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Class of 2012

Class of 2012 Difference Makers

Chairman/CEO and President/COO, Big Y Foods Inc.

Charlie, left, and Donald D’Amour. Photo courtesy of Big Y Foods

Charlie, left, and Donald D’Amour.
Photo courtesy of Big Y Foods

It’s called the Y-AIM Program.

The A stands for ‘achieve academically.’ The I, ‘inspire to attend college,’ and the M, ‘move toward personal, family, and community advancement.’

The Y? Well, that’s there for two of the main drivers in this ambitious initiative, the YMCA of Greater Springfield and the 75-year-old local grocery chain Big Y, which provided financial and logistical support to help get it off the ground, and remains a strong supporter.

In a nutshell, the program, which started with Springfield Sci-Tech High School and has recently been expanded to two more schools, places youth advocates in those facilities to help young people stay connected, engaged, motivated, and productive. And the first-year results were stunning.

In a school system where the dropout rate is just under 50%, 38 of the 39 seniors who participated in the initiative’s pilot program graduated, 36 applied to college, and all of them were accepted; two more entered the military.

“And these were at-risk kids,” said Charlie D’Amour, president and COO of Big Y. “This was not a selected pool of kids who would do well anywhere; they were clearly at risk of dropping out and not finishing high school.”

Participation in the Y-AIM program is just one of myriad reasons why D’Amour and his cousin Donald (chairman and CEO), the sons of Big Y founders Gerry and Paul D’Amour, respectively, have been chosen as Difference Makers for 2012. The two have long records of success in business, community service, and philanthropy, and perhaps the best thing they’ve done is involve other executives at Big Y, rank-and-file employees, and customers in many of the initiatives, a point they reiterated many times.

Here is just a partial list of those reasons:

• Company growth. Under their joint leadership, which unofficially began in the late ’80s (the transfer of power was a fluid process), Donald and Charlie D’Amour have more than doubled the size of the family business, with total sales now above $1.5 billion, and a projected annual economic impact (payroll and spending at local businesses) of $375 million.

• Employment in Big Y food and liquor stores in Massachusetts and Connecticut, which now totals more than 10,000. Meanwhile, over the years, the company has provided several thousand people with their first job, a fact the two cousins say they are seemingly reminded of every day.

• Community service to area organizations and institutions. While there are many lines on both résumés, Donald is perhaps best known for his work with the Springfield Library & Museums. In fact, one of the facilities is now known as the Michele & Donald D’Amour Fine Arts Museum in recognition of their many contributions of time, money, and inspiration. Charlie, meanwhile, is most known for his long service to Baystate Health; he’s been on the board of directors for many years, and was president in 2009 when the critical decision was made to move forward with the $296 million Hospital of the Future project, despite the fact that the economy was in free fall.

• Many contributions in the broad realm of education, from Y-AIM to a scholarship program that has awarded more than $3 million to date, to the Homework Helpline, a one-on-one homework-assistance service for students in kindergarten through grade 12.

• Donations of food by the Big Y corporation to area food pantries that average an estimated $5 million annually.

• Contributions in health care, perhaps the most notable being a financial donation that put the D’Amour name over Baystate Health’s cancer center.

• Fund-raising efforts staged at Big Y stores to benefit the victims of disasters ranging from the tornado in Springfield to the earthquake in Haiti, to the tsunami in Japan.

• An annual giving campaign involving employees which now raises in excess of $350,000, with all proceeds spent locally.

• The BEST (Big Y Employees Sharing Time) program, through which employees of specific stores donate time to the host community for initiatives ranging from park cleanup to service at a local shelter.

On the occasion of their being selected as Difference Makers for 2012, BusinessWest conducted a lengthy phone interview with the two cousins (Donald now winters in Florida), which was laced with good-natured barbs between the two, who grew up delivering watermelons together for the business their fathers were then taking to the next level.

Consider this exchange:

While noting that his time spent on endeavors within the community has escalated over the years, Charlie said, “people say I’m pretty good at what I do here at Big Y; they joke that maybe I should try doing it full-time.” To which Don remarked, “they’re not joking.”

But the two were much more serious when talking about that lengthy list of reasons why they’ll be honored at the Log Cabin on March 22. Indeed, when asked about the motivations for their work with area institutions and within the broad realm of philanthropy, Charlie said, “we look for things that can have an impact.”

“We’re focused on health, education, and hunger, because we’re in the food business,” he continued. “We look for programs that are going to be meaningful in the community and that will have direct impact.”

Don concurred, noting that, in many respects, he and Charlie are continuing and escalating a tradition of giving back started by their fathers.

“They set the tone for us,” Donald said of his father and uncle. “They were always doing things in the community — and they were very busy, too; they worked around the clock. I’m not saying that we don’t work hard, but Gerry would work at home on Sundays doing the ads, and those two were always on the phone talking to one another.

“They didn’t have a lot of leisure time,” he continued. “But they somehow found the time to get involved in the community. They sat on local community boards, be it chambers of commerce, hospitals, or colleges, and were always in a philanthropic mode. They set a very good precedent for us.”

Don noted that his paternal grandmother was a schoolteacher, and she impressed upon his father and uncle the importance of education, a philanthropic attitude that has manifested itself in many ways, from donations of time and money by the first generation to Western New England University, where the library now bears the names of Big Y’s founders, to the Homework Helpline.

The Y-AIM program is the latest example of this focus on education, and the results speak for themselves, said Charlie.

“There is so much being thrown at the Springfield schools to try to move that needle and improve graduation rates and improve college matriculation rates,” he said. “And they’re nowhere near as successful in terms of getting results as this one, and I think it’s because of its comprehensive nature with youth advocates in the schools working directly with these young people.”

There is a work component to the program, said Don, noting that many participants land jobs with Big Y, and for most of them, it’s their first work experience. Providing such opportunities is a responsibility all those at the company take very seriously, he noted.

Charlie agreed. “We have to teach these young people how to dress, work with the public, read a schedule, and what to do with a paycheck,” he explained. “It’s very gratifying to see that sense of empowerment that these kids feel when they earn their first paycheck and it’s their money.”

For providing a path to those first paychecks — and for the many other reasons listed (and not listed) above, Donald and Charlie D’Amour, and all those in the Big Y family involved in their efforts, are truly Difference Makers.

— George O’Brien

Class of 2012 Difference Makers

President, Holyoke Community College

WilliamMessner Photo by Denise Smith Photography

WilliamMessner
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

As he talked about Holyoke Community College, what has transpired since he arrived there in 2004, and what he envisions moving forward, Bill Messner dropped the name Ruben Sepulveda early and quite often.

And with good reason.

Sepulveda is now in what amounts to his junior year at Amherst College, studying Psychology. This is worlds — and even dreams — removed from the existence he knew after dropping out of high school in New York and spending considerable time homeless or living in the boiler room of the pool hall where he used to hustle to put a few dollars in his pocket.

His fortunes changed in a huge way not long after relocating to Holyoke and, more specifically, a chance encounter with HCC Adult Learning Center (ALC) Director Aliza Ansell in the gas station across the street from CareerPoint, where the ALC program was then housed. Fast-forwarding a little, Ansell convinced Sepulveda to take a college placement test. He scored well and eventually enrolled in HCC, majoring in Psychology. His bigger goal was to transfer to a four-year institution, and after a tutoring session with a student at Amherst College, he knew that’s where he wanted to land; he even carried a business card with the school’s name and logo on it in his wallet, looking at it often to inspire him.

“I realized I had to see the dream to make it a reality,” he told a writer for an HCC publication not long after becoming the first HCC student to transfer to Amherst in decades.

Sepulveda’s compelling journey goes a long way toward explaining why Messner, HCC’s third president, has been named a Difference Maker for 2012. It doesn’t tell the whole story, but it hits on the overriding theme of Messner’s tenure — creating opportunities, or what he calls “pathways.”

And that work started virtually the day he arrived on the Homestead Avenue campus. Actually, it goes back further, to one of his interviews for the job, when he asked, in essence, why did a community-college campus in a city that was 41% Latino have a mere 14% of its students from that demographic?

After taking over, he went about leading efforts to do something about those numbers. Indeed, Messner has made increasing enrollment and strengthening college relationships with the Latino community one of his top priorities. During his tenure, the number of Latino students has increased 67%, and they now make up 20% of the student body, a number that is continually rising.

Such improvement stemmed from a recognized need to change the direction the school had taken for what was then more than a half-century, he said, adding that general agreement on what needed to be done made it that much easier to move forward as a campus.

“The world had changed over the course of the 50 years of the school’s history, and I think many individuals agreed that the next step in the institution’s evolution was that we had to make it more accessible to the changing population of Western Mass.,” he explained. “We had to open the doors, get off campus, and become more involved in the community than we had heretofore.”

Achieving progress in this evolutionary process is one of many accomplishments Messner can cite since his arrival, and they all contribute to his designation as a Difference Maker. Others, which in some way contribute to the big picture, include:

• The opening of the Kittredge Center for Business & Workforce Development and the emergence of that facility as one of the region’s key resources for workforce training, professional development, and personal growth, through a number of innovative programs.

• Success in the long and challenging fight to create the Picknelly Adult & Family Education Center in the old downtown fire station in Holyoke. The PAFEC is a collaboration between HCC and its partners in the Juntos Collaborative, and it provides GED preparation and testing, adult basic education, workforce-development classes, English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), tutoring, mentoring, career counseling, and other services.

• Training and Workforce Options (TWO), a unique collaboration between HCC and Springfield Technical Community College established to support the workforce-training needs of the region’s businesses and nonprofits.

• Planned expansion of the campus through the pending acquisition of the former Grynn & Barrett photo studio and converting it into a health sciences building.

• Expansion of what are known as Holyoke Community College School District Partnerships. Over the past several years, HCC has significantly grown its partnerships with area school systems in ongoing efforts to meet community needs and make the college more accessible. In particular, the college has worked closely with both Holyoke and Springfield to help them deal with the challenges of enhancing student success. Overall, HCC has two dozen public-school outreach initiatives throughout the Pioneer Valley, such as the Gateway to College program, which brings at-risk high-school students to the campus from Agawam, Holyoke, Longmeadow, Ludlow, Palmer, and Springfield.

Through these efforts and others, Messner has advanced his primary mission of creating those pathways he described, while also putting greater emphasis on the middle word in the college’s name — ‘community’ — through programs, policies, and, in Messner’s own case, leading by doing.

Indeed, he has become involved with a number of organizations and initiatives, including Wistariahurst, the United Way of Pioneer Valley, the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, the Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, Holyoke Medical Center, the Holyoke Innovation District Task Force, and others.

“I’ve spent a good deal of my time off campus involved in a variety of community endeavors, as one way of demonstrating what this institution should be all about,” he said. “Another way of doing that, beyond the president getting off campus, is the institution getting off campus. The transportation center is perhaps the most visible example of that, but so is the Ludlow Adult Learning Center, which serves a large immigrant population there. And the Kittredge Center, even though it’s on campus, is another example.

“It’s another visible manifestation of the fact that we’re here to serve the community, not just in the traditional sense that we have for 50-some-odd years,” he continued, “but in an array of ways, such as seminars, workshops, meetings, and more.”

Looking back on these efforts — and ahead to what must come next — Messner came back to those two words access and pathways, and again summoned the name Ruben Sepulveda. He’s only one of many who have been impacted by the school’s heightened focus on access and community, but he exemplifies many campus-wide strategic initiatives.

These include everything from strengthening ties to the Five Colleges, including Amherst — Messner went so far as to say that one of his unofficial goals is to change that phrase to ‘Six Colleges,’ with HCC joining the club — to bringing the demographic mix of the college more in line with the communities it serves.

And as he goes about that work, he can find some affirmation in some words Sepulveda penned in an essay at HCC years ago:

“Contrary to what most people think about underprivileged people — those with substandard education, those who are part of the cycle of mediocrity, those people we see on the bus, or dragging baby carriages with babies in tow, or just released from prison — they are not empty inside,” he wrote. “They are not content with the lives they have. They want more; they dream of more.”

For helping to carve the pathways to more, Bill Messner is truly a Difference Maker.

— George O’Brien

Class of 2012 Difference Makers

Officers, the Springfield Corps of the Salvation Army

Majors Tom and Linda-Jo Perks Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Majors Tom and Linda-Jo Perks
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Tom and Linda-Jo Perks were hardly novices when it came to disaster response last June 1, when tornadoes plowed through several communities in Western Mass.

Indeed, Tom, commanding officer of the Salvation Army’s Springfield Corps, was in Lower Manhattan only a few days after 9/11, working to provide relief to the survivors of the terrorist attacks. And his wife, Linda-Jo Perks, co-commanding officer, was in Biloxi, Miss. just after Hurricane Katrina barreled through in 2005, doing similar work.

But both told BusinessWest that there was a dissimilar feel to the relief efforts in Springfield after the twister changed thousands of lives in a matter of seconds that fateful Wednesday afternoon, a phenomenon Linda-Jo summed up quickly and effectively when she said, “it’s different when it’s your disaster.

“We were used to people telling us what to do, and we’d respond,” she continued. “But when it’s your disaster, you’re in charge, and the next morning, we just knew that the people who were isolated needed food and care — and we moved.”

Elaborating, Tom said there was a far-greater personal connection to the human side of the devastation, because responders knew some of the people who were impacted, as well as that much greater sense of ownership of the relief efforts. This sensation would, unfortunately, be repeated a few months later when a hurricane swept across Western Mass., and again in October, when a freak snowstorm cut off power to hundreds of thousands of people.

Effective disaster response in a tumultuous 2011 is only one of many reasons why the Perkses, or “the majors,” as some call them, have become part of the latest class of Difference Makers. Most all others involve issues and problems that are with the region on a constant basis — and for which the Perkses and the team they direct have crafted results-driven responses that have stood the test of time.

There are seasonal programs such as Coats for Kids, Toys for Joy, and a summer literacy program, as well as ongoing initiatives including a family reading program, tutoring services involving students from Springfield College and area high schools, teen violence and gang-prevention efforts, food pantries, and clothing assistance.

And then, there’s a groundbreaking endeavor called Bridging the Gap.

Now 15 years old, BTG, as it’s called, was created to help teenage first-time offenders become one-time offenders and get their lives back on the right path.

It does so through a 12-week program (classes are conducted three days a week for three hours a day) focusing on life skills ranging from communication to money management; from building self-esteem to goal setting.

Those who successfully complete the program and do not commit another crime within a year of that accomplishment have their criminal records expunged, “which can have a serious impact if you’re talking about college or getting a job when you’re 15,” said Tom, noting that BTG has enjoyed an 89% success rate. It has won a prestigious honor — the National Justice Department Outstanding Youth Program of the Year Award — and is now a model for many other organizations serving young people, with an average of eight to 10 groups coming to Springfield each year to see how it works.

BTG is an example, said Tom, of how the Salvation Army earns attention and headlines for its response to tornadoes and hurricanes, but the bulk of its work is “with people who come through the door each day with their own disaster.”

Reflecting on their quarter-century of service to the Salvation Army, the Perkses noted that they took different paths to the organization. Linda-Jo said her parents were Salvation Army officers, and she essentially grew up with the institution knowing she would one day be a part of it.

Tom, meanwhile, said his route to the Springfield Corps’ Pearl Street facility was more a matter of circumstance than destiny. He was 4 years old when, to try to get along with a gang of boys in his Warren, Ohio neighborhood, he let the air out of the tires of dozens of cars before he was eventually caught in the act. He remembers the police officer who escorted him home telling his mother, “you better do something with him, or he’s going to be mine.”

“She heard that the Salvation Army was a church and that it had a boys program, and we started attending, so I grew up in the Salvation Army,” said Perks, adding that, despite this, he still wandered down the wrong path. He had become involved in drugs and alcohol and was a young man without much direction or purpose in his life when another incident provided him with both. Not long after graduating from high school, he and a good friend were in a serious automobile accident. Perks was left with a fat lip, while his friend, the driver (and the straightest-laced guy in the world), was left in a coma.

“I said, ‘this is not fair; I should be the one who’s hurt really bad, not him,’” Perks recalled. “God said it wasn’t the first time it was someone else when it should have been me, and that I needed to decide what to do with the rest of my life. I considered the Salvation Army, and when other doors closed and that one opened, I walked through it.”

The Perkses met on the first day they were in seminary, and have been together virtually every day since that moment. Their pending 25th wedding anniversary and 25th anniversary of graduating from the seminary were only a few days apart.

They started their careers with the Salvation Army in the Worcester corps, and made subsequent stops in Greenfield and Pittsfield before coming to Springfield, the third-largest corps in the state.

When asked what constitutes a typical day for them, they said there is no such thing, which is what they like most about their work.

“There’s never what I would call a normal day,” said Linda-Jo. “Each day is different; you could be counseling a runaway, giving a bus ticket to a transient, helping someone whose loved one has died and needs to get to the funeral, performing a marriage, helping a child to read … you never know what you’re going to see when you come in the door.”

This was especially true in 2011, when one weather-related disaster followed another, with many families impacted by two or even three of them.

The Perkses were at their home in Agawam when the tornado carved its path through Western Mass. It missed them, but they knew from watching on television that it didn’t miss many sections of Springfield. They couldn’t get into Springfield right away, but immediately started mobilizing the organization’s resources, staff, and volunteers for a multifaceted response.

It involved everything from bringing food directly to families in the impacted areas to getting necessities to families displaced by the disaster and living temporarily in the MassMutual Center, to coordinating collections of items ranging from bottled water to diapers.

But beyond supplies, staff and volunteers from the Salvation Army also delivered counseling, support, and, quite often, a literal shoulder to cry on.

“People were trying to clean up, and they were crying,” said Linda-Jo. “It was sad, it was hard, it was moving. People just appreciated the fact that we thought about them, and it was really neighbor helping neighbor; it was people from Cape Cod sending tractor-trailer loads of supplies to the area and a Christian school taking a trip here and saying, ‘can we help you?’”

Tom has similar memories, and summed them up by saying that perhaps the most precious commodity the Salvation Army brought to victims was hope, and that’s something that’s supplied to all those who come through the door — literally or figuratively — with their own disaster.

For providing that hope, in whatever form it takes, the majors, and all those who work with them, are certainly Difference Makers.

— George O’Brien

Class of 2012 Difference Makers

Executive Vice President, Peter Pan Bus Lines

Bob Schwarz Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Bob Schwarz
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

The walls and credenza in Bob Schwarz’s office are cluttered with mementos and awards from a more-than-40-year career in business and community service — and together, they tell a compelling story.

While many of the items are individual in nature, most involve the company, Peter Pan Bus Lines, for which he has worked for more than 25 years. And that’s appropriate, because most times it’s hard to separate one from the other. And more than a few items involve occupants of the White House, or occupants in the making.

First, there’s the picture from Bill Clinton’s first inaugural parade. It shows, crossing in front of the reviewing stand, the Peter Pan bus that Clinton and key members of his election team took on the first 1,000 miles of his post-convention campaign in 1992. Schwarz was one of the company’s employees who made the trip down. Meanwhile, there are a few framed, handwritten notes to Schwarz from George H.W. Bush, dating to his days as ambassador to the United Nations in the early ’70s, when the two had become acquainted. He signed them using the nickname many knew him by: ‘Augy.’

But perhaps his most treasured item is the national Community Champion Award that he received from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness in 2008, for which he made another trip to Washington. And there’s a story behind this one that he likes to tell.

“I didn’t take a bus this time, and I should have,” he recalled. “My wife didn’t want me to wear my suit down, so I packed it. And of course, the airline lost my luggage — and really didn’t seem too interested in finding it. The experience gave me the opportunity to know a little about what it feels like to be in a city with nothing but the shirt on your back.”

Schwarz was eventually hooked up with a clean shirt, tie, and jacket, and received his award from then-‘homeless czar’ Philip Mangano, who praised him for his efforts as part of a nationwide program to end homelessness. Locally, Schwarz told BusinessWest, that effort was not about placing people in shelters, but instead in finding them permanent housing.

“It’s been proven that putting people in shelters does not really put a stop to their being homeless,” he explained. “It’s just a stopgap; we need more permanent solutions.”

Schwarz’s work to stem the tide of homelessness constitutes one of several reasons why he was chosen as a Difference Maker for 2012. Others include his work with the United Way, the Eastern States Exposition, the New Leadership Charter School and its library, which he helped create, and especially as chair of the Literacy Works Cabinet of the Regional Employment Board.

And as he talked about these various initiatives and his involvement with them, Schwarz said he’s been helped tremendously over the years by the very positive influence of role models in the broad realm of community service. Exposure to them came through his work with the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, which he served in several capacities, from manager of Government Affairs to president.

“I was this young kid managing a chamber, and I had this incredible opportunity to work with and learn from so many great business leaders,” he said. “People like James Martin at MassMutual, Wilson Brinnell at Third National Bank, Bill Janes at S.I.S., and then later Bill Clark at MassMutual, Paul Doherty [a Springfield attorney], and David Starr [publisher of the Republican]; these individuals began to instill in me a philosophy about corporate social responsibility and the responsibility of the business community to give back.”

Perhaps the most influential of these role models, however, was the man he would later go to work for, Peter Picknelly, president of Peter Pan, who was chairman of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau when Schwarz started with the chamber and was later its volunteer president.

“There was no one more generous in giving to his city than Peter Picknelly,” Schwarz told BusinessWest. “Peter really believed in Springfield, and also in the responsibility to become active in community organizations; it was a way of life at Peter Pan.

“Peter told me that, if I ever decided to get a legitimate job, I should give him a call,” Schwarz continued with a laugh, noting that, a few years after that initial proposition/challenge, he took up Picknelly on his offer, joining the company in 1986.

Since then, he has become involved in a number of the transportation and real-estate-related ventures initiated by Peter Pan and its subsidiaries. This includes everything from the bus line’s decision in the late ’80s to take on archrival Greyhound by expanding its reach along the East Coast (there’s a framed Boston Globe business page story on this move hanging in his office) to the current efforts to revitalize the property in Springfield’s Court Square.

But amid his exploits in business, he has always devoted considerable time and energy to community service. And while this commitment to giving back has manifested itself in many ways, the two most notable have been his efforts to promote adult literacy and the fight against homelessness — and both were in many ways inspired by Picknelly.

Recalling his work with literacy efforts, Schwarz said they really started when Bill Ward, whom he hired to manage what was known many years ago as the Private Industry Council, asked him to serve on the board of what’s now called the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County. “And when you become a member of Bill’s board, you don’t just become a member; he gives you an assignment.”

And Schwarz’s was (and is) adult basic education (ABE) and English as a second language, two causes that became the focus of a project in Holyoke originally conceived by Peter Picknelly — transforming the old main fire station into a combination transportation hub and ABE center.

“It became a passion for me, and a natural when Peter Sr. decided to build the transportation center,” Schwarz recalled. “He saw this as an opportunity to do something very unique and very different, and do something that hadn’t been done before in this country, which was Peter’s style, and something that would make a real contribution.”

Meanwhile, Schwarz said his work with the homeless was in many ways inspired by views of a tent city on the route taken by the funeral procession following Picknelly’s death in 2004 — and commentary offered by Picknelly’s son, Peter.

“He said, ‘this is not the Springfield my father loved and worked all his life to build; we simply can’t have homelessness,’” Schwarz recalled, noting that he was later approached to join (and become the first chair of) then-Mayor Charles Ryan’s program to eliminate homelessness in the city, called the Housing First Initiative.

“I’ve had the chance to participate in a lot of volunteer efforts over the years, but this was one of the most challenging and interesting assignments I’d ever taken on,” Schwarz told BusinessWest. “It was a very interesting time when street and individual homelessness was on the rise, and the ULI report came out and said, ‘the city of Springfield will never reach its revitalization potential unless the issue of homelessness is dealt with.’”

Only a few years into the 10-year initiative, homelessness had been reduced by 39%, said Schwarz, adding that one of the keys to achieving such results was the creation of the Homeless Resource Center on Worthington Street, a feat he called one of the most rewarding of his life because of the economic and logistical challenges to overcome.

“The economy was lousy; this was a time when individuals were losing their jobs and businesses were cutting back,” he said. “To think that you could raise $1 million in private capital to put toward a homeless resource center is pretty remarkable. The people in Las Vegas wouldn’t have given us high odds of success, but we did it, because it was the right time and the right thing to do.”

Because of his hard work in such endeavors and track record for gaining results, Schwarz will have to make room for another item on his credenza — the plaque recognizing him as a Difference Maker for 2012.

— George O’Brien

Class of 2012 Difference Makers

Represented by Carla Oleska and Shonda Pettiford

Carla Oleska, right, and Shonda Pettiford. Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Carla Oleska, right, and Shonda Pettiford.
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Carla Oleska calls it “a full briefcase of skills.”

That’s the term she used to describe what participants in the Leadership Institute for Political and Public Impact (LIPPI) come away with beyond the certificate they’re given upon completion of the program.

Elaborating, she said LIPPI, created in 2010 by the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, is a year-long program focused on providing participants ages 18 to 60 with the knowledge, skills, courage, and, perhaps most importantly, the confidence necessary to become civic leaders in their communities, impact policy on the local, state, and national levels, and seek and hold on to elected positions.

And the LIPPI program is perhaps the most visible example of how the Women’s Fund, which Oleska has served as CEO since 2006, has adjusted and modernized its mission in recent years to reflect changing times.

“In the beginning, we used to speak about addressing the needs of women and girls,” she explained, noting that, at the time (the mid-’90s), such needs included programs involving economic self-sufficiency, housing, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, education, and much more. “Today, when we look at this time period, what we say is that this fund builds better communities for everyone in Western Mass. by investing in the lives of women and girls. And there’s a real distinction there.

“When you look around today, our social needs are gargantuan,” she continued. “One of the most underutilized resources is the unique talents of women — underutilized because they are not sitting around the decision-making tables; they are not framing the conversations and addressing the problems and issues in our country. So today, we’re investing in their talents because we believe that the more women we begin including in those discussions around the table, the more women we put in leadership positions, the better off our communities will be.”

This important change in language and focus, as well as manifestations of it, such as LIPPI, are just some of many reasons why the Women’s Fund has been chosen as one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers for 2012.

Another is the nearly $2 million in grants the fund has awarded since 1998 to groups ranging from the Hampden County Correctional Institute to the Global Women’s History Collaborative; from the Railroad Street Youth Project in Great Barrington to Girls Inc. in Holyoke.

But perhaps the biggest reason is the fund’s ability to adapt and evolve to remain relevant and impactful in a constantly changing society. Current Women’s Fund board President Shonda Pettiford calls this “being nimble and responsive,” and she considers it perhaps the fund’s most important character trait.

“Times are changing for women in our communities,” she told BusinessWest, “and we’re responding in part to their needs, but also to their aspirations and supporting those, and I can see us becoming more involved in work similar to LIPPI, where we’re focused on building leadership skills and ability.”

Tracing the history of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, Oleska said it originates with the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.

More than 60 women from this region were at that conference, highlighted by a speech from Hilary Clinton, who said, “women’s rights are human rights,” noted Oleska, adding that the contingent, while on a bus ride back from touring the Great Wall and inspired by what they heard, discussed options for ways to bring the energy from the conference back to Western Mass.

Their answer was to create a Women’s Fund, a component of the Women’s Funding Network, which now boasts more than 160 members, or funds, worldwide. The local fund is now one of three in the Bay State, with the others serving the Boston area and the southeastern region of the Commonwealth.

From the start, the mission has been to “advance social-change philanthropy to create economic and social equality for women and girls in Western Mass. through grant-making and strategic initiatives,” said Oleska, adding that the fund deviated from the practice of building up its endowment before supporting any initiatives.

“As soon as the money they were raising started earning interest, that first board was determined to get money right out into the communities of the four western counties,” she recalled, adding that the fund topped $1 million in grants after only a decade in existence, and is just one round of awards away from the $2 million threshold.

Oleska, who was an early grantee (her organization, Step Forward, an academic-advancement program for girls, was awarded funds in 1998), said the organization is funded primarily by individual donations, the smallest of which has been $3 in change, a bequest she cites often as symbolic of the way the fund can take seemingly small gifts and aggregate them into something significant.

“When you take that $3 in change and you connect it with $3,000, the impact of that combined funding presents all kinds of opportunities for our grantee organizations,” she explained, adding that a $10 donation made directly to an organization usually won’t have the same impact as $10 given to the Women’s Fund, which then becomes part of a larger donation to that same organization.

But beyond the monetary donation, the grantee also receives a series of professional-development workshops, with the intent of helping them strategically achieve their mission, she continued — to help those organizations work smarter, not harder.

And this is one of the many ways in which the Women’s Fund goes well beyond merely writing checks, said Pettiford, and into the broad realm of creating connections.

“The Women’s Fund, for me, is very personal — there are many personal relationships formed because of it,” she explained. “The funds we allocate help programs run, and run more effectively.

“But we also form relationships with some of these organizations, and they get to understand the fund as well,” she continued. “Through the fund, they get opportunities to connect with others who are doing similar work. Meanwhile, those of us involved with the fund as volunteers and as staff also get to connect with all these people in different parts of Western Mass. who support the same concepts and ideas and have the same values.”

Which brings her back to that word investments and, more specifically, to the LIPPI program, which, in a nutshell, helps women overcome a tendency to underestimate their abilities.

It does so through monthly, full-day sessions (staged on Saturdays for convenience) that are designed to build both skills and confidence while exposing women of all ages to successful role models. These sessions focus on subjects ranging from public speaking to effective board participation, from how to speak with elected officials to citizen activism.

The results from the first year are impressive. Five of the participants have run for office or are doing so; one woman was elected to the board of her housing development, the first tenant to do so; one woman was accepted into the Yale Women’s Campaign School; and another worked on the campaign of Holyoke’s new mayor, Alex Morse.

Looking forward, Oleska has set the ambitious goal of reaching the $3 million mark in grants by the fund’s 15th birthday, and to continue to expand the organization’s reach into every corner of the four-county area. But the most compelling goal is simply to continue efforts to be nimble, another word she used repeatedly, and continue to make investments that are paying dividends, as reflected in this comment from a LIPPI graduate:

“Participation in the LIPPI cohort has essentially provided affirmation, inspiration, and permission to continue to follow my life’s work, to develop my voice, and work collectively with the women in Berkshire County and beyond.”

That’s what comes with a full briefcase of skills. For providing that — and doing much more for women, girls, and communities — the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts is truly a Difference Maker.

— George O’Brien

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