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Class of 2018

Class of 2018 Difference Makers Event Galleries

A Look at the March 22 Event


More than 375 people turned out at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House on March 22 to honor BusinessWest’s 2018 Difference Makers. Launched in 2009, the program recognizes groups and individuals across the region that are making a difference in their community. The honorees this year were: Bob Bolduc, CEO of Pride Stores; Bob ‘the Bike Man’ Charland, founder of Pedal Thru Youth; Girls Inc. of Holyoke; Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin; Crystal Senter-Brown, author and adjunct faculty member at Bay Path University; and the WillPower Foundation.

Our 2018 Difference Makers:
Bob Bolduc, CEO of Pride Stores
Bob “The Bike Man” Charland, Founder of Pedal Thru Youth
Girls Inc. of Holyoke
Evan Plotkin, President of NAI Plotkin
Crystal Senter-Brown, Author & Adjunct Faculty at Bay Path University
WillPower Foundation


Photography by Leah Martin Photography

From event sponsor Burkhart Pizzanelli, P.C., from

From event sponsor Burkhart Pizzanelli, P.C., from left: Adam Kuzdzal, Deborah Penzias, Josh Messer, Julie Quink, Tom Pratt, Carol LaCour, Rebecca Connolly, Stephanie Tobin, and Sarah Lapolice.

From event sponsor Health New England

From event sponsor Health New England, from left: Peggy Garand, Vivian Williams, Brendaliz Torres, Sandra Ruiz, Ashley Allen, Matt Sturgis (guest of HNE), and Jessica Dupont.

Gina Kos (left) and Michelle Depelteau from event sponsor Sunshine Village.

Gina Kos (left) and Michelle Depelteau from event sponsor Sunshine Village.

Sr. Kathleen Popko (left) and Sr. Mary Caritas from the Sisters of Providence, a 2013 Difference Maker.

Sr. Kathleen Popko (left) and Sr. Mary Caritas from the Sisters of Providence, a 2013 Difference Maker.

Bob Bolduc, founder of Pride Stores and a 2018 Difference Maker.

Bob Bolduc, founder of Pride Stores and a 2018 Difference Maker.

From 2018 Difference Maker the WillPower Foundation, from left: Sabrina Aasheim, Jeff Palm, and Maria Burke.

From 2018 Difference Maker the WillPower Foundation, from left: Sabrina Aasheim, Jeff Palm, and Maria Burke.

From left: Kate Kane of Northwestern Mutual, a 2009 Difference Maker, with Nick LaPier, CPA and BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti.

From left: Kate Kane of Northwestern Mutual, a 2009 Difference Maker, with Nick LaPier, CPA and BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti.

Bill Ward, a 2009 Difference Maker, with Joanne Lyons

Bill Ward, a 2009 Difference Maker, with Joanne Lyons of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County.

Carol Leary, a 2016 Difference Maker, with 2018 Difference Maker Evan Plotkin

Bay Path University President Carol Leary, a 2016 Difference Maker, with 2018 Difference Maker Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin.

Tricia Canavan of United Personnel with Scott Foster of Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas and also Valley Venture Mentors, a 2016 Difference Maker.

Tricia Canavan of United Personnel with Scott Foster of Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas and also Valley Venture Mentors, a 2016 Difference Maker.

Sandra Ruiz, left, and Brendaliz Torres, from event sponsor Health New England.

Sandra Ruiz, left, and Brendaliz Torres, from event sponsor Health New England.

Bob Bolduc, left, with Bob ‘the Bike Man’ Charland, two of 2018’s Difference Makers.

Bob Bolduc, left, with Bob ‘the Bike Man’ Charland, two of 2018’s Difference Makers.

Representing event sponsor Sunshine Village

Representing event sponsor Sunshine Village, front row: Gina Kos (left) and Michelle Depelteau; back row: Peter Benton, Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos, Kelly Chmura, Maria Laflamme, Amie Miarecki, Colleen Brosnan, and Michael Siddal.

Tanzania Cannon-Ecklerle from event sponsor Royal, P.C. with Joe Ecklerle of Pelican Products and Brew Practitioners.

Tanzania Cannon-Ecklerle from event sponsor Royal, P.C. with Joe Ecklerle of Pelican Products and Brew Practitioners.

From 2018 Difference Maker Girls Inc. of Holyoke

From 2018 Difference Maker Girls Inc. of Holyoke, from left: Johana (Stella’s mother), Stella, Haley, Kylie (Haley’s mother), Emhanie, Brandy Wilson, Becky Bouchard, and Suzanne Parker.

Staff from NAI Plotkin turn out to celebrate 2018 Difference Maker Evan Plotkin.

Staff from NAI Plotkin turn out to celebrate 2018 Difference Maker Evan Plotkin.

Patrick O’Neil and Katie O’Neil from 2018 Difference Maker the WillPower Foundation.

Patrick O’Neil and Katie O’Neil from 2018 Difference Maker the WillPower Foundation.

Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos.

Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos.

Crystal Senter-Brown, left, and Suzanne Parker

Crystal Senter-Brown, left, and Suzanne Parker of Girls Inc. in Holyoke, both 2018 Difference Makers.

Bob Perry, retired CPA, a 2011 Difference Maker.

Bob Perry, retired CPA, a 2011 Difference Maker.

Kim Lee of the Center for Human Development.

Kim Lee of the Center for Human Development.

Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, accepts his award as a 2018 Difference Maker.

Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, accepts his award as a 2018 Difference Maker.

Will Burke, the namesake and inspiration for the WillPower Foundation, a 2018 Difference Maker.

Will Burke, the namesake and inspiration for the WillPower Foundation, a 2018 Difference Maker.

Stella and Emhanie, two of the girls from Girls Inc. of Holyoke, a 2018 Difference Maker.

Stella and Emhanie, two of the girls from Girls Inc. of Holyoke, a 2018 Difference Maker.

Bob Charland celebrates his 2018 Difference Maker award with fiancée Joanne Hansmann.

Bob Charland celebrates his 2018 Difference Maker award with fiancée Joanne Hansmann.

George O’Brien hands the 2018 Difference Maker award to Crystal Senter-Brown

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien hands the 2018 Difference Maker award to Crystal Senter-Brown.

The WillPower Foundation

The WillPower Foundation’s Jeff Palm, Maria Burke, Sarah Aasheim, Will Burke, and Craig Burke accept their 2018 Difference Maker award from BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien (right).


Class of 2018 Cover Story Difference Makers

difference-makers-logoBack in late 2008, the management team at BusinessWest conceived a new recognition program.

It was called Difference Makers because this would be a trait shared by those who would be honored — they were all making a difference in the community. The goal was, and is, to show the many ways in which an individual or group can make a difference, and suffice to say this goal has been met.

And the class of 2018, the program’s 10th, makes this even more abundantly clear, as the stories below show.

This year’s sponsors are Health New England, Royal, P.C., and Sunshine Village.

The six members of the Class of 2018 will be honored on Thursday, March 22 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. For information about that event, sponsorship opportunities, or to purchase tickets, go HERE or call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100.

Photography by Leah Martin Photography


005_bolducbob-diff2017Community Pride

Bob Bolduc Cooks Up New Ways to Better the Lives of Young People

032_charlandbobmain-diff2017Pedal to the Mettle

‘Bike Man’ Bob Charland’s Story Has Been a Truly Inspirational Ride

022_girlsincmain-diff2017A Force to Be Reckoned With

Girls Inc. Inspires Members to be Strong, Smart, and Bold

017_plotkinevan-diff2017Portrait of the Artist

Evan Plotkin Works to Fill in the Canvas Known as Springfield

008_crystalcenterbrown-diff2017Write On

Crystal Senter-Brown Enlightens and Empowers Those She Touches

020_willpowermainuse-diff2017Where There’s a Will

The Unique Nonprofit Known as WillPower Meets Some Very Special Needs


Sponsored by


Class of 2018 Difference Makers

Bob Bolduc Cooks Up New Ways to Better the Lives of Young People

005_bolducbob-diff2017When Mavis Wanczyk scored the single largest lottery win in U.S. history last August — with a ticket purchased at a Pride station in Chicopee — she wasn’t the only winner. No, the store — meaning its owner, Bob Bolduc — got a $50,000 bonus from the state as well.

A few weeks later, Bolduc distributed $1,000 checks to more than 20 Springfield elementary schools to help teachers make classroom purchases they’d normally have to pay for out of pocket. The rest of the 50 grand was distributed among a variety of youth- and education-centric organizations that Bolduc already supports year-round.

“I decided to give it to the kids,” he told BusinessWest, shrugging off any suggestion that it was a tough call. “It’s a windfall; it’s not my money. So it was an easy decision to make.”

Mary Anne’s Kids was another recipient of a $1,000 bonus. An arm of the Center for Human Development, it’s a fund that provides opportunities for children in foster care that would not typically be paid for by the state, from summer camps to extra-curricular programs.

We didn’t even ask for it; he just gave it to us. He’s the grandfather of Mary Anne’s Kids, and a wonderful man. He’s been a godsend to our program.”

“We didn’t even ask for it; he just gave it to us,” said Jim Williams, the fund’s long-time director, before detailing some of the ways Pride’s support of Mary Anne’s Kids through the years makes the $1,000 gift, really, just a drop in the bucket. “He’s the grandfather of Mary Anne’s Kids, and a wonderful man. He’s been a godsend to our program.”

Indeed, since its inception and for more than a decade since, Bolduc has contributed significant dollars to “children who otherwise would not have funds to go to college, go to prom, all the extraordinary things your children and mine have the opportunity to do,” Williams explained. “Bob has basically been our big-ticket guy. He was there when we started, and he’s been there every year.”

Take, for example, the $20,000 or so worth of gifts that pour in every December from Chistmas trees set up in all Pride stores, adorned with tags listing a child’s age, gender, and gift request. Customers buy most of them, and Bolduc covers the rest. And as the holiday approaches, he closes the diner he owns off Mass Pike exit 6 in Chicopee and hosts 120 foster children for a party with Santa Claus.

Williams said Bolduc has personally funded purchases ranging from a handicap-accessible bicycle to a gravestone for one foster child’s brother, who was killed in a drive-by shooting.

“I can tell you this: throughout my career at CHD, Bob has been such a genuine man,” Williams said. “I can’t tell enough good things about him.”

When he sat down with BusinessWest, Bolduc characterized supporting one’s community as an imperative for local businesses, one he came to understand early in his career building the Pride empire, when he and his wife became involved with a number of nonprofits and he began to recognize the needs they had.

“Every nonprofit needs money,” he said. “So I called the people we buy from — Coke, Frito-Lay, all the big companies — and asked, ‘would you give me some money for this little nonprofit that’s trying to help people?’ They’d say, ‘no, we only do national ones — March of Dimes, Muscular Dystrophy Society, American Cancer Society — so we can’t give to all the local companies.’

“A light went off for me — ‘a-ha! If they can’t give, who’s going to give? It’s got to be the little guy,’” he continued. “That’s when we decided to put all our money locally. And it was a no-brainer. The more nonprofits you get involved with, the more you realize how many needs there are, how many kids are really hurting.”

Indeed, kids — youth welfare and education, to be specific — are the beating heart of Bolduc’s philanthropic bent. To name just a few examples:

• Pride recently raised $10,000 to support Square One’s work with high-risk children and families;

• Bolduc has been a business partner for Lincoln Elementary School in Springfield, where he sends volunteer readers and donates supplies as requested. He and his wife also supply hats, mittens, and socks for all the students. “We realized these kids don’t have hats and gloves for wintertime — some of them don’t even have toothbrushes,” he said. “This is happening right here, in Springfield”;

• Pride participated in a North End Community Task Force dealing with gang violence and related problems;

• In partnership with Brightside for Children and Families, Bolduc provided a van outfitted as a mobile library, as well as a driver and warehouse space. The van travels around the area in the summer, providing kids with summer reading books;

• Pride collaborates with WMAS on its annual Coats for Kids campaign; and

• The company regularly fund-raises for various causes such as Wounded Warriors and Puerto Rico hurricane relief, by supplying donation cans at all Pride stores.

But what makes Bolduc a true Difference Maker, as if his philanthropy weren’t enough, is the way he sees his role as not just a businessman, but someone with the opportunity to impact individual lives — of kids in need, yes, but also his employees, many of whom come from poverty — and watch as they turn around and collectively impact their communities for the better.

Food for Thought

Born in Indian Orchard, Bolduc graduated from Notre Dame University with a degree in mechanical engineering, then earned an MBA at Purdue University, before returning to his home state.

After working as a quality engineer at American Bosch in the 1960s, he enlisted in the Army and served in Vietnam. Back in the States, he briefly went to work at his father’s gas station in Indian Orchard in 1970 before buying him out, thus becoming the third generation of the family to run that business — a business, by the way, that just marked its 100th anniversary.

Bob Bolduc and Pride Stores President Marsha Del Monte (right) present a $10,000 check

Bob Bolduc and Pride Stores President Marsha Del Monte (right) present a $10,000 check to Square One’s Kristine Allard and President and CEO Joan Kagan.

In addition to running the station, Bolduc became a tire and auto-parts wholesaler, specifically a distributor for BF Goodrich and Continental, and became proficient enough at it to be chosen to address a national sales convention of Goodrich retailers at age 30.

But in 1976, he made the shift that would define his career, buying a self-serve gas station in Indian Orchard. Over the years, he would gradually expand his business, creating the chain of stores known today as Pride. But, more importantly, he developed a reputation as an industry innovator by marrying the self-service station with another emerging phenomenon, the convenience store.

Other innovations would follow; Pride would eventually become the first chain in Western Mass. to put a Dunkin’ Donuts in the stores, then the first to incorporate a Subway. But where the company has really made a name, in recent years, is with its own fresh-food production.

“The industry has gone from repair shops to convenience stores, then convenience stores started selling coffee,” Bolduc recalled. “The convenience stores got bigger — lots bigger — and started selling more food items, then they got even bigger, to what we call superstores; we’re talking stores between 5,000 and 7,000 square feet, with at least six pumps, sometimes eight or 10, and selling lots more food items.”

But several factors have hit convenience stores hard in recent years, he noted. Fuel efficiency is up. People are driving less, and public transportation has improved. Cigarette sales are way down, and online lottery purchases are cutting into in-store sales.

“All these things that drive our business are disappearing, and we’re looking at a business where the future expectation is for decreased sales, not increased sales,” he noted.

On the other hand, “people still have to eat three times a day, and they’re looking for convenience all the time, and families aren’t sitting down for breakfast and lunch anymore, and sometimes not even dinner; they’re buying food at restaurants or convenience stores.”

The goal, then, he said, has been to improve food quality at Pride to the point where people will see the chain not as a gas station that sells food, but as a food store that sells gas.

To support that shift, the Pride Kitchen, located at the company’s headquarters on Cottage Street in Springfield, runs two shifts of staff making fresh sandwiches, salads, fruit and yogurt parfaits, and — in a bakery that opened in 2017 — fresh muffins, donuts, cookies, brownies, and pastries. A third shift belongs to the drivers who bring all this fresh fare to stores across the region, making food service at Pride a truly 24-hour operation.

Newer stores feature a Pride Grill, where morning visitors can down fresh-cooked eggs before picking up a made-to-order sandwich for lunch at the deli, as well as drive-thru windows and mobile ordering. This isn’t, as Bolduc noted repeatedly, the convenience-store food of the past.

By studying trends and repositioning the company as a place where revenues will grow, not decrease, he’s not only boosting his own bottom line, but also the gaggle of nonprofits, schools, and individuals that benefit from his philanthropy.

See the Need, Meet the Need

It’s a passion, he said, that was sparked during his time at Notre Dame, when he volunteered in a disadvantaged area of Chicago during spring break.

“That was an eye-opener,” he said. “We stayed with an African-American family with a 14-year-old boy. We brought him to see a Blackhawks game because he liked hockey. That was the first time he’d ever been downtown.”

Having grown up in a family with a successful business, he saw up close for the first time how not everyone had the resources he took for granted. Once he and his wife, who also had a heart for volunteerism, resettled in Springfield and found success with Pride, they got involved in a number of nonprofit boards, and — thanks to his failed pitches to the likes of Coke and Frito-Lay — quickly came to understand the importance of local philanthropy.

The Pride stores themselves often function as vehicles for this work, such as his partnership with Square One. He and the early-education provider came up with the idea of selling ‘Square One squares’ at Pride locations for a dollar, where donors could write their names on squares to be posted at the cashier’s counter.

“Bob took the donations and matched a portion of them, rounding them up to a $10,000 gift to Square One, which was awesome,” said Kristine Allard, chief development and communication officer at Square One.

After Mavis Wanczyk scored her record-breaking jackpot at this Chicopee Pride station, Bob Bolduc distributed the store’s $50,000 bonus “windfall” to dozens of schools and nonprofits.

After Mavis Wanczyk scored her record-breaking jackpot at this Chicopee Pride station, Bob Bolduc distributed the store’s $50,000 bonus “windfall” to dozens of schools and nonprofits.

“That’s the kind of thing we rely on the business community for, to provide us funding to offset where our greatest expenses are,” she added. “When we’re able to approach someone like Bob, who understands that and sees the value in that, it helps us get the word out to other businesses, and we can leverage those dollars and leverage those opportunities to show other businesses what Pride is doing for our community. So it’s good for his business and good for Square One.”

Bolduc wishes more businesses could understand that synergy — or at least acknowledge the needs that exist.

“There are more than 200 homeless kids in the city school system, who go back to shelters at night,” he said. “People don’t know that they don’t go home; they go to shelters. Or, they don’t know that Square One gives kids a better meal on Friday, because they’re not going to get another good meal until they go back to school Monday morning. This is in Springfield. It becomes pretty obvious when you dig deeper and you see it — then you say, sure, the American Heart Association is wonderful, but the big people are taking care of them. The more you see locally, the more involved you get.”

Allard, for one, appreciates that attitude.

“From a development standpoint, from a fund-raising standpoint, it’s really refreshing to see someone who thinks the way he does,” she told BusinessWest. “By supporting the work of nonprofits, it’s good for his business, which is good for his employees. By investing in the work being done to help the community, it works out for everybody.”

On the Way Up

Bolduc was quick to note that his company has long supported arts, hospitals, and religious institutions — the types of entities that create quality of life in a community. But perhaps the most critical component is education, particularly in a city — Springfield — where around half of high-schoolers drop out. He says efforts to change that have to start early, which explains his support of Square One.

“If you don’t get a good education, you can’t get a decent job, and the cycle continues. So what’s the one solution to break the cycle? Education.”

He noted that the first person in a family to attend college is usually not the last, which is why he and his wife provide scholarships to area students. “That’s my message — we need to support education and help kids break out of the cycle.”

But he’s helping them break out in more ways than one. Since transforming one of Springfield’s most visible eyesores, at the foot of the North End Bridge, into a thriving Pride superstore almost a decade ago, he has drawn a steady stream of young employees from a neighborhood with high levels of poverty, and helped them embark on careers. And soon, he plans to do the same with new store in the McKnight area of Mason Square.

“At Pride, we’re happy with the fact that we provide jobs and careers,” he said. “We don’t have a human resources department; it’s called Career Development. We are very happy to take a young person who wants to grow and teach them the business and watch them grow up into management, provide for their families, bring in relatives and, in some cases, their kids as they get older. We’re very proud of that.”

The McKnight Neighborhood Council unanimously endorsed the development, he added. “They asked, ‘will you employ local people?’ We said, ‘100%.’”

He noted that the North End Pride station has seen crime drop significantly in the area over the past five years, thanks to the community policing program he has supported, but also, perhaps, due to growing employment opportunities like the ones Pride provides.

“These are good people. I tell them, ‘come to work every day, and we’ll teach you and give you good pay,’ and there’s an amazing turnaround. Some don’t take to it, but a lot of them do. We see the success stories. My goal is to someday see them do the same things for someone else. It’s that simple.”

That legacy and culture Bolduc aims to create is why, seven years after being named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for his innovative business growth, he is now being recognized as a Difference Maker, recognizing far more impactful successes.

“These are his future employees and his future customers,” Allard said. “We need to invest in our youth. If we’re not looking at our youth as the future of our community, we’re doing ourselves a great disservice.”

That’s a message Bolduc wants every local business to hear, and to respond to in any way they can afford, because the needs never go away.

“For anyone who wants to get involved, give me a call,” he said, “because I guarantee you’ll get more out of it then you put it.”

That investment doesn’t have to be a $50,000 lottery windfall, but such good fortune certainly doesn’t hurt.

“He’s a great person,” Allard said. “When that [lottery] news came out, no one would have minded had he kept it. But he said, ‘why not give it away?’ It was really refreshing to hear that.”

For a career spent saying ‘why not?’ — in both his business and the community — Bob Bolduc has plenty to take pride in, as he continues to make a difference.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2018 Difference Makers

The Bike Man’s Story Has Been a Truly Inspirational Ride

032_charlandbobmain-diff2017Bob Charland was already having enough trouble fitting everything on his plate into a 24-hour day.

He had his full-time job, as an auto mechanic at the Lyndale Garage in Springfield, and he was also teaching what he calls “deaf automotive” for students attending Willie Ross School for the Deaf. There were also his many endeavors within the community — primarily his work repairing bicycles and putting them in the hands of underprivileged children across the region, but also his latest venture, what he calls “safety bags” for the homeless and other people in need.

And then, there were also a growing number of medical appointments and tests as he grappled with a brain disorder that remains officially undiagnosed but is considered terminal.

With all that, he admits he was only getting maybe three hours of sleep each day, something he’s learned to live with. But then, the schedule got even more crowded.

He had to start making room for the media. Lots of room.

The local television stations were calling regularly as his donations of bicycles and other endeavors escalated; community newspapers wanted his time to talk about his work in their cities and towns. He’s been on Ludlow public television and a radio station in Boston. Then, the national news networks, including CNN and Fox News, picked up the story. Ellen DeGeneres’ people called. And, yes, BusinessWest wanted a few hours to discuss his selection as a Difference Maker for 2018.

Most time-consuming, however, was a documentary, titled My Last Days, on his life and deeds undertaken by the CW Network and due to be aired this month. The company had already demanded several hours from Charland for the project, and then it came asking for more.

But the ‘Bike Man,’ or ‘Bicycle Bob,’ as he’s called by different constituencies, told them they couldn’t have it. They repeated the request, and he again told them ‘no.’

So they went around Charland to his employer at the garage, told him they would compensate the company for his time lost, and finally locked him in.

And it was certainly worth it to get him out for that additional taping session, as as we’ll see in a minute.

Meanwhile, there’s a reason why Charland now has to make so such time for the media. As they say in the business, this isn’t just a story; it’s a great story.

The individual pieces are themselves compelling — the bicycle program and how it’s grown; his new work within the community, his terminal illness, and his decision to not only go on living but ramp up his work across the region; the press; and the response from that same community to all of the above. But the package … it’s captivating, and, far more importantly, inspiring, which is what really drives Charland in everything he does.

Indeed, he said people have responded to his story in ways he might have hoped, but probably couldn’t have imagined. It has left people compelled to find their own ways to help, to live life to the fullest, and, in many cases, to simply meet the Bike Man.

“I got an e-mail from a guy who wants me to come out and meet his mom,” Charland said as he reached for his phone so he could quote it directly rather than paraphrase, which he did.

“He says ‘Rob, thanks for being such an inspiration with all you’re doing. I have followed your bike story for about a year now. My stepmom, who is basically my real mom when my mother backed out and left us, is terminally ill with stage-4 bone cancer. You give a different, great, positive outlook on things. My stepmom appreciates all you do; you’re an inspiration to all. Thank you.’

“So I told him I’d come out and meet her,” he went on, adding that this was another thing he would gladly make time to do.

Maybe the most compelling part of this story is that his illness hasn’t slowed him down one bit. In fact, it has made him more determined — if that’s actually possible — to cram even more into each day.

“I’m not going to let it slow me down,” he told BusinessWest with tangible conviction in his voice. “Every day that I get up, I can make a difference in someone’s life, and that’s what I’m going to do; that’s what drives me.”

Those few words, more than any that would follow or that came before, make it abundantly clear why the Bike Man will be at the podium at the Log Cabin on March 22 to accept a Difference Maker plaque.

Chain of Events

As noted earlier, those documentary makers had a very good reason for being so persistent in wanting Charland back for another round of filming, or still photos, as they told him. But as things turned out, he didn’t really spend too much time in front of the camera.

For an explanation, well, as they do in a good documentary, we’ll let him do the talking.

“They told me to bring a couple of changes of clothes with me because they wanted to get some photos in a few different places,” he recalled. “We took my truck and ended up in Bernardston, a beautiful little town.

Bob Charland says his terminal illness has inspired him to try to pack even more into each day and find new ways to give back.

Bob Charland says his terminal illness has inspired him to try to pack even more into each day and find new ways to give back.

“Going back to when we first started with this, they asked me a lot of questions, and one of them was, ‘what’s one thing from your childhood that you regret not doing?’ And I said, ‘me and my dad, who’s really my stepdad, but he raised me, always said we were going to go camping together — just him and I — and it never happened,’” he went on. “So we’re there in Bernardston, and I have no idea where we’re going. The next thing you know, we go across a wooden bridge out in the woods to a cabin right on a lake. I didn’t think anything of it.

“The guy told me the camera crew would be there in a while, and that I should just get out, walk around, and check out the place,” Charland continued. “I look around … there’s a nice dock that went out on the water; I saw a guy sitting on the end of the dock. It turned out to be my father. I was shocked that he was there, and I didn’t know why. He just turned to me and said, ‘are you going to give me a hug, boy, or not?’”

The two would spend the next week having that camping trip they never went on decades ago, expressing as much emotion — and talking to each other more — in that short time than they probably had in all those years leading up to that moment.

The documentary producer left the two there with a camera operator, who would shoot a little footage and then leave them alone for the week. More importantly, though, he left them with some thoughts about why they were there.

Put simply, the two had done so much for others throughout their lives; now it was time for someone to do something for them.

And with that, it might be best to tell more of the story of how that documentary — and that bonding between father and son — came to be. We begin, again, like a good documentary, at the place where the story starts to come into focus.

For Charland, that was when his daughter, now 23, was raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was 9.

“At that point, I was given full custody,” he explained. “The courts and the counselors had told me to get her involved in as many things as possible because of what happened to her. So she got involved — and I got involved.”

Indeed, when the leader of the Girl Scout troop his daughter joined decided she couldn’t continue in that role, Charland took over. Not for a little while, but 10 or 11 years, by his count.

“I was cookie coach — I have all the T-shirts from all the years I did it,” he said, adding that, as you might have guessed, he was one of the first male leaders of a Girl Scout troop in this region.

He also started coaching girls softball at Holy Cross Parish School in Springfield — another assignment that lasted a decade or so — among other work in the community, usually alongside his daughter.

“I was afraid to leave her anywhere as a result of what happened to her,” he went on, adding quickly that, because he had no child support, he was also working several jobs — the one at the shop, as a bouncer at an area club a few nights a week, and as a chef at A Touch of Garlic restaurant.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno says Bob Charland has become an inspiration and a role model at a time when the world — and Springfield — need more of such individuals.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno says Bob Charland has become an inspiration and a role model at a time when the world — and Springfield — need more of such individuals.

Eventually, his daughter grew out of Girl Scouts, softball, and other activities, and this development left a void of sorts and something Charland’s seemingly never had much of — spare time.

He filled the void and the hours in the day in various ways. Teaching automotive skills to deaf children — after learning sign language — become one outlet (students are bused to the Lyndale Garage). And eventually there was what he came to call simply “the bike thing.”

Into a Higher Gear

It started, sort of, when his daughter was in middle school. One of her guidance counselors was a nun who would bring Charland a few bikes to fix up for some of her students. And it grew from there.

As most everyone in the region knows by now, thanks to all that press he’s been getting, the bike thing has become not only a Springfield phenomenon, but a regional one as well. Charland has given away bikes in several area communities, including Hartford, and to nearly a dozen schools. To organize it all, he created a nonprofit called Pedal Thru Youth.

In the beginning, Charland would pay for bikes out of his own pocket, but as the news spread, the donations started to flow in, even from some of the neurologists who have treated him. So did other forms of support; AAA donates a helmet for every bike donated, local police departments and the Sheriff’s Department are heavily involved (with bike-safety instruction and other initiatives), and the city of Springfield and Columbia Gas have both donated space to warehouse bicycles while they’re being fixed up and readied for beneficiaries.

“We target the most poverty-stricken areas throughout Western Mass., and they see the worst of the police departments,” Charland said while explaining that there’s much more to this than a child getting a bike. “If these kids see a cop down on their level fitting them with a helmet and helping them adjust their seat or the handlebars, they’re going to look at these officers in a more positive light.”

It’s a great story, but what makes it more remarkable is that it doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It plays out amid — and largely because of — a worsening medical condition that has left Charland quite unsure of how much time he has left and what his quality of life will be.

Back in 2011, around when the bike thing started picking up some speed, Charland suffered what he called a minor stroke. An MRI discovered an arachnoid cyst in his left cerebellum, which specialists would attribute to a concussion he suffered when he was struck in the back of the head by someone wielding a baseball bat after leaving the club following his bouncing shift.

“The cyst grew to protect my brain, and they noticed a lot of dead spots,” Charland explained. “Over the years, things got progressively worse. There were times I would get extremely dizzy, I would stutter, other times my hands would shake. I was having tremors … and the right side of my body was shaking a lot.”

Doctors have never given him an official diagnosis, but they suspect Charland has CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the condition that has affected dozens, if not hundreds, of pro football players and other athletes.

“They say they think that’s what it is,” he told BusinessWest. “But they can’t give me 100% diagnosis until post-mortem. So I jokingly said to them, ‘call me when I’m dead and let me know.’”

After that diagnosis, or non-diagnosis, as the case may be, Charland went to Vermont, one of three states in the country to enact a death-with-dignity law, and quickly put his affairs in order, deciding, among other things, what to do with his five trucks.

What brought him back to Springfield early last year was a request from a Springfield school administrator for bicycles he might be able to donate, one that he fulfilled.

And that donation became a news story, one that fueled others and also took the bike thing to new heights.


By Easter morning, Charland had 25 to 30 bikes repaired and ready for distribution. He called a friend who was also a Chicopee police officer and suggested the two go to one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods and donate the bikes.

“We started knocking on doors and handing bikes out,” he said, adding that the local TV crews were tipped off and came to report the developing story.

More press led to more requests for bicycles, which led to more donations, which led to more press, which led to … you get the idea. Soon, the story had traveled literally around the world.

Braking News

And then, remarkably — or not, considering the individual in question — the story got even better. Indeed, Charland kept looking for new ways to give back and pack more into his typical day.

Which brings us to those safety bags mentioned earlier. They’re also called ‘necessity bags,’ and that might be a more accurate description, because that’s what they contain — hats, gloves, scarves, toothpaste, a toothbrush, some toiletries, protein shakes, granola bars, and more.

He started with the Massachusetts State Police, who would give them to homeless individuals and others deemed in need of such a package. And it spread from there. The Springfield Police even have a name for it — Operation Basic Necessities — and Charland has outfitted each cruiser with two bags, each gender-specific; once a bag is given out, he replenishes it. He’s also donated bags to the Connecticut State Police and the Hampden County’s Sheriff’s Department. Last fall, he attended the National Police Chiefs Assoc. convention, and fielded requests from more departments for the bags.

The bags were intended to meet a recognized need, to fill a void, he explained, adding that he has always been driven to step in and address such deficiencies.

With all the press he’s been getting, Charland started keeping a scrapbook of sorts. Actually, it’s just a manila folder with some press clippings, letters and notes from elected leaders (U.S. Rep. Richard Neal sent him one, state Rep. John Velis did as well, and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno has corresponded on something approaching a regular basis), a proclamation or two, and some certificates from groups ranging from the Springfield Thunderbirds to the Center for Human Development.

There’s also a handwritten note, source unknown, that says, in large capital letters, “THANKS BOB FOR ALL YOU DO.”

Collectively, the contents of that manila folder speak to probably the best part of this remarkable story — the manner in which Charland is connecting with people, inspiring them, and, in some cases, getting them involved as well.

Sarno spoke about it as he talked with BusinessWest about one of his now-best-known constituents. Specifically, he discussed how the Bike Man replied to one of his correspondences wishing him good luck and good health.

“He called me and said, ‘mayor I need a little help … I just wanted to help some kids with bikes, but this is really blossoming,’” Sarno recalled, adding that he helped arrange some storage space.

Overall, Sarno said Charland’s work with children and the police is a positive development, but more important is his emergence as a role model at a time when society sorely needs some.

“At this time of reality TV, when negativity sells, and ‘if it bleeds, it leads,’ this story resonates with people,” he told BusinessWest. “He’s like the Energizer bunny; he keeps going and going and going, and he never says, ‘woe is me.’ His attitude is so positive — it’s not about himself, it’s about making a better opportunity for these kids and showing that people do care. He’s a one-man wrecking crew.”

Charland’s ability to inspire others and enrich their lives with more than a two-wheeler is perhaps best summed up in the words on the latest addition to that scrapbook, a plaque declaring him the winner of the Citizen Award in conjunction with the Safe Neighborhood Initiative. It reads, in part:

“You have taken a learned skill and turned it into an everlasting blessing for children. They will carry the value of giving back to the community into adulthood and will in turn help nurture the development of our community, making your work immortal.”

The Ride Stuff

Sarno is known for being prompt and prolific with correspondences of thanks and support to individuals and groups over the years, and Charland is no exception.

The mayor has written him several times, as noted, usually after another press report of his work. The typical missive is part thank-you letter, part note of encouragement. Here’s the one sent last June, prompted by little more, it seems, than a desire to stay in touch:

“Thinking of you and just wanted to drop you a note of good health, encouragement, and thanks. So heartwarming what you are doing for our kids. You’re making their dreams/miracles come true. You’re in my thoughts and prayers … that a miracle can and will happen for you.”

With those words, he essentially spoke for an entire region about someone who truly defines that phrase Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2018 Difference Makers

Girls Inc. Inspires Members to Be Strong, Smart, and Bold

022_girlsincmain-diff2017Cynthia Carson admits it got quite crowded in her place last November.

Indeed, by her count, there were as many as 19 people camping out in her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., including her two children.

But this gathering was her idea, so she certainly wasn’t complaining. She had planned carefully, and her only real oversight, if one can call it that, was maybe underestimating what it might take to keep everyone plugged in — thus, there was a trip out to get some power cords.

Those powering up were current members of Girls Inc. of Holyoke, most of them high-school students, who were invited to the Big Apple by Carson, the head recruiter for the Nielsen Group’s sports and entertainment division, to do a little sightseeing and a whole lot of learning —  about jobs and careers and what it takes to be in those positions, but also about goals and dreams, how to set them, and how to make them reality.

Carson, who is quite the role model when it comes to all of the above, having attended both Georgetown and Harvard and spending two years in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua before starting her career, turned her home into a temporary B&B because she had been where her guests were a few decades ago. And she thought the excursion she planned would help them take some big steps forward.

Carson found Girls Inc., then the Holyoke Girls Club, more than 30 years ago, when she was in grammar school, and because she did, she also found friends, a different kind of home, mentors, direction, ambition, resilience, and, yes, a desire to give back.

Which is why her living room was fully occupied for those few days and she was taking her guests to destinations ranging from the 9/11 Memorial to a co-working facility bristling with tech startups, to Times Square.

“Girls Inc. fills a critical role,” said Carson as she talked about the nonprofit, how it changed her life, and why she remains involved. “It’s about turning average girls into leaders. You don’t need superpowers — you just need someone who believes in you. You need someone to give you guidance and provide the structure that some people may not have.”

We’ll be going back to New York, figuratively, a few more times in the course of explaining why Girls Inc. of Holyoke was chosen as a Difference Maker for 2018, because that visit represents a microcosm of not only its mission — to inspire girls to be strong, smart, and bold — but also how it goes about it carrying it out.

But we’ll spend most of our time at Open Square in Holyoke, where many Girls Inc. programs are based and where BusinessWest talked with several members. And we’ll also travel (again figuratively) to UMass Amherst, where an ambitious program called Eureka is not only introducing girls to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, but giving them a taste of what they’re like and what they will need to know to thrive in such settings.

It does so through introductions to more role models, but also specific programs with titles like “Making Protein Glow in the Dark,” “Melting Ice and Rising Seas: What Does the Future Have in Store for Us?” and “Is there a Connection Between Breast Cancer and the Environment?” More on all that later.

Overall, Girls Inc., a national agency with 92 affiliates across the country, exists because there is a need for organizations that focus on that specific constituency, said Suzanne Parker, executive director of the Holyoke chapter, adding that one needs only to look at the headlines locally, regionally, and nationally to understand why.

Cynthia Carson, far right, leads her guests on a tour of Times Square

Cynthia Carson, far right, leads her guests on a tour of Times Square, one of many spots visited during a trip designed to inspire and educate the young ambassadors from Girls Inc. of Holyoke.

“We know that girls face an inordinate number of challenges and obstacles, everything from bullying and harassment to low expectations in their community,” she explained. “We know that, across the country, one in five girls is living in poverty, so girls living in neighborhoods without a lot of resources are facing a number of challenges.

“We know a lot of girls are facing academic issues and challenges — one in six girls across the country doesn’t finish high school,” she went on. “And locally, in communities like Holyoke and Springfield, the graduation rate is just above 50%.”

The nonprofit addresses those statistics in a number of ways, but especially through programming that helps girls of all ages make connections, gain confidence, find direction, create ambitious goals, and discover the resolve to meet them.

Its ability to succeed with these goals is evidenced by the sentiments expressed by some of the girls we met. Individuals like Emahnie Maldonado, 18, a senior at Chicopee High School, who has her sights set on the difficult physician’s assistant program at Springfield College. She summed up the Girls Inc. experience (we’ll hear that phrase again later) concisely and efficiently.

“It pushed me to talk to people and do things that I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing otherwise,” she noted. “When I came here five years ago, I was quiet — I wouldn’t talk to anyone. And this program has really opened me up and allowed me to express myself and how I feel.”

The Nonprofit That Never Sleeps

When asked where she lived in Holyoke growing up, Carson paused for a minute, because while for most that would have been a short answer, for her it wasn’t.

“I had lots of addresses before I was age 7,” she told BusinessWest. “When the rent went up, we would move; there was a fire at one place I lived … and that’s why Girls Inc. was important to me growing up. It was a home base.”

Between the ages 5 and 11 or so, she went to the Girls Club, took part in several sports programs, and went on a number of trips, to farms and other locations. And she looks back on those activities as a way to close some of the “economic separation” that she could already recognize taking place in that community.

“Being a part of sports teams, having parents drive you to different places, being part of a group, and having leadership skills … requires structural help,” she explained. “And a lot of that is not available to some kids in economically stressed communities. So having Girls Inc. kind of filled in those voids.”

You won’t see that wording on the Girls Inc. mission statement or anywhere on the Web site, but that is essentially what it was created to do — become that structural help that Carson noted is so often missing among children like her.

Parker said Girls Inc. of Holyoke has been providing this structure, and believing in its members, since it was formed in 1981 as a Girls Club. (After Boys Clubs of America became a co-educational institution years later, Girls Clubs of America changed its name to Girls Inc.)

The Holyoke chapter, one of eight in Massachusetts, focuses its energies on girls living in low-income neighborhoods where resources are scarce. It currently serves more than 350 members, many of them from Holyoke, but there are a growing number from both Springfield and Chicopee, and Parker expects the numbers to continue to rise as awareness and positive referrals both increase.

But the nonprofit impacts the lives of all girls through advocacy, she went on, adding, again, that it exists to meet the specific wants and needs of girls, and there is certainly room (and demand) for such an organization regionally and nationally.

To explain why, she refers to that ‘Girls Inc. Experience,’ which is created through a mix of staff, a girls-only environment, and programming.

“We have highly trained professional youth-development staff  who understand the needs of girls and are trained to work to provide mentoring relationships with the girls so the girls know they have trusting adults in their lives they can go to, whether it’s issues or challenges they’re dealing with,” she explained, adding that this element separates Girls Inc. from other youth-focused organizations.

As for the girls-only environment, it amounts to a “safe space,” as she called it, not available in most other settings.

“Now more than ever, we see the need for that safe space where girls can take risks and take on challenges,” she went on. “They can do everything from coding to robotics to exploring health issues they may have. That girls-only environment is critical for girls to be thriving in that space.”

As for the programs, they are what Parker called ‘hands-on and minds-on,’ meaning they are highly engaging. And they are focused on four key areas of development:

• Literacy and Academic Success;


• Leadership and Critical Thinking; and

• Health, Wellness, and Sexuality.

All this is reflected in more of the titles attached to Eureka programs, such as “Don’t Lose Your Privacy on the Internet,” “Your Brain on Yoga: Silencing Anxiety from the Inside Out,” “Seeing the Forest for the Trees,” and “Are You What You Eat?: Building a Dietary Recommendation.”

It STEMS from Perseverance

Carson told BusinessWest there were several motivations for the road trip to New York. First, there was the desire to give back to the organization that had been so important to her growing up — something she had already done in several ways, including her role as keynote speaker at its annual fund-raising breakfast last October.

But there was more to it. She said she had nagging questions about whether, overall, girls were being compelled to reach high enough and push themselves hard enough to succeed in a rapidly changing, increasingly competitive world, especially within the STEM universe.

Members of Girls Inc. in Holyoke

Members of Girls Inc. in Holyoke pose for a group shot with tech-industry representatives at one of the WeWork buildings in Manhattan during their recent visit to New York.

So she put together a jam-packed Tech Day, which was actually two days. Students met a number of women, including two who grew up Holyoke, in various STEM careers, with the goal of making sure the visitors returned to Western Mass. with a full appreciation of the depth of careers available to them — and what it would take to enter those fields and succeed there.

One stop was to one of the WeWork buildings in Manhattan, a co-working space. There, a panel of women working in the tech field for both companies they started themselves and giants like BuzzFeed, talked about not only their work, but the adversity many of them overcame to get where they were.

“They spoke about what it was like to be a woman and a woman of color in the tech world,” said Parker, adding that the visitors also met individuals who made it from the same streets in Holyoke they grew up on to the highly competitive environment in New York.

To say that the trip as a whole, and especially Tech Day, made an impression would be an understatement.

“You got to met people who made it out of Holyoke,” said Maldonado. “It really showed that it’s possible to make it out and make it big somewhere else.”

In essence, the Eureka program was created with the same basic intent — to inspire girls and compel them to reach higher, while understanding the hard work it will take to get there.

This national initiative is a five-year program that girls enter when they’re in the eighth grade. It’s a year-round endeavor (with ‘Eureka Saturdays’ in the winter, spring, and fall), but really picks up steam in the summer. And it’s carried out in conjunction with the College of Natural Sciences at UMass, which, as Parker put it, “rolled out the maroon carpet” for the Girls Inc. members.

Elaborating, she said roughly half the hours devoted to Eureka are spent in STEM workshops in labs and other facilities across the UMass Amherst campus, including the Polymer Science Center and the Integrated Science Building.

“They’re working with professors in all different STEM fields, from the computer scientists to the structural engineers,” said Parker, adding that students are bused to the campus daily over four weeks during the summer for an intense regimen of learning that includes such things as the “science of tree climbing.”

The program progresses over its five-year duration to include not only the workshops on the UMass campus (designed specifically for first- and second-year participants, known as ‘rookies’ and ‘veterans,’ respectively), but also externships with area companies for third-year students, dual-enrollment classes at Holyoke Community College during the fourth year, for which the participants receive both high-school and college credits, and paid internships for fifth-year students, known as ‘graduates.’

The Eureka program was conceptualized to generate interest in STEM careers still dominated by men — and keep girls interested, said Parker, noting that, while it’s still relatively early when it comes to quantifying its impact, there are already many positive signs.

“Some of the early indicators are strong and positive,” she told BusinessWest. “Girls are saying, ‘I’ll take a harder class,’ because they know if they don’t take algebra and do well in it, they’re not going to go on to college.

“Eureka is convincing them that’s OK to be smart and it’s OK to be smart in science particularly,” she went on. “And that’s important because there’s still that stigma of the scientist, that this is something not accessible to them.”

Inspirational Thoughts

There are qualitative measures as well, including the comments of some of the Girls Inc. members who spoke with BusinessWest.

Kayah Brown, 16, for example, now has ambitions to become a reconstructive plastic surgeon, a career path inspired in part by her grandmother’s battle with breast cancer, but especially by an externship at the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute she garnered through the Eureka program.

Kayah Brown

Inspired by her grandmother’s battle with breast cancer, Kayah Brown has set her sights on becoming a reconstructive surgeon.

“I was able to meet some of the breast surgeons at Baystate Medical Center and talked with them about what led them to become surgeons,” said Brown, a student at the MacDuffie School in Granby, adding that, through Girls Inc. and Eureka, she has gained not only insight into the wide spectrum of STEM careers, but the confidence to consider that path.

Her sister, Sabria, 18, a senior at MacDuffie, echoed those thoughts.

“Girls Inc. has provided the foundation for me to be the best person I can be,” she explained. “It inspired me to want to study computer science; it’s the first time I was exposed to coding and programming and just working with computers. And that’s what I’m taking right now — AP computer science, and I’m building an app.”

Elaborating, she said her app is for businesses and schools, and it amounts to a digital lost-and-found service. While she has high hopes for it, she’s more focused on getting more women of color into STEM careers and computer science in particular.

Interest in STEM was one of the many common threads that ran through comments offered by nearly a dozen girls, ages 9 to 18.

The words heard most often were ‘friends’ — they’ve all made some through their participation; ‘home’ — that’s what the facility itself has become to many; ‘confidence’ — a quality nearly every one of those who spoke said they have more of because of Girls Inc., and ‘support’ — something the nonprofit, its leaders, and fellow members have provided in myriad ways.

Meanwhile, they collectively talked about visits to farms, art galleries, museums, and a host of other destinations chosen to both educate and inspire.

Carla Lopez, 12, a student at Sullivan School in Holyoke, told a story that many sitting around the conference-room table could relate to. She came to Girls Inc. at age 7. Her parents were divorced, and her mother, who worked full-time, brought her to Girls Inc. in hopes that she would find friends, make connections, and fill the hours until she came home from work with meaningful, educational experiences.

“At first, I thought it was an ordinary program where you colored, built with blocks, and lot of other simple stuff,” she recalled, turning the clock back almost half her lifetime. “But it took my life to a new level; we learned coding, we went swimming, we’ve been on a whole bunch of field trips.

“There are a lot of girls here who are just like you, and they’re experiencing the same things as you,” she went on, adding that facing these issues and challenges together makes them less daunting, especially with the support of staff members.

As for Stella Cabrera, 18, a senior at Holyoke High School, she’s probably the longest-tenured member of the Holyoke chapter, having started there seven years ago. She’s looking at the ROTC program at UMass Amherst and, longer-term, at a career in the military as a biochemist.

Thanks to experiences made possible by the Eureka program, Stella Cabrera has her sights set on being a biochemist.

Thanks to experiences made possible by the Eureka program, Stella Cabrera has her sights set on being a biochemist.

She said she came to Girls Inc. after heavy lobbying by her mother, because she was bullied at the YMCA. She found a group of girls and a corps of staffers focused on building her up, not tearing her down.

“As you allow them in, they’ll build you up,” she told BusinessWest. “They’ll be your friends — they’ll be your best friends — and they’ll be your second family. And they’ll give you confidence, the integrity, and the friendship you need to handle all that life throws at you.”

On the Right Track

Returning to Gotham one more time, Carson said that, as one might expect, New York was itself a sometimes intimidating learning experience for the young women who went on the trip, right down to the subway system — and the challenging feat of getting 17 people on at the same time.

But after only a little while, the visitors were starting to become familiar in their new environment and master its intricacies, including the subway itself.

“At the end of the second day, by about our seventh subway ride, one of the girls said, ‘I’m going to lead; I know how to do this,’” she recalled. “She wanted to take the lead and get everyone on the subway, and that was really neat.”

Life certainly won’t be as easy as leading a group of friends down to a subway station, but the analogy works on many levels, including the most simple of them — finding one’s way and getting to where one wants to go.

It happened on a subway in New York, and thanks to Girls Inc. — a true Difference Maker in every sense of that phrase — it can, and does, happen in life itself.

Just ask Cynthia Carson.

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

Class of 2018 Difference Makers

Evan Plotkin Works to Fill in the Canvas Known as Springfield

006_plotkinevan-diff2017The small bronze plaque is starting to show its age.

Fastened to a rectangular stone near the former Court Square Hotel and the old Hampden County Courthouse, it proudly celebrates work done to clean up a walkway that connects Court Square with State Street. It reads:

COURT HOUSE WALK, one of the city’s most charming and historic landmarks, was restored by the Junior League of Springfield Massachusetts Incorporated in cooperation with the City of Springfield, 1979.

Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, can’t really see this plaque from the south-facing window in his office on the 14th floor of 1350 Main St. (although he can see quite a bit, as will be noted later). But he references it when he can because, in many ways, it, like similar milestones around the city, presents a perfect segue into a discussion about what drives his efforts to revitalize Springfield, especially through the arts and restoration and celebration of existing treasures ranging from parks and fountains to the Connecticut River.

“You can almost imagine the ceremony there, with media standing by and the public officials, and everyone making a proclamation and galvanizing it on a plaque on the ground,” he told BusinessWest as he looked out his window and gestured toward the walkway. “There are a lot of plaques like that around the city, and they all say, in essence, ‘this is a commitment that we made, and we put in bronze, presumably so it would last longer than we are going to last so that future generations will know that at one time we had this vision of doing something.’

“When I first saw that plaque, and saw there were dead rats along that sidewalk and all the lights were out, I said, ‘this is not the vision that they had,’” Plotkin went on. “They had a vision of connecting this beautiful park to another very important commercial district with something special.”

There are, as he noted, a great many stories like that walkway scattered across downtown Springfield and beyond. Stearns Square is one of them. Pynchon Park, the elaborate, much-heralded space built in the late ’70s to connect the Quadrangle with the central business district and abandoned soon after it opened, is another. There’s also Riverfront Park, the Apremont Triangle area, and many more.

There are plaques at some of those sites, but there were gatherings of people and celebrations at all of them, said Plotkin, who has committed his adult life to restoring … well, something approximating what it was that people were celebrating when they gathered, made speeches, and maybe cut a ribbon.

In the case of that walkway, for example, Plotkin made sure that it was part of City Mosaic, what amounts to a giant mural on the Court Square property that he helped bring to fruition, one that features the likenesses of dozens of celebrities, from the Beatles to Louis Armstrong. Judy Garland, Muhammad Ali, Elvis Presley, and John Lennon are among those who can be seen on the walkway portion of the mural.


There are many other examples of Plotkin’s work to re-energize and enliven Springfield — from his hard work to revitalize the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival to his efforts to lead the Art & Soles public art project that placed colorful sneakers around downtown, to his success in turning 1350 Main into a kind of art gallery.

And there are many things, beyond those aforementioned plaques, inspiring Plotkin as he goes about this wide-ranging work. Part of it is what he fondly remembers from his youth, a half-century ago, when he, like countless others who grew up near the City of Homes, would get on a bus on a Saturday morning, travel to downtown Springfield, and spend literally all day there — at Johnson’s Bookstore, Herman’s World of Sporting Goods, Forbes & Wallace, the movie theaters, Friendly’s, and countless other destinations.

Another part of it is what he’s seen during his many trips to Europe, where squares and plazas in Rome, Madrid, Venice, Amsterdam, and other cultural centers are filled, not just with tourists, but locals.

Another part of it is recognition not of what Springfield was — 50 years ago or 150 years ago, for that matter — but what it could be. Especially at a time when we are told urban living is making a comeback, that Millennials want to live in places where they may not have to drive, that downtowns are hot again.

But what probably drives him most is the fact that not all downtowns are hot, and not all cities are attracting Millennials and retiring Baby Boomers alike.

No, only those cities that can create an attractive mix of things to do, places to live, cultural amenities, and a sense of safety and comfort are making their way into that category.

Plotkin has made what amounts to a second career out of efforts to make Springfield one of those cities. And for his tireless — and we mean tireless — efforts, he is certainly worthy of the designation Difference Maker.

Art of the Matter

Getting back to what Plotkin can see out his windows … there’s plenty, as we noted. There’s the river, the South End and the casino rising there, and, yes, Court Square, in which there is a slightly larger plaque he can actually see and took the opportunity to point out.

It commemorates the Parsons Tavern, which stood on that site. It was there that George Washington was “entertained” — it doesn’t say anything about him sleeping there — on June 30, 1775 while traveling on horseback from Philadelphia to Cambridge to take command of the American forces. And he stopped there again 14 years later, this time as president of the young country, while traveling by coach through the New England states.

Evan Plotkin with some examples of his ‘food art.’

Evan Plotkin with some examples of his ‘food art.’

“There are neat plaques and monuments like that all over the city, and most people don’t know they’re there,” said Plotkin, who pointed out another — the lion’s-head fountain on the east side of the square that was restored several years ago.

But Plotkin certainly doesn’t restrict his interests and his activity to what he can see out the window. Indeed, he walks the city pretty much on a daily basis, usually with his dog, George, at his side. While he’s walking, he’s always taking mental notes, he said, and thinking about what was, in some cases, and about what can be in all cases.

A real-estate broker and manager by trade, Plotkin is also an artist. The area once occupied by Santander Bank’s lobby at 1350 Main St., which Plotkin co-owns, has many of his works on display. They include some sculptures and a large collection of photos of images (mostly faces) he created on his plate by arranging various foods just so. Really.

“I call it food art, or face food — it’s a little goofy,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s not really a genre, it’s just something I do.”

So, in many respects, Plotkin the artist sees Springfield as his canvas, one that he is filling in through his various endeavors. Looked at another way, though — and this is probably the more accurate description — Springfield itself is a work of art in need of restoration work, and Plotkin, the artist but also the community activist, Springfield champion, and sometimes (often?) pain in the neck to those in City Hall, is heavily involved in that restoration work.

Overall, while his artistic portfolio is mostly about positioning meats and vegetables, his work with and on behalf of the city amounts to what he calls “activating space,” with ‘activating’ taking many forms.

They include everything from revitalizing spaces or facilities — such as the fountain at Stearns Square, which has been dismantled for repairs — to bringing vibrancy to a given location, such as efforts he’s led to bring the Springfield Jazz & Roots festival to Court Square (more on that later).

Plotkin’s not sure when he started doing all this, but as he looks back, he believes he’s pretty much always been involved in such efforts.

Speaking of looking back, Plotkin did a lot of it as he talked with BusinessWest, recalling, for example, those bus trips downtown, visits to the family business’s offices on Dwight Street, and walks with his father and grandfather through a much different downtown Springfield.

“All the shop owners, whether they were a furrier or a hatter or a print shop … all these different store owners would be out talking with people, and my grandfather knew every one of them,” he remembered. “It seemed like a really great community of small businesses, family businesses, and I think this is something that’s been lost in the downtown.”

The rise of the automobile and the construction of roads like I-91, I-291, and I-391 played a big part in this transformation, he went on, adding that, as people and businesses left for the suburbs and malls, downtown lost its vibrancy as well as its appeal.

But in some cities, he said, a reversal of that transformation is taking place, with people moving back downtown and cities putting more emphasis on infrastructure for pedestrians and bicycles and dedicating less space to surface parking lots, for example.

Can the same happen in Springfield? Plotkin offered what amounts to a ‘yes, but…’ And by that, he meant that there is still considerable work to do.

Past Is Prologue

Plotkin knows better than anyone that there is no turning back the clock to 1969, to those bus trips to downtown and on to Johnson’s bookstore, stops at the typewriter repair shop or record store while walking around.

But there can be a return to the type of vibrancy that existed then, he went on, adding that Springfield can be one of those cities to capitalize on the apparent surge in urban living and the return of the downtown.

When helping to bringing City Mosaic to reality, Evan Plotkin made sure Court House Walk was included in the project.

When helping to bringing City Mosaic to reality, Evan Plotkin made sure Court House Walk was included in the project.

Much will have to go right, he admits, and the city will have to somehow answer that perplexing urban version of the chicken-or-egg question, which goes something like: ‘which comes first — the people or the restaurants, coffee shops, retail, and jobs?’ The theory goes that you can’t have one without the other.

Plotkin believes the city needs to be focused on both sides of the equation at the same time, and especially the part about getting people here. All those other things will follow, he said.

But to get people here, the city must be more livable, he said, meaning it must be safe and vibrant, have places for people to live, offer culture, and provide an infrastructure that, as noted, is far more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.

And he’s focused on all of the above through his work to activate spaces.

With that, he recalled his most recent trip to Europe and, more specifically, to Amsterdam and a plaza called Dam Square.

“It’s mobbed with people, it’s the epicenter of the city historically, it’s beautiful visually, and it’s the heart of the city; that’s where people to go to mingle and mix and shop and entertain themselves,” he said. “To draw a comparison to Court Square, I’ve looked on that as being one of those great public spaces, and the frustrating thing for me throughout my time in Springfield is that I see these public spaces and their potential — which is underutilized.

“And it frustrates me to no end,” he went on. “We have such incredibly important public spaces that have been dormant for some time. When you go to a place like Dam Square or Plaza Mayor in Madrid or other places like that, and see the activity that’s happening in those places, which isn’t contrived, it happens every day, you imagine the possibilities, but you also get frustrated.”

Perhaps the most glaring example of facilities being underutilized is Pynchon Park, he noted, adding that it had a very short life as a park before it was essentially locked down and abandoned amid safety concerns and other considerations.

“There was no plan for Pynchon Park,” said Plotkin with noticeable exacerbation in his voice. “I know from being in real estate that if you build something, that’s not the end of the game; you have to maintain that property. You have to think about security, infrastructure, maintenance, and keeping it clean so it is serviceable for the purpose for which it was intended.”

But, in a twist, Pynchon Park, which has long been a poster child for neglect and underutilization of resources, may soon be one of the more stunning examples of what Plotkin called a “sea change” taking place in Springfield.

Indeed, the park is slated for a $3.5 million facelift (funded by the MassWorks Infrastructure Program) that will include, ironically, a decidedly European form of conveyance, a funicular, to transport people from Dwight Street to Chestnut Street and the Quadrangle.

Other examples include Stearns Square and its fountain, Duryea Way, and Riverfront Park, also scheduled for a major renovation.

Accomplishments of Note

The jazz festival is part of this sea change, he went on, adding that his work to bring that event downtown and continue the tradition after it was discontinued for a few years is exemplary of his broader efforts to make downtown a gathering place and not just a Monday-through-Friday, 9-to-5 place.

Plotkin said his involvement with the festival began in 2005 when he served as a volunteer for what was known then as the Hoop City Jazz Festival, staged in the quad on the STCC campus and later at Riverfront Park. At first, he worked with founder John Osborne and other members of a committee to create a slate of performers, and later got involved with the fund-raising side of the venture.


“I really loved the idea, but I was troubled with the event not being in the downtown, and I said to John, ‘I don’t really want to do this anymore unless we move it to the heart of downtown in Court Square,’” Plotkin recalled, adding that, when he convinced Osborne and the mayor to make that move, the event, and the city, were energized by it.

When Osborne fell ill at the start of this decade and the event fell into limbo, Plotkin was instrumental in bringing it into a new era with a new name, the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival.

Now entering its sixth year, the festival is doing what Plotkin envisioned it would — it is using music to bring a diverse audience of people to celebrate music and energize the city and its downtown.

“When I look out the audience and see the faces and the different demographic groups that attend, and the overwhelming joy that people have congregating in that park and listening to music … it’s kind of like a Woodstock,” he explained. “It’s like a love fest.

“Music breaks boundaries, it breaks barriers, and it brings people together,” he went on. “I know that’s cliché of me to say, but it just … seems to work.”

Many other initiatives that Plotkin has led have worked as well. That list includes Art & Soles, which placed dozens of five-foot sneakers around the downtown area and beyond; City Mosaic; the conversion of the ninth floor of 1350 Main St. into what’s known as Studio 9, a community gathering space; use of the front lobby — and now other spaces — at 1350 Main for use as gallery space; work in partnership with artist James Kitchen to bring many of his metal sculptures to the downtown area; and much more.

As he reflected more on Springfield, its downtown, and what it will take to make the city a destination, Plotkin talked about building blocks and how his work and that of others represents putting such blocks on top of one another to build something substantial — and lasting.

“I think one of the next big things that needs to happen is to focus on how we can redevelop some of the class B and C office space into market-rate or affordable housing so we can attract people down there,” he said of just one the ‘blocks,’ the all-important housing component. “But that’s only going to happen when we restore our parks, reconnect the river to the city, and do something about the lack of attention given to those aspects of building a vibrant downtown.

“If you start making moves in these directions, and if you start restoring your public spaces, these efforts will all lead to that general sense of well-being that people have,” he went on, “and the positive feelings that people have about being here and living here.”

Walking the Walk

It’s safe to say few people have ever traveled down Court House Walk. And even fewer have noticed the small plaque commemorating its restoration four decades ago or taken the time to read it.

Evan Plotkin has, and while reading, he allowed his mind to drift back to the day people gathered at that spot, gave speeches, and cut a ribbon.

Although he recognizes that the walkway is a comparatively modest example of a space that needs to be activated, of something once celebrated that has since been forgotten, it is nonetheless symbolic of everything he has worked for and continues to work for.

It’s not about the past and bringing back good old days, but about the future, and creating a Springfield that people will want to live in and work in and visit to take in a jazz festival.

Like art, and, yes, even food art, this work has become a passion for Plotkin, and it has made him a true Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2018 Difference Makers

Author, Educator Enlightens and Empowers Those She Touches

009_crystalsenterbrownledeinside-diff2017The book is titled Gabby Gives Back, and that certainly doesn’t leave much room for imagination when it comes to the plotline.

Yes, Gabby is a young girl who discovers the many benefits of philanthropy. In case you haven’t read it — and since this is a business publication and the tome in question is a children’s book, that’s probably the case — ‘Gabby’ visits a nonprofit called Maggie’s Place with her father and greets people (she’s too young to help directly) as he serves up hot meals. As they’re walking home, Gabby says she wants to find to her own way to give back, and does, bringing some old coats to Maggie’s Place for distribution to those less fortunate. She actually gets to meet a young girl in need and hand her a coat to try on. The coat fits, the book ends, and a series of activities like a giving-back-themed ‘trace a word’ begin on the next page.

There. That’s the whole story in one paragraph.

Well … not really. That’s a book report on Gabby Gives Back. The story is what happens when some area young people read it.

Indeed, author Crystal Senter-Brown expected the book to move and motivate young audiences, but she didn’t expect several children to try to donate the only coat they owned as a result.

“But that’s what happened,” said Senter-Brown as she talked with BusinessWest in a small room in the Hatch Library at Bay Path University, where she’s an adjunct professor. “Children are coming home without their coats, and their parents are asking what happened. Kids are reading the story, they’re seeing that she’s giving a coat to this little girl … they’re just hearing, ‘if you see someone who doesn’t have a warm coat, give them your coat.’”

That’s one example of how Senter-Brown has motivated individuals to step forward and step up, but there are many others.

And Gabby Gives Back is just one part of a growing portfolio of children’s books and novels penned by Senter-Brown. Others include another chapter in Gabby’s life; another children’s book called AJ & the Magic Kite; a coloring/activity book about African-American inventions; a collection of poems she titled But You Have Such a Pretty Face, a reference to the line she said she heard so often in her youth and came to loathe; a novel called The Rhythm in Blue, which is being made into a movie, and its sequel, But Now I See.

Each work is different in plot and tone, but there are similar underlying currents and motivations on the author’s part, and they are also prevalent in her teaching, work within the community, and motivational speeches — primarily to single mothers and those who have children at a young age, about not letting go of their dreams.

Overall, Senter-Brown says she wants to enlighten and empower others, especially girls and women, and give them … well, more of whatever it is they need to stare down life’s challenges.

And ‘whatever’ takes a number of forms, from history lessons that help a young African-American become proud of his heritage (as we’ll see in a minute) to determined efforts to take students far out of their comfort zones in a class she teaches at Bay Path University called “Leadership in Practice.”

This is a six-week course — part of the university’s Women as Empowered Leaders and Learners (WELL) program — during which students, both traditional and non-traditional, identify both a need a community and a method for meeting that need.

“It’s just six weeks, so they don’t have much time,” Senter-Brown explained. “Many people will do a food drive or a clothing drive, or they’ll volunteer at a local nursing home, but it pushes a lot of people out of their comfort zone, because they think they don’t have time for this because they’re raising families, or they just don’t have an interest in it.”

One of the motivations for creating the class is to generate that interest, she went on, adding that, while some students enter the class unconvinced of their need to become involved in the community, few if any of them leave it feeling that same way.

Through her children’s books, teaching, work within the community, and ability to inspire young people to give up the coats on their backs, she has shown that one person can truly make a difference in the lives of others.

Getting the Word out

Getting back to AJ and that magic kite, the title character is a young boy of color who is teased at school and told by those who don’t look like him that African-Americans are “useless,” the type of discourse that makes going to school far less fun than it should be.


Later, at home, he falls asleep, to be awakened by a boy with a kite that takes the two aloft and to places like an intersection where an accident has just taken place — because there is no traffic light.

And there’s no traffic light because the three-light traffic signal was invented in 1920 by African-American Garret Morgan, and the point of this exercise — in It’s a Wonderful Life fashion — is to use the kite to show what the world would be like without such people of color.

There are other stops at a tall building — James Cooper invented an elevator-safety device — and back at AJ’s home, where he learned that O. Dorsey invented the doorknob, among others.

At the end, AJ goes back to school. Those who don’t look like him offer the same taunts, only this time they bounce off; AJ is proud of who he is and comfortable, if you will, in his own skin.

Such empowerment is, as mentioned earlier, at the heart of all of Senter-Brown’s work, which in many ways has been inspired by personal experiences and what she saw and felt while growing up in Morristown, Tenn. and later, after relocating to Western Mass. with her mother to be near family. (Her mother later moved back to Tennessee).

She said she started writing poetry when she was only 5, but didn’t really share anything she would write with others — including a host of love poems and short stories — until she was in her 20s. She took a creative-writing class at Springfield Technical Community College, and developed a passion for poetry and other forms of writing, all of which fall in the category of storytelling.

Her first published work was a collection of her poems she titled Double Dutch, with her favorite being one she called “Peanut Butter & Jelly,” a message to her mother, who helped her raise the son she had when she was 18 years old.

Years later, she penned another collection of poems called But You Have Such a Pretty Face, a phrase which, as noted, she came to hear — and resent — as a child growing up.

“I’ve been told that my whole life — that I had a pretty face and if I lost weight I’d be even prettier,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she fully understands that she’s far from alone when it comes to women who have heard that phrase or words to that effect.

“I never took it as a complement,” she went on, adding that it was the word ‘but’ that always grated her — and obviously others who have heard it. “They’re saying, in essence, all these other things are wrong, but you have a pretty face.”

Her poems, and all her work, for that matter, are intended to empower people, but especially women and girls and African-Americans, to move beyond what others say or think about them and not let phrases like ‘But you have such a pretty face’ affect their psyche, their goals, or their lives.

One selection, “A poem for black girls” (a tribute to Nikki Giovanni’s “Poem for Black Boys”, is an effective example. It reads, in part:

You carry fire with you wherever you go,

Hands on hips, head tilted to the side

Big brown eyes full of wonder

No one can be like you!

You will never have to pay for

Full lips, wide hips, curly hair

You already have it naturally, because can’t you see

No one can be like you!

Your skin shades — from sunlight to Bermuda brown

No sunbathing is needed, you wake up naturally tanned,

No one can be like you!

Story Lines

Until very recently, writing was something that Senter-Brown did in what amounted to her spare time, and in many ways, those efforts dovetailed nicely with what she did for a living, which was actually volunteer work that morphed into a job and a career.

One of her family members was diagnosed with leukemia at a young age, and thus she became familiar with many of the services provided by the American Cancer Society, such as providing rides to treatment sessions for those who needed them.

Inspired, she became a volunteer herself, and this work eventually led to her working for the nonprofit at its Holyoke office as a community market manager. In that role, she ran a host of non-medical patient programs, such as those rides to appointments.

Following a restructuring, her job was eliminated last summer, leaving her to explore a number of career options moving forward — but also with more time to write, speak, and continue a program that puts backpacks laden with school supplies in the hands of needy children and single mothers going back to school. And, in general, to continue her efforts to empower women and girls, aspects of her life’s work that have developed and evolved over the past several years.


Such as her children’s book-writing exploits.

Working in conjunction with her mother — also her illustrator and collaborator on everything from the clothes worn by her characters to specific storylines — she started with Gabby Saturday. As with the subsequent book chronicling the life and times of her chief protagonist, for lack of a better phrase, the chosen name does a good job giving the plot away.

While explaining what Gabby does with the Saturday in question, Senter-Brown drops in messages about the environment — she and her mother take the bus instead of their car to reduce smog in their city — as well as the importance of culture and learning (they visit a museum, and it’s noted that her mother takes her to poetry recitals regularly), spending time as a family, and helping out at home (Gabby earns a dollar by sweeping the floors).

The author joked that, while she hopes all those messages are received, what she hears most often from young people is that the title character gets only a dollar for performing her chores, and that doesn’t go very far.

Kidding aside, she believes her messages are coming across, especially the ones about self-worth.

“With everything I write, I want people to walk away feeling better than they did before they started reading, and I want them to be inspired, especially children, because they’re our key to having a better future.

“If you can plant little seeds in children when they’re young,” she went on, “they can pass that on to their families and their own children.”

Like her favorite author, Stephen King, Senter-Brown said she doesn’t outline her books before she starts typing. “He [King] said, ‘I just write and let the characters talk to me,’” she recalled. “It works for him, and it works for me.”

The Next Chapter

As for her own story, career-wise and otherwise, Senter-Brown hasn’t outlined that, either.

“I’m excited … I feel like my values are finally aligned with what I want to do,” she explained when asked about what comes next. “I’ve always worked helping people; working at the cancer society was great, because I was able to come in every day and know I was going to help someone. So I know I’m going to continue to do that.”

Whatever the eventual path is, she said she will continue to seek out ways to enlighten and empower others.

That includes more books (Gabby appears destined to return) and school appearances, where she visits classrooms, reads one of her books, and imparts practical lessons on giving back and other topics. Often, she’ll bring a large box full of items that could be donated to individuals in need and ask students to identify those that are appropriate and those that are not, such as perishable foods and a shirt with holes in it.

She’ll also continue teaching, although she said empowerment and a desire to give back to the community are not really things you can teach. It’s something students must gain themselves, she went on, adding that she is as much as mentor and motivator as she is an actual teacher.

And she has helped motivate her charges to find some intriguing ways to give back.


There was the student who developed care packs for the mothers who deliver premature babies and must spend long hours and days at the neonatal intensive care unit. Another put together a DVD collection for those being treated at Baystate Children’s Hospital, and others have developed new initiatives for animals and young people.

In addition to her teaching, she also does a lot of what could be called motivational speaking. Many of her talks are in front of small audiences of single mothers or women who, like Senter-Brown herself, had children at a very young age and, as a result, had to confront feelings that they had to abandon some of the hopes and goals for their own lives.

“A lot of women who have children young think, ‘that’s it,’” she said. “And sometimes it is harder with a baby if you’re single. But you don’t have to let that stop you from doing what you want you want to do, stop you from fulfilling your dreams.’

“You can’t let that happen, because your children are watching you,” she went on, with a discernable sense of conviction, even urgency, in her voice. “Children watch what we do, and we have to keep moving forward.”

Senter-Bown says she gives several of these talks a year, often at shelters for teen mothers, the homeless, or those who have been abused. She said her basic mission is to help such individuals with the immensely difficult task of seeing past today.

“Many of them can’t see past right now because they don’t have a place to live, they don’t have any money in the bank, and maybe their relationship has ended,” she told BusinessWest. “I’m able to help them see a year out and envision what they want their life to look like. We can create the life that we want; we have to see it first, though.”

Reading Between the Lines

Flipping back to The Rhythm in Blue, that novel being made into a movie … it’s about a groom who gets cold feet. He needs some time away and winds up driving south to the home of a female ‘friend.’ The wedding doesn’t happen, but something bad does happen to his fiancé; the groom blames himself … as the author puts it candidly, “there’s a lot going on.”

If you want more, you’ll need to buy the book; it’s on Amazon ($15), which describes it as “story about failure, redemption, forgiveness, and, above all, love”). Or wait for the movie.

As for Senter-Brown, her story is still being written. As she noted, she’s not sure what the next chapter will be. She does know, and by now this isn’t exactly a spoiler alert, that she will continue to find ways to give back, empower others, and inspire those who read or hear her words to do the same.

In other words (and those are the tools of her trade), she will go on being a Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2018 Difference Makers

A Unique Nonprofit Meets Some Very Special Needs

Craig, Will, and Maria Burke.

Craig, Will, and Maria Burke.

Kim Schildbach says she and her husband bought the trampoline on Craigslist back in 2013.

The price tag was only $60, and that number spoke volumes about its condition. “It was in decent shape, but … we knew it had a little life left in it, but not a lot,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, not long after they brought Anelia, the young girl they adopted, to their home in Leverett from her native Bulgaria a year later, that trampoline’s life had pretty much run its course.

And giving it some new life became important, because Anelia is blind and has other developmental challenges, and bouncing on a trampoline is one of many forms of therapy for her.

Replacing the unit was simply not in the Schildbachs’ considerably tight budget, so they turned to a unique but somewhat obscure nonprofit they had heard about called the WillPower Foundation for some help.

They were told that families of special-needs children, or ‘children with different abilities,’ as this nonprofit prefers to call them, could apply for small grants — $500 is the limit — for items like, well, trampolines, that are needed but not covered by insurance, and certainly not in the category of ‘necessity.’ So they often fall through the cracks.

To make a long story a little shorter, the Schildbachs were somewhat dubious about applying for another grant — they had filled out the forms for several as part of the exhausting process of adoption — but did anyway, found it took just a few minutes online, and wound up getting a grant to resuscitate their trampoline, among other things.

“They paid to replace the bouncy floor part and the thing that goes around the outside,” said Schildbach, who didn’t know the technical terms for what WillPower paid for, but certainly does know how important that grant was and is to the quality of life for her daughter.

Just listen to this.

“I put a milk crate by the side of the trampoline,” she explained. “Anelia has learned to get up on the milk crate, put one leg up over the side of the trampoline, and push herself up. Anie is very globally delayed, but she has some superpowers, as we call them, and one of them is navigation; she uses her cane, and amazingly she has an awareness of the space around her in a way that … I can’t do when I’m walking around the house at night and the lights are off.

“She gets on that trampoline and bounces away,” Schildbach went on. “It’s so good for them to move their bodies, the endorphin release is good, and then there are these things called vestibular stimulation, which is any kind of movement that is soothing to kids who come from traumatic places.”

The Schildbachs have two blind children from traumatic, or ‘hard’ places, as Kim calls them — they adopted Mabel from China in 2016. And they have now received two grants from the WillPower Foundation to pay for everything from that trampoline to what are known as sensory toys.

And this is just one of dozens of families across the region to benefit from that nonprofit, which was inspired by and named for another young person with at least one super power, Will Burke. His is the ability to inspire others to live life to the fullest, to move above and beyond the many obstacles life can throw at someone, and to give back.

Born with a rare brain malformation and adopted by Maria and Craig Burke, Will underwent a number of surgeries and procedures early in life at the Shriners Hospital for Children.

His parents, desiring to find a way give back to the Shriners, started with a three-on-three basketball tournament, with the proceeds going to that institution. While the tournament thrived, the Burkes and a growing corps of supporters wanted to do more and also do something quite different.

Four of the Schildbach children: from left, Anelia, Mabel, Jericho, and Olive.

Four of the Schildbach children: from left, Anelia, Mabel, Jericho, and Olive.

After considerable thought, they created a foundation that would put money directly in the hands of families that needed it.

The foundation is approaching two important milestones — its 10th year of operation and the $200,000 mark when it comes to grants awarded to families across the region. Actually, it will mark three milestones in 2018, with the last one coming in March when Will Burke will make his way to the stage at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House to accept the Difference Maker plaque from BusinessWest.

That plaque is in the shape of a butterfly, which, as most of you know by now, was chosen as a nod to the so-called ‘butterfly effect,’ whereby small and seemingly innocuous events like a butterfly flapping its wings can have a huge impact.

Perhaps no award winner in the program’s 10-year history better exemplifies the butterfly effect than the WillPower Foundation. The grants it issues are for only a few hundred dollars, but no one who receives one would ever use that word ‘only,’ because they are literally life-changing in nature.

Just ask Kim Schildbach.

Allowing Spirits to Soar

As she talked about WillPower and its importance within the community, Kim said the families of special-needs children, or, again, ‘those with different abilities,’ have lists of things they have to pay for.

Long lists, usually.

A $60 pair of cordless headphones for music-loving Anie (that’s another form of therapy for her)? Well, that would usually have to wait for “another week,” said Kim, adding that it might be many of those before the family, living on one income, could fit them in, if it ever did.

But through those two grants received from the Willpower Foundation, the family was able to get those headphones, as well as a rocking horse for Mabel, something called a “sensory backpack,” and some fidget toys, as they’re called — all things that insurance would not pay for and that would have had to wait for ‘another week.’

Missy Roy tells a similar story. Her daughter, now 7, has Down syndrome and needs a host of services and special equipment. But she also needs (and her family also needs) someone to advocate for her when it comes to school and other matters.

And insurance won’t cover the services of such a professional, which is unfortunate, said Roy, because some of these matters are technical in nature.

“When you’re just a parent, you don’t know all the ins and outs of school and what the law says,” she told BusinessWest. “You need an advocate, but insurance won’t pay for it.”

Such advocates charge $50 an hour for their services, and the $500 grant from the Willpower Foundation covered roughly two-thirds of her total bill. Likewise, another grant helped pay for a device to help’s Roy’s daughter communicate. Insurance covered 80% of the cost of a device known as an Accent 1000 (sticker price: $7,000), but Roy had to cover the rest. Her load was lightened appreciably by a second $500 grant.

Life-easing episodes like these are the kind the Burkes and the board they would assemble had in mind when they took the Willpower Foundation off what amounts to the drawing board and made it the truly unique nonprofit that it is.

And as they did so, they drew on their own experiences early and often. Will was born prematurely and was adopted by the Burkes when he was just seven weeks old. The couple had what they described as a huge support system of family and friends, and they relied on it.

Jeff Palm says the WillPower Foundation strives to be as “unbureaucratic” as possible as it helps parents pay for equipment and services that fall between the cracks.

Jeff Palm says the WillPower Foundation strives to be as “unbureaucratic” as possible as it helps parents pay for equipment and services that fall between the cracks.

“We had a lot of support from our families, but as we went along, we knew we had to get some help,” said Craig Burke. “And while Marie is so awesome at making things work, a lot of things were not accessible to us financially or just available at all.

“So we vowed that, someday, once we got through all this, we would try to do something to do give back,” he went. “We received a lot of support early on, but there were a lot of out-of-pocket expenses, and we knew others were facing the same challenge.”

So, in essence, the Burkes created a different kind of support system in the form of a nonprofit that would help with those expenses. In the beginning, Craig recalled, one of the early concepts discussed was to create something approaching a ‘make a wish’ format involving parents, whereby, through $1,000 grants, they could take some time off for themselves, something that is often very difficult to do, and their children would be cared for by a professional.

What they found, said Maria Burke — and they already knew this from experience — is that the parents of special-needs children don’t ever want to leave them. So the model for the nonprofit evolved into providing grants for items families need but that insurance won’t cover.

And when it came time for affix a name to this nonprofit, well, that was probably the easiest part.

Indeed, Will has been inspirational in many ways as he confronts, and overcomes, the many challenges he faces, said Maria, adding that his spirit and tenacity actually empowers others to reach their full capabilities.

A huge fan of video games and Rob Gronkowski, and an even bigger fan of blue cheese — the first thing the Burkes do when they arrive at a restaurant is ask if it’s on the menu — Will is involved with the nonprofit on many levels and enjoys being part of efforts to give back.

“I like to help people,” he said in a somewhat slow voice that is difficult to understand at first. But he gets his points across. “I like to help them by getting them what they need.”

Getting a Lift

Jeff Palm, chairman of the foundation’s board and a long-time supporter of the Burkes’ efforts, said the goal at the beginning — and it has persisted to this day — is to make the awarding of grants as “unbureaucratic” as possible. That’s not a word, and he acknowledged as much, but you certainly get the point.

If ‘unbureaucratic’ was a word, it would be synonymous with simple, which is what the foundation works very hard to make the application process. Just ask Kim Schildbach. She’s filled out hundreds of forms in the process of adopting their first two and now a third child.

“We make sure that we’re crossing our ‘T’s and dotting our ‘I’s and that we’re not just throwing people’s trusted money out the door,” Palm explained. “But we try to make it simple; we put money in the hands of families, and we fund really interesting and unusual things that make a child’s life easier and, as a result, make a family’s life easier.”

Elaborating, he said WillPower enables families to acquire equipment and services that essentially fall through the cracks.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, this is a big list. It includes everything from therapeutic horseback riding to the services of a speech-language pathologist; from electrical outlets with the proper voltage needed for a ventilator to the percentage of an Accent 1000 not covered by insurance.

To explain the importance of such grants, Palm used the example of that electrical outlet.

“The child had a ventilator that would plug only into a 220 plug, like a dryer plug,” he explained. “Every time that respirator needed to be on for the child, they had to wheel him over to that corner of the house and plug it in.

“They applied to us for a grant, and we found an electrician to put that plug in a place that was much more convenient for the family, and the child could be part of the family unit when the ventilator was needed,” he went on. “You just wouldn’t find an insurance company that would pay for something like that, and there are a lot of stories like that.”

Sarah Aasheim, interim executive director of the foundation, agreed, and noted that the nonprofit fills gaps that most people not in the situations these families find themselves in couldn’t appreciate.

Sarah Aasheim says the WillPower Foundation helps to close gaps that those on the outside looking in might have a hard time understanding.

Sarah Aasheim says the WillPower Foundation helps to close gaps that those on the outside looking in might have a hard time understanding.

“These are things that you often don’t think about,” she told BusinessWest. “The ventilator was covered by insurance, of course, so from the outside looking in, it looks like that family would be all set. But when you understand the nuances of these situations, you realize that there are a lot of unmet needs.”

As another example, she noted the kind of assistive technology that Will uses to help him communicate, called a ‘talker.’ One child who relied on such technology faced another of those funding gaps that might be hard for others to grasp.

“This child used a wheelchair, and while the insurance company paid for the device, it didn’t pay for the mount that goes on the child’s wheelchair, which costs an additional $300, which is a financial hardship for this family,” she explained. “The child had a talker, but he couldn’t access the talker because he didn’t have the motor skills to hold it and it didn’t work with his wheelchair, so we supplied the funding for that. Sometimes it’s just a bridge or a connection to meet a larger need.”

By filling these gaps, the foundation is empowering not only individuals, but their families as well, said Emily Albelice, former executive director and now a board member.

“That child’s ability to communicate better serves the entire family unit,” she said referring to the device mounted to a wheelchair. “And that’s something that’s important to us; it’s not just about the individual, but their family, their friends, their community.”

Fortuitous Bounce

Stories such as these make it easy to understand why the WillPower Foundation is far less obscure than it was years ago. Indeed, word of mouth has served as a very powerful marketing vehicle for the organization, because the word being spread — and it has spread quickly and effectively — is just how unique and game-changing the foundation’s work is.

“When families that are experiencing financial hardship find out there’s a resource that gives them cash — albeit a small amount — for something they determine they need, the word spreads very quickly,” said Aasheim, adding that, as word spreads and the volume of grant applications grows, the challenge then becomes raising more money to fund more of those requests.

Fortunately, just as this nonprofit resonates with those it helps through grants, it also resonates with those who recognize the uniqueness of the mission, the level of need, and the fact that many of these families don’t have many other options, if any at all.

Thus, support is growing, and the foundation’s board is looking to increase annual grant awards to $30,000, an ambitious goal made possible by the help of individuals and businesses that, as noted, and in very simple terms, can relate.

“The more we spread the word, the more information about what we’re doing gets out, the more the local community as a whole wants to support families like ours,” said Maria Burke. “Honestly, almost everyone you meet knows someone with a disability, and every business has an employee with a family member with a disability. Everybody can say they know someone who is facing these challenges every day, and that’s why they embrace our mission.”

The foundation stages fund-raisers, solicits donations, and benefits from the support of several primary sponsors — the law firm Alekman DiTusa, Orthotics and Prosthetics Labs, and LePage Financial Group.

Ryan Alekman and Robert DiTusa, partners at the law firm, said it is active in the community in a number of ways, and that the work of the WillPower Foundation dovetails nicely with its overall philosophy when it comes to giving back.

“We can see our money doing a lot of good with a smaller organization, as opposed to putting the same amount into a giant nonprofit,” said Alekman, adding that the firm prefers to support nonprofits and initiatives where the results are visible and tangible, and the WillPower Foundation certainly fits that description.

DiTusa agreed, and said the foundation produces these kinds of visible results with families that are truly in need and often have no other recourse.

“There are so many gaps in insurance, and most people really don’t understand that,” he explained. “They figure ‘that family has health insurance, those kids must be fine, they’re taken care of.’

“But if you have a disabled child, there’s a ton of things that they’re going to need that are not covered by insurance,” he went on. “The gaps are enormous, and if have a nonprofit like the WillPower Foundation that steps in and fills those gaps, that can make an enormous difference in a child’s life.”

Just ask Kim Schildbach. Or Missy Kim. Or Will Burke.

Reaching New Heights

Maria Burke remembers talking with the young mother of a child with special needs at a recent gathering of such parents. The conversation came around to how insurance often doesn’t cover the cost of many seemingly small but nonetheless significant services, leaving families scrambling.

And the woman mentioned that she heard about this unique nonprofit called the WillPower Foundation that actually awards small grants to the families of such individuals so that these gaps could be closed, and that it was certainly worth checking it out.

Burke quietly took those comments under advisement — without letting on that this was her baby, as they say.

That’s because her real baby is the inquisitive guy in the wheelchair with those superpowers mentioned earlier, especially the ability to inspire and empower others to do what they might have thought was beyond their reach.

Will’s been setting the bar higher and then clearing it his whole life, and the foundation created in his name is enabling individuals of different abilities and their families to do the same.

And thus, it’s truly worthy of that plaque shaped like a butterfly and the designation ‘Difference Maker.’

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