2019 Difference Makers

She’s Been a Driving Force in Business and Philanthropy

Carla Cosenzi, Co-president, TommyCar Auto Group

Carla Cosenzi, Co-president,
TommyCar Auto Group

Carla Cosenzi says many people who think they know her story believe she segued from a career in healthcare to one selling cars and eventually managing dealerships because her father, Tommy Cosenzi, had been diagnosed with brain cancer.

That’s not really how it happened, said Cosenzi, adding quickly that her father, well before he was diagnosed, changed her career course when he convinced her to put plans to pursue her doctorate in clinical psychology on hold temporarily and spend some time at the family business.

“He said, ‘just come home and do some stuff around the dealership with me,’” she recalled, adding that she was living in New York at the time, having just earned her master’s at Columbia, and was trying to figure out the next chapter in her life. “In retrospect, I know now exactly what he was doing, but at the time I didn’t. He said, ‘I want you help me get our internet department up and going, and I want you to help with the sales process inside some of the dealerships, and just help me do some stuff that I need to get done that I haven’t been able to accomplish.’”

Long story somewhat short, she did all that and really enjoyed it, putting a career in clinical psychology on the shelf, if you will, and starting down a much different road.

“At the time, I felt he was really supportive of my ambitions, but he had a different plan for me, and he was re-routing me,” she went on, adding that she would “fall in love with the business.”

Carla Cosenzi says she shares her father’s ‘wanting more’ attitude

Carla Cosenzi says she shares her father’s ‘wanting more’ attitude, which drives her work in both business and philanthropy.

But while her father’s illness wasn’t exactly the impetus for what has become a career in auto-sales management, it was certainly the inspiration of what has become a very important part of her life.

That would be the Tommy Cosenzi Driving for the Cure Charity Golf Tournament, which she started, along with her brother, also named Tommy, in 2010.

“I think I share a lot of his ‘wanting more’ attitude. If we set a goal and we hit it, we’d set another goal and work to attain that goal. It’s that attitude of ‘it’s never enough and always looking for more.’ I’m not sure that’s a good thing or a bad thing in life, but that’s where I am.”

Over the past eight years, the tournament has raised more than $900,000 to support Dr. Patrick Wen (her father’s doctor) and his research colleagues at the Center for Neuro-Oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and it will certainly top the $1 million mark with this year’s tournament in August.

That money helps Dana-Farber researchers design novel clinical trials to test and develop targeted therapies that have not previously been studied in brain tumors, initiating several clinical trials in immunotherapy and conducting groundbreaking basic research to guide new therapeutic approaches, said Cosenzi, adding that these initiatives are an ambitious extension of her father’s efforts to find a cure for the disease that took his life.

Carla Consenzi and her brother, Tommy, left, with Dr. Patrick Wen

Carla Cosenzi and her brother, Tommy, left, with Dr. Patrick Wen, who is annually awarded the proceeds from the Driving for the Cure charity golf tournament.

“These funds are unrestricted — he can take them and try anything with research that he wants to try,” she explained. “It’s almost impossible to get money like that, and they’ve done a lot of testing and trial drugs with the money.

“I wish I could say that there were positive results from the work that’s been done,” she went on, “but every dollar helps in that effort to find a cure.”

Cosenzi said the tournament has become a labor of love, much like the car business itself, with planning for the following year’s event beginning literally within days after the trophy is handed out and the proceeds presented to Wen from the just-completed tournament.

And it represents just one of the many ways Cosenzi, now a winner of multiple BusinessWest awards — she was the top scorer in the Forty Under 40 class of 2012 — has become a Difference Maker in the region. Others include her success in business, her emergence as a role model of sorts for young women pursuing careers in business and mothers trying to balance life and work, and her commitment to following in her father’s footsteps not only as a manager of people but as one who gives back to the community.

“I think I share a lot of his ‘wanting more’ attitude,” she explained, referring to her father. “If we set a goal and we hit it, we’d set another goal and work to attain that goal. It’s that attitude of ‘it’s never enough and always looking for more.’ I’m not sure that’s a good thing or a bad thing in life, but that’s where I am.”

And that ‘wanting more’ and setting higher goals refers not only to selling Volkswagens, Nissans, and Volvos, but also to raising money to fight cancer.

In each realm, she does, as they might say in this business, put the pedal to the metal.

Getting Up to Speed

As she talked about the all that planning that goes into the charity golf tournament, her level of involvement, and whether she puts a tee in the ground and plays herself, Cosenzi offered a quick yet effective response: “I’m a control freak.”

She could have left it at that, but didn’t.

“I’m very particular when it comes to how the day is run,” she told BusinessWest. “I want to make sure it’s set up properly and that we’re running on the right schedule. No, I don’t play; I’m there running the event. I hand out our roses, I shake everyone’s hand at registration … I greet them when they arrive and make sure everyone’s having a good time.”

Carla Cosenzi says the charity golf tournament named in honor of her father

Carla Cosenzi says the charity golf tournament named in honor of her father, like the family business itself, has become a labor of love for her.

But, and this is a big but, she went on to explain that her control-freak nature, while certainly not restricted to golf-tournament management, doesn’t really extend to management at the TommyCar Auto Group.

Indeed, she said that over the years — and it hasn’t been all that many years, to be sure (she’s only 39) — she’s learned that good managers master the art of delegation.

“A lot of people think of a leader as someone coming in, being a control freak, and yelling at everyone,” she said. “But really, if you’re a good leader, you’re relinquishing more control and you’re putting more trust into other people.”

Knowing when and when not to delegate is one of the many things Cosenzi has learned in a career that is many ways just getting started and still adding intriguing chapters.

“There’s a huge difference between being a manager for my father and being a leader and managing other managers.”

Like most all second- (or third- or fourth-) generation members of auto-business owning families, Cosenzi remembers practically growing up at the dealership, in this case Springfield Chrysler Plymouth on Boston Road in Springfield, one of several stores her father would eventually own and manage.

“I spent a lot of summers at the dealership and would come in on weekends; one of my first memories is of the Christmas parties my father would have for employees and underprivileged children,” she recalled, adding that giving back certainly runs in the family. “I remember spending a lot of time playing in the cars and in the office-supplies room. I don’t know why office supplies are so attractive to kids, but they are — my children love them, too — the Post-its, stapling, making photocopies, coloring … it’s all fun.”

Later, when she would return to this region for summer break from high school, she would work at the dealership moving cars, making sure they were clean, and related tasks. And as she got a little older, she drifted into sales and quickly developed both an affinity for, and a passion for, that side of the business.

“I always loved the idea of selling cars — it was fun, and I was making decent money,” she said, recalling that, by this time, the mid-’90s, it was still rare to see women in positions other than the back office in auto sales, primarily because the industry didn’t work very hard to attract women. Today, the situation is much different, a climate we’ll get to later. First, back to how Cosenzi arrived at the large office at Northampton Volkswagen, managing four dealerships and more than 150 employees.

That was certainly not the plan when she enrolled at Northeastern University and studied clinical psychology. With her undergraduate degree, she worked at a hospital in the area, and eventually enrolled at Columbia to earn her master’s in clinical psychology and lived in New York City for a year and a half.

It was when she had that diploma in her hand — and started looking at options for attaining a doctorate — that she had a talk with her father that she remembers vividly. It went this way:

“I remember saying to my dad, ‘I think I might go on; I really enjoy this,’” she recalled. “And he said, ‘we’re going to put on the brakes here; you’re going to pack up, you’re going to come home, we’re going to reset, and we’re going to make sure this is what you really want to do before we invest in any more schooling.”

And that’s exactly what happened, she went on, adding that she missed one window for applying for doctorate programs, and in the eight or nine months before the next window would open, her career outlook would change dramatically.

Indeed, as noted earlier, as her father got her involved in more aspects of the business, she was drawn into it and decided she wanted to stay in — before her father was diagnosed. She spent a year going back and forth to McLean, Va. and the National Automotive Dealer Association’s Dealer Academy.

“At this point, I really fell in love with the business, like I never knew I could,” she told BusinessWest. “I loved selling cars, I loved working for my dad … I really just fell in love with all aspects of the dealership.”

She progressed from being a salesperson at Patriot Buick GMC in Charleton to being a finance manager, to sales manager, and was moving to the point of “managing the managers, rather then being a manager,” as she put it, when her father got sick in 2007 at only 49 years of age.

To a Higher Gear

Doctors gave Tom Cosenzi less than a year to live. He would actually live another 2½ years.

Over that time, Carla would learn still more about the business from him and, with her brother, complete a transition of the business to the next generation.

Over the past several years, they’ve expanded the TommyCar Auto Group to its present four dealerships, the latest addition being Volvo Cars Pioneer Valley in South Deerfield, acquired last summer. Along the way, Carla has become the marketing face of the business, and even her young children, Talia, 4, and Nico, 3, have become well-known to those listening to the radio or watching local television.

Far less well known is how Carla said she grappled with the transition from car sales to managing a sales team to managing managers and ultimately making her mark in an industry dominated by men.

“There’s a huge difference between being a manager for my father and being a leader and managing other managers,” she said. “Luckily, I think I earned the respect of the people here after working in the business for so long.

“Still, being female, it was a very interesting dynamic,” she went on, adding that she was now managing people who had worked for her father for long time — some a very long time. “I struggled — I mean I really struggled — to earn their respect, figure out how to be a good leader to them, and hold them accountable; I would not want to go back to those days.”

But figure it out she did, she said, adding that there was a lot of learning by doing — but also some restaffing, as she had to replace some people whose respect she couldn’t seem to earn and who didn’t want to do some of the things she suggested — things that her father might not have wanted to do.

Ultimately, she said she’s much like in her father in many respects, especially in how she wants a dealership run and customers treated, but also in how employees are respected and business goals set and made.

While transitioning to management of the family business, Cosenzi and her brother have also followed their father in another respect — giving back to the community.

For Carla, such efforts have taken many forms, from work to create scholarships in her father’s name for students at several area high schools, to mentoring of young women, to public speaking on topics related to women in business and work/life balance.

But much of her time and energy goes to the Drive for the Cure golf tournament, which has earned the support of a number of area businesses and individuals. She said the event is in some ways a continuation of an annual golf tournament her father ran as an outing for his employees.

“That’s why it was so important for us to take that idea of all coming together and getting out and having some fun and turn it into a way to honor him and also raise money for a good cause,” she explained.

And while her work at the four dealerships and with the golf tournament absorbs much of her time, she still finds some to occasionally mentor young women in various ways.

For example, she frequently speaks at the region’s trade schools, offering words of advice and encouragement to young women looking at careers that been traditionally dominated by men. And she uses her own story to help get her points across.

“I tell them about my own struggles coming up as a woman in the business,” she said. “And I tell them that it’s possible to succeed and that they should never give up on whatever their dream might be.”

She’s also spoken before a number of women’s groups about subjects ranging from leadership to attracting women to her business, to the all-important issue of achieving work-life balance, something that is elusive and that she still struggles to attain.

“My kids are growing up quick, and I work hard to make sure I’m there for what they need, but am also still here for the business,” she said. “The key is to be organized — very organized — and I am.”

A Leader Who’s Driven

When she visits the office-supplies area at Northampton Volkswagen, Cosenzi can usually find signs that her children have been there — and have enjoyed themselves.

That takes her back about 35 years or so to the Springfield Chrysler Plymouth dealership, where she started learning the ropes from a man who inspired her —and keeps on inspiring her — in all kinds of ways.

Today, she’s inspiring others, as a business leader, a woman achieving balance in her life, an aggressive fighter against cancer, and an individual always looking for different ways to give back to her community.

In short, as a Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2019 Difference Makers

This Essential Agency Helps the Region Contend with a ‘New Normal’

Andrew Morehouse, executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts

Andrew Morehouse, executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts

As Andrew Morehouse talks about the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, its history, mission, and future, he makes early and frequent use of numbers.

And for a good reason — actually, several of them.

They bring this story into focus better than any words probably could, said Morehouse, executive director of the Hatfield-based nonprofit since 2005. The numbers punctuate the tremendous amount of need in this region, and … well, they usually wind up surprising people and then inspiring them.

Here are just a few:

Over the past calendar year, the Food Bank has served more than 225,000 people seeking what is known as ‘food assistance.’ That’s not necessarily 225,000 different people, Morehouse acknowledged; that number is at least 100,000 and probably closer to 200,000 — significant no matter what the actual total is, because the population of this region is only about 900,000. Nearly one-third of those served (30%) are children, 14% are seniors, and the rest are adults ages 19-64.

“Do the math. People working at minimum wage or near minimum wage working full-time can’t meet all their basic expenses, including food, so something has to give. And often, it is food.”

As for meals distributed, that number is more than 9.6 million for the four Western Mass. counties, and more than 5 million for Hampden County alone. Those meals add up to 11.6 million pounds of food, or the equivalent of 145 tractor-trailers packed from one end to the other.

And here are perhaps the most surprising, disturbing, and inspiring numbers. The total amount of food distributed in 2005 was 5.6 million pounds, just over half what it is today. Meanwhile, the number of people served spiked after the Great Recession to more than 200,000, and in the decade since, it hasn’t gone down, even though the economy has recovered significantly by every statistical measure.

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts relies on a small army of volunteers to carry out its broad mission.

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts relies on a small army of volunteers to carry out its broad mission.

“That’s certainly alarming,” said Morehouse, adding that all these numbers add up to three simple yet also quite complex words: ‘a new normal.’

“There’s been an economic restructuring, as often happens after recessions, which has brought about a dramatic change in the workforce,” he explained. “Many people, if they are working, are in lower-paying jobs. And that results in a lot of families not being able to support themselves, even if people are working full-time.

“Do the math,” he went on. “People working at minimum wage or near minimum wage working full-time can’t meet all their basic expenses, including food, so something has to give. And often, it is food.”

Confronting this new normal in a proactive manner could be considered the unofficial mission of the Food Bank, which was created in 1982 and first housed in a tobacco barn in Hadley.

And this mission is carried on in a number of ways, said Morehouse, noting that collecting and then distributing food for more than 9 million meals is obviously the most visible and impactful manifestation of the agency’s work and the quickest, most profound explanation for why this agency is being honored as a Difference Maker.

“People are not going to wear a sign around their neck saying, ‘I’m hungry.’ There is a lot of stigma and shame attached to not being able to meet your basic needs, especially food. So there’s a real challenge there in terms of public education.”

Indeed, Monte Belmonte, program director and morning show host at WHMP radio and architect of Monte’s March, an annual trek during which he pushes a shopping cart to raise money for the Food Bank, called the agency ‘mother ship hunger’ that provides food to a number of area food pantries and soup kitchens, and essentially enables them to carry out their work.

“When I go into these emergency food providers across our region, all of them say they couldn’t do their work; that’s how essential the Food Bank is to fighting hunger here,” he said. “If it weren’t for this huge piece of the puzzle, all those other dominoes would be in huge trouble.”

But the Food Bank is also attacking the root causes of this large and persistent problem through an ambitious initiative called the Coalition to End Hunger.

Launched in 2017, the coalition is a collaborative network of leaders and organizations focusing on providing integrated services for those who need them, erasing the stigma associated with hunger and advocating for public policy solutions.

As just one example, he noted the agency’s work to bring awareness to — and a possible solution for — the so-called ‘cliff effect.’ Not a recent phenomenon but certainly a growing problem, this cliff effect refers to a situation where people who want to work, and are often being given help to join the workforce, often don’t because the income they would earn would make them ineligible or less eligible for benefits such as food assistance.

Andrew Morehouse says the Food Bank is coping with what a ‘new normal’

Andrew Morehouse says the Food Bank is coping with what a ‘new normal’ when it comes to the number of area residents needing help and the volume of food it distributes.

Looking toward the future, the Food Bank is blueprinting ambitious expansion plans, said Morehouse, adding that, given the ‘new normal’ this region is facing, the agency will need to nearly double the size of its 30,000-square-foot Hatfield headquarters to effectively carry out its broad mission.

Plans are preliminary, he went on, adding that a capital campaign will certainly be needed for this expansion to become reality. When asked for a price tag, he said he didn’t know what that number might be at this time.

What he does know is that all those other numbers cited earlier are expected to increase in the months and years to come. The food bank will go on being a Difference Maker in this region, he said, but the challenge will only continue to grow in scope.

Crunching the Numbers

Morehouse told BusinessWest that hunger is what he called “an invisible problem.”

By that, he meant that, in many ways, it’s not easy for many people to see or fully comprehend the scope of the problem in this area, especially in times like these, when the economy is, in most ways, doing well and unemployment rates are approaching record-low levels. And also because of the persistent stigma attached to hunger.

“People are not going to wear a sign around their neck saying, ‘I’m hungry,’” he said. “There is a lot of stigma and shame attached to not being able to meet your basic needs, especially food. So there’s a real challenge there in terms of public education.”

Meanwhile, beyond being invisible in nature, hunger, or the need for food assistance, is an often misunderstood problem.

Indeed, the common perception is that many of those seeking such assistance are capable of working and are not, opting instead for a handout. There are certainly a few that might fit into that category, said Morehouse, but the vast majority of people receiving assistance would rather not be. However, circumstances dictate that they must, so they do, although pride does keep some away who are truly in need.

“We need to debunk that myth that people go hungry because of their fault,” he explained, adding that battling this stigma, as well as the many misperceptions about those seeking food assistance, has been part of the Food Bank’s mission since it was created more than 35 years ago by area church leaders. It is now one of 200 food banks across the country under the umbrella of a national organization called Feeding America.

As noted, it started in a tobacco barn in Hadley (a location chosen because the intent was for the agency to also serve Southern Vermont, although it did that for only a short time), but within a year, land was purchased in Hatfield for a headquarters facility that includes a large warehouse and administrative offices.

As he offered a tour of that warehouse, Morehouse noted that the food distributed by the agency comes from a number of sources and agencies with like-sounding acronyms. These include the state government (MEFAP), the federal government (TEFAP), local farms, the agency’s own farm, retail and wholesale food businesses (including CNS Wholesale Grocers, which built a huge warehouse literally next door in Hatfield), community organizations, and individual donations.

“With state funding and food donations from local farmers, we receive more than 1 million pounds of fresh vegetables every year,” he explained, while pointing to cases and large storage bins of food that arrived from a host of various sources, and correcting another misperception about food banks. “Contrary to the stereotype that food banks distribute unhealthy food, a third of the food that we distribute is fresh vegetables; we get vegetables from supermarkets, and we actually buy vegetables from Canada over the winter months because they know how to store the harvest up there.”

Once received and processed, the food is distributed to a number of member agencies or through the Food Bank’s own direct-to-client programs such as its Mobile Food Bank or its Brown Bag: Food for Elders program. These member agencies, located across the four counties of Western Mass., include pantries, meal sites, shelters, rehabilitation facilities, senior centers, and more.

And this is where some confusion exists, said Morehouse, noting that many believe the Food Bank is one of these pantries, such as Rachel’s Table, Kate’s Kitchen in Holyoke, or the Amherst Survival Center.

“Our strategic plan is to continue to increase the amount of food we distribute every year, until or unless we see things get better. But here we are in a period of dramatic economic growth, and there are still 225,000 people receiving food — and we know that another recession will come.”

Instead, it is, as Belmonte described, the mother ship for those smaller distribution facilities, a ship that needs fuel — in the form of donations of food, money, time, and energy; indeed, the Food Bank relies on a small army of volunteers to keep its multi-faceted operation running smoothly.

Meanwhile, donations from the public, attained through a host of fundraisers, including Monte’s March, are used to support the infrastructure that enables the Food Bank to carry out its mission, said Morehouse.

“Those donations support the capacity we have, between staff and trucks and warehousing, to be able to receive the food that’s either donated or paid for by the public sector,” he explained. “That’s the magic that enables us to turn $1 that is donated into the equivalent of three meals.”

But while food distribution is at the heart of the agency’s mission, there is much more to the work known as food assistance, said Morehouse, adding that the Food Bank is engaged in helping area residents on a number of fronts, including SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) outreach and enrollment, nutrition outreach, and the broad realm of advocacy.

Educating the public about the problem of hunger and its vast dimensions is a big part of the mission, said Morehouse, adding that many of the families being served by the agency have incomes that exceed the thresholds established for SNAP benefits, but are not high enough to adequately feed that family. He offered an example.

“For a family of four, that threshold is about $44,000,” he said, in reference to the ceiling for SNAP benefits. “So if you’re making $45,000 a year, you can’t make ends meet, yet you’re not eligible for SNAP benefits. So if you can’t feed yourself, you can go to a local food pantry or meal site and get some food to get through the week or the month until the next paycheck comes. To get by, a family of four would need to earn about $56,000; so there’s a gap of $12,000.”

Word-of-Mouth Referrals

That gap, and, more specifically, the steady, alarmingly high number of people facing such a gap, explains not only the need for the Food Bank but why the long-term strategic plan calls for an expansion of the Hatfield facility, said Morehouse.

Elaborating, he said that, when the Food Bank goes about calculating how much food it will need to distribute, either to area member agencies or through its own programs, it takes that number cited earlier — 225,000 people — and multiples it by the number of times each individual might visit. This takes us to that other number — 11.6 million pounds of food — which, he said, is almost certain to increase in the years to come.

“Every year that I’ve been at the Food Bank, we’ve increased the amount of food we’ve distributed,” he explained. “In 2005, we were distributing 5.6 million pounds of food; last year, it was over twice that amount.

“Our strategic plan is to continue to increase the amount of food we distribute every year, until or unless we see things get better,” he went on. “But here we are in a period of dramatic economic growth, and there are still 225,000 people receiving food — and we know that another recession will come.”

This reality, and the need to be able to respond to it, is one of the forces that started Belmonte on his march back at the start of this decade. The program has its roots in a food drive staged by the radio station, he explained, but was inspired by the knowledge that the Food Bank, with its enormous buying power, can do more with dollars than it can with donated cans of soup.

So Belmonte started marching from Northampton to Greenfield with a shopping cart souped up (pun intended) by students at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, broadcasting and raising money as he went.

In its first year, the march raised $13,000 for the Food Bank. The latest installment, staged last November, raised $294,000. The numbers are just one manifestation of how the event has grown in size — and meaning.

Indeed, the march now covers two days and much more ground; the trek is now from Springfield to Greenfield. And Belmonte, who likened himself to Forrest Gump in the scenes where that movie character is running across the country, has picked up a lot of company in his march.

“There were hundreds of people joining us at various points along the 43-mile route, including all the newly elected legislators in Western Mass. and U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern, who has done this march at least six times now,” said Belmonte, adding that this strength in numbers has helped bring more than money to the Food Bank — it’s helped raise awareness of its all-important mission.

And still more awareness comes with some stops those marching make to a few of the member agencies served by the Food Bank.

“Some of these people who are marching along with us have never been to a food pantry and seen how one works,” he said. “So it brings the pieces to the puzzle together in a rather interesting way for people.”

Thus, the march has become part of Belmonte’s work as a member of the Coalition to End Hunger, an important extension, if you will, of the Food Bank’s mission. The coalition is focusing on three primary areas of work:

• A policy team that identifies and supports changes that will help resolve the underlying causes of hunger;

• A service-integration team that develops a network that will help those who are food-insecure through initiatives ranging from integrating nutrition programs into other safety-net programs to increasing access to healthy food in food deserts and food swamps; and

• A communication and education team (Belmonte’s a member) that addresses the lack of understanding and education about food insecurity, and the stigma attached to the problem, through a targeted media campaign.

“We’ve invested in a public media-education campaign to drive traffic to a website called coalitiontoendhunger.org,” Morehouse explained, “where we’re telling real stories of real people that will help shatter the myth that people are hungry because they’re lazy or they don’t want to work or because they have a drug problem.

“One would do better to not assume or judge, but to understand this problem and come up with smart ways to address it,” he went on, adding that this is the essence of the coalition and its work.

Belmonte agreed, and said his efforts to assist the food bank have certainly evolved over the years and expanded beyond the physical pushing of a shopping cart and asking for donations, and into the realm of education.

“I’ve learned so much about food insecurity and the myths surrounding it, and I wanted to do much more than a publicity stunt,” he said of his work with the coalition. “Using the tools of marketing to help destigmatize this issue is really important to me.”

Food for Thought

As he put the Food Bank and its broad spectrum of work in perspective, Morehouse recalled (he said it was something he’d never forget) a tour of the Charlemont area he was given by a woman who runs a food pantry there.

“She drove me around the rural roads of Charlemont to show me where people lived and tell the stories of the people who lived in those houses and also frequented the pantries,” he told BusinessWest. “It was eye-opening to see the condition of those houses, but it’s just one example of how there’s lots of people in rural communities, and urban communities, who are just scraping by — really struggling.

“People who don’t experience that and don’t live in those circumstances, just don’t have a clue of how much people are struggling to survive,” he went on, adding that it is part of the Food Bank’s mission to not only give people a clue but create enough momentum to confront that new normal he described, in the manner in which it needs to be confronted.

And that’s why, beyond those 9.6 million meals and 11.6 million pounds of food distributed, this agency is a true Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2019 Difference Makers

He’s Spent a Career Bringing Home the Power of Collaboration

Like most school teachers working in the early ’70s, Peter Gagliardi needed something to do during the summer — not just to keep him busy, but to help with cash flow during those 10 weeks when there were no paychecks coming in.

Early in the summer of 1973, his search for such an employment opportunity took him to a nonprofit called Rural Housing Improvement Inc. in Winchendon. After being told there were no part-time, temporary jobs to be had at the agency, he was further informed of a full-time, permanent position as director of property management that he might pursue if he was interested.

After doing a little soul searching — OK, a lot of soul searching — he convinced himself that he was interested.

“I had just signed a tenured contract, but I resigned and took a job with an organization that had secure funding for 30 days,” he said in a voice that didn’t accurately reflect the sizable risk he was taking. “And I’ve been doing housing ever since.”

It was a big decision for the Gagliardi family, and, as things would turn out, a big one for countless other families as well.

Indeed, that job with a fledgling nonprofit would, as he said, lead to a career in housing. But actually, it’s been a career in much more than that. In the nearly 30 years he’s been president and CEO of Way Finders, the agency formerly known as HAPHousing and before that the Housing Allowance Project, he has helped to greatly expand both the mission and the nonprofit’s influence far beyond its original charge — providing housing vouchers for those in need.

“I had just signed a tenured contract, but I resigned and took a job with an organization that had secure funding for 30 days.”

While it still helps individuals and families secure a roof over their heads through vouchers and creation of new affordable-housing projects, it now helps people in many other ways, as its relatively new name suggests.

It helps them secure employment through job-training initiatives, for example, and also enables individuals to become homeowners by helping them save money, improve their credit, and take the other steps needed to buy a house. And it has stepped forward to help change the trajectory of entire blocks and neighborhoods.

That was the case on Byers Street in Springfield, a half-mile-long stretch that borders the Springfield Armory property and, ironically enough, sits across Pearl Street from Springfield Police headquarters. Ironic because, by the late ’90s, Byers Street had become a hot spot for crime and, in most all ways, a blighted area.

It was (note the past tense) defined by perhaps its most famous, or infamous, piece of real estate — the Rainville Hotel.

Finders-managed properties on Byers Street in Springfield

Peter Gagliardi stands in front of the Way Finders-managed properties on Byers Street in Springfield, an area that has become a “different place” since the agency became involved.

“It was notorious,” said Gagliardi, flashing back 15 to 20 years, adding that it had become a center for drug dealing and other illegal activities, and just one of several properties that were causing problems for abutters that included Springfield Technical Community College, the Quadrangle, St. Luke’s Home (operated by the Sisters of Providence), the Diocese of Springfield, the Armory Street Commons apartment complex, and others.

HAPHousing stepped forward, partnered with other agencies (more on this later), and changed the fortunes of that area by taking down some derelict buildings and fixing up others. Today, it manages the Rainville, now an apartment complex, and several other properties, and the change on the street is palpable.

“You’re seeing other property owners on the street investing in their homes,” said Gagliardi, pointing out such initiatives as he walked the length of Byers Street with BusinessWest recently. “It’s a much better place now.”

The same can be said of the Old Hill section of the city, another area where Way Finders worked, again in partnership with other agencies and especially Springfield Neighborhood Housing Services, to bring about positive change in many ways. Dozens of new homes have been built, dozens more have been renovated, and scores of vacant lots have been put to better uses. Most importantly, residents are taking pride in their neighborhood — as well as responsibility for it — and the fabric of that neighborhood is becoming stronger.

“You’re seeing other property owners on the street investing in their homes. It’s a much better place now.”

“There’s always more to do, but Old Hill is a different place,” said Gagliardi. “Since the houses were built that we’ve been involved with, people are choosing to buy homes there; that was just not happening before.”

In a way, Byers Street, Old Hill, and what’s happened in those areas have become living symbols of Gagliardi’s energetic and imaginative approach to fulfilling and expanding the stated mission at Way Finders — “to light pathways and open doors to homes and communities where people thrive.”

And they serve to help explain why he has long been a real Difference Maker in this region.

Keys to Success

They call them ‘Success Stories,’ and that’s pretty much an understatement.

These are poignant vignettes, if you will, created to help convey the many ways that Way Finders has evolved as an agency and how it has helped change the lives of the people it has touched.

People like Charles Winston, the single father of a 7-year-old boy, who was unemployed and living in a one-bedroom apartment with his son when he enrolled in Way Finders’ Family Self-sufficiency (FSS) Program in 2014. He knew what he wanted to do — buy a home of his own someday — but also knew he had a laundry list of things he needed help with, from reliable childcare to a dependable vehicle; from full-time employment to credit repair. Long story short, Way Finders and its FSS program helped with all that. He secured a job with UPS, improved his credit score to 738, saved $22,391 in an escrow account established for him to buy a house, and in 2017, he became a home owner.

Peter Gagliardi and his staff at Way Finders have helped write many different kinds of success stories in recent years.

Peter Gagliardi and his staff at Way Finders have helped write many different kinds of success stories in recent years.

And also people like Minerva Gonzalez, who witnessed a sharp decline in the neighborhood in Holyoke in which she grew up and was now raising a family, and became determined to do something about it, only she didn’t know where or how to begin.

After enrolling in Way Finders’ Resident Leadership Program, she soon learned that community leaders often have a stronger voice than city officials. And she used hers to bring about change at H.B. Lawrence Elementary School and, specifically, a host of improvements to its playground.

You don’t see Peter Gagliardi’s picture accompanying these success stories. Instead, you see Charles Winston proudly holding up the keys to his house, and Minerva Gonzalez sitting atop a piece of playground equipment at her kids’ school.

But he had a big hand in writing them, a pattern that began way back in 1973 when he decided to leave the classroom and take that full-time job with Rural Housing Improvement Inc.

But our story actually begins several years earlier, when Gagliardi was attending college. He met a volunteer with VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) who was working in his hometown of Athol, and she introduced him to a housing problem he never knew existed.

“She showed me some atrocious housing conditions that people were living in and really brought the issue home,” he recalled. “I never thought about us having poor people as neighbors — they were all friends. I didn’t think about people living in really terrible living conditions, but there were some, and there weren’t a lot of alternatives for people.

“I learned a little bit, and then I went off and finished school, did the teaching thing, and along came a job that was pretty much serendipity,” he went on, retracing the start of his new career. “It got me involved in housing, and it became clear pretty quickly that this is where I should be.”

At Rural Housing Improvement Inc., Gagliardi worked for a boss who gave him what he called “a wide-open portfolio,” and he took full advantage, spending 13 years at the organization, rising to the rank of associate executive director, and, most importantly, learning a number of lessons he would apply later in his career, starting with his next stop.

“Along came a job that was pretty much serendipity. It got me involved in housing, and it became clear pretty quickly that this is where I should be.”

That would be at the recently created Mass. Housing Partnership, part of the Executive Office of Communities and Development, in 1986.

There, he worked under Amy Anthony, who was, ironically enough, the first executive director of the Housing Allowance Project and would become a titan within the affordable-housing industry, transforming Massachusetts into a national leader in that realm (she passed away last December).

Gagliardi was recruited to be director of field operations for the Mass. Housing Partnership, and his job was to work with communities across the state to develop what were known as ‘local housing partnerships.’

the Healthy Hill Initiative in Springfield’s Old Hill neighborhood is just one example of the power of collaboration.

Peter Gagliardi says the Healthy Hill Initiative in Springfield’s Old Hill neighborhood is just one example of the power of collaboration.

“The concept was, if you bring people together from different sectors and start focusing on the problem, then the interaction will add to the value of the work that you do,” he explained. “You have the private sector, the public sector, and representatives of the community … you’re tackling a common problem, and by doing it together, you get a better result than if any one of those sectors tried to do it on their own.”

And results were achieved, he said, adding that Massachusetts soon set the tone for affordable-housing programs nationwide through imaginative, partnership-driven initiatives that changed the landscape in all kinds of ways.

“That was a very dynamic time in housing in Massachusetts,” he recalled. “The governor [Michael Dukakis] was putting resources into it — these were the days of the Massachusetts Miracle — and allotted programs were created in Massachusetts, many of which still exist today,” he told BusinessWest. “We became the envy of all the states in the country with the variety of programs we had and the effectiveness of those programs.”

Living Proof

Gagliardi would eventually take the role of director of Private Housing at the Mass. Housing Partnership and would stay in that role for roughly a year.

By the end of 1990, however, the Dukakis administration was coming to an end, and he was looking for his next challenge.

He found it as president and CEO of the Housing Allowance Project, a position that, in many ways, took him back to his work with Rural Housing Improvement Inc. and the front lines of the housing problem in the western part of the state.

Over the past 28 years, the agency has grown and diversified its portfolio of services largely out of necessity, in a way that makes its mission more holistic in nature and worthy of that name Way Finders.

Gagliardi put all this into some kind of perspective:

“I think the most significant thing we’ve done is bring together a variety of services, all of which are complementary,” he explained. “We’ve built the strength and the reputation to take on new challenges as they arise. More than any one specific program, what we’ve been able to do is generate impact for the community and the people we work with across a wide range of programmatic activities.”

To explain this expansion of the mission, he returned to Byers Street, literally, where he pointed to the buildings, including the Rainville, that have been transformed from eyesores into attractive affordable housing, and talked about how it happened.

“This was one of Springfield’s darkest hours in a lot of ways,” he said, while setting the tone and explaining how Byers came to be the way it was. “Jobs had been declining for many years, people left their housing, places were vacant and abandoned; it was very difficult circumstances.”

The agency’s work there is a solid example of the importance of partnerships and bringing together groups with common goals to accomplish something they could not have done on their own, he said, adding that efforts to revitalize the area led to the creation of the Armory/Quadrangle Civic Assoc., which is still active today.

“We took the experience of doing some affordable-housing development, but in an urban setting, to use it as a way of bringing positive change to a neighborhood,” he said, adding that the agency brought various officials and groups to see what was done there. And the results would inspire an even bigger initiative.

“When we had an open house for our second project there on Byers Street, we brought some people down in a bus from the Old Hill neighborhood,” he recalled. “And I can remember the head of the Old Hill Neighborhood Council saying, ‘why can’t we do this in my neighborhood?’”

Soon thereafter, they did, in what became perhaps an even better example of the power of partnerships.

By the early 2000s, there were 150 vacant lots in Old Hill, a neighborhood in the vicinity of Springfield College, which represented maybe 10% of all the residential lots.

“We knew we couldn’t just go in, do a couple of houses, and make a difference — we needed a different strategy,” he explained, adding that, in collaboration with a host of partners, including the college, Habitat for Humanity, the neighborhood council, Springfield Neighborhood Housing Services, Revitalize Community Development Corp., and others, a plan was crafted to acquire many of the vacant lots (often from the city in tax title) and putting new homes on them.

Meanwhile, many other homes were rehabbed, and a host of agencies came together for what became known as the Healthy Hill Initiative, a project focused on two of the primary social determinants of health — public safety and access to physical activity.

“The secret to success, in my mind, is collaboration,” he told BusinessWest. “One of the things that I’m mindful of is that we would not have done any of this on our own.”

He was talking about Old Hill, but that sentiment applies to many of the initiatives the agency involves itself with, and collaboration is just one of the managerial mindsets that Gagliardi has brought with him to work for the past 45 years or so.

“We’ve built the strength and the reputation to take on new challenges as they arise. More than any one specific program, what we’ve been able to do is generate impact for the community and the people we work with across a wide range of programmatic activities.”

Overall, he said his goal has been to hire people who, like him, have a passion for this kind of work and can realize that, while the work is often difficult and bound tightly in red tape, there are many rewards.

“We’re working here because, at the end of the day when we go home, sometimes tired from all the complexities of the programs we run, we can take pride in the fact that, because of what we did today, somebody is in housing they wouldn’t otherwise have had,” he told BusinessWest. “It might be a homeless family has found a place to call home or a family that was in danger of being evicted has solved their problem. That’s much different than coming home and saying, ‘well, I made another buck for the shareholders,’ and that’s what keeps us coming back the next day.”

Looking back on that fateful decision he made back in 1973, he said he has no regrets at all and is simply thankful for that bit of serendipity.

“It’s been good work,” he said with a wide smile on his face. “There is where I should have been.”

Bottom Line

As he talked about his work with Mass. Housing Partnership, Gagliardi took a few minutes to reflect on the many ways Amy Anthony influenced his career.

“She was inspiring,” he told BusinessWest. “She was full of energy and open to ideas. I would go to her with an idea, she’d think about it, we’d talk about it, and she’d say, ‘OK, I like it; run with it.’”

One could use many of those same descriptive words and phrases when talking about her eventual successor. Also full of energy and open to ideas, he has built upon her legacy and helped write countless success stories like those mentioned earlier.

And he’s come a long way since he stepped into the offices of the Rural Housing Improvement Inc. looking for a summer job. Instead he found a career and, indirectly, a path to the stage at the Log Cabin on March 30, where he’ll be honored for what he has truly become.

A real Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2019 Difference Makers

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.

Marjorie and Rick Hurst are gratified that their son Justin and daughter-in-law Denise

Marjorie and Rick Hurst are gratified that their son Justin and daughter-in-law Denise — who serve on Springfield’s City Council and School Committee, respectively — have followed their example of civic involvement.

“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.

Rick Hurst says he writes to both educate and provoke

Rick Hurst says he writes to both educate and provoke — because sometimes people need a little provocation.

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.”

The Hursts celebrate Marjorie’s election to the Springfield School Committee

The Hursts celebrate Marjorie’s election to the Springfield School Committee — she was the top vote getter — in this 1997 photo from the Union-News.

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]

Class of 2019 Difference Makers

This Business Leader Has Made a Career of Finding Ways to Give Back

Joe Peters

Joe Peters

‘El Gordito.’

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.”

Joe Peters played a large role in bringing a new ambulance to the Honduran village of Guayape

Joe Peters played a large role in bringing a new ambulance to the Honduran village of Guayape, which was devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

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.

The ‘sandwich ministry’

The ‘sandwich ministry’ is another example of Joe Peters’ commitment to helping those in need, especially in his hometown of Chicopee.

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.

James Peters, left, started Universal Plastics

James Peters, left, started Universal Plastics and was a big believer in providing summer jobs to young people. His son, Joe, followed in his footsteps in both realms.

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]

Class of 2019 Difference Makers

Institution Has Mastered the Art and Science of Being Entrepreneurial

Kay Simpson, left, president and CEO of the Springfield Museums, with current board chair Kate Kane.

Kay Simpson, left, president and CEO of the Springfield Museums, with current board chair Kate Kane.

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.

The Quadrangle has certainly changed over the years.

The Quadrangle has certainly changed over the years. Above, the scene in the early ’70s when one could actually drive onto the property. Below, today the scene is dominated by trees and the Dr. Seuss Memorial Sculpture Garden.

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.

Making History

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.

Lyman Wood, seen in the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History

Lyman Wood, seen in the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, says the Museums have helped put Springfield on the map and bring more vibrancy to its downtown.

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.

Above, the interior of the Science Museum in the mid-’30s. The facilities at the Quadrangle have all evolved with changing times and advancing technology. Below, Kay Simpson at the Dinosaur Discoveries special exhibit now at the Science Museum.

“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.

The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum doubled the Museums’ attendance

The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum doubled the Museums’ attendance in the first year it was open, greatly increasing revenues and creating more opportunities for the institution.

“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.

Drive Time

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]

Difference Makers

Celebrate with Us!

2019 Difference Makers
Thursday, March 28, 2019
5 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
The Log Cabin, Holyoke

This program, initiated in 2009, is a celebration of individuals, groups, organizations, and families that are positively impacting the Pioneer Valley and are, as the name suggests, making a difference in this region. As previous classes have shown, there are many ways to do this: through work within the community on one or many initiatives to improve quality of life; through success in business, public service, or education; through contributions that inspire others to get involved; through imaginative efforts to help solve one or more societal issues; or through a combination of the above.

Our 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.

Purchase Tickets Below:

Sponsored by

Class of 2018 Difference Makers Event Galleries

A Look at the March 22 Event

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More than 375 people turned out at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House on March 22 to honor BusinessWest’s 2018 Difference Makers. Launched in 2009, the program recognizes groups and individuals across the region that are making a difference in their community. The honorees this year were: Bob Bolduc, CEO of Pride Stores; Bob ‘the Bike Man’ Charland, founder of Pedal Thru Youth; Girls Inc. of Holyoke; Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin; Crystal Senter-Brown, author and adjunct faculty member at Bay Path University; and the WillPower Foundation.

Our 2018 Difference Makers:
Bob Bolduc, CEO of Pride Stores
Bob “The Bike Man” Charland, Founder of Pedal Thru Youth
Girls Inc. of Holyoke
Evan Plotkin, President of NAI Plotkin
Crystal Senter-Brown, Author & Adjunct Faculty at Bay Path University
WillPower Foundation

     

Photography by Leah Martin Photography

From event sponsor Burkhart Pizzanelli, P.C., from

From event sponsor Burkhart Pizzanelli, P.C., from left: Adam Kuzdzal, Deborah Penzias, Josh Messer, Julie Quink, Tom Pratt, Carol LaCour, Rebecca Connolly, Stephanie Tobin, and Sarah Lapolice.

From event sponsor Health New England

From event sponsor Health New England, from left: Peggy Garand, Vivian Williams, Brendaliz Torres, Sandra Ruiz, Ashley Allen, Matt Sturgis (guest of HNE), and Jessica Dupont.

Gina Kos (left) and Michelle Depelteau from event sponsor Sunshine Village.

Gina Kos (left) and Michelle Depelteau from event sponsor Sunshine Village.

Sr. Kathleen Popko (left) and Sr. Mary Caritas from the Sisters of Providence, a 2013 Difference Maker.

Sr. Kathleen Popko (left) and Sr. Mary Caritas from the Sisters of Providence, a 2013 Difference Maker.

Bob Bolduc, founder of Pride Stores and a 2018 Difference Maker.

Bob Bolduc, founder of Pride Stores and a 2018 Difference Maker.

From 2018 Difference Maker the WillPower Foundation, from left: Sabrina Aasheim, Jeff Palm, and Maria Burke.

From 2018 Difference Maker the WillPower Foundation, from left: Sabrina Aasheim, Jeff Palm, and Maria Burke.

From left: Kate Kane of Northwestern Mutual, a 2009 Difference Maker, with Nick LaPier, CPA and BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti.

From left: Kate Kane of Northwestern Mutual, a 2009 Difference Maker, with Nick LaPier, CPA and BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti.

Bill Ward, a 2009 Difference Maker, with Joanne Lyons

Bill Ward, a 2009 Difference Maker, with Joanne Lyons of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County.

Carol Leary, a 2016 Difference Maker, with 2018 Difference Maker Evan Plotkin

Bay Path University President Carol Leary, a 2016 Difference Maker, with 2018 Difference Maker Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin.

Tricia Canavan of United Personnel with Scott Foster of Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas and also Valley Venture Mentors, a 2016 Difference Maker.

Tricia Canavan of United Personnel with Scott Foster of Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas and also Valley Venture Mentors, a 2016 Difference Maker.

Sandra Ruiz, left, and Brendaliz Torres, from event sponsor Health New England.

Sandra Ruiz, left, and Brendaliz Torres, from event sponsor Health New England.

Bob Bolduc, left, with Bob ‘the Bike Man’ Charland, two of 2018’s Difference Makers.

Bob Bolduc, left, with Bob ‘the Bike Man’ Charland, two of 2018’s Difference Makers.

Representing event sponsor Sunshine Village

Representing event sponsor Sunshine Village, front row: Gina Kos (left) and Michelle Depelteau; back row: Peter Benton, Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos, Kelly Chmura, Maria Laflamme, Amie Miarecki, Colleen Brosnan, and Michael Siddal.

Tanzania Cannon-Ecklerle from event sponsor Royal, P.C. with Joe Ecklerle of Pelican Products and Brew Practitioners.

Tanzania Cannon-Ecklerle from event sponsor Royal, P.C. with Joe Ecklerle of Pelican Products and Brew Practitioners.

From 2018 Difference Maker Girls Inc. of Holyoke

From 2018 Difference Maker Girls Inc. of Holyoke, from left: Johana (Stella’s mother), Stella, Haley, Kylie (Haley’s mother), Emhanie, Brandy Wilson, Becky Bouchard, and Suzanne Parker.

Staff from NAI Plotkin turn out to celebrate 2018 Difference Maker Evan Plotkin.

Staff from NAI Plotkin turn out to celebrate 2018 Difference Maker Evan Plotkin.

Patrick O’Neil and Katie O’Neil from 2018 Difference Maker the WillPower Foundation.

Patrick O’Neil and Katie O’Neil from 2018 Difference Maker the WillPower Foundation.

Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos.

Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos.

Crystal Senter-Brown, left, and Suzanne Parker

Crystal Senter-Brown, left, and Suzanne Parker of Girls Inc. in Holyoke, both 2018 Difference Makers.

Bob Perry, retired CPA, a 2011 Difference Maker.

Bob Perry, retired CPA, a 2011 Difference Maker.

Kim Lee of the Center for Human Development.

Kim Lee of the Center for Human Development.

Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, accepts his award as a 2018 Difference Maker.

Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, accepts his award as a 2018 Difference Maker.

Will Burke, the namesake and inspiration for the WillPower Foundation, a 2018 Difference Maker.

Will Burke, the namesake and inspiration for the WillPower Foundation, a 2018 Difference Maker.

Stella and Emhanie, two of the girls from Girls Inc. of Holyoke, a 2018 Difference Maker.

Stella and Emhanie, two of the girls from Girls Inc. of Holyoke, a 2018 Difference Maker.

Bob Charland celebrates his 2018 Difference Maker award with fiancée Joanne Hansmann.

Bob Charland celebrates his 2018 Difference Maker award with fiancée Joanne Hansmann.

George O’Brien hands the 2018 Difference Maker award to Crystal Senter-Brown

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien hands the 2018 Difference Maker award to Crystal Senter-Brown.

The WillPower Foundation

The WillPower Foundation’s Jeff Palm, Maria Burke, Sarah Aasheim, Will Burke, and Craig Burke accept their 2018 Difference Maker award from BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien (right).

 

Difference Makers

Honorees since the first class of 2009

2018:

Bob Bolduc, CEO of Pride Stores
Bob “The Bike Man” Charland, Founder of Pedal Thru Youth
Girls Inc. of Holyoke
Evan Plotkin, President of NAI Plotkin
Crystal Senter-Brown, Author & Adjunct Faculty at Bay Path University
WillPower Foundation

2017:

The Community Colleges of Western Massachusetts; Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College
•    Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round
•    Denis Gagnon Sr., President & CEO of Excel Dryer Inc.
•    Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts
•    Joan Kagan, President & CEO of Square One.

2016:

•    Hampden County Sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr.
•    Mike Balise, Balise Motor Sales, Philanthropist (1965-2015)
•    Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire Counties
•    Bay Path University President Carol Leary
•    John Robison, president, J.E. Robison Service

2015:

•    Katelynn’s Ride
•    Judy Matt, president of Spirit of Springfield
•    MassMutual Financial Group
•    The ownership group of the Student Prince and the Fort
•    Valley Venture Mentors

2014:

•    The Gray House
•    Colleen Loveless, executive director of the Springfield chapter of Rebuilding Together
•    The Melha Shriners
•    Paula Moore, founder of YSET Academy and a teacher at Roger L. Putnam Vocational Training Academy
•    Michael Moriarty, attorney, director of Olde Holyoke Development Corp., and supporter of childhood literacy programs

2013:

•    Michael Cutone, John Barbieri, and Thomas Sarrouf, organizers of Springfield’s C3 Policing program
•    John Downing, president of Soldier On
•    Bruce Landon, president and general manager of the Springfield Falcons
•    The Sisters of Providence
•    Jim Vinick, managing director of Investments for Moors & Cabot Inc.

2012:

•   Charlie and Donald D’Amour, president/COO and chairman/CEO of Big Y Foods
•   William Messner, president of Holyoke Community College
•   Majors Tom and Linda-Jo Perks, officers of the Springfield Corps of the Salvation Army
•   Bob Schwarz, executive vice president of Peter Pan Bus Lines
•   The Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts

2011:

•    Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission
•    Lucia Giuggio Carvalho, founder of Rays of Hope
•    Don Kozera, president of Human Resources Unlimited
•    Robert Perry, retired partner/consultant at Meyers Brothers Kalicka
•    Anthony Scott, Holyoke police chief

2010:

•    The Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation
•    Ellen Freyman, attorney and shareholder at Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, P.C.
•    James Goodwin, president and CEO of the Center for Human Development
•    Carol Katz, CEO of the Loomis Communities
•    UMass Amherst and its chancellor, Robert Holub

2009:

•    Doug Bowen, president and CEO of PeoplesBank
•    Kate Kane, managing director of the Springfield office of Northwestern Mutual Financial/the Zuzolo Group
•    Susan Jaye-Kaplan, founder of GoFIT and co-founder of Link to Libraries
•    William Ward, executive director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County
•   The Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield

Difference Makers

Honorees since the first class of 2009

2018:

Bob Bolduc, CEO of Pride Stores
Bob “The Bike Man” Charland, Founder of Pedal Thru Youth
Girls Inc. of Holyoke
Evan Plotkin, President of NAI Plotkin
Crystal Senter-Brown, Author & Adjunct Faculty at Bay Path University
WillPower Foundation

2017:

The Community Colleges of Western Massachusetts; Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College
•    Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round
•    Denis Gagnon Sr., President & CEO of Excel Dryer Inc.
•    Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts
•    Joan Kagan, President & CEO of Square One.

2016:

•    Hampden County Sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr.
•    Mike Balise, Balise Motor Sales, Philanthropist (1965-2015)
•    Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire Counties
•    Bay Path University President Carol Leary
•    John Robison, president, J.E. Robison Service

2015:

•    Katelynn’s Ride
•    Judy Matt, president of Spirit of Springfield
•    MassMutual Financial Group
•    The ownership group of the Student Prince and the Fort
•    Valley Venture Mentors

2014:

•    The Gray House
•    Colleen Loveless, executive director of the Springfield chapter of Rebuilding Together
•    The Melha Shriners
•    Paula Moore, founder of YSET Academy and a teacher at Roger L. Putnam Vocational Training Academy
•    Michael Moriarty, attorney, director of Olde Holyoke Development Corp., and supporter of childhood literacy programs

2013:

•    Michael Cutone, John Barbieri, and Thomas Sarrouf, organizers of Springfield’s C3 Policing program
•    John Downing, president of Soldier On
•    Bruce Landon, president and general manager of the Springfield Falcons
•    The Sisters of Providence
•    Jim Vinick, managing director of Investments for Moors & Cabot Inc.

2012:

•   Charlie and Donald D’Amour, president/COO and chairman/CEO of Big Y Foods
•   William Messner, president of Holyoke Community College
•   Majors Tom and Linda-Jo Perks, officers of the Springfield Corps of the Salvation Army
•   Bob Schwarz, executive vice president of Peter Pan Bus Lines
•   The Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts

2011:

•    Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission
•    Lucia Giuggio Carvalho, founder of Rays of Hope
•    Don Kozera, president of Human Resources Unlimited
•    Robert Perry, retired partner/consultant at Meyers Brothers Kalicka
•    Anthony Scott, Holyoke police chief

2010:

•    The Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation
•    Ellen Freyman, attorney and shareholder at Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, P.C.
•    James Goodwin, president and CEO of the Center for Human Development
•    Carol Katz, CEO of the Loomis Communities
•    UMass Amherst and its chancellor, Robert Holub

2009:

•    Doug Bowen, president and CEO of PeoplesBank
•    Kate Kane, managing director of the Springfield office of Northwestern Mutual Financial/the Zuzolo Group
•    Susan Jaye-Kaplan, founder of GoFIT and co-founder of Link to Libraries
•    William Ward, executive director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County
•   The Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield

Class of 2018 Cover Story Difference Makers

difference-makers-logoBack in late 2008, the management team at BusinessWest conceived a new recognition program.

It was called Difference Makers because this would be a trait shared by those who would be honored — they were all making a difference in the community. The goal was, and is, to show the many ways in which an individual or group can make a difference, and suffice to say this goal has been met.

And the class of 2018, the program’s 10th, makes this even more abundantly clear, as the stories below show.

This year’s sponsors are Health New England, Royal, P.C., and Sunshine Village.

The six members of the Class of 2018 will be honored on Thursday, March 22 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. For information about that event, sponsorship opportunities, or to purchase tickets, go HERE or call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100.

Photography by Leah Martin Photography

 

005_bolducbob-diff2017Community Pride

Bob Bolduc Cooks Up New Ways to Better the Lives of Young People

032_charlandbobmain-diff2017Pedal to the Mettle

‘Bike Man’ Bob Charland’s Story Has Been a Truly Inspirational Ride

022_girlsincmain-diff2017A Force to Be Reckoned With

Girls Inc. Inspires Members to be Strong, Smart, and Bold

017_plotkinevan-diff2017Portrait of the Artist

Evan Plotkin Works to Fill in the Canvas Known as Springfield

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Crystal Senter-Brown Enlightens and Empowers Those She Touches

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The Unique Nonprofit Known as WillPower Meets Some Very Special Needs

 

Sponsored by

PrintRoyalPCSunshineVillage

Class of 2018 Difference Makers

Bob Bolduc Cooks Up New Ways to Better the Lives of Young People

005_bolducbob-diff2017When Mavis Wanczyk scored the single largest lottery win in U.S. history last August — with a ticket purchased at a Pride station in Chicopee — she wasn’t the only winner. No, the store — meaning its owner, Bob Bolduc — got a $50,000 bonus from the state as well.

A few weeks later, Bolduc distributed $1,000 checks to more than 20 Springfield elementary schools to help teachers make classroom purchases they’d normally have to pay for out of pocket. The rest of the 50 grand was distributed among a variety of youth- and education-centric organizations that Bolduc already supports year-round.

“I decided to give it to the kids,” he told BusinessWest, shrugging off any suggestion that it was a tough call. “It’s a windfall; it’s not my money. So it was an easy decision to make.”

Mary Anne’s Kids was another recipient of a $1,000 bonus. An arm of the Center for Human Development, it’s a fund that provides opportunities for children in foster care that would not typically be paid for by the state, from summer camps to extra-curricular programs.

We didn’t even ask for it; he just gave it to us. He’s the grandfather of Mary Anne’s Kids, and a wonderful man. He’s been a godsend to our program.”

“We didn’t even ask for it; he just gave it to us,” said Jim Williams, the fund’s long-time director, before detailing some of the ways Pride’s support of Mary Anne’s Kids through the years makes the $1,000 gift, really, just a drop in the bucket. “He’s the grandfather of Mary Anne’s Kids, and a wonderful man. He’s been a godsend to our program.”

Indeed, since its inception and for more than a decade since, Bolduc has contributed significant dollars to “children who otherwise would not have funds to go to college, go to prom, all the extraordinary things your children and mine have the opportunity to do,” Williams explained. “Bob has basically been our big-ticket guy. He was there when we started, and he’s been there every year.”

Take, for example, the $20,000 or so worth of gifts that pour in every December from Chistmas trees set up in all Pride stores, adorned with tags listing a child’s age, gender, and gift request. Customers buy most of them, and Bolduc covers the rest. And as the holiday approaches, he closes the diner he owns off Mass Pike exit 6 in Chicopee and hosts 120 foster children for a party with Santa Claus.

Williams said Bolduc has personally funded purchases ranging from a handicap-accessible bicycle to a gravestone for one foster child’s brother, who was killed in a drive-by shooting.

“I can tell you this: throughout my career at CHD, Bob has been such a genuine man,” Williams said. “I can’t tell enough good things about him.”

When he sat down with BusinessWest, Bolduc characterized supporting one’s community as an imperative for local businesses, one he came to understand early in his career building the Pride empire, when he and his wife became involved with a number of nonprofits and he began to recognize the needs they had.

“Every nonprofit needs money,” he said. “So I called the people we buy from — Coke, Frito-Lay, all the big companies — and asked, ‘would you give me some money for this little nonprofit that’s trying to help people?’ They’d say, ‘no, we only do national ones — March of Dimes, Muscular Dystrophy Society, American Cancer Society — so we can’t give to all the local companies.’

“A light went off for me — ‘a-ha! If they can’t give, who’s going to give? It’s got to be the little guy,’” he continued. “That’s when we decided to put all our money locally. And it was a no-brainer. The more nonprofits you get involved with, the more you realize how many needs there are, how many kids are really hurting.”

Indeed, kids — youth welfare and education, to be specific — are the beating heart of Bolduc’s philanthropic bent. To name just a few examples:

• Pride recently raised $10,000 to support Square One’s work with high-risk children and families;

• Bolduc has been a business partner for Lincoln Elementary School in Springfield, where he sends volunteer readers and donates supplies as requested. He and his wife also supply hats, mittens, and socks for all the students. “We realized these kids don’t have hats and gloves for wintertime — some of them don’t even have toothbrushes,” he said. “This is happening right here, in Springfield”;

• Pride participated in a North End Community Task Force dealing with gang violence and related problems;

• In partnership with Brightside for Children and Families, Bolduc provided a van outfitted as a mobile library, as well as a driver and warehouse space. The van travels around the area in the summer, providing kids with summer reading books;

• Pride collaborates with WMAS on its annual Coats for Kids campaign; and

• The company regularly fund-raises for various causes such as Wounded Warriors and Puerto Rico hurricane relief, by supplying donation cans at all Pride stores.

But what makes Bolduc a true Difference Maker, as if his philanthropy weren’t enough, is the way he sees his role as not just a businessman, but someone with the opportunity to impact individual lives — of kids in need, yes, but also his employees, many of whom come from poverty — and watch as they turn around and collectively impact their communities for the better.

Food for Thought

Born in Indian Orchard, Bolduc graduated from Notre Dame University with a degree in mechanical engineering, then earned an MBA at Purdue University, before returning to his home state.

After working as a quality engineer at American Bosch in the 1960s, he enlisted in the Army and served in Vietnam. Back in the States, he briefly went to work at his father’s gas station in Indian Orchard in 1970 before buying him out, thus becoming the third generation of the family to run that business — a business, by the way, that just marked its 100th anniversary.

Bob Bolduc and Pride Stores President Marsha Del Monte (right) present a $10,000 check

Bob Bolduc and Pride Stores President Marsha Del Monte (right) present a $10,000 check to Square One’s Kristine Allard and President and CEO Joan Kagan.

In addition to running the station, Bolduc became a tire and auto-parts wholesaler, specifically a distributor for BF Goodrich and Continental, and became proficient enough at it to be chosen to address a national sales convention of Goodrich retailers at age 30.

But in 1976, he made the shift that would define his career, buying a self-serve gas station in Indian Orchard. Over the years, he would gradually expand his business, creating the chain of stores known today as Pride. But, more importantly, he developed a reputation as an industry innovator by marrying the self-service station with another emerging phenomenon, the convenience store.

Other innovations would follow; Pride would eventually become the first chain in Western Mass. to put a Dunkin’ Donuts in the stores, then the first to incorporate a Subway. But where the company has really made a name, in recent years, is with its own fresh-food production.

“The industry has gone from repair shops to convenience stores, then convenience stores started selling coffee,” Bolduc recalled. “The convenience stores got bigger — lots bigger — and started selling more food items, then they got even bigger, to what we call superstores; we’re talking stores between 5,000 and 7,000 square feet, with at least six pumps, sometimes eight or 10, and selling lots more food items.”

But several factors have hit convenience stores hard in recent years, he noted. Fuel efficiency is up. People are driving less, and public transportation has improved. Cigarette sales are way down, and online lottery purchases are cutting into in-store sales.

“All these things that drive our business are disappearing, and we’re looking at a business where the future expectation is for decreased sales, not increased sales,” he noted.

On the other hand, “people still have to eat three times a day, and they’re looking for convenience all the time, and families aren’t sitting down for breakfast and lunch anymore, and sometimes not even dinner; they’re buying food at restaurants or convenience stores.”

The goal, then, he said, has been to improve food quality at Pride to the point where people will see the chain not as a gas station that sells food, but as a food store that sells gas.

To support that shift, the Pride Kitchen, located at the company’s headquarters on Cottage Street in Springfield, runs two shifts of staff making fresh sandwiches, salads, fruit and yogurt parfaits, and — in a bakery that opened in 2017 — fresh muffins, donuts, cookies, brownies, and pastries. A third shift belongs to the drivers who bring all this fresh fare to stores across the region, making food service at Pride a truly 24-hour operation.

Newer stores feature a Pride Grill, where morning visitors can down fresh-cooked eggs before picking up a made-to-order sandwich for lunch at the deli, as well as drive-thru windows and mobile ordering. This isn’t, as Bolduc noted repeatedly, the convenience-store food of the past.

By studying trends and repositioning the company as a place where revenues will grow, not decrease, he’s not only boosting his own bottom line, but also the gaggle of nonprofits, schools, and individuals that benefit from his philanthropy.

See the Need, Meet the Need

It’s a passion, he said, that was sparked during his time at Notre Dame, when he volunteered in a disadvantaged area of Chicago during spring break.

“That was an eye-opener,” he said. “We stayed with an African-American family with a 14-year-old boy. We brought him to see a Blackhawks game because he liked hockey. That was the first time he’d ever been downtown.”

Having grown up in a family with a successful business, he saw up close for the first time how not everyone had the resources he took for granted. Once he and his wife, who also had a heart for volunteerism, resettled in Springfield and found success with Pride, they got involved in a number of nonprofit boards, and — thanks to his failed pitches to the likes of Coke and Frito-Lay — quickly came to understand the importance of local philanthropy.

The Pride stores themselves often function as vehicles for this work, such as his partnership with Square One. He and the early-education provider came up with the idea of selling ‘Square One squares’ at Pride locations for a dollar, where donors could write their names on squares to be posted at the cashier’s counter.

“Bob took the donations and matched a portion of them, rounding them up to a $10,000 gift to Square One, which was awesome,” said Kristine Allard, chief development and communication officer at Square One.

After Mavis Wanczyk scored her record-breaking jackpot at this Chicopee Pride station, Bob Bolduc distributed the store’s $50,000 bonus “windfall” to dozens of schools and nonprofits.

After Mavis Wanczyk scored her record-breaking jackpot at this Chicopee Pride station, Bob Bolduc distributed the store’s $50,000 bonus “windfall” to dozens of schools and nonprofits.

“That’s the kind of thing we rely on the business community for, to provide us funding to offset where our greatest expenses are,” she added. “When we’re able to approach someone like Bob, who understands that and sees the value in that, it helps us get the word out to other businesses, and we can leverage those dollars and leverage those opportunities to show other businesses what Pride is doing for our community. So it’s good for his business and good for Square One.”

Bolduc wishes more businesses could understand that synergy — or at least acknowledge the needs that exist.

“There are more than 200 homeless kids in the city school system, who go back to shelters at night,” he said. “People don’t know that they don’t go home; they go to shelters. Or, they don’t know that Square One gives kids a better meal on Friday, because they’re not going to get another good meal until they go back to school Monday morning. This is in Springfield. It becomes pretty obvious when you dig deeper and you see it — then you say, sure, the American Heart Association is wonderful, but the big people are taking care of them. The more you see locally, the more involved you get.”

Allard, for one, appreciates that attitude.

“From a development standpoint, from a fund-raising standpoint, it’s really refreshing to see someone who thinks the way he does,” she told BusinessWest. “By supporting the work of nonprofits, it’s good for his business, which is good for his employees. By investing in the work being done to help the community, it works out for everybody.”

On the Way Up

Bolduc was quick to note that his company has long supported arts, hospitals, and religious institutions — the types of entities that create quality of life in a community. But perhaps the most critical component is education, particularly in a city — Springfield — where around half of high-schoolers drop out. He says efforts to change that have to start early, which explains his support of Square One.

“If you don’t get a good education, you can’t get a decent job, and the cycle continues. So what’s the one solution to break the cycle? Education.”

He noted that the first person in a family to attend college is usually not the last, which is why he and his wife provide scholarships to area students. “That’s my message — we need to support education and help kids break out of the cycle.”

But he’s helping them break out in more ways than one. Since transforming one of Springfield’s most visible eyesores, at the foot of the North End Bridge, into a thriving Pride superstore almost a decade ago, he has drawn a steady stream of young employees from a neighborhood with high levels of poverty, and helped them embark on careers. And soon, he plans to do the same with new store in the McKnight area of Mason Square.

“At Pride, we’re happy with the fact that we provide jobs and careers,” he said. “We don’t have a human resources department; it’s called Career Development. We are very happy to take a young person who wants to grow and teach them the business and watch them grow up into management, provide for their families, bring in relatives and, in some cases, their kids as they get older. We’re very proud of that.”

The McKnight Neighborhood Council unanimously endorsed the development, he added. “They asked, ‘will you employ local people?’ We said, ‘100%.’”

He noted that the North End Pride station has seen crime drop significantly in the area over the past five years, thanks to the community policing program he has supported, but also, perhaps, due to growing employment opportunities like the ones Pride provides.

“These are good people. I tell them, ‘come to work every day, and we’ll teach you and give you good pay,’ and there’s an amazing turnaround. Some don’t take to it, but a lot of them do. We see the success stories. My goal is to someday see them do the same things for someone else. It’s that simple.”

That legacy and culture Bolduc aims to create is why, seven years after being named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for his innovative business growth, he is now being recognized as a Difference Maker, recognizing far more impactful successes.

“These are his future employees and his future customers,” Allard said. “We need to invest in our youth. If we’re not looking at our youth as the future of our community, we’re doing ourselves a great disservice.”

That’s a message Bolduc wants every local business to hear, and to respond to in any way they can afford, because the needs never go away.

“For anyone who wants to get involved, give me a call,” he said, “because I guarantee you’ll get more out of it then you put it.”

That investment doesn’t have to be a $50,000 lottery windfall, but such good fortune certainly doesn’t hurt.

“He’s a great person,” Allard said. “When that [lottery] news came out, no one would have minded had he kept it. But he said, ‘why not give it away?’ It was really refreshing to hear that.”

For a career spent saying ‘why not?’ — in both his business and the community — Bob Bolduc has plenty to take pride in, as he continues to make a difference.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2018 Difference Makers

The Bike Man’s Story Has Been a Truly Inspirational Ride

032_charlandbobmain-diff2017Bob Charland was already having enough trouble fitting everything on his plate into a 24-hour day.

He had his full-time job, as an auto mechanic at the Lyndale Garage in Springfield, and he was also teaching what he calls “deaf automotive” for students attending Willie Ross School for the Deaf. There were also his many endeavors within the community — primarily his work repairing bicycles and putting them in the hands of underprivileged children across the region, but also his latest venture, what he calls “safety bags” for the homeless and other people in need.

And then, there were also a growing number of medical appointments and tests as he grappled with a brain disorder that remains officially undiagnosed but is considered terminal.

With all that, he admits he was only getting maybe three hours of sleep each day, something he’s learned to live with. But then, the schedule got even more crowded.

He had to start making room for the media. Lots of room.

The local television stations were calling regularly as his donations of bicycles and other endeavors escalated; community newspapers wanted his time to talk about his work in their cities and towns. He’s been on Ludlow public television and a radio station in Boston. Then, the national news networks, including CNN and Fox News, picked up the story. Ellen DeGeneres’ people called. And, yes, BusinessWest wanted a few hours to discuss his selection as a Difference Maker for 2018.

Most time-consuming, however, was a documentary, titled My Last Days, on his life and deeds undertaken by the CW Network and due to be aired this month. The company had already demanded several hours from Charland for the project, and then it came asking for more.

But the ‘Bike Man,’ or ‘Bicycle Bob,’ as he’s called by different constituencies, told them they couldn’t have it. They repeated the request, and he again told them ‘no.’

So they went around Charland to his employer at the garage, told him they would compensate the company for his time lost, and finally locked him in.

And it was certainly worth it to get him out for that additional taping session, as as we’ll see in a minute.

Meanwhile, there’s a reason why Charland now has to make so such time for the media. As they say in the business, this isn’t just a story; it’s a great story.

The individual pieces are themselves compelling — the bicycle program and how it’s grown; his new work within the community, his terminal illness, and his decision to not only go on living but ramp up his work across the region; the press; and the response from that same community to all of the above. But the package … it’s captivating, and, far more importantly, inspiring, which is what really drives Charland in everything he does.

Indeed, he said people have responded to his story in ways he might have hoped, but probably couldn’t have imagined. It has left people compelled to find their own ways to help, to live life to the fullest, and, in many cases, to simply meet the Bike Man.

“I got an e-mail from a guy who wants me to come out and meet his mom,” Charland said as he reached for his phone so he could quote it directly rather than paraphrase, which he did.

“He says ‘Rob, thanks for being such an inspiration with all you’re doing. I have followed your bike story for about a year now. My stepmom, who is basically my real mom when my mother backed out and left us, is terminally ill with stage-4 bone cancer. You give a different, great, positive outlook on things. My stepmom appreciates all you do; you’re an inspiration to all. Thank you.’

“So I told him I’d come out and meet her,” he went on, adding that this was another thing he would gladly make time to do.

Maybe the most compelling part of this story is that his illness hasn’t slowed him down one bit. In fact, it has made him more determined — if that’s actually possible — to cram even more into each day.

“I’m not going to let it slow me down,” he told BusinessWest with tangible conviction in his voice. “Every day that I get up, I can make a difference in someone’s life, and that’s what I’m going to do; that’s what drives me.”

Those few words, more than any that would follow or that came before, make it abundantly clear why the Bike Man will be at the podium at the Log Cabin on March 22 to accept a Difference Maker plaque.

Chain of Events

As noted earlier, those documentary makers had a very good reason for being so persistent in wanting Charland back for another round of filming, or still photos, as they told him. But as things turned out, he didn’t really spend too much time in front of the camera.

For an explanation, well, as they do in a good documentary, we’ll let him do the talking.

“They told me to bring a couple of changes of clothes with me because they wanted to get some photos in a few different places,” he recalled. “We took my truck and ended up in Bernardston, a beautiful little town.

Bob Charland says his terminal illness has inspired him to try to pack even more into each day and find new ways to give back.

Bob Charland says his terminal illness has inspired him to try to pack even more into each day and find new ways to give back.

“Going back to when we first started with this, they asked me a lot of questions, and one of them was, ‘what’s one thing from your childhood that you regret not doing?’ And I said, ‘me and my dad, who’s really my stepdad, but he raised me, always said we were going to go camping together — just him and I — and it never happened,’” he went on. “So we’re there in Bernardston, and I have no idea where we’re going. The next thing you know, we go across a wooden bridge out in the woods to a cabin right on a lake. I didn’t think anything of it.

“The guy told me the camera crew would be there in a while, and that I should just get out, walk around, and check out the place,” Charland continued. “I look around … there’s a nice dock that went out on the water; I saw a guy sitting on the end of the dock. It turned out to be my father. I was shocked that he was there, and I didn’t know why. He just turned to me and said, ‘are you going to give me a hug, boy, or not?’”

The two would spend the next week having that camping trip they never went on decades ago, expressing as much emotion — and talking to each other more — in that short time than they probably had in all those years leading up to that moment.

The documentary producer left the two there with a camera operator, who would shoot a little footage and then leave them alone for the week. More importantly, though, he left them with some thoughts about why they were there.

Put simply, the two had done so much for others throughout their lives; now it was time for someone to do something for them.

And with that, it might be best to tell more of the story of how that documentary — and that bonding between father and son — came to be. We begin, again, like a good documentary, at the place where the story starts to come into focus.

For Charland, that was when his daughter, now 23, was raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was 9.

“At that point, I was given full custody,” he explained. “The courts and the counselors had told me to get her involved in as many things as possible because of what happened to her. So she got involved — and I got involved.”

Indeed, when the leader of the Girl Scout troop his daughter joined decided she couldn’t continue in that role, Charland took over. Not for a little while, but 10 or 11 years, by his count.

“I was cookie coach — I have all the T-shirts from all the years I did it,” he said, adding that, as you might have guessed, he was one of the first male leaders of a Girl Scout troop in this region.

He also started coaching girls softball at Holy Cross Parish School in Springfield — another assignment that lasted a decade or so — among other work in the community, usually alongside his daughter.

“I was afraid to leave her anywhere as a result of what happened to her,” he went on, adding quickly that, because he had no child support, he was also working several jobs — the one at the shop, as a bouncer at an area club a few nights a week, and as a chef at A Touch of Garlic restaurant.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno says Bob Charland has become an inspiration and a role model at a time when the world — and Springfield — need more of such individuals.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno says Bob Charland has become an inspiration and a role model at a time when the world — and Springfield — need more of such individuals.

Eventually, his daughter grew out of Girl Scouts, softball, and other activities, and this development left a void of sorts and something Charland’s seemingly never had much of — spare time.

He filled the void and the hours in the day in various ways. Teaching automotive skills to deaf children — after learning sign language — become one outlet (students are bused to the Lyndale Garage). And eventually there was what he came to call simply “the bike thing.”

Into a Higher Gear

It started, sort of, when his daughter was in middle school. One of her guidance counselors was a nun who would bring Charland a few bikes to fix up for some of her students. And it grew from there.

As most everyone in the region knows by now, thanks to all that press he’s been getting, the bike thing has become not only a Springfield phenomenon, but a regional one as well. Charland has given away bikes in several area communities, including Hartford, and to nearly a dozen schools. To organize it all, he created a nonprofit called Pedal Thru Youth.

In the beginning, Charland would pay for bikes out of his own pocket, but as the news spread, the donations started to flow in, even from some of the neurologists who have treated him. So did other forms of support; AAA donates a helmet for every bike donated, local police departments and the Sheriff’s Department are heavily involved (with bike-safety instruction and other initiatives), and the city of Springfield and Columbia Gas have both donated space to warehouse bicycles while they’re being fixed up and readied for beneficiaries.

“We target the most poverty-stricken areas throughout Western Mass., and they see the worst of the police departments,” Charland said while explaining that there’s much more to this than a child getting a bike. “If these kids see a cop down on their level fitting them with a helmet and helping them adjust their seat or the handlebars, they’re going to look at these officers in a more positive light.”

It’s a great story, but what makes it more remarkable is that it doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It plays out amid — and largely because of — a worsening medical condition that has left Charland quite unsure of how much time he has left and what his quality of life will be.

Back in 2011, around when the bike thing started picking up some speed, Charland suffered what he called a minor stroke. An MRI discovered an arachnoid cyst in his left cerebellum, which specialists would attribute to a concussion he suffered when he was struck in the back of the head by someone wielding a baseball bat after leaving the club following his bouncing shift.

“The cyst grew to protect my brain, and they noticed a lot of dead spots,” Charland explained. “Over the years, things got progressively worse. There were times I would get extremely dizzy, I would stutter, other times my hands would shake. I was having tremors … and the right side of my body was shaking a lot.”

Doctors have never given him an official diagnosis, but they suspect Charland has CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the condition that has affected dozens, if not hundreds, of pro football players and other athletes.

“They say they think that’s what it is,” he told BusinessWest. “But they can’t give me 100% diagnosis until post-mortem. So I jokingly said to them, ‘call me when I’m dead and let me know.’”

After that diagnosis, or non-diagnosis, as the case may be, Charland went to Vermont, one of three states in the country to enact a death-with-dignity law, and quickly put his affairs in order, deciding, among other things, what to do with his five trucks.

What brought him back to Springfield early last year was a request from a Springfield school administrator for bicycles he might be able to donate, one that he fulfilled.

And that donation became a news story, one that fueled others and also took the bike thing to new heights.

026_charlandbob-diff2017

By Easter morning, Charland had 25 to 30 bikes repaired and ready for distribution. He called a friend who was also a Chicopee police officer and suggested the two go to one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods and donate the bikes.

“We started knocking on doors and handing bikes out,” he said, adding that the local TV crews were tipped off and came to report the developing story.

More press led to more requests for bicycles, which led to more donations, which led to more press, which led to … you get the idea. Soon, the story had traveled literally around the world.

Braking News

And then, remarkably — or not, considering the individual in question — the story got even better. Indeed, Charland kept looking for new ways to give back and pack more into his typical day.

Which brings us to those safety bags mentioned earlier. They’re also called ‘necessity bags,’ and that might be a more accurate description, because that’s what they contain — hats, gloves, scarves, toothpaste, a toothbrush, some toiletries, protein shakes, granola bars, and more.

He started with the Massachusetts State Police, who would give them to homeless individuals and others deemed in need of such a package. And it spread from there. The Springfield Police even have a name for it — Operation Basic Necessities — and Charland has outfitted each cruiser with two bags, each gender-specific; once a bag is given out, he replenishes it. He’s also donated bags to the Connecticut State Police and the Hampden County’s Sheriff’s Department. Last fall, he attended the National Police Chiefs Assoc. convention, and fielded requests from more departments for the bags.

The bags were intended to meet a recognized need, to fill a void, he explained, adding that he has always been driven to step in and address such deficiencies.

With all the press he’s been getting, Charland started keeping a scrapbook of sorts. Actually, it’s just a manila folder with some press clippings, letters and notes from elected leaders (U.S. Rep. Richard Neal sent him one, state Rep. John Velis did as well, and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno has corresponded on something approaching a regular basis), a proclamation or two, and some certificates from groups ranging from the Springfield Thunderbirds to the Center for Human Development.

There’s also a handwritten note, source unknown, that says, in large capital letters, “THANKS BOB FOR ALL YOU DO.”

Collectively, the contents of that manila folder speak to probably the best part of this remarkable story — the manner in which Charland is connecting with people, inspiring them, and, in some cases, getting them involved as well.

Sarno spoke about it as he talked with BusinessWest about one of his now-best-known constituents. Specifically, he discussed how the Bike Man replied to one of his correspondences wishing him good luck and good health.

“He called me and said, ‘mayor I need a little help … I just wanted to help some kids with bikes, but this is really blossoming,’” Sarno recalled, adding that he helped arrange some storage space.

Overall, Sarno said Charland’s work with children and the police is a positive development, but more important is his emergence as a role model at a time when society sorely needs some.

“At this time of reality TV, when negativity sells, and ‘if it bleeds, it leads,’ this story resonates with people,” he told BusinessWest. “He’s like the Energizer bunny; he keeps going and going and going, and he never says, ‘woe is me.’ His attitude is so positive — it’s not about himself, it’s about making a better opportunity for these kids and showing that people do care. He’s a one-man wrecking crew.”

Charland’s ability to inspire others and enrich their lives with more than a two-wheeler is perhaps best summed up in the words on the latest addition to that scrapbook, a plaque declaring him the winner of the Citizen Award in conjunction with the Safe Neighborhood Initiative. It reads, in part:

“You have taken a learned skill and turned it into an everlasting blessing for children. They will carry the value of giving back to the community into adulthood and will in turn help nurture the development of our community, making your work immortal.”

The Ride Stuff

Sarno is known for being prompt and prolific with correspondences of thanks and support to individuals and groups over the years, and Charland is no exception.

The mayor has written him several times, as noted, usually after another press report of his work. The typical missive is part thank-you letter, part note of encouragement. Here’s the one sent last June, prompted by little more, it seems, than a desire to stay in touch:

“Thinking of you and just wanted to drop you a note of good health, encouragement, and thanks. So heartwarming what you are doing for our kids. You’re making their dreams/miracles come true. You’re in my thoughts and prayers … that a miracle can and will happen for you.”

With those words, he essentially spoke for an entire region about someone who truly defines that phrase Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2018 Difference Makers

Girls Inc. Inspires Members to Be Strong, Smart, and Bold

022_girlsincmain-diff2017Cynthia Carson admits it got quite crowded in her place last November.

Indeed, by her count, there were as many as 19 people camping out in her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., including her two children.

But this gathering was her idea, so she certainly wasn’t complaining. She had planned carefully, and her only real oversight, if one can call it that, was maybe underestimating what it might take to keep everyone plugged in — thus, there was a trip out to get some power cords.

Those powering up were current members of Girls Inc. of Holyoke, most of them high-school students, who were invited to the Big Apple by Carson, the head recruiter for the Nielsen Group’s sports and entertainment division, to do a little sightseeing and a whole lot of learning —  about jobs and careers and what it takes to be in those positions, but also about goals and dreams, how to set them, and how to make them reality.

Carson, who is quite the role model when it comes to all of the above, having attended both Georgetown and Harvard and spending two years in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua before starting her career, turned her home into a temporary B&B because she had been where her guests were a few decades ago. And she thought the excursion she planned would help them take some big steps forward.

Carson found Girls Inc., then the Holyoke Girls Club, more than 30 years ago, when she was in grammar school, and because she did, she also found friends, a different kind of home, mentors, direction, ambition, resilience, and, yes, a desire to give back.

Which is why her living room was fully occupied for those few days and she was taking her guests to destinations ranging from the 9/11 Memorial to a co-working facility bristling with tech startups, to Times Square.

“Girls Inc. fills a critical role,” said Carson as she talked about the nonprofit, how it changed her life, and why she remains involved. “It’s about turning average girls into leaders. You don’t need superpowers — you just need someone who believes in you. You need someone to give you guidance and provide the structure that some people may not have.”

We’ll be going back to New York, figuratively, a few more times in the course of explaining why Girls Inc. of Holyoke was chosen as a Difference Maker for 2018, because that visit represents a microcosm of not only its mission — to inspire girls to be strong, smart, and bold — but also how it goes about it carrying it out.

But we’ll spend most of our time at Open Square in Holyoke, where many Girls Inc. programs are based and where BusinessWest talked with several members. And we’ll also travel (again figuratively) to UMass Amherst, where an ambitious program called Eureka is not only introducing girls to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, but giving them a taste of what they’re like and what they will need to know to thrive in such settings.

It does so through introductions to more role models, but also specific programs with titles like “Making Protein Glow in the Dark,” “Melting Ice and Rising Seas: What Does the Future Have in Store for Us?” and “Is there a Connection Between Breast Cancer and the Environment?” More on all that later.

Overall, Girls Inc., a national agency with 92 affiliates across the country, exists because there is a need for organizations that focus on that specific constituency, said Suzanne Parker, executive director of the Holyoke chapter, adding that one needs only to look at the headlines locally, regionally, and nationally to understand why.

Cynthia Carson, far right, leads her guests on a tour of Times Square

Cynthia Carson, far right, leads her guests on a tour of Times Square, one of many spots visited during a trip designed to inspire and educate the young ambassadors from Girls Inc. of Holyoke.

“We know that girls face an inordinate number of challenges and obstacles, everything from bullying and harassment to low expectations in their community,” she explained. “We know that, across the country, one in five girls is living in poverty, so girls living in neighborhoods without a lot of resources are facing a number of challenges.

“We know a lot of girls are facing academic issues and challenges — one in six girls across the country doesn’t finish high school,” she went on. “And locally, in communities like Holyoke and Springfield, the graduation rate is just above 50%.”

The nonprofit addresses those statistics in a number of ways, but especially through programming that helps girls of all ages make connections, gain confidence, find direction, create ambitious goals, and discover the resolve to meet them.

Its ability to succeed with these goals is evidenced by the sentiments expressed by some of the girls we met. Individuals like Emahnie Maldonado, 18, a senior at Chicopee High School, who has her sights set on the difficult physician’s assistant program at Springfield College. She summed up the Girls Inc. experience (we’ll hear that phrase again later) concisely and efficiently.

“It pushed me to talk to people and do things that I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing otherwise,” she noted. “When I came here five years ago, I was quiet — I wouldn’t talk to anyone. And this program has really opened me up and allowed me to express myself and how I feel.”

The Nonprofit That Never Sleeps

When asked where she lived in Holyoke growing up, Carson paused for a minute, because while for most that would have been a short answer, for her it wasn’t.

“I had lots of addresses before I was age 7,” she told BusinessWest. “When the rent went up, we would move; there was a fire at one place I lived … and that’s why Girls Inc. was important to me growing up. It was a home base.”

Between the ages 5 and 11 or so, she went to the Girls Club, took part in several sports programs, and went on a number of trips, to farms and other locations. And she looks back on those activities as a way to close some of the “economic separation” that she could already recognize taking place in that community.

“Being a part of sports teams, having parents drive you to different places, being part of a group, and having leadership skills … requires structural help,” she explained. “And a lot of that is not available to some kids in economically stressed communities. So having Girls Inc. kind of filled in those voids.”

You won’t see that wording on the Girls Inc. mission statement or anywhere on the Web site, but that is essentially what it was created to do — become that structural help that Carson noted is so often missing among children like her.

Parker said Girls Inc. of Holyoke has been providing this structure, and believing in its members, since it was formed in 1981 as a Girls Club. (After Boys Clubs of America became a co-educational institution years later, Girls Clubs of America changed its name to Girls Inc.)

The Holyoke chapter, one of eight in Massachusetts, focuses its energies on girls living in low-income neighborhoods where resources are scarce. It currently serves more than 350 members, many of them from Holyoke, but there are a growing number from both Springfield and Chicopee, and Parker expects the numbers to continue to rise as awareness and positive referrals both increase.

But the nonprofit impacts the lives of all girls through advocacy, she went on, adding, again, that it exists to meet the specific wants and needs of girls, and there is certainly room (and demand) for such an organization regionally and nationally.

To explain why, she refers to that ‘Girls Inc. Experience,’ which is created through a mix of staff, a girls-only environment, and programming.

“We have highly trained professional youth-development staff  who understand the needs of girls and are trained to work to provide mentoring relationships with the girls so the girls know they have trusting adults in their lives they can go to, whether it’s issues or challenges they’re dealing with,” she explained, adding that this element separates Girls Inc. from other youth-focused organizations.

As for the girls-only environment, it amounts to a “safe space,” as she called it, not available in most other settings.

“Now more than ever, we see the need for that safe space where girls can take risks and take on challenges,” she went on. “They can do everything from coding to robotics to exploring health issues they may have. That girls-only environment is critical for girls to be thriving in that space.”

As for the programs, they are what Parker called ‘hands-on and minds-on,’ meaning they are highly engaging. And they are focused on four key areas of development:

• Literacy and Academic Success;

• STEM;

• Leadership and Critical Thinking; and

• Health, Wellness, and Sexuality.

All this is reflected in more of the titles attached to Eureka programs, such as “Don’t Lose Your Privacy on the Internet,” “Your Brain on Yoga: Silencing Anxiety from the Inside Out,” “Seeing the Forest for the Trees,” and “Are You What You Eat?: Building a Dietary Recommendation.”

It STEMS from Perseverance

Carson told BusinessWest there were several motivations for the road trip to New York. First, there was the desire to give back to the organization that had been so important to her growing up — something she had already done in several ways, including her role as keynote speaker at its annual fund-raising breakfast last October.

But there was more to it. She said she had nagging questions about whether, overall, girls were being compelled to reach high enough and push themselves hard enough to succeed in a rapidly changing, increasingly competitive world, especially within the STEM universe.

Members of Girls Inc. in Holyoke

Members of Girls Inc. in Holyoke pose for a group shot with tech-industry representatives at one of the WeWork buildings in Manhattan during their recent visit to New York.

So she put together a jam-packed Tech Day, which was actually two days. Students met a number of women, including two who grew up Holyoke, in various STEM careers, with the goal of making sure the visitors returned to Western Mass. with a full appreciation of the depth of careers available to them — and what it would take to enter those fields and succeed there.

One stop was to one of the WeWork buildings in Manhattan, a co-working space. There, a panel of women working in the tech field for both companies they started themselves and giants like BuzzFeed, talked about not only their work, but the adversity many of them overcame to get where they were.

“They spoke about what it was like to be a woman and a woman of color in the tech world,” said Parker, adding that the visitors also met individuals who made it from the same streets in Holyoke they grew up on to the highly competitive environment in New York.

To say that the trip as a whole, and especially Tech Day, made an impression would be an understatement.

“You got to met people who made it out of Holyoke,” said Maldonado. “It really showed that it’s possible to make it out and make it big somewhere else.”

In essence, the Eureka program was created with the same basic intent — to inspire girls and compel them to reach higher, while understanding the hard work it will take to get there.

This national initiative is a five-year program that girls enter when they’re in the eighth grade. It’s a year-round endeavor (with ‘Eureka Saturdays’ in the winter, spring, and fall), but really picks up steam in the summer. And it’s carried out in conjunction with the College of Natural Sciences at UMass, which, as Parker put it, “rolled out the maroon carpet” for the Girls Inc. members.

Elaborating, she said roughly half the hours devoted to Eureka are spent in STEM workshops in labs and other facilities across the UMass Amherst campus, including the Polymer Science Center and the Integrated Science Building.

“They’re working with professors in all different STEM fields, from the computer scientists to the structural engineers,” said Parker, adding that students are bused to the campus daily over four weeks during the summer for an intense regimen of learning that includes such things as the “science of tree climbing.”

The program progresses over its five-year duration to include not only the workshops on the UMass campus (designed specifically for first- and second-year participants, known as ‘rookies’ and ‘veterans,’ respectively), but also externships with area companies for third-year students, dual-enrollment classes at Holyoke Community College during the fourth year, for which the participants receive both high-school and college credits, and paid internships for fifth-year students, known as ‘graduates.’

The Eureka program was conceptualized to generate interest in STEM careers still dominated by men — and keep girls interested, said Parker, noting that, while it’s still relatively early when it comes to quantifying its impact, there are already many positive signs.

“Some of the early indicators are strong and positive,” she told BusinessWest. “Girls are saying, ‘I’ll take a harder class,’ because they know if they don’t take algebra and do well in it, they’re not going to go on to college.

“Eureka is convincing them that’s OK to be smart and it’s OK to be smart in science particularly,” she went on. “And that’s important because there’s still that stigma of the scientist, that this is something not accessible to them.”

Inspirational Thoughts

There are qualitative measures as well, including the comments of some of the Girls Inc. members who spoke with BusinessWest.

Kayah Brown, 16, for example, now has ambitions to become a reconstructive plastic surgeon, a career path inspired in part by her grandmother’s battle with breast cancer, but especially by an externship at the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute she garnered through the Eureka program.

Kayah Brown

Inspired by her grandmother’s battle with breast cancer, Kayah Brown has set her sights on becoming a reconstructive surgeon.

“I was able to meet some of the breast surgeons at Baystate Medical Center and talked with them about what led them to become surgeons,” said Brown, a student at the MacDuffie School in Granby, adding that, through Girls Inc. and Eureka, she has gained not only insight into the wide spectrum of STEM careers, but the confidence to consider that path.

Her sister, Sabria, 18, a senior at MacDuffie, echoed those thoughts.

“Girls Inc. has provided the foundation for me to be the best person I can be,” she explained. “It inspired me to want to study computer science; it’s the first time I was exposed to coding and programming and just working with computers. And that’s what I’m taking right now — AP computer science, and I’m building an app.”

Elaborating, she said her app is for businesses and schools, and it amounts to a digital lost-and-found service. While she has high hopes for it, she’s more focused on getting more women of color into STEM careers and computer science in particular.

Interest in STEM was one of the many common threads that ran through comments offered by nearly a dozen girls, ages 9 to 18.

The words heard most often were ‘friends’ — they’ve all made some through their participation; ‘home’ — that’s what the facility itself has become to many; ‘confidence’ — a quality nearly every one of those who spoke said they have more of because of Girls Inc., and ‘support’ — something the nonprofit, its leaders, and fellow members have provided in myriad ways.

Meanwhile, they collectively talked about visits to farms, art galleries, museums, and a host of other destinations chosen to both educate and inspire.

Carla Lopez, 12, a student at Sullivan School in Holyoke, told a story that many sitting around the conference-room table could relate to. She came to Girls Inc. at age 7. Her parents were divorced, and her mother, who worked full-time, brought her to Girls Inc. in hopes that she would find friends, make connections, and fill the hours until she came home from work with meaningful, educational experiences.

“At first, I thought it was an ordinary program where you colored, built with blocks, and lot of other simple stuff,” she recalled, turning the clock back almost half her lifetime. “But it took my life to a new level; we learned coding, we went swimming, we’ve been on a whole bunch of field trips.

“There are a lot of girls here who are just like you, and they’re experiencing the same things as you,” she went on, adding that facing these issues and challenges together makes them less daunting, especially with the support of staff members.

As for Stella Cabrera, 18, a senior at Holyoke High School, she’s probably the longest-tenured member of the Holyoke chapter, having started there seven years ago. She’s looking at the ROTC program at UMass Amherst and, longer-term, at a career in the military as a biochemist.

Thanks to experiences made possible by the Eureka program, Stella Cabrera has her sights set on being a biochemist.

Thanks to experiences made possible by the Eureka program, Stella Cabrera has her sights set on being a biochemist.

She said she came to Girls Inc. after heavy lobbying by her mother, because she was bullied at the YMCA. She found a group of girls and a corps of staffers focused on building her up, not tearing her down.

“As you allow them in, they’ll build you up,” she told BusinessWest. “They’ll be your friends — they’ll be your best friends — and they’ll be your second family. And they’ll give you confidence, the integrity, and the friendship you need to handle all that life throws at you.”

On the Right Track

Returning to Gotham one more time, Carson said that, as one might expect, New York was itself a sometimes intimidating learning experience for the young women who went on the trip, right down to the subway system — and the challenging feat of getting 17 people on at the same time.

But after only a little while, the visitors were starting to become familiar in their new environment and master its intricacies, including the subway itself.

“At the end of the second day, by about our seventh subway ride, one of the girls said, ‘I’m going to lead; I know how to do this,’” she recalled. “She wanted to take the lead and get everyone on the subway, and that was really neat.”

Life certainly won’t be as easy as leading a group of friends down to a subway station, but the analogy works on many levels, including the most simple of them — finding one’s way and getting to where one wants to go.

It happened on a subway in New York, and thanks to Girls Inc. — a true Difference Maker in every sense of that phrase — it can, and does, happen in life itself.

Just ask Cynthia Carson.

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

Class of 2018 Difference Makers

Evan Plotkin Works to Fill in the Canvas Known as Springfield

006_plotkinevan-diff2017The small bronze plaque is starting to show its age.

Fastened to a rectangular stone near the former Court Square Hotel and the old Hampden County Courthouse, it proudly celebrates work done to clean up a walkway that connects Court Square with State Street. It reads:

COURT HOUSE WALK, one of the city’s most charming and historic landmarks, was restored by the Junior League of Springfield Massachusetts Incorporated in cooperation with the City of Springfield, 1979.

Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, can’t really see this plaque from the south-facing window in his office on the 14th floor of 1350 Main St. (although he can see quite a bit, as will be noted later). But he references it when he can because, in many ways, it, like similar milestones around the city, presents a perfect segue into a discussion about what drives his efforts to revitalize Springfield, especially through the arts and restoration and celebration of existing treasures ranging from parks and fountains to the Connecticut River.

“You can almost imagine the ceremony there, with media standing by and the public officials, and everyone making a proclamation and galvanizing it on a plaque on the ground,” he told BusinessWest as he looked out his window and gestured toward the walkway. “There are a lot of plaques like that around the city, and they all say, in essence, ‘this is a commitment that we made, and we put in bronze, presumably so it would last longer than we are going to last so that future generations will know that at one time we had this vision of doing something.’

“When I first saw that plaque, and saw there were dead rats along that sidewalk and all the lights were out, I said, ‘this is not the vision that they had,’” Plotkin went on. “They had a vision of connecting this beautiful park to another very important commercial district with something special.”

There are, as he noted, a great many stories like that walkway scattered across downtown Springfield and beyond. Stearns Square is one of them. Pynchon Park, the elaborate, much-heralded space built in the late ’70s to connect the Quadrangle with the central business district and abandoned soon after it opened, is another. There’s also Riverfront Park, the Apremont Triangle area, and many more.

There are plaques at some of those sites, but there were gatherings of people and celebrations at all of them, said Plotkin, who has committed his adult life to restoring … well, something approximating what it was that people were celebrating when they gathered, made speeches, and maybe cut a ribbon.

In the case of that walkway, for example, Plotkin made sure that it was part of City Mosaic, what amounts to a giant mural on the Court Square property that he helped bring to fruition, one that features the likenesses of dozens of celebrities, from the Beatles to Louis Armstrong. Judy Garland, Muhammad Ali, Elvis Presley, and John Lennon are among those who can be seen on the walkway portion of the mural.

plotkinplaguecourthousewalk

There are many other examples of Plotkin’s work to re-energize and enliven Springfield — from his hard work to revitalize the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival to his efforts to lead the Art & Soles public art project that placed colorful sneakers around downtown, to his success in turning 1350 Main into a kind of art gallery.

And there are many things, beyond those aforementioned plaques, inspiring Plotkin as he goes about this wide-ranging work. Part of it is what he fondly remembers from his youth, a half-century ago, when he, like countless others who grew up near the City of Homes, would get on a bus on a Saturday morning, travel to downtown Springfield, and spend literally all day there — at Johnson’s Bookstore, Herman’s World of Sporting Goods, Forbes & Wallace, the movie theaters, Friendly’s, and countless other destinations.

Another part of it is what he’s seen during his many trips to Europe, where squares and plazas in Rome, Madrid, Venice, Amsterdam, and other cultural centers are filled, not just with tourists, but locals.

Another part of it is recognition not of what Springfield was — 50 years ago or 150 years ago, for that matter — but what it could be. Especially at a time when we are told urban living is making a comeback, that Millennials want to live in places where they may not have to drive, that downtowns are hot again.

But what probably drives him most is the fact that not all downtowns are hot, and not all cities are attracting Millennials and retiring Baby Boomers alike.

No, only those cities that can create an attractive mix of things to do, places to live, cultural amenities, and a sense of safety and comfort are making their way into that category.

Plotkin has made what amounts to a second career out of efforts to make Springfield one of those cities. And for his tireless — and we mean tireless — efforts, he is certainly worthy of the designation Difference Maker.

Art of the Matter

Getting back to what Plotkin can see out his windows … there’s plenty, as we noted. There’s the river, the South End and the casino rising there, and, yes, Court Square, in which there is a slightly larger plaque he can actually see and took the opportunity to point out.

It commemorates the Parsons Tavern, which stood on that site. It was there that George Washington was “entertained” — it doesn’t say anything about him sleeping there — on June 30, 1775 while traveling on horseback from Philadelphia to Cambridge to take command of the American forces. And he stopped there again 14 years later, this time as president of the young country, while traveling by coach through the New England states.

Evan Plotkin with some examples of his ‘food art.’

Evan Plotkin with some examples of his ‘food art.’

“There are neat plaques and monuments like that all over the city, and most people don’t know they’re there,” said Plotkin, who pointed out another — the lion’s-head fountain on the east side of the square that was restored several years ago.

But Plotkin certainly doesn’t restrict his interests and his activity to what he can see out the window. Indeed, he walks the city pretty much on a daily basis, usually with his dog, George, at his side. While he’s walking, he’s always taking mental notes, he said, and thinking about what was, in some cases, and about what can be in all cases.

A real-estate broker and manager by trade, Plotkin is also an artist. The area once occupied by Santander Bank’s lobby at 1350 Main St., which Plotkin co-owns, has many of his works on display. They include some sculptures and a large collection of photos of images (mostly faces) he created on his plate by arranging various foods just so. Really.

“I call it food art, or face food — it’s a little goofy,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s not really a genre, it’s just something I do.”

So, in many respects, Plotkin the artist sees Springfield as his canvas, one that he is filling in through his various endeavors. Looked at another way, though — and this is probably the more accurate description — Springfield itself is a work of art in need of restoration work, and Plotkin, the artist but also the community activist, Springfield champion, and sometimes (often?) pain in the neck to those in City Hall, is heavily involved in that restoration work.

Overall, while his artistic portfolio is mostly about positioning meats and vegetables, his work with and on behalf of the city amounts to what he calls “activating space,” with ‘activating’ taking many forms.

They include everything from revitalizing spaces or facilities — such as the fountain at Stearns Square, which has been dismantled for repairs — to bringing vibrancy to a given location, such as efforts he’s led to bring the Springfield Jazz & Roots festival to Court Square (more on that later).

Plotkin’s not sure when he started doing all this, but as he looks back, he believes he’s pretty much always been involved in such efforts.

Speaking of looking back, Plotkin did a lot of it as he talked with BusinessWest, recalling, for example, those bus trips downtown, visits to the family business’s offices on Dwight Street, and walks with his father and grandfather through a much different downtown Springfield.

“All the shop owners, whether they were a furrier or a hatter or a print shop … all these different store owners would be out talking with people, and my grandfather knew every one of them,” he remembered. “It seemed like a really great community of small businesses, family businesses, and I think this is something that’s been lost in the downtown.”

The rise of the automobile and the construction of roads like I-91, I-291, and I-391 played a big part in this transformation, he went on, adding that, as people and businesses left for the suburbs and malls, downtown lost its vibrancy as well as its appeal.

But in some cities, he said, a reversal of that transformation is taking place, with people moving back downtown and cities putting more emphasis on infrastructure for pedestrians and bicycles and dedicating less space to surface parking lots, for example.

Can the same happen in Springfield? Plotkin offered what amounts to a ‘yes, but…’ And by that, he meant that there is still considerable work to do.

Past Is Prologue

Plotkin knows better than anyone that there is no turning back the clock to 1969, to those bus trips to downtown and on to Johnson’s bookstore, stops at the typewriter repair shop or record store while walking around.

But there can be a return to the type of vibrancy that existed then, he went on, adding that Springfield can be one of those cities to capitalize on the apparent surge in urban living and the return of the downtown.

When helping to bringing City Mosaic to reality, Evan Plotkin made sure Court House Walk was included in the project.

When helping to bringing City Mosaic to reality, Evan Plotkin made sure Court House Walk was included in the project.

Much will have to go right, he admits, and the city will have to somehow answer that perplexing urban version of the chicken-or-egg question, which goes something like: ‘which comes first — the people or the restaurants, coffee shops, retail, and jobs?’ The theory goes that you can’t have one without the other.

Plotkin believes the city needs to be focused on both sides of the equation at the same time, and especially the part about getting people here. All those other things will follow, he said.

But to get people here, the city must be more livable, he said, meaning it must be safe and vibrant, have places for people to live, offer culture, and provide an infrastructure that, as noted, is far more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.

And he’s focused on all of the above through his work to activate spaces.

With that, he recalled his most recent trip to Europe and, more specifically, to Amsterdam and a plaza called Dam Square.

“It’s mobbed with people, it’s the epicenter of the city historically, it’s beautiful visually, and it’s the heart of the city; that’s where people to go to mingle and mix and shop and entertain themselves,” he said. “To draw a comparison to Court Square, I’ve looked on that as being one of those great public spaces, and the frustrating thing for me throughout my time in Springfield is that I see these public spaces and their potential — which is underutilized.

“And it frustrates me to no end,” he went on. “We have such incredibly important public spaces that have been dormant for some time. When you go to a place like Dam Square or Plaza Mayor in Madrid or other places like that, and see the activity that’s happening in those places, which isn’t contrived, it happens every day, you imagine the possibilities, but you also get frustrated.”

Perhaps the most glaring example of facilities being underutilized is Pynchon Park, he noted, adding that it had a very short life as a park before it was essentially locked down and abandoned amid safety concerns and other considerations.

“There was no plan for Pynchon Park,” said Plotkin with noticeable exacerbation in his voice. “I know from being in real estate that if you build something, that’s not the end of the game; you have to maintain that property. You have to think about security, infrastructure, maintenance, and keeping it clean so it is serviceable for the purpose for which it was intended.”

But, in a twist, Pynchon Park, which has long been a poster child for neglect and underutilization of resources, may soon be one of the more stunning examples of what Plotkin called a “sea change” taking place in Springfield.

Indeed, the park is slated for a $3.5 million facelift (funded by the MassWorks Infrastructure Program) that will include, ironically, a decidedly European form of conveyance, a funicular, to transport people from Dwight Street to Chestnut Street and the Quadrangle.

Other examples include Stearns Square and its fountain, Duryea Way, and Riverfront Park, also scheduled for a major renovation.

Accomplishments of Note

The jazz festival is part of this sea change, he went on, adding that his work to bring that event downtown and continue the tradition after it was discontinued for a few years is exemplary of his broader efforts to make downtown a gathering place and not just a Monday-through-Friday, 9-to-5 place.

Plotkin said his involvement with the festival began in 2005 when he served as a volunteer for what was known then as the Hoop City Jazz Festival, staged in the quad on the STCC campus and later at Riverfront Park. At first, he worked with founder John Osborne and other members of a committee to create a slate of performers, and later got involved with the fund-raising side of the venture.

017_plotkinevan-diff2017

“I really loved the idea, but I was troubled with the event not being in the downtown, and I said to John, ‘I don’t really want to do this anymore unless we move it to the heart of downtown in Court Square,’” Plotkin recalled, adding that, when he convinced Osborne and the mayor to make that move, the event, and the city, were energized by it.

When Osborne fell ill at the start of this decade and the event fell into limbo, Plotkin was instrumental in bringing it into a new era with a new name, the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival.

Now entering its sixth year, the festival is doing what Plotkin envisioned it would — it is using music to bring a diverse audience of people to celebrate music and energize the city and its downtown.

“When I look out the audience and see the faces and the different demographic groups that attend, and the overwhelming joy that people have congregating in that park and listening to music … it’s kind of like a Woodstock,” he explained. “It’s like a love fest.

“Music breaks boundaries, it breaks barriers, and it brings people together,” he went on. “I know that’s cliché of me to say, but it just … seems to work.”

Many other initiatives that Plotkin has led have worked as well. That list includes Art & Soles, which placed dozens of five-foot sneakers around the downtown area and beyond; City Mosaic; the conversion of the ninth floor of 1350 Main St. into what’s known as Studio 9, a community gathering space; use of the front lobby — and now other spaces — at 1350 Main for use as gallery space; work in partnership with artist James Kitchen to bring many of his metal sculptures to the downtown area; and much more.

As he reflected more on Springfield, its downtown, and what it will take to make the city a destination, Plotkin talked about building blocks and how his work and that of others represents putting such blocks on top of one another to build something substantial — and lasting.

“I think one of the next big things that needs to happen is to focus on how we can redevelop some of the class B and C office space into market-rate or affordable housing so we can attract people down there,” he said of just one the ‘blocks,’ the all-important housing component. “But that’s only going to happen when we restore our parks, reconnect the river to the city, and do something about the lack of attention given to those aspects of building a vibrant downtown.

“If you start making moves in these directions, and if you start restoring your public spaces, these efforts will all lead to that general sense of well-being that people have,” he went on, “and the positive feelings that people have about being here and living here.”

Walking the Walk

It’s safe to say few people have ever traveled down Court House Walk. And even fewer have noticed the small plaque commemorating its restoration four decades ago or taken the time to read it.

Evan Plotkin has, and while reading, he allowed his mind to drift back to the day people gathered at that spot, gave speeches, and cut a ribbon.

Although he recognizes that the walkway is a comparatively modest example of a space that needs to be activated, of something once celebrated that has since been forgotten, it is nonetheless symbolic of everything he has worked for and continues to work for.

It’s not about the past and bringing back good old days, but about the future, and creating a Springfield that people will want to live in and work in and visit to take in a jazz festival.

Like art, and, yes, even food art, this work has become a passion for Plotkin, and it has made him a true Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2018 Difference Makers

Author, Educator Enlightens and Empowers Those She Touches

009_crystalsenterbrownledeinside-diff2017The book is titled Gabby Gives Back, and that certainly doesn’t leave much room for imagination when it comes to the plotline.

Yes, Gabby is a young girl who discovers the many benefits of philanthropy. In case you haven’t read it — and since this is a business publication and the tome in question is a children’s book, that’s probably the case — ‘Gabby’ visits a nonprofit called Maggie’s Place with her father and greets people (she’s too young to help directly) as he serves up hot meals. As they’re walking home, Gabby says she wants to find to her own way to give back, and does, bringing some old coats to Maggie’s Place for distribution to those less fortunate. She actually gets to meet a young girl in need and hand her a coat to try on. The coat fits, the book ends, and a series of activities like a giving-back-themed ‘trace a word’ begin on the next page.

There. That’s the whole story in one paragraph.

Well … not really. That’s a book report on Gabby Gives Back. The story is what happens when some area young people read it.

Indeed, author Crystal Senter-Brown expected the book to move and motivate young audiences, but she didn’t expect several children to try to donate the only coat they owned as a result.

“But that’s what happened,” said Senter-Brown as she talked with BusinessWest in a small room in the Hatch Library at Bay Path University, where she’s an adjunct professor. “Children are coming home without their coats, and their parents are asking what happened. Kids are reading the story, they’re seeing that she’s giving a coat to this little girl … they’re just hearing, ‘if you see someone who doesn’t have a warm coat, give them your coat.’”

That’s one example of how Senter-Brown has motivated individuals to step forward and step up, but there are many others.

And Gabby Gives Back is just one part of a growing portfolio of children’s books and novels penned by Senter-Brown. Others include another chapter in Gabby’s life; another children’s book called AJ & the Magic Kite; a coloring/activity book about African-American inventions; a collection of poems she titled But You Have Such a Pretty Face, a reference to the line she said she heard so often in her youth and came to loathe; a novel called The Rhythm in Blue, which is being made into a movie, and its sequel, But Now I See.

Each work is different in plot and tone, but there are similar underlying currents and motivations on the author’s part, and they are also prevalent in her teaching, work within the community, and motivational speeches — primarily to single mothers and those who have children at a young age, about not letting go of their dreams.

Overall, Senter-Brown says she wants to enlighten and empower others, especially girls and women, and give them … well, more of whatever it is they need to stare down life’s challenges.

And ‘whatever’ takes a number of forms, from history lessons that help a young African-American become proud of his heritage (as we’ll see in a minute) to determined efforts to take students far out of their comfort zones in a class she teaches at Bay Path University called “Leadership in Practice.”

This is a six-week course — part of the university’s Women as Empowered Leaders and Learners (WELL) program — during which students, both traditional and non-traditional, identify both a need a community and a method for meeting that need.

“It’s just six weeks, so they don’t have much time,” Senter-Brown explained. “Many people will do a food drive or a clothing drive, or they’ll volunteer at a local nursing home, but it pushes a lot of people out of their comfort zone, because they think they don’t have time for this because they’re raising families, or they just don’t have an interest in it.”

One of the motivations for creating the class is to generate that interest, she went on, adding that, while some students enter the class unconvinced of their need to become involved in the community, few if any of them leave it feeling that same way.

Through her children’s books, teaching, work within the community, and ability to inspire young people to give up the coats on their backs, she has shown that one person can truly make a difference in the lives of others.

Getting the Word out

Getting back to AJ and that magic kite, the title character is a young boy of color who is teased at school and told by those who don’t look like him that African-Americans are “useless,” the type of discourse that makes going to school far less fun than it should be.

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Later, at home, he falls asleep, to be awakened by a boy with a kite that takes the two aloft and to places like an intersection where an accident has just taken place — because there is no traffic light.

And there’s no traffic light because the three-light traffic signal was invented in 1920 by African-American Garret Morgan, and the point of this exercise — in It’s a Wonderful Life fashion — is to use the kite to show what the world would be like without such people of color.

There are other stops at a tall building — James Cooper invented an elevator-safety device — and back at AJ’s home, where he learned that O. Dorsey invented the doorknob, among others.

At the end, AJ goes back to school. Those who don’t look like him offer the same taunts, only this time they bounce off; AJ is proud of who he is and comfortable, if you will, in his own skin.

Such empowerment is, as mentioned earlier, at the heart of all of Senter-Brown’s work, which in many ways has been inspired by personal experiences and what she saw and felt while growing up in Morristown, Tenn. and later, after relocating to Western Mass. with her mother to be near family. (Her mother later moved back to Tennessee).

She said she started writing poetry when she was only 5, but didn’t really share anything she would write with others — including a host of love poems and short stories — until she was in her 20s. She took a creative-writing class at Springfield Technical Community College, and developed a passion for poetry and other forms of writing, all of which fall in the category of storytelling.

Her first published work was a collection of her poems she titled Double Dutch, with her favorite being one she called “Peanut Butter & Jelly,” a message to her mother, who helped her raise the son she had when she was 18 years old.

Years later, she penned another collection of poems called But You Have Such a Pretty Face, a phrase which, as noted, she came to hear — and resent — as a child growing up.

“I’ve been told that my whole life — that I had a pretty face and if I lost weight I’d be even prettier,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she fully understands that she’s far from alone when it comes to women who have heard that phrase or words to that effect.

“I never took it as a complement,” she went on, adding that it was the word ‘but’ that always grated her — and obviously others who have heard it. “They’re saying, in essence, all these other things are wrong, but you have a pretty face.”

Her poems, and all her work, for that matter, are intended to empower people, but especially women and girls and African-Americans, to move beyond what others say or think about them and not let phrases like ‘But you have such a pretty face’ affect their psyche, their goals, or their lives.

One selection, “A poem for black girls” (a tribute to Nikki Giovanni’s “Poem for Black Boys”, is an effective example. It reads, in part:

You carry fire with you wherever you go,

Hands on hips, head tilted to the side

Big brown eyes full of wonder

No one can be like you!

You will never have to pay for

Full lips, wide hips, curly hair

You already have it naturally, because can’t you see

No one can be like you!

Your skin shades — from sunlight to Bermuda brown

No sunbathing is needed, you wake up naturally tanned,

No one can be like you!

Story Lines

Until very recently, writing was something that Senter-Brown did in what amounted to her spare time, and in many ways, those efforts dovetailed nicely with what she did for a living, which was actually volunteer work that morphed into a job and a career.

One of her family members was diagnosed with leukemia at a young age, and thus she became familiar with many of the services provided by the American Cancer Society, such as providing rides to treatment sessions for those who needed them.

Inspired, she became a volunteer herself, and this work eventually led to her working for the nonprofit at its Holyoke office as a community market manager. In that role, she ran a host of non-medical patient programs, such as those rides to appointments.

Following a restructuring, her job was eliminated last summer, leaving her to explore a number of career options moving forward — but also with more time to write, speak, and continue a program that puts backpacks laden with school supplies in the hands of needy children and single mothers going back to school. And, in general, to continue her efforts to empower women and girls, aspects of her life’s work that have developed and evolved over the past several years.

brownbookprettyface

Such as her children’s book-writing exploits.

Working in conjunction with her mother — also her illustrator and collaborator on everything from the clothes worn by her characters to specific storylines — she started with Gabby Saturday. As with the subsequent book chronicling the life and times of her chief protagonist, for lack of a better phrase, the chosen name does a good job giving the plot away.

While explaining what Gabby does with the Saturday in question, Senter-Brown drops in messages about the environment — she and her mother take the bus instead of their car to reduce smog in their city — as well as the importance of culture and learning (they visit a museum, and it’s noted that her mother takes her to poetry recitals regularly), spending time as a family, and helping out at home (Gabby earns a dollar by sweeping the floors).

The author joked that, while she hopes all those messages are received, what she hears most often from young people is that the title character gets only a dollar for performing her chores, and that doesn’t go very far.

Kidding aside, she believes her messages are coming across, especially the ones about self-worth.

“With everything I write, I want people to walk away feeling better than they did before they started reading, and I want them to be inspired, especially children, because they’re our key to having a better future.

“If you can plant little seeds in children when they’re young,” she went on, “they can pass that on to their families and their own children.”

Like her favorite author, Stephen King, Senter-Brown said she doesn’t outline her books before she starts typing. “He [King] said, ‘I just write and let the characters talk to me,’” she recalled. “It works for him, and it works for me.”

The Next Chapter

As for her own story, career-wise and otherwise, Senter-Brown hasn’t outlined that, either.

“I’m excited … I feel like my values are finally aligned with what I want to do,” she explained when asked about what comes next. “I’ve always worked helping people; working at the cancer society was great, because I was able to come in every day and know I was going to help someone. So I know I’m going to continue to do that.”

Whatever the eventual path is, she said she will continue to seek out ways to enlighten and empower others.

That includes more books (Gabby appears destined to return) and school appearances, where she visits classrooms, reads one of her books, and imparts practical lessons on giving back and other topics. Often, she’ll bring a large box full of items that could be donated to individuals in need and ask students to identify those that are appropriate and those that are not, such as perishable foods and a shirt with holes in it.

She’ll also continue teaching, although she said empowerment and a desire to give back to the community are not really things you can teach. It’s something students must gain themselves, she went on, adding that she is as much as mentor and motivator as she is an actual teacher.

And she has helped motivate her charges to find some intriguing ways to give back.

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There was the student who developed care packs for the mothers who deliver premature babies and must spend long hours and days at the neonatal intensive care unit. Another put together a DVD collection for those being treated at Baystate Children’s Hospital, and others have developed new initiatives for animals and young people.

In addition to her teaching, she also does a lot of what could be called motivational speaking. Many of her talks are in front of small audiences of single mothers or women who, like Senter-Brown herself, had children at a very young age and, as a result, had to confront feelings that they had to abandon some of the hopes and goals for their own lives.

“A lot of women who have children young think, ‘that’s it,’” she said. “And sometimes it is harder with a baby if you’re single. But you don’t have to let that stop you from doing what you want you want to do, stop you from fulfilling your dreams.’

“You can’t let that happen, because your children are watching you,” she went on, with a discernable sense of conviction, even urgency, in her voice. “Children watch what we do, and we have to keep moving forward.”

Senter-Bown says she gives several of these talks a year, often at shelters for teen mothers, the homeless, or those who have been abused. She said her basic mission is to help such individuals with the immensely difficult task of seeing past today.

“Many of them can’t see past right now because they don’t have a place to live, they don’t have any money in the bank, and maybe their relationship has ended,” she told BusinessWest. “I’m able to help them see a year out and envision what they want their life to look like. We can create the life that we want; we have to see it first, though.”

Reading Between the Lines

Flipping back to The Rhythm in Blue, that novel being made into a movie … it’s about a groom who gets cold feet. He needs some time away and winds up driving south to the home of a female ‘friend.’ The wedding doesn’t happen, but something bad does happen to his fiancé; the groom blames himself … as the author puts it candidly, “there’s a lot going on.”

If you want more, you’ll need to buy the book; it’s on Amazon ($15), which describes it as “story about failure, redemption, forgiveness, and, above all, love”). Or wait for the movie.

As for Senter-Brown, her story is still being written. As she noted, she’s not sure what the next chapter will be. She does know, and by now this isn’t exactly a spoiler alert, that she will continue to find ways to give back, empower others, and inspire those who read or hear her words to do the same.

In other words (and those are the tools of her trade), she will go on being a Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2018 Difference Makers

A Unique Nonprofit Meets Some Very Special Needs

Craig, Will, and Maria Burke.

Craig, Will, and Maria Burke.

Kim Schildbach says she and her husband bought the trampoline on Craigslist back in 2013.

The price tag was only $60, and that number spoke volumes about its condition. “It was in decent shape, but … we knew it had a little life left in it, but not a lot,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, not long after they brought Anelia, the young girl they adopted, to their home in Leverett from her native Bulgaria a year later, that trampoline’s life had pretty much run its course.

And giving it some new life became important, because Anelia is blind and has other developmental challenges, and bouncing on a trampoline is one of many forms of therapy for her.

Replacing the unit was simply not in the Schildbachs’ considerably tight budget, so they turned to a unique but somewhat obscure nonprofit they had heard about called the WillPower Foundation for some help.

They were told that families of special-needs children, or ‘children with different abilities,’ as this nonprofit prefers to call them, could apply for small grants — $500 is the limit — for items like, well, trampolines, that are needed but not covered by insurance, and certainly not in the category of ‘necessity.’ So they often fall through the cracks.

To make a long story a little shorter, the Schildbachs were somewhat dubious about applying for another grant — they had filled out the forms for several as part of the exhausting process of adoption — but did anyway, found it took just a few minutes online, and wound up getting a grant to resuscitate their trampoline, among other things.

“They paid to replace the bouncy floor part and the thing that goes around the outside,” said Schildbach, who didn’t know the technical terms for what WillPower paid for, but certainly does know how important that grant was and is to the quality of life for her daughter.

Just listen to this.

“I put a milk crate by the side of the trampoline,” she explained. “Anelia has learned to get up on the milk crate, put one leg up over the side of the trampoline, and push herself up. Anie is very globally delayed, but she has some superpowers, as we call them, and one of them is navigation; she uses her cane, and amazingly she has an awareness of the space around her in a way that … I can’t do when I’m walking around the house at night and the lights are off.

“She gets on that trampoline and bounces away,” Schildbach went on. “It’s so good for them to move their bodies, the endorphin release is good, and then there are these things called vestibular stimulation, which is any kind of movement that is soothing to kids who come from traumatic places.”

The Schildbachs have two blind children from traumatic, or ‘hard’ places, as Kim calls them — they adopted Mabel from China in 2016. And they have now received two grants from the WillPower Foundation to pay for everything from that trampoline to what are known as sensory toys.

And this is just one of dozens of families across the region to benefit from that nonprofit, which was inspired by and named for another young person with at least one super power, Will Burke. His is the ability to inspire others to live life to the fullest, to move above and beyond the many obstacles life can throw at someone, and to give back.

Born with a rare brain malformation and adopted by Maria and Craig Burke, Will underwent a number of surgeries and procedures early in life at the Shriners Hospital for Children.

His parents, desiring to find a way give back to the Shriners, started with a three-on-three basketball tournament, with the proceeds going to that institution. While the tournament thrived, the Burkes and a growing corps of supporters wanted to do more and also do something quite different.

Four of the Schildbach children: from left, Anelia, Mabel, Jericho, and Olive.

Four of the Schildbach children: from left, Anelia, Mabel, Jericho, and Olive.

After considerable thought, they created a foundation that would put money directly in the hands of families that needed it.

The foundation is approaching two important milestones — its 10th year of operation and the $200,000 mark when it comes to grants awarded to families across the region. Actually, it will mark three milestones in 2018, with the last one coming in March when Will Burke will make his way to the stage at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House to accept the Difference Maker plaque from BusinessWest.

That plaque is in the shape of a butterfly, which, as most of you know by now, was chosen as a nod to the so-called ‘butterfly effect,’ whereby small and seemingly innocuous events like a butterfly flapping its wings can have a huge impact.

Perhaps no award winner in the program’s 10-year history better exemplifies the butterfly effect than the WillPower Foundation. The grants it issues are for only a few hundred dollars, but no one who receives one would ever use that word ‘only,’ because they are literally life-changing in nature.

Just ask Kim Schildbach.

Allowing Spirits to Soar

As she talked about WillPower and its importance within the community, Kim said the families of special-needs children, or, again, ‘those with different abilities,’ have lists of things they have to pay for.

Long lists, usually.

A $60 pair of cordless headphones for music-loving Anie (that’s another form of therapy for her)? Well, that would usually have to wait for “another week,” said Kim, adding that it might be many of those before the family, living on one income, could fit them in, if it ever did.

But through those two grants received from the Willpower Foundation, the family was able to get those headphones, as well as a rocking horse for Mabel, something called a “sensory backpack,” and some fidget toys, as they’re called — all things that insurance would not pay for and that would have had to wait for ‘another week.’

Missy Roy tells a similar story. Her daughter, now 7, has Down syndrome and needs a host of services and special equipment. But she also needs (and her family also needs) someone to advocate for her when it comes to school and other matters.

And insurance won’t cover the services of such a professional, which is unfortunate, said Roy, because some of these matters are technical in nature.

“When you’re just a parent, you don’t know all the ins and outs of school and what the law says,” she told BusinessWest. “You need an advocate, but insurance won’t pay for it.”

Such advocates charge $50 an hour for their services, and the $500 grant from the Willpower Foundation covered roughly two-thirds of her total bill. Likewise, another grant helped pay for a device to help’s Roy’s daughter communicate. Insurance covered 80% of the cost of a device known as an Accent 1000 (sticker price: $7,000), but Roy had to cover the rest. Her load was lightened appreciably by a second $500 grant.

Life-easing episodes like these are the kind the Burkes and the board they would assemble had in mind when they took the Willpower Foundation off what amounts to the drawing board and made it the truly unique nonprofit that it is.

And as they did so, they drew on their own experiences early and often. Will was born prematurely and was adopted by the Burkes when he was just seven weeks old. The couple had what they described as a huge support system of family and friends, and they relied on it.

Jeff Palm says the WillPower Foundation strives to be as “unbureaucratic” as possible as it helps parents pay for equipment and services that fall between the cracks.

Jeff Palm says the WillPower Foundation strives to be as “unbureaucratic” as possible as it helps parents pay for equipment and services that fall between the cracks.

“We had a lot of support from our families, but as we went along, we knew we had to get some help,” said Craig Burke. “And while Marie is so awesome at making things work, a lot of things were not accessible to us financially or just available at all.

“So we vowed that, someday, once we got through all this, we would try to do something to do give back,” he went. “We received a lot of support early on, but there were a lot of out-of-pocket expenses, and we knew others were facing the same challenge.”

So, in essence, the Burkes created a different kind of support system in the form of a nonprofit that would help with those expenses. In the beginning, Craig recalled, one of the early concepts discussed was to create something approaching a ‘make a wish’ format involving parents, whereby, through $1,000 grants, they could take some time off for themselves, something that is often very difficult to do, and their children would be cared for by a professional.

What they found, said Maria Burke — and they already knew this from experience — is that the parents of special-needs children don’t ever want to leave them. So the model for the nonprofit evolved into providing grants for items families need but that insurance won’t cover.

And when it came time for affix a name to this nonprofit, well, that was probably the easiest part.

Indeed, Will has been inspirational in many ways as he confronts, and overcomes, the many challenges he faces, said Maria, adding that his spirit and tenacity actually empowers others to reach their full capabilities.

A huge fan of video games and Rob Gronkowski, and an even bigger fan of blue cheese — the first thing the Burkes do when they arrive at a restaurant is ask if it’s on the menu — Will is involved with the nonprofit on many levels and enjoys being part of efforts to give back.

“I like to help people,” he said in a somewhat slow voice that is difficult to understand at first. But he gets his points across. “I like to help them by getting them what they need.”

Getting a Lift

Jeff Palm, chairman of the foundation’s board and a long-time supporter of the Burkes’ efforts, said the goal at the beginning — and it has persisted to this day — is to make the awarding of grants as “unbureaucratic” as possible. That’s not a word, and he acknowledged as much, but you certainly get the point.

If ‘unbureaucratic’ was a word, it would be synonymous with simple, which is what the foundation works very hard to make the application process. Just ask Kim Schildbach. She’s filled out hundreds of forms in the process of adopting their first two and now a third child.

“We make sure that we’re crossing our ‘T’s and dotting our ‘I’s and that we’re not just throwing people’s trusted money out the door,” Palm explained. “But we try to make it simple; we put money in the hands of families, and we fund really interesting and unusual things that make a child’s life easier and, as a result, make a family’s life easier.”

Elaborating, he said WillPower enables families to acquire equipment and services that essentially fall through the cracks.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, this is a big list. It includes everything from therapeutic horseback riding to the services of a speech-language pathologist; from electrical outlets with the proper voltage needed for a ventilator to the percentage of an Accent 1000 not covered by insurance.

To explain the importance of such grants, Palm used the example of that electrical outlet.

“The child had a ventilator that would plug only into a 220 plug, like a dryer plug,” he explained. “Every time that respirator needed to be on for the child, they had to wheel him over to that corner of the house and plug it in.

“They applied to us for a grant, and we found an electrician to put that plug in a place that was much more convenient for the family, and the child could be part of the family unit when the ventilator was needed,” he went on. “You just wouldn’t find an insurance company that would pay for something like that, and there are a lot of stories like that.”

Sarah Aasheim, interim executive director of the foundation, agreed, and noted that the nonprofit fills gaps that most people not in the situations these families find themselves in couldn’t appreciate.

Sarah Aasheim says the WillPower Foundation helps to close gaps that those on the outside looking in might have a hard time understanding.

Sarah Aasheim says the WillPower Foundation helps to close gaps that those on the outside looking in might have a hard time understanding.

“These are things that you often don’t think about,” she told BusinessWest. “The ventilator was covered by insurance, of course, so from the outside looking in, it looks like that family would be all set. But when you understand the nuances of these situations, you realize that there are a lot of unmet needs.”

As another example, she noted the kind of assistive technology that Will uses to help him communicate, called a ‘talker.’ One child who relied on such technology faced another of those funding gaps that might be hard for others to grasp.

“This child used a wheelchair, and while the insurance company paid for the device, it didn’t pay for the mount that goes on the child’s wheelchair, which costs an additional $300, which is a financial hardship for this family,” she explained. “The child had a talker, but he couldn’t access the talker because he didn’t have the motor skills to hold it and it didn’t work with his wheelchair, so we supplied the funding for that. Sometimes it’s just a bridge or a connection to meet a larger need.”

By filling these gaps, the foundation is empowering not only individuals, but their families as well, said Emily Albelice, former executive director and now a board member.

“That child’s ability to communicate better serves the entire family unit,” she said referring to the device mounted to a wheelchair. “And that’s something that’s important to us; it’s not just about the individual, but their family, their friends, their community.”

Fortuitous Bounce

Stories such as these make it easy to understand why the WillPower Foundation is far less obscure than it was years ago. Indeed, word of mouth has served as a very powerful marketing vehicle for the organization, because the word being spread — and it has spread quickly and effectively — is just how unique and game-changing the foundation’s work is.

“When families that are experiencing financial hardship find out there’s a resource that gives them cash — albeit a small amount — for something they determine they need, the word spreads very quickly,” said Aasheim, adding that, as word spreads and the volume of grant applications grows, the challenge then becomes raising more money to fund more of those requests.

Fortunately, just as this nonprofit resonates with those it helps through grants, it also resonates with those who recognize the uniqueness of the mission, the level of need, and the fact that many of these families don’t have many other options, if any at all.

Thus, support is growing, and the foundation’s board is looking to increase annual grant awards to $30,000, an ambitious goal made possible by the help of individuals and businesses that, as noted, and in very simple terms, can relate.

“The more we spread the word, the more information about what we’re doing gets out, the more the local community as a whole wants to support families like ours,” said Maria Burke. “Honestly, almost everyone you meet knows someone with a disability, and every business has an employee with a family member with a disability. Everybody can say they know someone who is facing these challenges every day, and that’s why they embrace our mission.”

The foundation stages fund-raisers, solicits donations, and benefits from the support of several primary sponsors — the law firm Alekman DiTusa, Orthotics and Prosthetics Labs, and LePage Financial Group.

Ryan Alekman and Robert DiTusa, partners at the law firm, said it is active in the community in a number of ways, and that the work of the WillPower Foundation dovetails nicely with its overall philosophy when it comes to giving back.

“We can see our money doing a lot of good with a smaller organization, as opposed to putting the same amount into a giant nonprofit,” said Alekman, adding that the firm prefers to support nonprofits and initiatives where the results are visible and tangible, and the WillPower Foundation certainly fits that description.

DiTusa agreed, and said the foundation produces these kinds of visible results with families that are truly in need and often have no other recourse.

“There are so many gaps in insurance, and most people really don’t understand that,” he explained. “They figure ‘that family has health insurance, those kids must be fine, they’re taken care of.’

“But if you have a disabled child, there’s a ton of things that they’re going to need that are not covered by insurance,” he went on. “The gaps are enormous, and if have a nonprofit like the WillPower Foundation that steps in and fills those gaps, that can make an enormous difference in a child’s life.”

Just ask Kim Schildbach. Or Missy Kim. Or Will Burke.

Reaching New Heights

Maria Burke remembers talking with the young mother of a child with special needs at a recent gathering of such parents. The conversation came around to how insurance often doesn’t cover the cost of many seemingly small but nonetheless significant services, leaving families scrambling.

And the woman mentioned that she heard about this unique nonprofit called the WillPower Foundation that actually awards small grants to the families of such individuals so that these gaps could be closed, and that it was certainly worth checking it out.

Burke quietly took those comments under advisement — without letting on that this was her baby, as they say.

That’s because her real baby is the inquisitive guy in the wheelchair with those superpowers mentioned earlier, especially the ability to inspire and empower others to do what they might have thought was beyond their reach.

Will’s been setting the bar higher and then clearing it his whole life, and the foundation created in his name is enabling individuals of different abilities and their families to do the same.

And thus, it’s truly worthy of that plaque shaped like a butterfly and the designation ‘Difference Maker.’

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