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Class of 2014

Class of 2014 Cover Story Difference Makers
The Difference Makers Will Be Celebrated on March 20 at the Log Cabin


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When BusinessWest launched its Difference Makers program in 2009, it did so with the knowledge that there are, indeed, many different ways in which a group or individual can make a difference and impact quality of life in this region.

Each class has emphatically driven that point home, with honorees ranging from a Holyoke police chief to the founder of the Rays of Hope fund-raiser to battle breast cancer; from the president of Holyoke Community College to the director of the Regional Employment Board; from the man who kept hockey alive in Springfield for the past 30 years to some law-enforcement officials implementing counterintelligence tactics to confront gangs in Springfield’s North End.

This year’s class of Difference Makers is no exception, and it adds several new wrinkles to the contention that there is no shortage of ways that people can change others’ lives — and for the better.

Let’s start with Paula Moore. A schoolteacher — in fact, a substitute teacher at the time — she started a program to help keep young people off the streets and out of trouble. She would eventually call it the Youth Social Educational Training (YSET) program, and when the church that originally hosted these after-school sessions told Moore she would have to move it elsewhere, she used her own money and credit to acquire a dilapidated former school and renovate it into what is now known as YSET Academy.

She wasn’t going to take that drastic step, but felt compelled to by overwhelming need in the community and an unrelenting desire to do something about it.

And these were the same sentiments that drove five members of the Sisters of St. Joseph and a partnering layperson to scrape together $500 and prevail at the public auction of a long-vacant, seriously rundown gray Victorian on Sheldon Street in Springfield’s North End in 1982.

Two years later, the Gray House opened its doors, and ever since it has been providing food, clothing, adult-education programs, and its Kids Club to a ever-widening group of constituents.

Improving quality of life for low-income individuals has also been the mission of a nonprofit called Rebuilding Together, which provides assistance to help people stay in their homes when, because of illness, old age, or simply a lack of resources, they cannot undertake needed repairs and upkeep.

In its early years, the Springfield chapter of this agency provided support one day in April, and only to a few homeowners. Under the guidance of its first executive director, Colleen Loveless, the Springfield office has expanded its reach in every way imaginable, and has put in place an ambitious 10-year strategic plan that will change the face, and the fortunes, of a large section of the city’s Old Hill Neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Michael Moriarty has committed much of his time and energy to taking on another societal challenge — early literacy.
An attorney and now director of Olde Holyoke Development Corp., he has taken the lead in Holyoke’s Third Grade Literacy Initiative, helping to put in place an infrastructure and a battle plan to dramatically increase the number of young people able to read by the fourth grade — the time when people stop learning to read and begin reading to learn.
And then, there’s the Melha Shriners. The first fraternal organization named as a Difference Maker, it’s changing lives in many ways, but especially through its efforts to help fund the many Shriners Children’s Hospitals across the country — and now Mexico and Canada — and, perhaps more importantly, raise awareness of the incredible work being done at those facilities.

The Class of 2014 will be honored at the annual Difference Makers Gala on March 20 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. The event will feature butlered hors d’oeuvres, lavish food stations, introductions of the Difference Makers, and remarks from the honorees. Tickets are $60 per person, with tables of 10 available.
For more information, or to order tickets, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100.

Class of 2014 Difference Makers
From the Beginning, This Nonprofit Has Been a Neighborhood Enterprise

Gray House Executive Director Dena Calvanese.

Gray House Executive Director Dena Calvanese.

The Gray House turns 30 this year.

The specific anniversary date comes sometime in October, said Dena Calvanese, the long-time director of the facility (yes, a house painted gray) on Sheldon Street in Springfield’s North End, who admitted that she didn’t know it offhand.

Nor did she or Mike Walsh, chairman of the agency’s board of directors, know what the organization might do to mark the occasion, or when.

“There has been some talk, but nothing much, really,” said Walsh, adding quickly that, while this unique nonprofit agency is quite proud of its history and its heritage — there are several pictures of the founders and their early work to renovate the home covering one wall of the front hallway — there are far more pressing matters to attend to than planning round-number celebrations.

Indeed, the cold, harsh winter of 2013-14 is impacting many area residents — especially those living at or below the poverty line — and, therefore, several of the individual programs at the Gray House. And it is forcing the staff to be diligent and imaginative in crafting responses.

Indeed, the extreme cold has prompted a continuous run on warm clothing in the facility’s thrift shop. There, clients can fill a large plastic bag for the suggested contribution of $3 (if they have it), said Calvanese, adding that the agency has struggled to keep an adequate supply of coats, hats, gloves, mittens, sweaters, and sweatshirts.

“This is the emptiest I’ve ever seen our store,” she said, adding that, in addition to the cold, there have been many fires this winter that have left victims tasked with rebuilding wardrobes, and some home-heating allotments have been reduced. “We typically struggle to keep up with sorting our donations — we can’t sort fast enough because we get so much — but we’re really at a low this year.”

Meanwhile, in the facility’s food pantry, there’s a similar story.

Cuts to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that took effect last fall have left many families running out of food long before they run out of month.

“A family of four receiving food stamps was cut $36 a month,” said Calvanese. “For a lot of folks, that doesn’t sound like much, but $36 a month, when you’re shopping economically on a low-income budget, amounts to almost a full week’s worth of food; that’s a drastic reduction.”

The Gray House is responding to these developments with everything from urgent calls to its many community partners, including churches, colleges, and other nonprofits, for donations of warm clothing, to efforts to fill in some of what Calvanese called “nutritional gaps,” especially with regard to foods rich in protein, created by the cuts to the SNAP program.

These are examples of how the agency stays attuned to the many, and frequently changing, needs within the community, and adjusts, often on the fly.

Gray House

Restoration of the old Victorian that became the Gray House, and the successful operation of the nonprofit agency that took that name, have both been community undertakings.

It has been this way since the mid-’80s, roughly two years after five members of the Sisters of St. Joseph — two of whom still live on the property — made the high bid of $500 for a run-down Victorian that had a tree growing through one of its 17 rooms.

What’s taken root in its place is a small but far-reaching nonprofit agency that started as what one founder called a “neighborhood enterprise” and has morphed into a regional phenomenon, one that epitomizes the phrase Difference Maker.

It does so with programs ranging from the food pantry and thrift shop — which serve 8,000 to 10,000 people each year — to community education programs involving hundreds of adults annually, to the Kids Club, which provides a host of after-school activities, most all of which come complete with learning opportunities.

These programs are run by the agency’s small staff, but they are made possible by a large army of volunteers, whose ranks include everything from college and high-school students to retired school teachers, as well as a number of partnerships with area schools and colleges, churches, and other nonprofits, and an active board of directors.

Together, these constituencies have helped the Gray House take its mission well beyond the North End, to all areas of Springfield and bordering communities.

As it recognizes the Gray House as a Difference Maker, BusinessWest takes a look back at how it all started, before returning quickly to the present to examine how this agency continues to carry out that broad mission.

Making Their Bid
Sr. Cathy Homrok described herself as the “realist,” and the woman sitting across the kitchen table from her, Sr. Jane Morrissey, as the “visionary.”

Those are the terms that have been consistently attached to these co-founders of the Gray House over the past 32 years or so as stories are recounted about how the property at 22 Sheldon St. was acquired, and how the nonprofit agency named after it came to be.

“She [Morrissey] just kept saying, ‘we should do something with that house,’” Homrok, who joined the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1959, recalled. “And I was the voice of reason. I kept saying things like, ‘what are we going to do with that house?’ ‘Where are we going to get the money?’ ‘We don’t know anything about renovating houses’ And ‘it’s a nice dream, but how can we do it?’”

‘That house’ was, at the time, a 110-year-old Victorian that was at least mostly gray — Morrissey remembers it being two-toned — and had been abandoned since a fire broke out in 1976 in the second-floor apartment that she and Homrok now occupy. Morrissey used to walk by the home every day while she and other members of the Sisters of St. Joseph lived in an apartment building just a few hundred feet or so down Sheldon Street, and she had a good view of it out her bedroom window after they moved to Huntington Street, one block to the north.

Sr. Cathy Homrok, left, the ‘realist,’ and Sr. Jane Morrissey

Sr. Cathy Homrok, left, the ‘realist,’ and Sr. Jane Morrissey, the ‘visionary,’ are two of the founders of the Gray House, and still live on the second floor.

Discussions about doing something with the house eventually turned to opportunistic action. Most efforts at reflection are focused on the auction, which occurred one cold day in January 1982, but Morrissey, who joined the order in 1963, said the ball started rolling months before.

Indeed, she recalls that the six founders — there were three other Sisters of St. Joseph, Kathleen O’Connor, Joan Roche, and Eileen Witkop, as well as Julie James, a layperson — created the nonprofit agency The Gray House Inc. well before the auction. In fact, Morrissey had applied to the Community Foundation for a grant to rehabilitate the property and create programming before the group had assumed ownership.

They didn’t get the grant, but did get some sage advice from Robert Van Wart, director of the foundation.

“He told us we were overreaching in what we asked for, considering that it was a request from a nonprofit that was named after a house we didn’t own,” said Morrissey with a laugh, adding that this oversight, if it could be called that, was corrected at the auction.

She recalls that there were initially a number of bidders at the site that day, but the herd thinned considerably, and almost completely, when her brother, an attorney who was on hand to assist however he could, approached some of the rivals and informed them that they would be competing with a group of nuns bent on community activism.

“I think they were members of the legal community representing property owners,” Morrissey said of the rival bidders. “My brother said something to one of them, and that person said something to another person, and they all got in the cars and drove away; we were the only ones left.”

There’s a picture hanging in the front hallway that captures the moment just after the sisters prevailed at the auction. Several of the founders are beaming and rejoicing in their triumph. But in reality, they had a much more difficult fight ahead, because the house was in terrible condition, and resources to complete Morrissey’s dream were scarce.

But the project soon became what Homrok called a “neighborhood enterprise.” The owner of a nearby lumberyard who was also in the construction industry pledged both supplies and technical support. Meanwhile, Kathleen O’Connor’s father, also in construction, lent his assistance, as did others from across the North End of the city. A former colleague of the sisters from their years teaching at Elms College helped with fund-raising. Even neighborhood children pitched in and helped with painting and other tasks.

“It was great to see the community come together and help us get off the ground,” said Morrissey. “Sometimes, walking down Main Street, you’ll bump into someone who helped, and they’ll say, ‘remember me? I lived across the street from the Gray House.’”

As the work to rehab the Gray House went on, so, too did the task of finalizing a mission statement and creating programs.

“Having lived in that neighborhood, we knew well what the needs were — food, clothing, and education,” said Homrok, adding that, beyond those basic necessities, some people simply needed a place where they could find peace and support. The Gray House has become all that.

Life Lessons
Just as creating this sanctuary was a neighborhood, or community, enterprise, the task of carrying out its mission has become much the same thing, said all those who spoke with BusinessWest.

This became evident as the two sisters provided a quick tour of the first-floor operations on a busy Tuesday morning.

Indeed, there were several volunteers, most of them retired individuals, working with people of various ages and many different nationalities as part of the Gray House’s Community Education Support Program, otherwise known as CESP.

Under the direction of Glenn Yarnell, the program offers English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) services, basic skills (reading, writing, and math) tutoring, and English conversation classes.

Michael Walsh

Michael Walsh, chairman of the board at the Gray House, says the nonprofit has always been responsive to changing needs within the community.

There are 75 adult learners enrolled at any given time, said Calvanese, adding that the program has grown to include literacy development for resettled refugees, and has become an important addition to region-wide efforts to help individuals break through the barriers to employment and inclusion in the community.

“About 85% of our learners are doing English as a second language, but quite a few are doing English and literacy simultaneously,” she explained. “That’s because they grew up speaking another language, but didn’t have access to education in that language. So not only do they not know English, but they’ve never held a pencil before.”

Many of the participants are refugees, said Calvanese, listing Somalia, Burundi, Myanmar, and Iraq as just some of the countries of origin. Meanwhile, the adult leaders run the gamut, education-wise, with many having no formal schooling whatsoever, while others have advanced degrees but need to learn English.

Tutoring comes in one-to-one form or in small groups so people can learn at their own pace, she went on, adding that the ethnic and cultural diversity in the learning areas gives the Gray House a unique look and feel.

“It’s incredible to see the diversity we have and also have people be at peace with each other,” she said, adding that participants probably speak 20 different languages. “We may have people from two different African nations who were at war with one another not long ago. They come here, and they get along, and we have Muslims sitting beside Christians; it’s really beautiful to see the diversity at the house and have it be so peaceful.”

The Kids Club, meanwhile, provides after-school activities for two hours, Monday through Thursday, for students in grades 2 through 6, many of whom stay with the program for several years. There are 16 participants, signed up on a first-come, first-served basis, who have what amounts to a daily regimen carefully designed by the staff.

It starts with a snack and continues with 45 minutes for homework and other school-related work, with a heavy accent on reading, but also flash cards, creative writing, and educational games. There is then activity time, which always includes a learning component.

“Somers Academy donated some pumpkins for the kids to paint,” said Calvanese, providing an example of how it all works. “But before we let them paint them, we had them measure their circumference, height, and weight, and make charts to see which team had the biggest pumpkin. And then they got to paint.

“What we know about poverty is that a big reason why people end up in that state is a lack of education, so we really push that with our kids,” she went on. “And what we try to do with our activities is sneak in education in a fun way so they start to realize that learning can be fun.”

And while there is consistency to all programming at the Gray House, there is also much-needed flexibility, because the community is constantly evolving, said Calvanese, and so are its needs.

“Every time there are changes in the community, we try to adjust to meet them,” she told BusinessWest. “It never gets too stagnant around here, because as different populations come in, we’re adjusting.”

Home — Safe
Today, the Gray House, as reconstructed, is showing many signs of its age. The distinctive turret is deteriorating, said Calvanese. Meanwhile, the porch and chimney need help, and the flooring in the bathroom is in need of replacing.

Doing some quick math in her head, she said that maybe $75,000 worth of work is needed — and soon.

But like the 30th-anniversary celebration, these repairs and upkeep projects are going to have to wait, she told BusinessWest, because there are simply more important things to do with available time and resources.

The work will eventually have to be done, said Walsh, adding quickly that, while the facility’s board has thought about the high cost of operating in this rambling Victorian — and also about possibly moving someplace more modern and practical — those thoughts have been fleeting.

After all, the Gray House (or Casa Gris in Spanish) is more than a name on a nonprofit organization. It’s a place, a landmark, and a refuge of sorts in what remains, statistically, one of the poorest neighborhoods, if not the poorest, in the Commonwealth.

Returning to the subject of that 30th anniversary of the Gray House, Walsh said the agency actually just finished celebrating its 25th last fall.

“We don’t do big celebrations, just long ones,” he joked, noting that the organization had four of the surviving founders on hand for the dedication of a remembrance garden on the property, complete with a patio and bricks commissioned to honor founders and donors. It was three years in the making, he said, adding, again, that there is nothing yet in the works for the 30th, although something will probably come together. “We may try to do something appropriate in the fall, mostly to honor our founders and take a moment to reflect on what they’ve done.”

In the meantime, he and Calvanese said the very best way to celebrate is to simply find ways to do more to help a huge constituency in need.

That’s been the real mission since those sisters prevailed in that auction on Sheldon Street.

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

Class of 2014 Difference Makers

Executive Director of the Springfield Chapter of Rebuilding Together

This Administrator Is Certainly a Momentum Builder
Collen Lovelace

Colleen Loveless

The large whiteboards in the conference room/kitchen of the Springfield office of Rebuilding Together are mostly clear at the moment.

The period from the holidays through the first few weeks of the new year are comparatively quiet at this agency — which touts itself as the “nation’s leading nonprofit working to preserve affordable homeownership and revitalize communities” — so there are only a handful of jobs, or projects, listed on the boards.

But that will change soon, said Colleen Loveless, executive director of the Springfield office, which is ramping up for what she expects will be another huge year. And as the calendar inches closer to the last Saturday in April, or National Rebuilding Day, as it’s called, those boards will be filled from top to bottom with projects, sponsoring groups, volunteer units, and other pertinent information.

It was that way last year, when the agency marked the occasion with a tightly coordinated campaign, aided by an army of 1,000 volunteers and 70 sponsors and donors, that changed the face of Tyler Street in Springfield’s Old Hill neighborhood. This ‘cluster rebuild’ — also called a Green-N-Fit project because of its focus on ‘green’-related initiatives such as converting heating systems from oil to natural gas — featured efforts to renovate, repair, and refurbish 25 homes on that street, most all of which were close to a century old, tired, and energy-inefficient.

The rebuild brought a new look to Tyler Street, but also new enthusiasm, new hope, and some unexpected consequences.

“One positive outcome from last year that we hadn’t anticipated was that neighbors who didn’t really know each other — everyone kind of sticks to themselves — did get to know each other,” she said. “And they’re now looking out for each other; there’s much more of a sense of community.”

The crowded whiteboards in the conference room have become one indicator of what Loveless has accomplished since she became the first executive director of this office more than four years ago and promptly began taking it to another, much higher level. But there are many others.

The Rebuilding Together brand

The Rebuilding Together brand, not to mention its reach, have been taken to a new level under the leadership of Colleen Loveless.

Most are to be found in the office’s front lobby. There hang collections of photographs chronicling last April’s cluster rebuild, as well as a recent project to rehab a transitional facility for 12 homeless veterans on Maple Court, and another to repair and refurbish 25 homes damaged by the June 2011 tornado that tore a path of destruction through the city. There’s also a shot of Loveless being presented with the Booze Allen Hamilton Management Excellence Award in 2012 as the top affiliate among the more than 200 chapters nationwide.

Beyond the photos, though, there are numbers, and many of them, to quantify what Loveless has accomplished in her tenure. She has grown the affiliate from being the 149th largest of the agency’s chapters to the 18th largest, and from nine home projects and a $130,000 budget to a high of 71 rebuilds (in 2012) and a $612,000 budget. Using a formula of leveraging an additional $4 in monetary and in-kind donations for every dollar spent, that adds up to an annual investment of more than $3 million in Springfield’s housing stock, which has made the City of Homes more deserving of that historic moniker.

But if current events and those of the recent past have prompted generous amounts of optimism, enthusiasm, and energy, one could make a strong case that the future looks even brighter.

Indeed, Loveless and her staff are putting the finishing touches on an ambitious strategic plan for the organization. It has a long name — ‘Rebuilding Together: Green-N-Fit 10 in 10; Maximizing Cluster Builds to Benefit the Old Hill Neighborhood, the State Street Corridor, and the City of Springfield’ — but a broad, yet simple, objective.

This endeavor will continue the work started last April for the next nine years, revitalizing contiguous blocks from Tyler Street to Hickory Street (see map, page A12) thus changing the look — and, in many ways, the fate — of what is statistically one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country.

Green-N-Fit 10 in 10

This map shows the battle plan for Green-N-Fit 10 in 10, which will change the face of several blocks within the Old Hill neighborhood.

While building on the impressive set of numbers compiled in her first four years at the helm of the agency, Loveless has some other work to do in the months and weeks to come, especially in the realm of awareness and telling the nonprofit’s story.

Indeed, there are many who are not aware of what Rebuilding Together does, how, or why, she noted, and there is also considerable confusion with regard to other agencies with like-sounding names — DevelopSpringfield and Rebuilding Springfield are just a few — and other nonprofits with housing-related missions, such as HAPHousing and Habitat for Humanity.

“Our brand is resonating, but we have to work harder to get the word out. We don’t build new houses, and we don’t do extreme makeovers,” she said, referencing the missions of other nonprofits (or TV networks). “Our goal is to preserve existing home ownership and help people stay in their homes.”

And because of the effective manner in which she has articulated, communicated, broadened, and carried out that mission, Loveless is clearly worthy of the designation Difference Maker.

Board Meetings
Photographs of the massive National Rebuilding Day effort last April certainly help tell the story of how this agency has evolved and grown over the past several years, and changed the landscape in Springfield — figuratively and quite literally — in the process.

One aerial shot (see below) conveys the scope of the effort, the high level of coordination, and the large amounts of energy, camaraderie, and good will that were generated by convening so many volunteers and supporting businesses to bring new life to one small but significant corner of the city.

“It was truly a community effort — many different groups and individuals were involved with making it all happen,” said Loveless, who spent much of the day choreographing the production, which was compared by many to a movie set because of the sheer volume of people, not to mention the drama that was unfolding, on site.

It was a world — or several worlds, to be more accurate — apart from what the local affiliate of Rebuilding Together was doing back in the early ’90s, when the national agency was called Christmas in April.

That’s because it only did projects on that one day each April, said Loveless, adding that the organization was launched locally by three banks — SIS (now TD Bank), Hampden Bank, and BayBank Valley — and had no paid staff, just a volunteer board that would work on perhaps a half-dozen houses a year, focusing on painting, landscaping, and other small projects.

As the nonprofit expanded into a year-round initiative, a name change was obviously necessary, she went on, and Rebuilding Together, which accurately and succinctly sums things up, was chosen.

It was in 2009, she said, that the board decided that the Springfield affiliate needed to respond to consistently growing need within the community and expand its mission and scope. Demographics played a big part in that decision, she told BusinessWest, adding that the population of Springfield, as in all cities, was aging, and individuals were finding it more difficult to remain in their homes and keep them properly maintained.

“Many of these people had lived in their homes for dozens of years, decades and decades,” she said. “Now, they’re on Social Security, and they want to stay in their home. So we would build them a handicap ramp or fix their leaking roof.

“The board saw this growing demand and decided it was time to open an office, hire staff, and make it a year-round program to serve more people in need,” she went on, adding that the opportunity to manage that office appealed to her, professionally and otherwise.

At the time, Loveless was operating her own category-management company, called Popmax (short for point-of-purchase maximization) International, which she launched 15 years earlier, while also venturing into commercial real estate with a small portfolio of rental properties. She also built her own home.

“I really enjoyed what I was doing, and it was a successful business, but I was looking for something different,” she said. “And this was a good match for me, because I could use my marketing, sales, and business skills; after all, a nonprofit is a business as well. I love doing this more than running my own business, and not many people can say that.”

Loveless first set up shop in the Scibelli Enterprise Center (now the Business Growth Center) in the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College, but quickly outgrew that space and moved into the Colonial Block on Main Street in Springfield, just a block or so from where the tornado tore through the South End on that fateful June day.

Bringing It Home
Over the past few years, Loveless has expanded the agency in a number of ways, from the number of projects to the types of endeavors to the work done on the houses chosen as projects.

“When it was an all-volunteer organization, it was just painting and landscaping,” she explained. “Now, we’ll do anything to a house — mold issues, pest control, lead abatement, roofs, energy-efficiency … anything that focuses on safety, health, and the well-being of the owner.”

She related the story of one individual who pressed the agency for a fence, something that would ordinarily fall outside its purview because it doesn’t meet those criteria listed above.

“He said, ‘those crackheads are cutting through my backyard, and I really don’t feel safe; I really want a fence so I can lock up the gate and they can’t cut through,’” she recalled. “It was a safety issue, and our mission statement says ‘a safe and healthy home for everyone,’ so we did it.”

Funding from the agency comes from a number of sources, said Loveless, listing national retailers such as Sears and Home Depot, which target funds for specific constituencies, as well as regional and national foundations, corporations such as MassMutual and Columbia Gas, and a number of area banks.

Meanwhile, volunteers come from all corners of the community, she said, adding that individuals and groups have found the work rewarding because they can not only see where their money, time, and energy is going, but they meet the people they’re assisting and see how they’re making a difference.

“You’re transforming someone’s life,” she said. “And that’s the best feeling at the end of the day.”

The budget for the local affiliate has swelled in recent years simply because the need has grown, and for reasons ranging from weather calamities to a still-lingering recession that has kept many out of work, to the simple graying of America, she said, adding quickly that, while the agency has broadened its reach, it can serve only a fraction of those who qualify and request assistance.

“That’s the hardest part of this job,” she said of the decisions about which projects to undertake, a process that involves matching requests with funding, available volunteers, and other tangibles. “There has been such a huge need, and the economy has made it worse for families with children and people who have been out of work.”

Therefore, the agency works diligently to allocate its resources in ways that will maximize their impact and improve quality of life for those who are served.

Tyler Street

Many have compared the scene at last April’s cluster rebuild on Tyler Street to a movie set.

Tornado victims comprise a constituency that clearly falls into that category, she said, adding that the agency responded to obvious need with a project that repaired and rehabbed 25 homes across the damaged sections of the city in five days.

But there are other, usually smaller examples of how Rebuilding Together is putting resources to work in different and far-reaching ways, everything from work to renovate a playground at a Square One facility to that aforementioned project at the facility for homeless veterans.

“We did extensive work inside and out — we invested $150,000 in that one house,” she explained, adding that the project was funded in part by a grant from Sears and its Heroes at Home program, which assists veterans. “We had volunteers from Westover and Barnes … there wasn’t a part of that house that we didn’t touch. We put in new floors, paint, a new roof, a new kitchen and baths, carpeting, curtains. At the end of the day, Bob’s Discount Furniture brought in all new furniture.

“It was incredibly rewarding to see the veterans come in at the end of the day and see that transformation,” she went on. “Moments like that make this the best job in the world.”

And it is with the goal of maximizing resources that the agency focused all of its National Rebuilding Day efforts on one street last April, and also why the plan for the next decade is to continue focusing on the Old Hill neighborhood, even while there are many areas of the city that need assistance.

“To really, truly revitalize a city, you have to take it block by block,” she told BusinessWest. “Yes, it’s house by house, but to have a large, profound, sustainable impact, it has to be block by block.”

“We’re going to go block by block for the next 10 years,” she continued. “And we believe it will have a profound impact on the Old Hill neighborhood.”

The next block will be Pendleton Street, she said, adding that she expects that the agency will be able to duplicate the intensity — and the results — recorded last year, in large part because of the momentum generated that day and the positive energy created by a collaborative effort that involved church groups, several businesses, the roughly 100 people involved with the Western New England College football team, and especially the people who live on Tyler Street.

Finishing Touches
After Pendleton Street, moving southwest, Green-N-Fit 10 in 10 will focus its resources and energy on Pickett Place, King Street, Lebanon Place, Nelson Avenue, Prince Street, Merrick Avenue, Lebanon Street, Monson Avenue, Green Place, Greene Street, Alden Street, Manhattan Street, Searle Place, Marshall Street, Crosby Street, Walnut Street, Melrose Street, Hickory Street, and Eastern Avenue, said Loveless, conceding that, to those not from Springfield, those are merely words on a map.

But to the families who live on those streets, it’s home, and it’s been their home for more than 20 years, on average. And they want it to be home for many years to come.
Helping them accomplish that goal has been Rebuilding Together’s ongoing mission. It’s a broader, more impactful mission now, and because of that, this agency, and especially its first executive director, are truly Difference Makers.

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

Class of 2014 Difference Makers
Their Investments in the Lives of Children Are Paying Huge Dividends

Al Zippin, left, past potentate, and current Potentate William Faust.

Al Zippin, left, past potentate, and current Potentate William Faust.
Photo by Denise Smith

Howard Newman was relating the story of how he and his wife, Cindy, ultimately decided to adopt a 2-year-old Russian boy suffering from what’s known as ‘limb deficiency’ — the child was born missing part of his thigh bone and fibula, and had a foot where his short leg ended.

He started by recalling what he could of a conversation the couple had with an orthopedic specialist practicing not far from where they lived in the Albany, N.Y. area. Essentially, the Newmans were looking for insight into what this boy was up against, what care he would need, and what kind of life he could expect.

And the doctor answering their questions wasn’t exactly filling them with hope and optimism.

“He tried to discourage us from doing this,” Howard recalled. “He said that a boy like this may never walk. He was giving us all the negatives, saying things like ‘think about having to carry a 20-year-old up and down steps.’”

But the Newmans were not to be easily deterred. They had the same discussion with more specialists, and eventually gained enough confidence to buy two plane tickets to Russia — and three for the ride home.

When they picked up the child, they had a talk with the Russian doctor administering the physical that was required to complete paperwork for the American embassy. He had what amounted to a question wrapped in the form of a plea.

“He said, ‘you are taking him to Shriners, aren’t you?’” said Howard.

To make a long story somewhat shorter, they did. Specifically, they took him to the Shriners Hospital for Children on Carew Street in Springfield, and they’ve been bringing him back periodically for more than 16 years.

His care there started with the amputation of his foot, leaving young Isaac in a body cast for six weeks. He was then fitted for a prosthetic leg, the first of several he’s needed over the years.

“As I grow, I need new legs,” said Isaac, adding that there were years when he went through two.

As he talked with BusinessWest on a cold Friday morning in late January, he was at the hospital to be fitted for the latest of these prosthetic limbs, all provided free of charge.

“I’ve pretty much stopped growing now — they’re replacing this one because it’s faded,” said Isaac, who walks with a slight limp and can run with his fellow classmates during gym class.

He leads what Dr. David Drvaric, who performed the amputation surgery and has cared for Isaac since he first arrived at the hospital, called a normal life. “He just has to put his leg on every day.”

Howard Newman said Isaac’s experiences with Shriners went a long way toward convincing he and Cindy to adopt another Russian child with similar problems, a girl named Chloe. She is also a regular visitor at the hospital, and, like her brother, has gone through a number of prosthetic limbs.

Isaac Newman, seen here with his father, Howard

Isaac Newman, seen here with his father, Howard, has been coming to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield for more than 16 years.

It isn’t written down anywhere, but it is the unofficial mission of the Melha Shrine Temple, based on Longhill Street in Springfield, to help script more success stories like those involving Isaac and Chloe.

The Melha Shriners, like other temples across the U.S. and around the world, raise money to fund the 22 Shriners Childrens Hospitals in this country and now also Canada and Mexico. But equally important, they work tirelessly to raise awareness of these facilities and the critical, compassionate work that goes on at each one, while also dispelling the misperceptions that exist concerning them.

And there are many, said Chuck Walczak, administrator for both the Springfield hospital and another facility in Erie, Pa., starting with the commonly held belief that the hospitals care only for the children of Shriners, or that there are other limitations on who receives services. There’s also the notion that, because the care provided is free — although the hospitals will now ask patients’ families to use their insurance, if they have it — it is not of the highest quality. Even physicians practicing behind the former Iron Curtain know that’s not the case.

“Unfortunately, we’re a best-kept secret, and that’s not what we want to be,” said Walzcak, who credited the Melha temple with excellent, and ongoing, work to help rid the facility of that distinction.

And as the Shriners carry out that important work, they do it with a distinctive style and attitude, if you will — one focused on fun. The most visible manifestations of this are the annual Shrine Circus at the Big E and the ever-present clown unit, but those qualities permeate each of the 14 units, from bands to the many motorized vehicles, and each parade they appear at.

Al Zippin, long-time member of the Melha Temple, past potentate, and unofficial historian, summed it all up nicely.

“As Shriners, we’re investing in the future, and the reason I say that is our investment is in children — if we improve the quality of their lives, the future gets brighter for everyone,” he said, striking at the heart of the reason why the Melha group has been chosen as a Difference Maker for 2014.

Fun — with a Purpose
As he talked with BusinessWest at the Shriners facility, one of the many mansions on Longhill Street that have been retrofitted for other purposes, Zippin said the Melha Temple is now 115 years old.

It boasts members from across Western Mass., from the New York border to Worcester, and also from Northern Conn. There are roughly 1,400 members now, down from about 3,500 three decades ago, and perhaps 5,000 in the ’60s, he noted, adding that, like many fraternal organizations and service clubs, the Shriners are challenged with the task of convincing members of the younger generations to make the requisite commitments of time and energy to the organization.

But while smaller in size, the Melha Temple remains very active and quite impactful, said Zippin, who used that term to describe everything from the many forms of support given to all Shriners hospitals, and especially the Springfield facility, to participation in events and the staging of the circus, to the way in which this organization inspires its members to continually find ways to give back to the community.

“Once you get a taste of this,” he said, deploying that word to describe all of the above, “you don’t restrict yourself to the Shriners.

“That’s what happened to me,” he went on, adding that he became involved with groups and causes ranging from the Children’s Study Home to the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Masonry’s lessons lead you down that path — being aware of the needs of other people, being tolerant of others, and maintaining values and standards.”
There are 14 units within the Melha Temple, including the clowns (some of whom will make more than 100 appearances a year); a number of bands, including the popular Highlanders (bagpipers), a military band, a drum corps, an oriental band, and others; a host of motorized teams; and other units assigned specific projects. One orchestrates the circus, for example, while another, the so-called Directors Staff, offers tours of the Springfield hospital each weekend.

The performing units take part in a number of parades, including the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the July 4 event in East Longmeadow, and many others, said current Potentate William Faust, adding that the latest addition to the calendar is one in Winchendon.

There are also a number of events, such as the Chowder Bowl Football Classic involving local high-school stars, the annual Springfield Carnival, the temple’s annual game dinner, and others, all of which are designed for family involvement.

And that’s especially true of the annual Shrine Circus at the Big E.

The four-day spectacle, which debuted in the ’30s and has now continued for 60 consecutive years, draws thousands of attendees annually, said Zippin, and boasts a number of ongoing traditions.

Chief among them is the so-called Community Services Show, the Friday-afternoon performance, for which the Shriners donate all 4,700 tickets to area human-services agencies that work with children.

The Shriner clowns

The Shriner clowns have historically been one of the most visible manifestations of the Melha Temple’s huge presence in the community.

Zippin noted that he’s now seen three generations of the same family grow up with the event — and often come back together each May.

“People ask me what I do at the circus,” he said. “I tell them by the time it starts, my work is essentially over, so what I do is walk around and just look at the generations, the families, just having a great time; it’s incredibly rewarding.”

But while the circus and the parades bring revenue to the Melha Temple and, in turn, its units entertain and inspire people of all ages, such community outreach is undertaken for one reason — to bring important exposure to the Shriners’ philanthropy, its children’s hospitals.

“I’m a nut about exposure and PR, and I look at the circus and the parades as ways to simply remind people we’re here and that we have a great purpose,” said Zippin. “People will say, ‘boy, you have a lot of fun,’ and we can have fun because we look at the hospital up on Carew Street, and we know why we’re here.”

This mindset applies to the circus as well, even though the proceeds from those shows go toward operating the temple and the Longhill Street facility, not the hospital.

“The more visible we can be, the more we can bring the hospital story out to everybody,” he told BusinessWest. “And we need to keep doing that, and the circus really puts us in the public eye.”

Faust agreed. “Each year, the potentate has to come up with a slogan for the year,” he said. “My slogan is ‘Melha Shriners: having fun and helping kids,’ and that really says it all. We go out there and have fun at all our events, but it’s fun with a purpose.”

Care Package
When asked to put the Shriners — meaning the organization and its mission — into perspective, Zippin relayed a sentiment he’s probably expressed hundreds of times and in front of all kinds of audiences.

“When we have people who are thinking of becoming Shriners or who just recently joined, I always say to them, ‘how many organizations do you know where you can go in, and simply by being a member and paying your dues, you can have an impact on a child’s life — indirectly, but an impact?’” he said, while shifting the conversation about the organization back to where he thought it belonged: the hospitals.

There are 22 of them, 19 in the U.S. The operation in Springfield, one of two in Massachusetts, was originally opened in 1925. That hospital was replaced by the current facility on Carew Street in 1990. There are three major components to the Springfield facility:

• The Orthotics and Prosthetics Department, which custom-designs prosthetic adoption devices;
• The Motion Analysis Laboratory, which is involved in the study and application of biomechanics and gait analysis, including the use of a 3-D body scanner to measure body shape; and
• The Cleft Lip and Palate Clinic, which follows 360 patients through treatment options for cleft lip and palate repair.

Overall, the Springfield hospital, one of several that focus on muscular-skeletal disorders, has 12,000 active patients, who can receive care there until they are 21. They are treated for everything from chest-wall deformities to hip disorders; knock knees to limb deficiency; scoliosis and other spine deformities to spina bifida. As with both Isaac and Chloe Newman, patients are offered care over a number of years, said Walczak.

One ongoing challenge for the hospital, as he mentioned, is creating awareness of its presence, specialties, track record, and policies for admitting anyone whose condition meets its scope of services, free of charge.

“We’re narrowly scoped, but steeped in our expertise — we’re a specialty hospital,” he explained. “We don’t have the same resources and market identity as larger facilities.”
There is a new national marketing slogan — “Love to the Rescue” — that has been created to help brand and promote the hospitals as a group, he went on, “but within each of our markets, it’s very difficult to get the word out in a way that reaches everyone the way we would like.

“We don’t put a lot of money in our marketing budgets — we try to put every dollar toward patient care,” he continued, adding that this is why the multi-faceted support of the many Shrine temples, and especially Melha, is so critical to the hospital’s success moving forward.

The statue outside the Shriners Hospital

The statue outside the Shriners Hospital in Springfield pays homage to the Shriners and their work with children.

Shriners serve the facility in a number of ways, Walczak said — everything from those aforementioned tours to serving as volunteer drivers to pick up and drop off patients, to serving on the hospital’s board of governors.

“It’s a very collaborative relationship,” he said of the temple and the hospital, adding that tours are just one example of this phenomenon, but an important one because they usually bring out the passion the organization has for the hospital.

“We have a contingent of gentlemen who know this place inside and out, and they love to come here on weekends, nights, whenever, and show off this facility,” he said. “The gentlemen of Melha and the other shrines are so proud of these places; I’ve seen them come into this place crying because they’re just so proud of it. The passion, the loyalty, and the intensity is like something I’ve never seen in any place I’ve been in.”

Life and Limb

Isaac Newman will be graduating from high school next year.

That orthopedic specialist in Albany with whom his parents-to-be consulted all those years ago could not have been more wrong about his fate and the quality of life he would enjoy. And the same is true for his sister.

As Dr. Drvaric noted, Issac’s is a normal existence, apart from having to put his leg on every day. He and his family owe that to the Shriners around the world, and especially those at the Melha Temple, who have made the children’s hospitals their philanthropy — and their reason for being.

And for that, all those who have served the organization are worthy to be called Difference Makers.

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

Class of 2014 Difference Makers

Teacher, Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy, and Founder, Youth Social Educational Training (YSET) Academy

This Educator Has Been a Driving Force in the Lives of Young People

Paula Moore

Paula Moore
Photo by Denise Smith

Paula Moore had officially made up her mind.

She was not going to jeopardize her credit, or her livelihood, for that matter, to purchase a home for the after-school program she started in Springfield in 2003 to help keep young people off the streets, out of trouble, and on a better path to gainful employment.

For several years, the historic South Congregational Church in the Maple Heights neighborhood had provided her with space, free of charge, to operate this initiative that she would eventually call the Youth Social Educational Training Academy, or YSET, as it’s commonly known, and give it what Moore called “legitimacy.” However, by 2009, there were so many kids involved, church leaders told her she would have to take the program elsewhere.

But there was no convenient ‘elsewhere,’ and Moore, while committed to the endeavor, its mission, and the young people it served, simply wasn’t going to commit her own money to buy a building for a program that generated no revenue.

Eventually, though, she said she felt “forced” to change her mind, and told BusinessWest there were many reasons she uses that particular word when she recounts this critical chapter in YSET’s history.

For starters, she said young people involved in the program just didn’t want to give it up after the church told organizers to move on. “Teenagers kept calling me … they wanted to come to my house, they wanted to meet at the mall, they just wanted to always be together,” Moore, a teacher of English and special education at Springfield’s Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy, explained. “And it was just exhausting.”

Meanwhile, her efforts to convince city officials to give her space — somewhere, anywhere — met with only frustration. “I couldn’t even get an old crack house for a dollar,” she recalled.

But maybe the biggest reason for the change of heart was that she started seeing some bad things happen to people because the group wasn’t together. And there was one individual, one case, that stood out in her mind.

“One of my young people had gotten arrested for robbing the Domino’s delivery guy at gunpoint,” she told BusinessWest. “He said he didn’t do it, but he went to jail, and this was at a time when he was asking, ‘when are we going to get together?’ ‘When are we going to have dinner, Miss Paula?’ I remember I was just trying to put him off.

The former School Street School

The former School Street School, a reclamation project in every sense of that phrase, is now home to YSET Academy.

“And then, it was like, ‘OK, I have to do something,’” she went on, fast-forwarding the story to the point where she arrived at the downtown Springfield offices of NUVO Bank looking to secure a mortgage on the long-vacant, century-old School Street School building, which was a reclamation project in every way imaginable, but also her best option.

Dale Janes, president of the bank and the officer who would eventually handle this application, remembers two things about Moore — her smile and her determination.

“What’s so impressive about her is that she did this on her own,” he said. “She took on the risk of borrowing money for that building because she believes so much in her program. We felt that she not only qualified on a credit basis, but her enthusiasm around what she was doing was simply infectious.”

As it turned out, getting the mortgage would be exponentially easier than making the former school ready for prime time. What followed was two years of hard work during which Moore would get to know those in Springfield’s Building Department on a first-name basis, take out loans from her credit union to finance portions of the multi-faceted restoration project, become the quintessential do-it-yourselfer, and essentially beg, barter, and negotiate with countless contractors to get the doors open (more on all that later).

What exists at that location now is still very much a work in progress, what Moore calls a “mini-vocational school,” a place where young teenagers can learn everything from culinary arts to karate; from dance (which Moore teaches herself) to drama, all in what she calls a “place of refuge.”

There is also a preschool, one of two revenue streams (a few churches also lease out some space), and opportunities for many young people to grow through jobs as junior staffers.
More than 2,000 young people have participated in the program since it was launched, and that number should rise considerably over the next several years, said Moore, adding that her not-so-long-term goal — she doesn’t know how long it will take to meet it — is to make YSET considerably more self-sustaining, financially and otherwise, which would enable her to get some of her life back. Indeed, she not only oversees the operation and sets the tone, but also drives the van to collect students for the after-school programs and picks up supplies on an almost daily basis.

When that self-sufficiency arrives is anyone’s guess, but for now, Moore is, for the most part, at least, enjoying the ride, both literally and figuratively, and making a difference in every sense of that phrase.

Steering Kids Straight
Moore was behind the wheel of the van for one of several meetings with BusinessWest for this article. Her schedule is packed — she’s at Putnam starting at 7 a.m. and usually involved with YSET in some capacity until 10 p.m. most weekdays — so for this interview, as with many aspects of her life, work, and life’s work, she was multi-tasking.

“The total focus was to get students off the street,” she said while explaining the genesis of YSET and also maneuvering the ramp to access the South End Bridge. “The 12- and 13-year-olds up to 18-year-olds … they didn’t have a place to go to. A lot of the programs in this area are geared toward children who are under 13. I saw that it was important to give those older kids a place to come to, and as the need presented itself and more and more people came, I worked with other people to figure out how to accommodate the needs of all these teenagers. And over the past 11 years, it’s just grown into a school.”

Backing up a bit — with her story, not the van — Moore said she was substitute teaching in Springfield at the time she conceptualized her after-school program. She had been teaching at Charter Oak Preparatory Academy in Connecticut, but it closed its doors, and she found some work in the city where she grew up and attended both Cathedral High School and Western New England College, and is now pursuing a doctorate at American International College.

“I just saw students who were hanging out after school,” she explained, noting that some were in gangs, but most were students at Springfield high schools who were trying to avoid trouble, not cause it. “And this wonderful church, South Congregational Church, opened its doors free of charge to the young people I invited to meet with me on Monday nights. Some kids were out doing mischief, and I thought it would be good to help them get on the straight and narrow, and the church allowed me to do that with countless young people.”

Paula Moore wears many hats at YSET Academy

Paula Moore wears many hats at YSET Academy, from administrator to dance teacher to van driver, a role she took on to help keep costs down.

In the beginning, the program was mostly about getting kids off the streets and helping them with the many aspects of becoming employable and then getting employed.

“At first, we were doing résumés and eating pizza,” she explained. “And kids kept coming. When you feed kids, for free, they’ll come back, and they did, in droves.”

Eventually, these young people started articulating wants and needs that were later translated into the full slate of developmental workshops and summer learning programs at the academy.

You could call all this a labor of love, but Moore said YSET was never her life’s ambition, or dream — she saves those terms for when she talks about teaching. Instead, both the program and its new home came about out of necessity and frustration. “This isn’t something I always wanted to do,” she said.

But within a few years of starting YSET, Moore was putting about 40 hours a week into the initiative and digging septic tanks for builder Dan Roulier, whom she described as a friend and mentor, to help make all the ends meet.

“He told me I was crazy working all those hours at YSET and that I had to get back into teaching,” she said, adding that she took that advice and eventually landed at Putnam. “This type of work takes a lot out of you, but it’s so rewarding, it doesn’t feel like work. I was working 40 hours a week at this and didn’t really realize that I didn’t have time for anything else.”

By 2009, when the number of program participants had become too large for the church to handle comfortably, officials there gave Moore six months to find a new home for the initiative. She remembers that her initial reaction was that she had done her “good deed” for six years and it was time to essentially shut things down.

“I’ll never forget the time I tried to say, ‘hey, we had a good run, the church wants to do some other things with its facility, so we’re not going to be meeting here anymore — but you guys have enough knowledge to move forward,’” she recalled. “Then one of the girls said, ‘what, we can’t come here anymore?’

“That’s when people started calling me and coming over to my house, and I knew I just had to find a place for them to go,” she went on, adding that she was further inspired by that incident involving the pizza-delivery person. After a lengthy and unsuccessful search for a small home in which to relocate YSET, the School Street property presented itself, and she eventually found herself in Janes’s office at NUVO.

The rest, you might say, is history in the making.

Turn Signals
Moore doesn’t have any ‘before’ pictures of YSET’s headquarters facility.

She said taking them was too depressing an exercise, so she didn’t bother. And she doesn’t really care to be reminded of what it looked like then.

Indeed, looking back on those days is a painful exercise, although the rehab effort was in many ways a rewarding and educational experience.

Indeed, she said she watched a number of home-improvement videos, became proficient at a number of skills she never imagined she would, and, perhaps most importantly, honed the fine arts of partnership building and negotiation.

With the former, she said she managed to create sponsor relationships with several area banks, the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, and even Bob’s Discount Furniture. As for the latter, well, as one example, she pointed to the parking lot she just eased the van into.

Original estimates to pave a large portion of the property were $90,000, she said, adding that she quickly reduced the scope of the project by half, and then, over the course of several months, whittled the price of the work from $45,000 to roughly $8,000.

“I just kept going back and going back, trying to get that price down,” she said. Through a variety of tactics — from bartering to doing some of the work herself — she managed to get roughly $100,000 work of renovations for a fraction of that amount.

“I dealt with every kind of contractor — plumbers, electricians, carpenters, roofers, lead abatement people — and bartered and bartered with all of them,” she told BusinessWest. “I’ve written business plans for companies so they would give me work there. There were a lot of different negotiations I went through, on top of learning how to do some of their work; I’ve even torn down walls with their crew.”

These days, Moore is focused much more on what goes on inside the building, everything from shaping programs and schedules to training staff.

The after-school component of the academy now boasts developmental workshops in everything from “math adventures” to résumé and cover-letter writing; dance, drama, and theater to “reading exploration”;  video production to fitness.

There is also a summer camp that provides a host of activities, including fishing, hiking, swimming, and paddleboating, but also learning opportunities through the study of marine life, exploring the ecosystem, and water testing.

The lessons are interactive, hands-on, and project-based, said Moore, adding that they help explain the academy’s motto — “learn more to earn more” — and its mission to help young people not only get off the streets, but start on a path to employment. And there have been a number of success stories.

Na’kyia Slater is still in the process of scripting one of them.

Now 24, she started attending those Monday sessions at South Congregational Church a decade ago after Moore, or Miss Paula, as staffers and young people call her, spoke at her church.

“It gave us something to look forward to, and it helped keep teens off the streets,” she said of the program, adding that, through Moore’s help, she was able to secure several summer jobs through her high-school years.

Today, she’s a preschool teacher at YSET, a development she likened to “coming home.”

“It’s great working here; I love it,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s a great environment, and you can see that you’re making a difference in people’s lives.”

Moving forward, Moore said there are many things on her to-do list to secure long-term stability and growth for YSET. She would like a larger board of directors, for example, and hopefully one that includes bankers and accountants that could help bring more order to the agency’s finances. Securing additional revenue sources is another priority, she said, as is some long-term strategic planning.

And then, there are those efforts to make the organization more self-sufficient, in every sense of that phrase. Elaborating, she said she wants the agency to grow up, mature, and be able to stand on its own — much like the young people YSET serves.

“I’d like to be able to step back and not be needed so much,” she said of her immediate goal. “You want your child to be able to grow up in such a fashion that he or she can survive on their own, and that’s where I’m at with YSET — I want it to survive on its own, and it’s getting there; it’s getting its legs underneath it.”

On the Right Road
Returning to the saga of that individual sent away for allegedly robbing a pizza-delivery person, Moore said he recently got out of prison.

“I picked him up and took him to get some clothes,” she recalled. “And I told him not to go back to those kids he was hanging around with or go back to the things he was doing.”

Apparently, he is not heeding that advice.

He didn’t go to a job interview Moore set up for him, and sources tell her that he is, in fact, hanging out with those she instructed him to avoid.

“When I see him, I’m going to wring his neck,” she said with a voice that embodied that sense of dedication and enthusiasm that so impressed Dale Janes and everyone else who has encountered Miss Paula.

She has no intention of giving up on that young man — and that’s just one of many reasons why she’s worthy of the title Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2014 Difference Makers

Attorney and Director of Olde Holyoke Development Corp.

He’s Taken Early Literacy to the Forefront in the Paper City

Michael Moriarty

Michael Moriarty
Photo by Denise Smith

Michael Moriarty was searching for the right words to describe how he felt when he learned how Holyoke’s third-graders fared in the reading portion of the MCAS test last year, and found an analogy that works on a number of levels.

“I kind of know what a farmer feels like when his crops fail,” said Moriarty, who has been the main architect of ongoing initiatives to bring about improvement in early literacy across the city, as he talked about his reaction to the community going backward, not forward, when it comes to third-grade literacy rates.

Officially, Holyoke went from having 20% of its third graders reading at level (the state average is just over 60%) to 13%, said Moriarty, noting that, while most other communities across the Commonwealth went down in the tests taken last spring, Holyoke’s fall was far more precipitous, leaving ample reason for conjecture and concern.

But as with the farmer and his field, when it comes to Holyoke’s participation in the national Campaign for Grade Level Reading, or GLR, which Moriarty serves as community leader, he believes the difficult work of preparing the ground and sowing seeds has been done, and now it’s time to continue the even harder work needed to cultivate positive results.

Moriarty, a third-generation attorney and former School Committee member who recently became president of Olde Holyoke Development Corp., is firmly committed to achieving those positive results, and he believes the pieces are falling into place to reverse recent trends.

These pieces include personnel, infrastructure, and a set of strategic initiatives, he said. In that first category are administrators, including new Superintendent of Schools Sergio Paez, who led Worcester’s GLR initiatives, and the city’s new early literacy coordinator, Rosemary Hernandez, who assumed her post late last month.

Holyoke, the nation’s first planned industrial city

Michael Moriarty says there are many signs of life in Holyoke, the nation’s first planned industrial city, but true revitalization won’t happen unless chronically low literacy rates are reversed.

As for the infrastructure, he went on, it is modeled after Springfield’s highly touted Read for Success program, put in place by the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation. It has put early literacy on the front burner in the City Homes and kept it there, and, more importantly, it has improved third-grade literacy rates from 20% to 40% through aggressive programming and creation of bridges between the community and the school department to address the matter.

And the strategic initiatives? They center around the three critical elements in poor reading proficiency — chronic absenteeism, summer learning loss, and kindergarten school readiness.

“When you look at why children aren’t reading at grade level by the fourth grade, they tend to have come to school as kindergartners not well-prepared for school or learning, they tend to not have a lot going on in the summer, so they go backwards, and they tend to be the kids who are most absent, because obviously you’re not learning a whole lot if you’re not showing up,” said Moriarty, who clearly conveyed his passion for his work as he spoke to BusinessWest. “And very often, with the kids who aren’t reading proficiently, all three of those things turn out to be true.

“When that child, for whatever reason, is not prepared for school between the ages of birth to 5, it’s already predetermining the high likelihood that they’re not going to finish high school and they’re going to be economically hobbled for the rest of their life,” he went on, effectively stating the problem — and the consequences — that drive him to find solutions to this dilemma. “And Holyoke’s got the biggest problem with early literacy of any community in Massachusetts.”

And perhaps for that reason, those involved with this initiative set a probably (most would say ‘certainly’) unrealistic goal of 80% proficiency by this year. At his last school board meeting, Moriarty introduced a motion to slice that goal to 40%, which he believes is still “crazy ambitious.”

Still, he believes the community can and will move the needle.

There are a number of examples of community activism on Moriarty’s résumé. In addition to his work on the School Committee, he’s been involved with everything from the city’s Rotary Club to the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Committee to the public television station WGBY. He’s also been a strong supporter of the arts and arts education, and in 2008, he and a group of community members formed Friends of Holyoke Public Schools Inc., which has funded the Summer Strings program, a free music camp for Holyoke public-school students.

But it is his work to bring the issue of early literacy into the forefront — and to be a prime mover in the effort to draft and execute a battle plan to address the problem — that puts him firmly in the category of Difference Maker.

“His advocacy has ensured that early literacy is a priority in the Holyoke public schools,” said Mayor Alex Morse, who has worked with Moriarty on many of the GLR initiatives. “The stars are starting to align, and I believe we’re going to see real progress.”

Early Chapters
Moriarty graduated from Holyoke High School in 1979, which means he can easily recall when this city, and especially its downtown, were still bustling.

“I’m one of those guys who can remember Thursday nights in downtown Holyoke,” he said with a broad smile, noting that this was payday at most of the remaining paper and textile mills and other businesses. “You would walk from one end of the street [High Street] to the other, and the sidewalks would be packed; it was not unlike being in Manhattan.”

He remembers a number of restaurants and clubs that were booming.

“There were so many places to go in downtown Holyoke at that time,” he said. “My dad’s law office was around the corner from Gleason’s Town House on Suffolk Street. I remember it was a high-end piano bar and quite a fancy place to go to.

“I got engaged at the Golden Lemon,” he went on, referring to the former restaurant on Appleton Street. “And there was a big family dinner spot called Kelly’s Lobster House, where I learned most everything I know about politics. When I was a kid, those were just three of many places to go; this was a thriving commercial center.”

But Moriarty’s timeline in the nation’s first planned industrial city means he’s also seen the climax of a slow, painful decline that actually began just after the start of the Great Depression.

By the 1970s, most all of the mills that had given the city its identity had closed or moved south. Meanwhile, in Moriarty’s junior year in high school, the Holyoke Mall opened its doors to considerable fanfare.

Those Thursday nights he recalled so fondly have continued — sort of — at the mall, he said, but downtown slowly started changing and retreating, and it has really never been the same.

Indeed, there are now vacant lots where the Golden Lemon and Kelly’s Lobster House, which burned down in the ’80s, once stood. And the city’s daily newspaper, the Transcript, which once operated on High Street and won Pulitzer prizes for its coverage of a city in decline and the issues that changed its fate, closed in 1995.

Many of the people Moriarty graduated from high school with — as well as a good number of those who came before and after — knew there were few opportunities for them in their hometown, so they left.

“I saw many of my friends’ older brothers and family members move away, because the mill jobs and the construction jobs they thought they were going to have here were out in Colorado and Florida,” he told BusinessWest. “It was a pattern I saw when I was still a kid.”

But Moriarty stayed.

Indeed, while he was tempted to stay in the Washington, D.C. area after graduating from Catholic University with a degree in Education, he ultimately decided to come back home. “I loved living in Holyoke, and I’ve never regretted coming back.”

And almost since the day he returned, he’s been involved with the community and, more recently, efforts to revive its schools. He first ran for the school board in 2000 and served 13 years.

“Education has always been a vocation for me, and I will always have some way of being engaged in that realm,” he said. “Being on the school board gave me an oversight position for a district that had a lot of issues. It was never boring, not even for a minute; there was some important work or initiative that had to be done, and I enjoyed all of it.”

He began his professional career teaching social studies at Peck Junior High School, but was laid off in 1989. With some encouragement from his wife, a lawyer, he attended Western New England University Law School and essentially carried on the family law practice started by his grandfather and continued by his father, focusing on business law, family law, and estate planning.

Roughly two decades later, in the early spring of 2013, he was recruited by the board of directors of Olde Holyoke Development Corp. to succeed long-time president Richard Courchesne, whom Moriarty credits with effectively carrying out — and broadening — the agency’s mission to develop real estate, manage low- to moderate-income housing, and provide financial assistance to Holyoke residents.

“I thought I’d written enough wills,” he joked when asked about his career course adjustment. “If you get a call every 20 years or so to change what you’re doing, say ‘yes’ — it’s good for you.”

He told BusinessWest that he’s enjoying his new challenge, as well as his Monday nights, which he got back after opting not to seek another term on the school board so he could focus on his new job and his early-literacy responsibilities.

Reading Between the Lines

Michael Moriarty

Michael Moriarty says the recent decline in literacy rates is discouraging, but he believes the pieces are in place to achieve real improvement.

Today, Moriarty sees many signs of life, and hope, in his hometown.

These include a growing arts community, new businesses in many of the old mills, the arrival of some young professionals, and a somewhat renewed sense of civic pride.

“A coffee shop just opened on High Street recently, and there’s a lot of buzz here,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s a sort of arts center that’s popped up on Race Street, and other things happening; you just hope that one of those things becomes the spark that’s going to make all the rest of what you want to see in a vibrant downtown come to life.”
But he acknowledges that there has historically been a rather large barrier to further improvement, additional economic development, and more complete revitalization — those intolerably low rates of third-grade reading proficiency.

It was this recognized need to change this equation that prompted him to take a lead role in early-literacy initiatives and act as Holyoke’s liaison with the national Campaign for Grade Level Reading.

In that capacity, he wrote and submitted a community-solutions action plan, one that borrows heavily from Read for Success, but is far more embedded with the school department, which should, in theory, make it easier to generate change and improvement.

Like similar programs, Holyoke’s initiative recognizes the importance of that third-grade MCAS test as a milestone in young people’s lives.

“When you transition from the third grade to the fourth grade, you’re also transitioning from that part of your life when you’re learning to read to where you’ve got to read to learn,” he noted. “And so, everyone who goes into the fourth grade not doing that is automatically behind the eight ball, in need of remediation, and not going to stay on grade level for at least part of that year while they get caught up — if they get caught up. And when almost nine out of 10 kids in a class need remediation, that tends to be the whole curriculum, which is not a good thing.”

So, in simple terms, Holyoke’s early-literacy program is designed to position young people so they don’t have to catch up.

This is much easier said than done, as evidenced by the results of last year’s third-grade MCAS reading test, which Moriarty said professionals describe as being “for real.”
“Children who are illiterate are not passing third-grade MCAS,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, if anything, it’s the other way around.

Moving forward, he is optimistic that the numbers will begin to improve and perhaps someday approach that very aggressive goal set years ago for 80% third-grade proficiency.
Part of that optimism is based on the hiring of Paez, who was assistant superintendent of English Language Learners (ELL) students in Worcester, and significantly improved the percentage of those students who read at grade level.

“He recognized the importance of this work there, and he was able to use most of the elements of a vibrant literacy campaign as we were going through the hiring process,” he said, “and as far as my vote was concerned, that went a long way toward his getting his job.

Overall, those involved in this endeavor need to focus on the future and continuous improvement, he added.

“We have to take all the lessons learned, use all of the best things we’ve put in place in terms of policies, data gathering, and classroom practices, and redouble our efforts to see results,” he told BusinessWest. “I think we have a community that recognizes the problem and is fully committed to doing a lot about it. I think we can look forward to seeing a real change in third-graders, hopefully in a really short period of time.”

Today, Moriarty still wears a number of hats with this initiative. For example, he represents Holyoke at meetings of the Mass. Reading Proficiency Learning Network, a group comprised of representatives from Boston, Holyoke, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Worcester who have committed to learning and sharing best practices to ensure that young people have access to high-quality early education and become proficient readers. Meanwhile, he also co-chairs a facet of the broad initiative called Attend for Literacy, which, as the names suggests, oversees a policy to identify children who are chronically absent from school and puts good practices in place to address that issue.

And occasionally, he reads to young people in the classroom. He does this to engage the students in reading and also show them that people are willing to get involved in their education.

He usually reads the same book, Animalia, by Graeme Base, which combines colorful artwork with alliteration to teach the alphabet.

“There will be a giant gorilla eating gorgeous green grapes in a glass house,” he said, adding that he enjoys these assignments because they give him perspective on the challenge and bring him even more into the process of crafting solutions.

The Last Word
Moriarty recently appeared before the school board, complete with several new members, including one occupying the at-large seat he relinquished last month, and informed it that Holyoke was to be recognized nationally as a “pacesetting community” by the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, an honor resulting in large part from his many efforts.

While obviously proud of this accomplishment, Moriarty made it abundantly clear that his goal is to one day break much better and far more important news — that Holyoke is making clear progress toward meeting those ambitious goals for reading proficiency.

He’s not sure when he’ll be able to do that, but he suspects that it won’t be long — if this community remains committed to early literacy and to all the hard work that is involved with moving Holyoke from the very bottom of the charts to somewhere near the top.

If that happens, then Moriarty will know what it feels like to be a farmer with a bumper crop.

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