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Difference Makers

Difference Makers

Honorees since the first class of 2009


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


The Community Colleges of Western Massachusetts; Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College
•    Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round
•    Denis Gagnon Sr., President & CEO of Excel Dryer Inc.
•    Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts
•    Joan Kagan, President & CEO of Square One.


•    Hampden County Sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr.
•    Mike Balise, Balise Motor Sales, Philanthropist (1965-2015)
•    Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire Counties
•    Bay Path University President Carol Leary
•    John Robison, president, J.E. Robison Service


•    Katelynn’s Ride
•    Judy Matt, president of Spirit of Springfield
•    MassMutual Financial Group
•    The ownership group of the Student Prince and the Fort
•    Valley Venture Mentors


•    The Gray House
•    Colleen Loveless, executive director of the Springfield chapter of Rebuilding Together
•    The Melha Shriners
•    Paula Moore, founder of YSET Academy and a teacher at Roger L. Putnam Vocational Training Academy
•    Michael Moriarty, attorney, director of Olde Holyoke Development Corp., and supporter of childhood literacy programs


•    Michael Cutone, John Barbieri, and Thomas Sarrouf, organizers of Springfield’s C3 Policing program
•    John Downing, president of Soldier On
•    Bruce Landon, president and general manager of the Springfield Falcons
•    The Sisters of Providence
•    Jim Vinick, managing director of Investments for Moors & Cabot Inc.


•   Charlie and Donald D’Amour, president/COO and chairman/CEO of Big Y Foods
•   William Messner, president of Holyoke Community College
•   Majors Tom and Linda-Jo Perks, officers of the Springfield Corps of the Salvation Army
•   Bob Schwarz, executive vice president of Peter Pan Bus Lines
•   The Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts


•    Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission
•    Lucia Giuggio Carvalho, founder of Rays of Hope
•    Don Kozera, president of Human Resources Unlimited
•    Robert Perry, retired partner/consultant at Meyers Brothers Kalicka
•    Anthony Scott, Holyoke police chief


•    The Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation
•    Ellen Freyman, attorney and shareholder at Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, P.C.
•    James Goodwin, president and CEO of the Center for Human Development
•    Carol Katz, CEO of the Loomis Communities
•    UMass Amherst and its chancellor, Robert Holub


•    Doug Bowen, president and CEO of PeoplesBank
•    Kate Kane, managing director of the Springfield office of Northwestern Mutual Financial/the Zuzolo Group
•    Susan Jaye-Kaplan, founder of GoFIT and co-founder of Link to Libraries
•    William Ward, executive director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County
•   The Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield

Difference Makers

Honorees since the first class of 2009


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


The Community Colleges of Western Massachusetts; Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College
•    Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round
•    Denis Gagnon Sr., President & CEO of Excel Dryer Inc.
•    Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts
•    Joan Kagan, President & CEO of Square One.


•    Hampden County Sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr.
•    Mike Balise, Balise Motor Sales, Philanthropist (1965-2015)
•    Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire Counties
•    Bay Path University President Carol Leary
•    John Robison, president, J.E. Robison Service


•    Katelynn’s Ride
•    Judy Matt, president of Spirit of Springfield
•    MassMutual Financial Group
•    The ownership group of the Student Prince and the Fort
•    Valley Venture Mentors


•    The Gray House
•    Colleen Loveless, executive director of the Springfield chapter of Rebuilding Together
•    The Melha Shriners
•    Paula Moore, founder of YSET Academy and a teacher at Roger L. Putnam Vocational Training Academy
•    Michael Moriarty, attorney, director of Olde Holyoke Development Corp., and supporter of childhood literacy programs


•    Michael Cutone, John Barbieri, and Thomas Sarrouf, organizers of Springfield’s C3 Policing program
•    John Downing, president of Soldier On
•    Bruce Landon, president and general manager of the Springfield Falcons
•    The Sisters of Providence
•    Jim Vinick, managing director of Investments for Moors & Cabot Inc.


•   Charlie and Donald D’Amour, president/COO and chairman/CEO of Big Y Foods
•   William Messner, president of Holyoke Community College
•   Majors Tom and Linda-Jo Perks, officers of the Springfield Corps of the Salvation Army
•   Bob Schwarz, executive vice president of Peter Pan Bus Lines
•   The Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts


•    Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission
•    Lucia Giuggio Carvalho, founder of Rays of Hope
•    Don Kozera, president of Human Resources Unlimited
•    Robert Perry, retired partner/consultant at Meyers Brothers Kalicka
•    Anthony Scott, Holyoke police chief


•    The Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation
•    Ellen Freyman, attorney and shareholder at Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, P.C.
•    James Goodwin, president and CEO of the Center for Human Development
•    Carol Katz, CEO of the Loomis Communities
•    UMass Amherst and its chancellor, Robert Holub


•    Doug Bowen, president and CEO of PeoplesBank
•    Kate Kane, managing director of the Springfield office of Northwestern Mutual Financial/the Zuzolo Group
•    Susan Jaye-Kaplan, founder of GoFIT and co-founder of Link to Libraries
•    William Ward, executive director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County
•   The Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield

Class of 2018 Cover Story Difference Makers

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

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

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

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

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

Photography by Leah Martin Photography


005_bolducbob-diff2017Community Pride

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

032_charlandbobmain-diff2017Pedal to the Mettle

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

022_girlsincmain-diff2017A Force to Be Reckoned With

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

017_plotkinevan-diff2017Portrait of the Artist

Evan Plotkin Works to Fill in the Canvas Known as Springfield

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]

Class of 2017 Difference Makers Event Galleries Features

Scenes From the Ninth Annual Event

The 2017 Difference Makers

The 2017 Difference Makers


More than 450 people turned out at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke on March 30 for a celebration of the 2017 Difference Makers, the ninth annual class of individuals and organizations honored by BusinessWest for making an impact in their Western Mass. communities. The photos on the next few pages capture the essence of the event, which featured musical entertainment by the Taylor Street Jazz Band, fine food, and thoughtful comments from the honorees. This year’s class, chosen by the editor and publishers of BusinessWest from dozens of nominations, include the: the Community Colleges of Western Massachusetts; Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College; Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round; Denis Gagnon Sr., President & CEO of Excel Dryer Inc.; Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts; and Joan Kagan, President & CEO of Square One.

Sponsored by:

RoyalPC SunshineVillage first-american-logo nortwestern-mutual
mbk-300x141 jgs-lifecare oconnell-care-at-home hne_logo_cmyk_stack-page-001

Go HERE to view the sponsor’s videos

For reprints contact: Leah Martin Photography

From left, Dajah Gordon, Sabrina Roberts, and Johnalie Gomez

From left, Dajah Gordon, Sabrina Roberts, and Johnalie Gomez, teenagers involved in Junior Achievement of Western Mass., a 2017 Difference Maker.

Susan Jaye-Kaplan, a 2009 Difference Maker, and Bob Perry, a 2011 Difference Maker.

Susan Jaye-Kaplan, a 2009 Difference Maker, and Bob Perry, a 2011 Difference Maker.

Bob Pura, president of 2017 Difference Maker Greenfield Community College (left), chats with Ted Hebert of Teddy Bear Pools & Spas.

Bob Pura, president of 2017 Difference Maker Greenfield Community College (left), chats with Ted Hebert of Teddy Bear Pools & Spas.

Joe Marois of Marois Construction (left) chats with Ed Murphy and Molly Murphy of event sponsor First American Insurance.

Joe Marois of Marois Construction (left) chats with Ed Murphy and Molly Murphy of event sponsor First American Insurance.

From left, Darlene Francis of event sponsor JGS Lifecare, Ethel Griffin and Colleen Loveless of Revitalize CDC, Kathleen Plante of BusinessWest, and Mary-Anne Schelb of JGS Lifecare.

From left, Darlene Francis of event sponsor JGS Lifecare, Ethel Griffin and Colleen Loveless of Revitalize CDC, Kathleen Plante of BusinessWest, and Mary-Anne Schelb of JGS Lifecare.

From left, Noni Moran, Dennis Murphy, and Amber Letendre of event sponsor First American Insurance.

From left, Noni Moran, Dennis Murphy, and Amber Letendre of event sponsor First American Insurance.

Al Kasper of Savage Arms with Jennifer Connolly, president of 2017 Difference Maker Junior Achievement of Western Mass.

Al Kasper of Savage Arms with Jennifer Connolly, president of 2017 Difference Maker Junior Achievement of Western Mass.

The community colleges of Western Mass., honored collectively as 2017 Difference Makers, were represented by their presidents, from left, Bob Pura of Greenfield Community College, Ellen Kennedy of Berkshire Community College, Christina Royal of Holyoke Community College, and John Cook of Springfield Technical Community College.

The community colleges of Western Mass., honored collectively as 2017 Difference Makers, were represented by their presidents, from left, Bob Pura of Greenfield Community College, Ellen Kennedy of Berkshire Community College, Christina Royal of Holyoke Community College, and John Cook of Springfield Technical Community College.

From left, Shawna Biscone of event sponsor Royal P.C., Julie Cowan of MassDevelopment, Tara Brewster of Greenfield Savings Bank, and Amy Royal of Royal P.C.

From left, Shawna Biscone of event sponsor Royal P.C., Julie Cowan of MassDevelopment, Tara Brewster of Greenfield Savings Bank, and Amy Royal of Royal P.C.

From left, Patricia Faginski of St. Germain Investment Management, Amanda Huston of Elms College, Jennifer Connolly of 2017 Difference Maker Junior Achievement of Western Mass., and Rebecca Connolly (Jennifer’s daughter) of Moriarty & Primack, P.C.

From left, Patricia Faginski of St. Germain Investment Management, Amanda Huston of Elms College, Jennifer Connolly of 2017 Difference Maker Junior Achievement of Western Mass., and Rebecca Connolly (Jennifer’s daughter) of Moriarty & Primack, P.C.

From left, from Square One, Dawn DiStefano, Bonnie Katusich, Kristine Allard, Karen Smith, 2017 Difference Maker Joan Kagan, and Andrea Cincotta.

From left, from Square One, Dawn DiStefano, Bonnie Katusich, Kristine Allard, Karen Smith, 2017 Difference Maker Joan Kagan, and Andrea Cincotta.

From left, Brigit Shea-O’Connell, Fran O’Connell, and Rachel Normantowicz of event sponsor O’Connell Care at Home.

From left, Brigit Shea-O’Connell, Fran O’Connell, and Rachel Normantowicz of event sponsor O’Connell Care at Home.

Michael Curran of the Taylor Street Jazz Band.

Michael Curran of the Taylor Street Jazz Band.

2017 Difference Maker Denis Gagnon Sr., president and CEO of Excel Dryer, with his wife, Nancy.

2017 Difference Maker Denis Gagnon Sr., president and CEO of Excel Dryer, with his wife, Nancy.

From event sponsor Northwestern Mutual, from left, Adey Thomas, Darren James, Cara Cole, Kate Kane, Donald Mitchell, and Craig Knowlton.

From event sponsor Northwestern Mutual, from left, Adey Thomas, Darren James, Cara Cole, Kate Kane, Donald Mitchell, and Craig Knowlton.

From event sponsor Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C., from left, Howard Cheney, James Krupienski, John Veit, Brenda Olesuk, and Donna Roundy.

From event sponsor Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C., from left, Howard Cheney, James Krupienski, John Veit, Brenda Olesuk, and Donna Roundy.

Top row, from left: Glenda DeBarge of event sponsor Health New England (HNE); Jen Stone of USI Insurance Services; Mark Keroack of Baystate Health; Ashley Allen, Jody Gross, and Jessica Dupont of HNE. Bottom row: Michelle Martone of USI (left) and Yvonne Diaz of HNE.

Top row, from left: Glenda DeBarge of event sponsor Health New England (HNE); Jen Stone of USI Insurance Services; Mark Keroack of Baystate Health; Ashley Allen, Jody Gross, and Jessica Dupont of HNE. Bottom row: Michelle Martone of USI (left) and Yvonne Diaz of HNE.

Back row, from left: from event sponsor Sunshine Village, Teri Szlosek, Amie Miarecki, Michelle Depelteau, Peter Benton, and Jeff Pollier. Front row, from left: Colleen Brosnan and Gina Golash Kos from Sunshine Village, and Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos.

Back row, from left: from event sponsor Sunshine Village, Teri Szlosek, Amie Miarecki, Michelle Depelteau, Peter Benton, and Jeff Pollier. Front row, from left: Colleen Brosnan and Gina Golash Kos from Sunshine Village, and Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos.

Back row, from left: from TD Bank, Gregg Desmarais, Peter Simko, Dave Danker, and Tracey Alves-Lear. Front row, from left: from TD Bank, Christina Sousa, Bela Blake, Jana Seiler, and Claudia Pereira.

Back row, from left: from TD Bank, Gregg Desmarais, Peter Simko, Dave Danker, and Tracey Alves-Lear. Front row, from left: from TD Bank, Christina Sousa, Bela Blake, Jana Seiler, and Claudia Pereira.

BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti welcomes attendees to the Log Cabin.

BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti welcomes attendees to the Log Cabin.

Back row, from left: from event sponsor JGS Lifecare, Karen Petruccelli, Christina Tuohey, and Susan Halpern. Front row, from left: from JGS Lifecare, Darlene Francis, Mary-Anne Schelb, and Martin Baecker, with George Sachs from Acme Metals & Recycling.

Back row, from left: from event sponsor JGS Lifecare, Karen Petruccelli, Christina Tuohey, and Susan Halpern. Front row, from left: from JGS Lifecare, Darlene Francis, Mary-Anne Schelb, and Martin Baecker, with George Sachs from Acme Metals & Recycling.

BusinessWest Publisher John Gormally (left) with Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno.

BusinessWest Publisher John Gormally (left) with Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno.

From left, Monica Borgatti and Ellen Moorhouse of the Women’s Fund of Western Mass., a 2012 Difference Maker, and Elizabeth Fisk and Danielle LeTourneau-Therrien of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County, a 2016 Difference Maker.

From left, Monica Borgatti and Ellen Moorhouse of the Women’s Fund of Western Mass., a 2012 Difference Maker, and Elizabeth Fisk and Danielle LeTourneau-Therrien of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County, a 2016 Difference Maker.

Steve Levine applauds 2017 Difference Maker Joan Kagan, president and CEO of Square One.

Steve Levine applauds 2017 Difference Maker Joan Kagan, president and CEO of Square One.

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien congratulates 2017 Difference Maker Denis Gagnon Sr., president and CEO of Excel Dryer.

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien congratulates 2017 Difference Maker Denis Gagnon Sr., president and CEO of Excel Dryer.

Class of 2017 Difference Makers

Steady Course

The Community Colleges of Western Massachusetts

Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College,
Holyoke Community College, and Springfield Technical Community College

The region’s community-college presidents

The region’s community-college presidents, from left, Bob Pura, Ellen Kennedy, John Cook, and Christina Royal.

Jeff Hayden had spent more than an hour talking about the critical roles played by community colleges in this region — while also listening to colleagues do the same — and desired to put an exclamation point of sorts on matters with a story about a woman whose case he had come to know first-hand.

She was about to earn a certificate of completion in a specific field from Holyoke Community College (HCC), and had a job interview set for the following week. She still had considerable ground to cover in terms of starting and then forging a new career, but she had a new-found confidence and sense of purpose, and wanted to let HCC officials know that — and know why.

“She said, ‘I’ve been out of work for almost five years; I thought I wasn’t worth anything, I didn’t think I could do anything, and my kids thought I could never do anything,’” Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services at the school, told BusinessWest. “She went on, ‘the opportunity you’ve given us through this program is something that has not only changed my life, but changed my children’s lives as well.’

“Frankly, those of us at the region’s community colleges hear those stories often, which is great, and it’s a feel-good kind of thing,” Hayden went on. “But it’s one story at a time, and with the power of the four institutions here, it’s thousands of stories a year that happen in our region, where people are changed, and hopefully changed in a way that helps them with their family and with their career.”

Jeff Hayden, seen here with new HCC President Christina Royal

Jeff Hayden, seen here with new HCC President Christina Royal, says community colleges provide a vital pathway to an education, especially for first-generation college students.

With that, Hayden effectively and somewhat concisely explained why the four community colleges serving residents of Western Mass. — HCC, Berkshire Community College (BCC), Greenfield Community College (GCC), and Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) — have been chosen collectively as Difference Makers for 2017.

Through use of those phrases ‘the power of the four institutions’ and ‘thousands of stories,’ he hit upon the real and profound impact of the four schools, which have been making a difference now for almost 60 years in some cases.

Echoing Hayden, Bob Pura, president of GCC, said the community colleges act as both a door of opportunity, especially for those who don’t have many open to them, and a pathway to both careers and four-year degrees at other schools.

And GCC is a perfect example. It is the only institution of higher learning in Franklin County, the poorest and most rural in the state, said Pura, while stressing that point about access to an education, and it has one of the highest rates of transfer to four-year schools among the state’s 15 community colleges.

“I don’t think there is a region in this state better served by community colleges,” said Pura, who stressed the plural and saw the six other people gathered around the table in a classroom at HCC’s Kittredge Center nod their heads in agreement. “We’re the pathway for the infrastructure in our community; the socioeconomic futures of our communities pass through the doors of our collective colleges.”

By ‘better served,’ Pura meant work beyond the schools’ historic mission of providing potentially life-altering opportunities to their students. Indeed, they are also playing important roles in a host of ongoing economic-development initiatives across Western Mass.

HCC’s involvement in the Cubit building project

HCC’s involvement in the Cubit building project in downtown Holyoke is just one example of how community colleges have become forces in economic-development efforts.

In fact, if one were to name a key issue or specific program, one will likely find one of the community colleges involved with it at one level or another.

Start with the region’s workforce. The schools are the proverbial tip of the spear in initiatives ranging from the retraining of manufacturing workers displaced by the decline of that sector to preparing individuals for the myriad jobs in the broad healthcare field that will have to be filled in the years to come; from training area residents for many of the 3,000 or so jobs to be created by the MGM Springfield casino to providing specific help with closing the so-called skills gap now plaguing all sectors of the economy and virtually every business, a problem addressed mostly through a program called TWO, as we’ll see later.

But there are other examples, as well, from STCC’s work to help precision manufacturers build a steady pipeline of talent to BCC’s involvement with efforts to create new opportunities for jobs and vibrancy at the sprawling former General Electric complex in Pittsfield, to HCC’s decision to move its culinary arts program into a mostly vacant former mill building in downtown Holyoke, thus providing the needed anchor for its revitalization.

All of these examples and many more help explain why the region’s community colleges — individually, but especially as a group — are true Difference Makers.

Schools of Thought

Community colleges, formerly known in some states as junior colleges, can trace their history back to 1901 (Joliet Junior College in Illinois is generally considered to be the first).

There are now nearly 1,200 of them enrolling close to 8 million people. They come in all shapes and sizes, some with just a few hundred students and others with enrollment in the tens of thousands.

In the Bay State, community colleges can trace their roots to 1958, when an audit of state needs recommended the establishment of a community-college system to address the need for more diversity and access to higher education in the Commonwealth, which, then as now, has been dominated by a wealth of prestigious (and expensive) private colleges and universities.

The reality is that the mission of a community college — to provide access to excellent education for the local community — is what we do, and we do it in sometimes unique ways. But what we also do is recognize the fact that there are times when shaking the hand and working together is far more effective than trying to go out on our own.”


The recommendation was adopted by the Legislature in August of that year, and the accompanying legislation included formation of the Board of Regional Community Colleges, which established nine of the current 15 schools within a five-year period, starting with BCC in 1960.

“We were the first one,” said Ellen Kennedy, president of that Pittsfield-based institution, with a discernable note of pride in her voice, while acknowledging that what is now HCC has a longer history, because that school began as Holyoke Junior College, which opened in 1946.

GCC opened its doors in 1962, and STCC, housed in the historic Springfield Armory complex, which was decommissioned in the mid-’60s, opened amid some controversy — HCC is only eight miles away as the crow flies, and many thought there wasn’t a need for two community colleges that close together — in the fall of 1967.

Today, community colleges in Massachusetts and across the country face a number of common challenges, including smaller high-school graduating classes, which are impacting enrollment; funding levels that are imperiled by dips in the economy and devastated by serious recessions, such as the one that began nearly a decade ago; and graduation rates that are impacted by the many burdens faced by the community-college constituency — everything from finances to life issues (jobs and family) to even transportation.

But overall, community colleges are seeing a surge of sorts. Indeed, amid the soaring costs of a college education and the ever-rising amounts of debt students are being saddled with, the two-year schools are being seen by many as a practical option to at least begin one’s education.

Meanwhile, host cities and regions are becoming more cognizant of their ability to help provide solutions to workforce and other economic-development-related issues and problems.

This is especially true in Western Mass., where many gateway cities, including Springfield, Holyoke, and Pittsfield, are facing stern challenges as they attempt to reinvent themselves and move on from their collective past as industrial centers, and regions (especially Franklin County) face spiraling unemployment, aging populations, and outmigration of young people.


BCC’s efforts to develop new opportunities for the former GE complex

BCC’s efforts to develop new opportunities for the former GE complex in Pittsfield (in its heyday, above, and today) is another example of community colleges becoming involved in economic-development initiatives.

But at their very core, community colleges are still all about access — that open door that Pura mentioned. They all have what’s known as open admission, meaning anyone who has a high-school diploma or GED must be admitted. But while getting in isn’t a problem, staying in, and hanging in until a diploma or certificate is earned, can be, and often is.

Thus, increasingly, schools have been focusing on that broad, multi-faceted assignment of helping students succeed — with whatever it is they are trying to succeed at.

There are many elements that go into this equation, said those we spoke with, from programs focused on basics, including language skills, to new degree and certificate programs to meet specific industry needs, to a host of partnerships with area four-year schools that include not only articulation agreements but efforts to bring those schools’ programs onto the community-college campuses to help those facing time and transportation issues.

Meeting this role, this mission, makes the community colleges unique in the pantheon of higher education, and even public higher education. It is a niche, if you will, or, for many, including those we spoke with, a career path they’ve chosen for any of several reasons, but often because they can relate to the students in their charge.

Such is the case with Christina Royal, the recently named president of HCC, who is so new to the role she chose to let others, like Hayden, speak about the school’s history and specific current projects while she got fully up to speed.

But in a candid interview with BusinessWest upon her arrival, she said that, when she went to Marist College, a private liberal-arts school in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., she was the first in her family to attend college, and it was a struggle for the family to send her there.

So she understands what community-college students are up against, and chose that constituency, if you will, as the one she wanted to serve.

“The experience of community colleges — dealing with a lot of first-generation college students who don’t always understand the value of what they’re doing and also how to navigate it to be successful — these are things I can relate to from my own background,” she said. “And I think that has created a connection with the community colleges for me and helps me understand the students we serve. I’ve found a home in the community-college system.”

The original faculty and staff at STCC

The original faculty and staff at STCC pose in front of the old officers’ quarters at the Springfield Armory. The school was created in 1967 to focus on preparing students for careers in technology-related fields.

John Cook, who succeeded Ira Rubenzahl as president of STCC last summer, is similarly attracted to the community-college mission and unique role.

Formerly the vice president of Academic Affairs at Manchester (N.H.) Community College, he cast a wide net when seeking opportunities to lead a school, but was specifically focused on community colleges, which, he said, have a direct role in serving their communities (hence that middle name for all these institutions) and their residents, not employers across the country or halfway around the world, as the major private institutions do.

Pura agreed. “The students who come to our colleges are those who stay here,” he explained. “They’re the ones who will run the ice cream shop and the small nonprofit, and they’re going to be part of the leadership for our hospitals.”

The Jobs at Hand

Beyond providing access and pathways to opportunities, however, the region’s community colleges have become increasingly larger role players in area workforce and other economic-development-related initiatives.

Such roles are natural, said Cook, noting that the schools pride themselves on being nimble, responsive, and, overall, good listeners when it comes to the community — including the business community — expressing specific concerns and needs.

And while such programs solve problems for businesses, the communities they’re based in, and the region as a whole, said Bill Fogarty, HCC’s vice president for Administration and Finance, who served as interim president until Royal arrived, they also benefit individuals who may or may not have a job, but instead need a career.

“All of our capital investments, whether it’s the new Center for Health Education or the Cubit Building and the culinary center, or any of the others, have been geared toward getting people in the door,” he explained, “and getting them a basic type of credential they can use, and then providing pathways so they can further their education.”

Examples of economic-development-related initiatives that are also creating opportunities for individuals abound, and we’ll start with BCC, which has been active in efforts to help that region move past the huge shadow left by GE and other elements of a manufacturing-based economy, said Bill Mulholland.

He recently retired after a lengthy career at BCC, most recently as vice president of Community Education and Workforce Development, a title that speaks volumes about the work he was involved with in recent years. And as he started talking about that work, he referenced a Berkshire Eagle headline — “High-paying Jobs Going Unfilled” — from January 1998.

Upon reading it, he called Pura and invited him to lunch, at which there was broad discussion that eventually led to creation of something called the Berkshire Applied Technology Council.

“This is an industry-driven organization focused on workforce development,” Mulholland explained. “As we got all the companies together, we said, ‘what are your biggest needs?’ And when we boiled it all down, the commonality was basic math, writing, all of the basic skills.”

That’s where organizers started with a program that would be called (here comes that word again) Pathways, he went on, adding that the initiative effectively checks many of the boxes community colleges are trying to check, including direct involvement with businesses, providing individuals with the basic skills needed to contend for jobs and careers, working in collaboration with other community colleges and other partners, and creating progress with efforts to keep young people from migrating out of the region.

Another very specific example is the college’s involvement in the work to create an advanced manufacturing facility (the Berkshire Innovation Center) that will become the centerpiece of the William Stanley Business Park, created on the former GE site. Specifically, the school is developing training programs for individuals that will be employed by companies based there.

“What’s significant about this, for us and for the Commonwealth, is that we’re reinventing our manufacturing,” he said. “It’s about high-technology capabilities; so many of the original equipment manufacturers are outsourcing up to 70% to small and mid-sized enterprises because we’re quick, we’re nimble, and we innovate. That’s the focus of the innovation center, and it’s more about the human capital now than it is about the equipment, although that’s important as well.”

Human capital, and creating more of it, is at the heart of many BCC initiatives, he went on, adding that the school is also involved with efforts to bolster the creative economy that is becoming a force across Berkshire County and especially a revitalized Pittsfield, as well as the tourism industry that has always been a pillar.

As examples, he cited a filmmaking course designed to help provide trained individuals for the many film companies and special-effects houses that now call that region home, and also a special customer-service course for those seeking to enter the hospitality industry.

Manufacturing Momentum

Meanwhile, at GCC, manufacturing is also a prime focus, said Pura, adding that the region has lost a number of large employers in this sector over the past several decades and is intent on both retaining the companies that remain and attracting new ones.

To this end, a manufacturing collaborative was formed involving the college, employers such as Yankee Candle and Valley Steel Stamp, the Regional Employment Board, career centers, and area high school.

“What became clear was that we needed to invest in our infrastructure; facilities were very antiquated,” said Alyce Stile, dean of Workforce Development and Community Education (same title as Mulholland) at GCC, adding that, with $250,000 in seed money from many of the employers and grant money attained as a result of that investment, Franklin County Technical School has been transformed into a state-of-the-art facility.

With that foundation, GCC was able to start its first adult-education evening program — one firmly focused on the basics — with the help of considerable feedback from STCC, BCC, and other partners.

No, the region’s community college presidents have not been reassigned

No, the region’s community college presidents have not been reassigned. They’re merely using some artistic license to display a pattern of cooperation and collaboration that is only growing.

To date, more than 100 students have gone through the program, said Stiles, with the even better news being an employment rate of more than 80%.

Other recent initiatives have included a nursing ladder program designed to put more individuals in that important pipeline, and also a comprehensive study of just what area employees want and need from the workers of today and tomorrow. The results were not exactly surprising, but they were enlightening.

“Employers made it clear that what’s needed are the communication skills, the ability to critically think through and problem-solve in an innovative way, and the ability to work well with other people,” he explained, adding that a panel comprised of area employers ranging from Herrell’s Ice Cream to Baystate Franklin Medical Center recently emphasized these needs and discussed the next critical step — programming to help ensure workers possess these skills.

In Hampden County, meanwhile, initiatives involving the two community colleges there have generated considerably more press, and, like those in the other regions, have involved high levels of collaboration between the schools and a wide variety of other partners.

At the top of the list, perhaps, is TWO (Training and Workforce Options), a joint effort between STCC and HCC that provides custom contract training for area businesses and industry-sector collaborations.

To date, TWO has created training programs for call centers and customer-service workers, manufacturing production technicians, hospitality and culinary positions, home-health-aide workers, and healthcare-sector employees who need to become versed in the recently introduced medical coding system known as ICD-10, among others.

Another collaborative effort, this one involving all the community colleges, is the Mass. Casino Careers Training Institute, which, as that name suggests, is designed to help area residents become qualified for many of the positions that MGM Springfield — or any of the other casinos to open in the Commonwealth — will need to fill.

Other specific examples range from STCC’s involvement with CRRC, the Chinese company that will soon be building subway cars in Springfield’s East End, to secure a trained workforce, to HCC’s investment in Holyoke’s Innovation District through the Cubit project.

Degrees of Progress

As the presidents of the region’s four community colleges posed for some photographs for this piece, they each gathered up their respective school’s pennant, in a colorful, pride-nurturing exercise in effective identification.

Then, as a bit of fun, Pura had them shuffle the deck, if you will. This drill yielded some laughs and intriguing facial expressions, but also some symbolism if one chooses to look for it and accept it.

Indeed, while the schools remain immensely proud of their histories and track records for excellence, and do compete on a number of levels — for students, in some cases, and on all sorts of playing fields, especially — they also collaborate, and in ways that are often changing the local landscape.

It wasn’t always this way, especially when it came to HCC and STCC, mostly because of their proximity to one another and often-overlapping programs. But this spirit is certainly in evidence now, and the obvious reason is that the schools have realized that they can do more for the region by working together than by trying to do it alone, often with parallel initiatives.

“The reality is that the mission of a community college — to provide access to excellent education for the local community — is what we do, and we do it in sometimes unique ways,” said Hayden. “But what we also do is recognize the fact that there are times when shaking the hand and working together is far more effective than trying to go out on our own.”

Maybe the best example of both sides of this equation is the TWO program. Prior to its formation, the schools went about trying to forge skills-gap solutions themselves, and would often “bump into each other,” as he put it.

“It was not uncommon for a business owner to say, ‘Jeff, you’re here … but the guy from STCC was here last week,’ or vice versa,” he explained. “What we’ve recognized through some of these partnerships is that we need to work together; it’s better for the customer, it’s better for the student, and it’s better for the business.”

The effectiveness of that particular collaboration caught the attention of the Boston Foundation, which awarded the two schools the inaugural Deval Patrick Award for Community Colleges in 2015 (it came with a $50,000 unrestricted grant that they split), and in many ways it serves as an example of what other schools can do together — if they are so inclined.

The Mass. Casino Careers Training Institute, which will train workers for MGM Springfield

The Mass. Casino Careers Training Institute, which will train workers for MGM Springfield (see here in this rendering) and other casinos, is another workforce initiative involving the region’s community colleges.

“In the Boston market, they’re still really trying to figure out how to put such partnerships in place,” Hayden went on. “We talk about how we’re eight miles away from STCC or 21 miles away from Greenfield or 58 miles or whatever it is from Berkshire, but in Boston, you have four community colleges that could almost throw rocks at one another, and they can learn from this.

“The establishment of that kind of collaboration was more common sense than anything else,” he went on. “Why duplicate efforts? Why waste resources? Why not work together?”

There are countless other examples of this mindset, said Mulholland, who cited BCC’s addition of a medical-coding program.

“Our local health system said, ‘we’re going to ICD-10 — we need help here,’” he recalled. “We picked up the phone and called STCC, and we had the curriculum in no time. We were able to put it in and met the system’s needs in ways we never could have without partnering like that.”

Such partnering continues on many levels, and the schools are constantly looking for new ways to forge collaborations, said Cook, adding that he was calling and texting Royal within days of her arrival on Jan. 9 to initiate such discussions and continue a legacy of cooperation that has been handed down to the two of them.
“We have an obligation to do well by that tradition of cooperation,” he said. “It’s good for our schools, and it’s good for this region.”

Course of Action

Hayden said he doesn’t make a habit of it, but once in a while he will allow himself to think about what it would be like if HCC did not exist in that city.

It’s a whimsical exercise, but a nonetheless important one, he said, adding that, while some schools provide jobs, vibrancy, and a boost to service-related businesses in the city or town they call home, community colleges have an impact that runs much deeper. And it goes back to those words he and others would use early and quite often — ‘door’ and ‘pathway.’

Pura agreed, and to further the point, he summoned a comment he attributes to Allen Davis, former director of GCC’s foundation, and one he relates often.

“He said, ‘if Amherst College were to close, those students would find somewhere else to go; if GCC were to close, it would devastate this community,’” noted Pura. “And I think you can say that about all four of our institutions; if you were to close any of them, students would come to dead ends.”

The community colleges have instead made it their mission to provide inroads to better lives. And their success with that mission makes them more than worthy of the title of Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2017 Difference Makers

Seizing the Brass Ring

Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round Are Preserving a Treasure

Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round

Some of the many passionate Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round: from left, Jim Jackowski, Barbara Griffin, Angela Wright, and Joe McGiverin.

The giant scrapbooks, their newspaper clippings turning yellow and their heavy leather covers fraying and kept on with shoelaces, are getting on in years — as are the people who created them.

But the truly inspiring story they tell never gets old.

It’s about how one of the poorest communities in the Commonwealth, then and now, came together, in every sense of that phrase and against very long odds, to raise nearly $2 million during a stubborn recession to keep the historic Mountain Park merry-go-round in Holyoke.

Carefully chronicled in those scrapbooks, this story relates tireless fund-raising efforts — from generous donations given by large corporate players to a fishing derby with a $10 entrance fee that went to the cause; from phone-a-thons and mailed solicitations featuring carefully crafted pleas for support to sales of everything from sweatshirts to Christmas-tree ornaments out of a donated kiosk at the Holyoke Mall.

It also captures work to find, finance, build, staff, open, and operate a home for the merry-go-round in Holyoke’s Heritage State Park in late 1993, an important chapter in this tale and one with many twists and turns.

John Hickey, a.k.a. “Mr. Holyoke,”

John Hickey, a.k.a. “Mr. Holyoke,” rallied the city to seize a “glittering brass ring.”

And those scrapbooks poignantly reflect, through photos, news stories, and his own commentary in the daily Holyoke Transcript Telegram, the passion, commitment, and drive of one John Hickey, known to most as “Mr. Holyoke,” who rallied the city and unified it behind what was, at the time, a most unlikely cause.

“He was determined; he felt like this was an important piece of Holyoke’s history and that there needed to be a way to save it,” Angela Wright, long-time volunteer director of the merry-go-round and one of the leaders of the effort to keep it in the Paper City, said of Hickey, then head of the Holyoke Water Power Co., who passed away in 2008. “He was like a pied piper … he went to every meeting, every organization, every business he could to stress the importance of this. And he got a city behind him.”

Indeed, Hickey ended one of his op-ed contributions (a piece that has become part of Holyoke lore) with a question that doubled as a rallying cry.

“There’s a glittering brass ring out there,” he wrote in reference to the carousel. “Will the people of Holyoke extend themselves to capture it?”

Indeed, they would, as the pages of those scrapbooks make clear, and more than 1.2 million people have gone for a ride.

But the last entry in those volumes is from Dec. 1, 1994 — a short story about upcoming Christmas happenings at the carousel — and, therefore, they don’t tell the whole story.

Indeed, while the efforts to buy the carousel and then begin its next life in downtown Holyoke could be described as ‘heroic’ and ‘monumental,’ what has transpired over the past 23 years or so and continues today is worthy of equal praise, said Jim Jackowski, business liaison for Holyoke Gas & Electric and long-time president of Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round Inc., the organization created to not only buy the treasure, but manage it and preserve it for future generations.

The second part of the equation isn’t captured in the scrapbooks because, for the most part, that hard work doesn’t generate headlines, he said. But the challenges to operating and properly maintaining the carousel — everything from spiraling insurance costs to non-stop maintenance to restoration work on the ornate horses — are many and formidable.

But the same passion that went into raising the money to buy PTC 80 (the 80th carousel built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Co.) goes into the work to keep the ride spinning today — and tomorrow, said Jackowski.

“It’s been a labor of love — it was then, when we were raising the money to buy it, and it still is today,” he explained.

One of the many ads designed

One of the many ads designed to emphasize what Holyoke would lose if the merry-go-round went to another buyer.

And that sentiment is perhaps best summed up with words from the Transcript Telegram, which played its own sizable role in the efforts to save the carousel.

Its presses fell silent in January 1993 as the paper succumbed to disastrous losses in the wake of the early-’90s recession. But it still has a voice on this subject (and this Difference Makers award) thanks to an editorial published just a few weeks before the paper closed.

The occasion was a decision of the state Department of Environmental Management to award $300,000 for the construction of a building in Holyoke’s Heritage State Park for the carousel, providing it with a home and, essentially, sealing the deal.

“If one project in recent history had to be chosen to represent the best Holyoke has to offer in community spirit, from the youngest child to the most senior resident,” the paper roared, “then the campaign to save the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round is it.”

More than 24 years later, those words still ring true.

Mane Attraction

Among the many individuals, groups, and businesses that donated in-kind services to the cause of saving the merry-go-round was the Hartford-based marketing and advertising firm Adams & Knight Communication.

The firm had a number of specific assignments — from designing promotional brochures destined for potential donors to crafting copy for print ads that ran in the Transcript Telegram and elsewhere. But one of its very specific tasks, apparently, was finding children with the ability to look sad. Really, really sad.

Children recruited for ads used in the merry-go-round campaign had plenty of practice looking sad.

Children recruited for ads used in the merry-go-round campaign had plenty of practice looking sad.

For example, there’s one young girl displaying that talent in an ad (that appeared in multiple outlets) in which she stands next to one of the carousel’s horses wearing a sign around its neck reading ‘sold.’ She’s holding on to its reins as if she doesn’t want to let go, clear symbolism of the city’s attitude at the time.

She makes another appearance, along with two other children, in an ad that features a broad view of the carousel with the headline “Imagine Telling Them That the Ride Is Over … for Good.”

And there’s a despondent yet still-hopeful young boy featured in yet another full-page ad. He’s holding out his piggy bank, as if to offer whatever’s in it. The headline reads, “Why He’s Putting All His Money on a Horse.”

But it wasn’t just young people enlisted to send this message. Indeed, several teenagers (from the ’50s, presumably, based on their attire) are featured in still another ad with the headline, “If You Care About Holyoke’s Future, Put Money Down on Her Past.”

In essence, this is what the campaign started in 1988 was all about, said those we spoke with, adding that it wasn’t just about keeping PTC 80 from being sold off as a unit or piece by piece and shipped overseas.

It was also about people investing in the city’s future, said Jackowski, meaning both the generations to come and the city itself, which needed a boost to spark its sagging fortunes and deteriorating downtown.

These sentiments are reflected in comments attributed to then-Mayor Marty Dunn (another of this story’s many heroes) in one of the many promotional pieces created to solicit support.

“This is not a toy,” said the mayor. “It is a folk-art masterpiece and a powerful attraction for our downtown.”

The merry-go-round has, by most accounts, become that spark, that attraction, thanks to the campaign to save it and, more specifically, that group that came to be known as the Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round.

It was created and led by Hickey, who first approached John Collins, owner of Mountain Park, who closed that attraction in 1987, with a proposal to allow the city of Holyoke to buy the carousel and thereby keep it ‘home.’

By most accounts, this wasn’t exactly a hard sell. Indeed, while Collins reportedly had some handsome offers for the merry-go-round on the table, including a rumored $2 million, he was supportive of the efforts to keep it in the city, and thus he set the bar, or price tag, low — $875,000.

While there was considerable support for the merry-go-round, in Holyoke and beyond, all those involved knew that raising that kind of money, at that time and in that community, would be very difficult. And, as we’ll see, the community would soon see that number rise considerably.

It’s been a labor of love — it was then, when we were raising the money to buy it, and it still is today.”

And this is where our story — the one told through the clips in those scrapbooks — really begins.

However, those we spoke with say it really starts with John Hickey.

Indeed, he was the one, said Wright, who convinced Holyokers, then facing a mountain of other, seemingly more pressing issues, from rampant unemployment to soaring poverty to a declining downtown, that the merry-go-round was still a treasure worth saving.

“In the beginning, people were saying, ‘are you kidding — a merry-go-round?’” Wright said while trying to capture the mood at the time. “There were so many other problems, from homelessness to the schools to downtown. People said, ‘how can you be thinking about raising money for a merry-go-round?’

“John would say to them, ‘you don’t understand — beauty is for your soul; there needs to be art, music, and beauty in this world, for everyone,’” she went on. “He would say, ‘this is as important as food’; he would make that comparison and stress the importance of art in one’s life.”

Round Numbers

To effectively reach the people of Holyoke, and beyond, Hickey would make early and frequent use of the Transcript Telegram’s op-ed page. Some of his early entreaties capture his passion for the project and his belief that it was an important part of the city’s history, identity, and psyche.

“A city needs more practical things, like sewage-treatment plants, snow plows, water filtration, better roads, and good school buildings,” he wrote on March 5, 1988, just as the campaign was being conceptualized. “But it also needs objects that nourish its spiritual life. A beautiful and historic, million-dollar merry-go-round may be a bit of mirthful indulgence, but it will give us, for generations, a special kind of happiness and pride.

“It is sad that we are losing our historic amusement park,” he would go on a few paragraphs later, “but it would be tragic if we stood by, doing nothing, and letting its centerpiece, the merry-go-round, become the object of pride and fame in some other distant city.”

Merry-go-round employee Kathie McDonough, left, staffs the concession stand with long-time volunteer Maureen Costello.

Merry-go-round employee Kathie McDonough, left, staffs the concession stand with long-time volunteer Maureen Costello.

Beyond passionate rhetoric, though, Hickey understood that this campaign needed a solid foundation on which to build, and to erect one, he turned to the many banks and other prominent corporate citizens at that time, said Wright.

“He pulled together all the CEOs and banking leaders and put them in a room,” she recalled, adding that, prior to this now-historic gathering, he took them to Mountain Park for a ceremonial and sentimental look at the carousel. “He talked for an hour about the value of this merry-go-round, not only to families and kids, but for history, nostalgia, as an anchor to downtown … he went through the whole thing.

“And he said, ‘unless you people commit a big number — and I mean a big number — then we can’t do it,’” she went on. “And by then, he had them practically in tears.”

Before the meeting convened, a big number, $300,000, had indeed been pledged, she went on, adding that, as for the rest … well, there were a variety of imaginative, and effective, strategies put to use, as told by the stories, ads, and posters clipped into the scrapbooks.

Famously, schoolchildren in the city raised $32,000 in two weeks from selling cookies and candy door-to-door, and for that work, a plaque was placed next the armored lead horse in their honor (such plaques were placed under each horse to commemorate donors.)

There was that fishing derby at the Jones Ferry Marina (“now is the time not to flounder,” wrote the creative scribe at the Chicopee Herald); Holyoke Community College raffled off a free semester of study to aid the cause; musicians performed at a benefit concert; the city’s aldermen launched a charity ball, with the merry-go-round as the first recipient of proceeds; commemorative stamped envelopes were issued with the likeness of the lead horse on them (the price was 25 cents, which will tell you how much water has passed under the bridge).

Also, schoolchildren sold Christmas ornaments; artists sold limited lithographs of the carousel; there were car washes, phone-a-thons, a 10th-anniversary party at the mall, with the carousel as the beneficiary. And at the Merry-Go-Round Gift Store (the storefront donated by the mall) and other locations, supporters could buy hats, ornaments, tote bags, sweatshirts, a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, mugs, notecards, and several different posters with carousel imagery. The headline on the ad promoting it all in the Dec. 9 issue of the Transcript read, “Now You Can Finally Get a Pony for Christmas.”

Turn for the Better

As noted, the brass ring Hickey mentioned became the unofficial prize, if you will, and the phrase appeared repeatedly in ads and news stories throughout the campaign.

But even as the original goal of more than $1 million came closer to reality, the bar moved, and in a big way, said Wright, noting that, from the beginning, organizers knew they would have to build a home for the carousel.

They had a pledge from the state of $300,000 to build that home, she said, but as time went on, huge doubts emerged about whether the state could uphold its end of the bargain given the enormous financial pressure it was under, and whether that amount would be enough.

As things turned out, the state did keep its promise, but that figure wasn’t nearly enough (bids for the structure came in at twice that total).

Photography by Leah Martin

Photography by Leah Martin

But funds to cover the difference were raised with significant help from Warren Rhoades, then-president of PeoplesBank, she said, adding that this triumph would be one of the countless enduring stories from the campaign to save the carousel and then operate it, many of which simply didn’t generate headlines, but certainly contributed to that phrase ‘labor of love.’

As she recounted some of them, Wright said she didn’t really know where to start.

She eventually settled on Jim Curran, a contractor and owner of the Wherehouse banquet and meeting facility in downtown Holyoke, who not only stored a large amount of the carousel’s thousands of components — most of the horses were kept in a locked railroad car, and Hickey even kept some in his living room — but also took the carousel apart and played a huge role in the very complex, time-consuming effort to put it all back together.

“It was like a giant puzzle,” she explained. “There were boxes and boxes of nuts and bolts; it was mind-boggling to me.”

Wright also mentioned her husband, Joe (the couple have a long history of philanthropy in their native Holyoke), who assisted with piecing the carousel together and maintaining it; Tim Murphy, the architect who designed the carousel’s new home in Heritage State Park; Will Girard, a neighbor of the Wrights who has assisted with seemingly endless repairs and maintenance; the Gaul family, which donated the huge concession stand now at the carousel, replacing what amounted to a card table that was there at the start; Craig Lemieux, who volunteered the time and labor that went into building the ramp to make the carousel handicap-accessible; and the Steiger family for gifting to the carousel the Tiffany window that graced its downtown Holyoke store.

And on she went, noting that there were, and still are, volunteer angels whose names she never knew and faces she never saw.

“When we first opened, we didn’t have any money; we had no debt, but we also had no money,” she said. “And people just did things. Like cleaning the windows — people would appear … in the dark of night; I don’t know, I never saw them.”

The Ride Stuff

In many respects, this community spirit and volunteerism continues today, said those we spoke with, adding that the task of keeping the carousel open and operating is daunting, and a small army of volunteers is still needed.

Speaking in broad terms, Jackowski said operating a merry-go-round is a tough business these days — so tough that many have actually closed in recent years — and this one is no exception.

He cited everything from the myriad competitors for the time and attention of children and families to the rising cost of doing business (and generally flat revenues), to changes in Holyoke itself.

“It’s like any other business — there are fixed expenses and just stuff that you have to do,” he said, adding that there is quite a lot of ‘stuff’ with this ride that is now nearly 90 years old. “It’s a piece of machinery that requires maintenance and upkeep and hardware. And the community has changed in the 20-plus years since we opened; we had a bigger presence of retail and shopping when we first opened, and a lot of what was downtown and drew people to the downtown is unfortunately not there anymore.”

As one example, he cited Celebrate Holyoke, the annual summer festival that drew tens of thousands of people to Holyoke during its four-day run, which was discontinued several years ago.

“That used to be a huge weekend for us — we would get 20,000 riders in four days,” he explained. “Once that went away, it was hard to make up those riders; even at $1 per head, that was $20,000.”

And that challenge goes a long way toward explaining why a ride now costs $2, which is still a great bargain and one of the lowest prices to be found for a merry-go-round.

But, as with the vast majority of museums and other types of attractions, admission doesn’t cover annual expenses, said Joe McGiverin, another long-time member of the Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round board, noting that labor (there are seven staff members) and, especially, insurance top the list of rising costs.

Thus, other sources of income must be developed and nutured.

Birthday parties, private functions, and a handful of weddings each year have long been one such source, said Barbara Griffin, another long-time board member and former staff member at the Log Cabin, who, with Jackowski and others, would handle the logistics of such events.

“That’s just one example of how of this is truly a working board — we don’t just go to meetings,” she explained, adding that, while the staff manages the carousel day-to-day and is largely responsible for that perfect safety rating, the attraction is dependent on volunteers today as much as it was when the money to buy the attraction was being raised.

And many of these volunteers have their own specific assignments, said Wright, who offered one of many examples.

“Joe is the security person — if the alarm goes off in the middle of the night, it’s his responsibility to go in there and see what’s going on,” she said. “Everyone on the board has a job, in one way or another.”

But overall, the volunteers are generalists, said McGiverin, and help with everything from keeping the grounds clean to staging the semi-annual Kentucky Derby-themed fund-raiser, called Derby Dazzle, at the site.

But there is another source of help at the carousel that speaks volumes about its hold on people — and its special place in Holyoke.

These would be the young people — and there are more than a few of them — who would like to ride but don’t have $2, said Griffin, adding that staff members will often let them take a spin in exchange for pushing a broom for a few minutes.

“If they want to sweep the floor or pick something up, we’d be more than happy to give them a little something in return,” she said, noting that, in the larger scheme of things, the carousel is what has been given to all of Holyoke, and the region as a whole, in return for the generosity that kept it here.

Wright agreed. “These kids … they know what we have, and you can’t let a kid walk by and just look in the window all day. You need to let them ride.”

That’s the kind of community spirit John Hickey was talking about all those years ago.

Words That Ring True

In March 1988, not even Hickey could have known what an attraction, and an institution, the merry-go-round would become.

Then again, maybe he did know. Or maybe … there’s no maybe about it.

What was it he wrote? “A beautiful and historic merry-go-round may be a bit of mirthful indulgence, but it will give us, for generations, a special kind of happiness and pride.”

Sounds quite prescient, as does that comment from the Transcript Telegram. Indeed, this was, and still is, the best Holyoke has to offer in community spirit, from the youngest child to the most senior resident.

And that’s why, nearly 30 years after this saga began, three decades after Hickey implored a city to reach for that “glittering brass ring,” the story about how it all happened never gets old.

And that’s also why the many Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round — those who have passed and those who still keep the city’s happiness machine turning — are true Difference Makers.

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

Class of 2017 Difference Makers

Cut and Dried

In Business and the Community, Denis Gagnon Is a Role Model

Denis Gagnon

Denis Gagnon

Denis Gagnon Sr. was asked about the origins of the signed, framed Tom Brady jersey that dominates one wall of his spacious office at Excel Dryer in East Longmeadow.

Rather than answer that question, he bolted up out of his chair and said, “think that’s nice? I’ve got something better … follow me.”

And with that, he walked briskly down the hall, with BusinessWest in tow, to the conference room, apologized as he ever-so-briefly interrupted a meeting in progress, and proudly pointed to a huge framed, autographed photo of Malcolm Butler, depicting the moment he stepped in front of Russell Wilson’s final pass in the 2015 Super Bowl, sealing a Patriots victory.

“How about that?” Gagnon, the company’s president, said of the photo, a gift from Pats owner Robert Kraft, who is now a valued customer of Excel Dryer, which, according to company literature — not to mention most people who have placed their hands under one of its products — has revolutionized the long-maligned hand-dryer industry.

Later, amid considerable and quite necessary prodding, he grudgingly revealed that signed photos and jerseys are just some of the many benefits that have come through what is now a very solid and multi-faceted marketing relationship between the Patriots and Excel (and donations to the team’s charitable foundation), up to and including the opportunity for Gagnon to actually get on the hallowed turf at Gillette Stadium, practice with the team, and play some catch with TB 12.

As noted, such reflections came reluctantly, because it is simply not in Gagnon’s nature to call attention to his actions or accomplishments. Those who know him well say he basically just goes quietly — and quite efficiently — about his business.

Denis Gagnon with his wife, Nancy, and sons Denis Jr., left, and Bill, right.

Denis Gagnon with his wife, Nancy, and sons Denis Jr., left, and Bill, right.

And by ‘business,’ they aren’t referring specifically to Excel and its signature product, the XLERATOR, although that’s certainly a big part of the conversation — the part referring to his strong entrepreneurial instincts, success in making the company’s products a global phenomenon, and even pride that the dryers are made not only in America (the only ones that can make such a claim), but in the 413 area code.

“I’m in the men’s room at Heathrow Airport … and I see East Longmeadow, Mass. on the XLERATOR,” recalled Gene Cassidy, president of the Big E, who has known Gagnon for years, “and it sends shivers up my spine; I wanted everyone in the lavatory to know that I knew Denis Gagnon.”

No, by ‘business,’ they were mostly referring to Gagnon’s strong track record of service to the community, which is notable for many reasons.

For starters, there’s simply the depth of that service, which includes everything from decades of work with the Boy Scouts and the Children’s Study Home to his multi-layered involvement with Link to Libraries (LTL).

There is also his ability to inspire others to become involved and make a difference in their own way.

He’s a man who not only sees the need, but takes action. He is very empathetic to those people in need and especially the young people of our community.”

Dana Barrows, a financial advisor with Northwestern Mutual, another long-time acquaintance and long-time LTL volunteer, explains.

“I was in Denis’ office four years ago, and I saw a picture of him with Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno,” he recalled. “I said, ‘what are you doing?’ and he replied that he was reading a book to school kids as part of Link to Libraries. And he told me I should check it out.

“I did, I’ve been reading ever since, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it,” he said, adding that this is but a small example of how Gagnon not only gets involved, but gets others to follow suit.

Humbly, Gagnon said simply, “if you have the good fortune of being in a good corporate job or owning your own business, like we’ve been able to do, you have a responsibility to give back to that community.”

And this philosophy was certainly handed down to his children, including those involved with him at Excel, Denis Jr. and Bill, who are both very active in the community (Bill is a member of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty class of 2013).

Mike Suzor, assistant to the president at Springfield Technical Community College and a serial entrepreneur himself, was a classmate of Gagnon’s at Cathedral High School, in the class of 1968. He remembers Gagnon as an excellent student, a multi-sport athlete, and someone who knew what it took to succeed on any stage, or playing field.

Mike Suzor

Mike Suzor, a long-time friend and former classmate of Denis Gagnon’s at Cathedral, says Gagnon has always understood what it takes to succeed at any level.

“I never met his parents, but they must have been great people,” he said, “because Denis learned very early on the value of honesty, integrity, and hard work — ‘don’t pass it off to someone else; get it done yourself.’ That attitude was there in high school, and it has stayed with him all through his career.”

“If you measure success financially, then he’s clearly successful,” Suzor went on. “But if you measure success by what kind of human being someone is … he’s one of the most successful people I’ve ever met.”

Rarified Air

Over the past 18 years or so, Gagnon has sat across from interviewers representing all manner of media outlets curious about the XLERATOR, from the small weekly paper that covers Longmeadow and East Longmeadow to the Wall Street Journal; from a host of trade publications, such as Restaurant Daily News, to Inc. magazine.

While the comments vary, obviously, he will undoubtedly tell the inquirer something he told BusinessWest back in 2003 — that, as entrepreneurial gambles go, Excel Dryer was anything but a rock-solid bet.

That’s because the company made a product that, by Gagnon’s own admission, people don’t like or want — electric hand dryers, a product that, historically, didn’t dry people’s hands as much as they would like.

As he explained back then, and has gone on explaining ever since, most businesses and institutions that installed hand dryers in those days did so because satisfying the customer — and that’s a relative term in this case — was not a priority, and saving money was. As examples, he listed airports, train stations, colleges, municipal buildings, sports stadiums, and even correctional facilities.

Today, businesses and institutions like those mentioned above, but also some certainly not on that list, are installing Excel models because they do place a premium on customer service — and also on protecting the environment and saving money.

Changing the hand-dryer landscape wasn’t exactly the stated mission when Gagnon bought a piece of Excel in 1992 and later acquired the entire company, but it quickly became not only a goal, but an obsession — one of those who knew Gagnon well firmly believed he would succeed with, even given the chosen product’s dubious history and uncertain future.

To explain, Suzor went into the wayback machine to Cathedral High, then home to 3,000 students, and memories of Gagnon the student-athlete.

“He was an incredible wrestler and first-team All-Western Mass. placekicker,” Suzor recalled. “In the wintertime, he would go out and kick field goals in the snow to practice; he was absolutely dedicated to excellence and doing whatever it took to be the best he could be. Going back to high school, he showed that.”

This pattern would continue at UMass Amherst and later in business, especially at what was then Milton Bradley, later Hasbro, and now Cartamundi, where Gagnon would rise in the ranks to vice president of International Sales.

This was a rewarding job in a number of ways, but also one that took him away from home quite often (he was responsible for the Pacific Rim region).

Desiring a change, and something closer to home, he and his wife Nancy would both join her family’s business, Springfield-based Bassett Boat, and he would help it achieve dramatic growth in the late ’80s. But the deep and lengthy recession that began at the end of that decade put a serious hurt on discretionary spending and thus the boat business, and Gagnon began searching for an entrepreneurial adventure of his own.

He and a partner thoroughly researched options, and set their sights on Excel Dryer, but the partner got cold feet, leaving Gagnon to pursue plan B, as he called it, which was to acquire a piece of that company and acquire the rest over time as he ran its sales and marketing efforts.

By 1997, when the acquisition was complete, he would begin the process of changing the equation when it came to the product that seemingly no one liked or wanted by partnering with (and essentially bankrolling) some inventors with a revolutionary new concept.

In time, it would come to be called the XLERATOR, which, as that name suggests, was painstakingly designed to reduce the time it took to dry one’s hands, while actually getting the job done.

Gagnon explains the technology, sort of, in one of the many interviews he’s given, this one with Restaurant Daily News.

“If I could describe the new drying system in layman’s terms, I would say that it delivers a focused, high-velocity air stream, which blows off excess water in three to four seconds,” he told that publication, “and evaporates the remaining boundary layer of moisture very rapidly. With a conventional hand dryer, it takes over 20 seconds before effective evaporation takes place, and 30 to 45 seconds overall to completely dry your hands.”

Denis Gagnon

Denis Gagnon stands beside one of the first XLERATORs, the hand dryer that changed perceptions about that product.

He skipped over much of the proprietary science and engineering that would eventually solve a noise problem and enable the XLERATOR to live up to its considerable promise and become the best-selling hand dryer in the world, with more than a million units now in use.

The map outside Gagnon’s office, the one with multi-colored push pins on seemingly every continent (covering more than 70 countries in which the product is now sold), does an effective job of explaining how far this company has come in less than two decades.

Having a Blast

But there are other ways to measure its success, and at Excel, there are many of them, including:

• Evolution of the venture into a true family business. Indeed, while Denis Gagnon is president, his wife, Nancy, who has been involved with the company from the beginning, serves as vice president, while son Bill, who joined after college when Denis was developing the XLERATOR and has since helped grow the company, is vice president of Marketing and Sales, and son Denis Jr. is vice president of International Sales;

• Continued expansion and diversification of the product line, including a new “XLERATOR integrated sink system,” as Gagnon described it (there’s a prototype at the Fort restaurant in Springfield and 168 of them at MGM’s new casino in Maryland). Developed in collaboration with Sloan Valve, it includes an automatic soap dispenser, automatic faucet, and an automatic dryer coming out of what looks like a faucet head. “You never have to leave the sink — you soap, wash, and dry your hands right there,” he explained, adding that the product is being brought to the marketplace by a separate LLC called D13 Group, run by his son Bill and son-in-law Lance;

• Continued expansion of the plant complex in East Longmeadow to accommodate a growing company and staff (the company now employs 49 people). Town officials recently approved plans for 5,000 square feet of additional warehouse, R&D, and engineering space;

• Official designation as an American-made product and being named as the inaugural winner of the ‘Made in the USA Certified Award’ in the ‘medium company’ category in 2013; and

• Continued exposure in the press. Over the years, the company and the XLERATOR has earned all kinds of ink and face time. It was one of Terry Bradshaw’s ‘picks of the week,’ on his CNN Headline News segment, for example, and has also been on the Science Channel’s How It’s Made show, the Discovery Channel’s Things We Love to Hate series (actually, the show was about how the XLERATOR is changing perceptions about hand dryers), and many more.

But, as noted earlier, success in business is really only one chapter in the Denis Gagnon story, and not the most important one, according to those who know him well.

Excel Dryer employees

Excel Dryer employees gather for a shot at the plant in East Longmeadow. The company has registered explosive growth in recent years.

Instead, it’s his work within the community that resonates most.

As he talked about that work — again, something he doesn’t like to do and would rather leave to others — he referenced a more-than-half-century-long relationship with the Boy Scouts of America and the many lessons imparted him through that involvement.

Especially those from his youth. Indeed, Gagnon, a member of Troop 424, which met at the Nativity Church in the Willimansett section of Chicopee, became an Eagle Scout at the age of 12, something that couldn’t be done today (one needs to be at least 14) and was a very rare achievement back then.

He remembers some of the scout credos, or marching orders, if you will, and said they’ve never left him.

“What’s the motto of the Boy Scouts? ‘Do a good turn daily’ — in other words, do something to give back to help other people,” he explained. “They teach you to be self-reliant, but they also teach you to give back, and that stays with you.”

Likewise, he’s never really left the Boy Scouts. He served as board president for eight years, for example, and, during that time, merged the Pioneer Valley Council and the Great Trails Council into the Western Massachusetts Council of the Boy Scouts of America. And he’s still on the board.

In addition, he’s been a long-time supporter of a number of agencies, including the United Way, the American Red Cross, Western New England University (he’s a trustee), and a host of veterans’ organization, including Wounded Warriors.

Also on that list is the Children’s Study Home, the oldest nonprofit in Western Mass., which was created in 1865 as the Springfield Home for Friendless Women and Children, serving mostly the widows of Civil War veterans.

He’s served that agency, which provides a host of innovative and educational programs to strengthen children and families, in a number of roles, including the current one — president emeritus.

“That means that, whenever something big happens, they know who to call,” he joked, adding that his son Bill is now on the board.

Buy the Book

Actually, a number of agencies have called Gagnon’s number over the years, generally because he rarely says ‘no,’ but especially because he does much more than simply write a check.

That was the case with Link to Libraries, which, as that name suggests, places books on school-library shelves, but also brings business leaders into the classroom to read and essentially adopt the school in question.

Excel Dryer now sponsors two schools, and eight people at Excel volunteer to read, he said, adding that this is a company-wide effort that goes beyond read-alouds. Indeed, the company has funded a field trip to Sturbridge Village and other initiatives. And, as noted, Gagnon has encouraged others, including Barrows, to become involved and sponsor schools themselves.

Susan Jaye-Kaplan, founder of Link to Libraries and one of the first Difference Makers brought to the stage at the Log Cabin back in 2009, said Gagnon’s involvement with LTL is a good example of how he immerses himself in a cause and offers support that goes well beyond a cash contribution.

“He’s one of the most humble and caring men that I know,” said Jaye-Kaplan, who was one of many to invoke the phrase ‘role model’ as she talked about Gagnon. “He has never forgotten where he comes from or the people who helped make him the man he is today.

“He’s a man who not only sees the need, but takes action,” she went on. “He is very empathetic to those people in need and especially the young people of our community.”

Cassidy agreed, and put to use some of the same words and phrases others would deploy as they talked about Gagnon: ‘quiet,’ ‘humble,’ ‘generous,’ ‘impressive,’ ‘family man,’ and ‘inspiring,’ to name a few.

“He works quietly and mostly behind the scenes,” he said. “I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from him throughout my career from the way he works with people, the way he deals with adversity, and especially his generosity to the community.”

Barrows, who’s been doing business in Western Mass. for more than 40 years now, went so far as to put Gagnon in the same company (and sentence) as the late Dick Stebbins, the long-time regional president of BayBank whom most credit with setting the standard locally when it comes to community service, and said Gagnon is essentially the standard bearer for his generation.

Stebbins and Gagnon had different platforms in the business community — the former with a large public corporation, and the latter with a much smaller, family-owned company, but both worked in essentially the same way, Barrows explained.

“When I think of the people of that stature in today’s Pioneer Valley business community, I think of John and Steve Davis, and I think of Denis Gagnon,” he explained, adding that there may be others he is less familiar with.

“Denis is a little more private, a little more anonymous with his work in the community,” he went on. “But his actions speak very loudly. He’s a major player, and he inspires others with what he does and how he does it.”

Suzor agreed, noting that, in his philanthropic efforts, as with his business exploits, Gagnon takes a measured, results-driven approach to his giving.

“Even with his generosity, he would want to know the plan — ‘if I’m giving you money, what are you going to do with it? How are you going to use it? And how are you going to measure how successful you are at using it?’” he explained. “He’s a very bright businessman who always says, ‘let’s do what makes sense, and let’s not do what doesn’t make sense,’ and it was the same with his work in the community.”

Cut and Dried

In Business and the Community, Denis Gagnon Is a Role Model
That’s the Ticket

Returning to the subject of the Patriots and the various perks derived from that relationship, Gagnon noted that the company now has several season tickets.

In what should come as no surprise to anyone who knows him, Gagnon doesn’t use them much himself. (In fact, by late December, he had taken in only the Rams game a few weeks earlier, and that very ugly loss to Buffalo in early October, when Brady was still serving his Deflategate ‘vacation,’ as the quarterback called it).

Indeed, as any smart businessperson would, he bestows most of those tickets on very good customers and those who may attain such status. But he also puts them to use within the community — he donates tickets to the Boy Scouts, for example, for one of its fund-raisers, and, through his son Denis Jr., a board member with the United Way, that organization has received a few as well.

That’s a small example, but one of many, of someone who very quietly and humbly goes about his business — or businesses, as the case may be.

There’s the one that makes electric dryers, and then there’s the business of giving back to the community.

He’s, well, very hands-on, as one might say, with both — and certainly making a difference across Western Mass. in every sense of that phrase.

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

Class of 2017 Difference Makers

Paying Dividends

JA Provides Critical Lessons in Business, Life

Jennifer Connolly

Jennifer Connolly stands beside the portrait of JA co-founder Horace Moses at the agency’s offices in Tower Square.

Jennifer Connolly likes to say Junior Achievement works hard to present young people — and, in this case, that means kindergartners to high-school seniors — with eye-opening and quite necessary doses of reality.

And one of the more intriguing — and anecdote-inspiring — examples is an exercise involving second-graders — specifically, an individual wearing a nametag that reads simply, ‘Tax Collector.’

The best story I ever heard from one of our volunteers was about how he announced to the class that it was time to take the taxes, and this one boy dove under his desk and said, ‘no, no, my daddy says taxes are bad … I don’t want to pay taxes!”

You guessed it. This is a direct lesson in how the amount of money one earns certainly isn’t the amount taken home on payday. In this case, the tax collector, often one of the students, literally takes away two of the five dollars a student has ‘earned’ for work they’ve undertaken.

The exercise has yielded some keepsake photos for the archives, and colorful stories that Connolly, president of Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts, has related countless times.

The ‘tax collector’ makes his rounds at a local school

The ‘tax collector’ makes his rounds at a local school. The exercise provides important lessons and has yielded some colorful anecdotes.

“The best story I ever heard from one of our volunteers was about how he announced to the class that it was time to take the taxes,” she recalled, “and this one boy dove under his desk and said, ‘no, no, my daddy says taxes are bad … I don’t want to pay taxes!’

“And the students … they don’t want to be the tax collector,” she went on. “We sometimes have to get one of our volunteers to do it. The kids cry — they don’t want to take money away from people; they say, ‘I can’t do this.’ It’s adorable.”

That’s not a word that applies to all the lessons, obviously, including one that Connolly imparted on a local high-school student herself.

“One girl couldn’t decide between being an early-childhood educator or a doctor,” she explained. “She looked at the income for an early-childhood worker and said, ‘that’s terrible,’ and I said, ‘unfortunately, yes.’

“So she said, ‘I’ll go into allied health, become a doctor, and make a lot of money,’” Connolly went on. “That’s when I told her about one of my daughter’s friends who became a dentist; she owes $250,000 in student loans, is back home living with her parents, and drives the same minivan she had when she was in college. I told this student there are no easy choices, and you have to weigh the impact, and she replied, ‘you’ve given me so much information, my head is going to explode.’”

Whether adorable or biting in their nature, the lessons provided by JA are, in a word, necessary, said Connolly and others we spoke with. That’s because they help prepare young individuals for the world beyond the classroom, where wrong decisions about finances can have disastrous consequences, and also where hands-on experience with the world of business can pay huge dividends and perhaps even inspire future entrepreneurs and business managers.

“It’s rewarding to watch the students and see the lightbulbs go on,” said Al Kasper, president and chief operating officer of Savage Arms in Westfield, who has been a long-time JA volunteer and board member.

At present, he mentors two entrepreneurship classes, or “company programs,” at East Longmeadow High School taught by Dawn Quercia, who has been doing this for nearly 20 years now, and is such a believer in the program that she fronts the startup money needed for her classes to place orders for the products they are to sell.


Dawn Quercia

Dawn Quercia, who fronts the money for her business students’ ventures, says the JA program provides hands-on lessons one can’t get from a textbook.

“It’s a little risky … I’m not a wealthy person, but I believe in the kids,” she said, adding that the most she’s ever lost is $200, and all she ever gets back is her investment — there’s no interest.

The dividend, she went on, is watching students learn by doing and gain maturity and life lessons while doing so.

“I could teach this out of a book, and that’s what I did when I first started here,” she went on. “And I didn’t feel the kids were learning as much as they could, and I said, ‘why don’t we just start a business?’”

Young people have been doing just that since 1919, when Horace Moses, president of Strathmore Paper Co., collaborated with other industry titans to bring the business world into the classroom by having students run their own venture.

And it continues today with a wide range of programs involving the full spectrum of young students — from those learning their colors to those trying to decide which college to attend.

JA is coming up on its centennial celebration, and since it was essentially born in Western Mass. (although now headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo.), Connolly is hoping that Springfield, and perhaps the Big E — where the so-called Junior Achievement Building, built in 1925 and funded by Moses, still stands — can be the gathering spot for birthday celebrations.

But while she’s starting to think about a party, she’s more focused on providing more of those hard, yet vital lessons described earlier. And that’s why this organization was named a Difference Maker for 2017, and is clearly worthy of that honor.

Thinking Outside the Box

They’re called ‘memory boxes.’

That’s the name a small group of students from Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy in Springfield assigned to a product they conceived, assembled themselves, and took to the marketplace just over a year ago.

As the name suggests, these are decorated wooden boxes, complete with several compartments designed to store jewelry or … whatever. They were hand-painted, with stenciling and paper flowers glued on the top, and priced to sell for $15, with were being the operative word. That’s because, well, they just didn’t sell, and are now more collectors’ items than anything else.

But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

“They did everything to sell them — they kept getting knocked down, and they kept getting back up,” said Connolly, referring to the students involved in this exercise, which she supervised as part of the JAYE (Junior Achievement Young Entrepreneurs) program. “They tried craft fairs, flea markets, they tried online, they sold from a table at Tower Square … the boxes just didn’t sell.

“The girls just wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” she went on, adding quickly, though, that they heard ‘no’ more than enough times to convince them it was time to develop a new product. “They learned to take rejection very well.”

From left, Sabrina Roberts, Dajah Gordon, and Johnalie Gomez

From left, Sabrina Roberts, Dajah Gordon, and Johnalie Gomez have learned some critical lessons selling ankle anklets — and not selling memory boxes.

And that, as it turned out, was only one of many lessons imparted upon them during that exercise, as was made clear by these comments from Dajah Gordon, a team member and JAYE veteran who has been part of far more successful ventures, including the team that went to the program’s national finals, staged in Washington, D.C., two years ago with a company that sold charm bracelets.

“Whenever we fail, like we did with the boxes, we have to step back, look at the company, and say, ‘where are we lacking?’” she said of the six-month odyssey with that ill-fated product, which all the participants can look back on now and laugh. “For us, with the boxes, something we didn’t focus on much was our target market; we were trying to sell to everybody, but we needed a specific target group or audience.

“Later, we got that part down,” she went on, adding that the identified audience — young people like themselves — has become far more receptive to the team’s new product, the so-called ‘wish anklet.’ (The wearer is to make a wish upon tying it around her ankle; if she keeps it on until it naturally falls off, the secret wish will come true.)

While there is no documented or even anecdotal evidence that the product performs as advertised, the anklets, introduced just a few months ago, have been selling well, and the three young women involved are certainly optimistic about fast-approaching Valentine’s Day, and are hard at work replenishing depleted inventory.

These collective exploits are typical of the JAYE initiative, an after-school version of the JA Company Program, which is the very bedrock on which the Junior Achievement concept was built in the months after World War I ended and when the nation was returning to what amounted to a peacetime economy.

Horace Moses; Theodore Vail, president of American Telephone & Telegraph; and Massachusetts Sen. Murray Crane got together behind the notion that, as the nation shifted from a largely agrarian economy to an industrial-based system, young people would need an education in how to run a business, said Connolly. A decidedly hands-on education.

Four and perhaps five generations of young people have formed enterprises and brought products to market through what is still known as the JA Company Program, as evidenced by the front lobby of the JA office on the mezzanine level in Tower Square, which has a number of artifacts, if you will, on display.

There are no memory boxes, but on one table, for example, is what would now be considered a very rudimentary, wooden paper-towel-roll holder, as well as a small rack for key chains, both products conceived by high-school classes in the ’70s, said Connolly.

On another table by the front window, near a large, imposing painting of Horace Moses (a prized possession for this JA chapter), is a wooden lamp, a product produced in the late ’70s through a JA Company Program called Bright Ideas, sponsored by what was then called Western Mass. Electric Co. (now Eversource). Connolly noted that lamps of various kinds were a staple of early JA ‘company’ classes, which started as after-school exercises and eventually moved into the classroom in the late ’50s.

Today, there are in-class and after-school programs that are providing students with tremendous opportunities to not only learn how a business is run, but operate one themselves, experiencing just about everything the so-called real world can throw at them.

Learning Opportunites

That would definitely be the case with another after-school JAYE program, said Connolly, this one called the Thunderpucks.

A collaborative effort involving students at Putnam, Chicopee High School, and Pope Francis High School, this bold initiative essentially makes a team of students part of the staff of the Springfield Thunderbirds, the new AHL franchise that started play last fall amid considerable fanfare and promise.

Al Kasper

Al Kasper says he enjoys seeing the “lightbulbs go on” as he mentors students involved in JA programs at East Longmeadow High.

This team has been assigned the March 3 tilt against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and will coordinate many aspects of it, from the band that plays the National Anthem to the T-shirt toss, to some ticket sales, said Connolly.

“They’re going to be reaching out to businesses and groups and trying to sell them ticket packages,” she explained. “They’re going to be handling almost all aspects of the game; it’s an incredible learning experience.”

Those last two words, and even the one before them, would apply to most all JA initiatives, she went on, adding, again, that they start with children at a very young age.

With that, she took BusinessWest through the portfolio of programs, if you will — one that involved some 11,500 students across the region during the 2015-16 school year — starting in kindergarten.

At that age, the focus is on very basic financial literacy, such as understanding currency and the concept of a savings account. By first grade, students are acquainted with jobs, businesses, the assembly line (they create one to make paper donuts), and the term ‘income,’ and how families must live within one. This is when they are told about the difference between a ‘want’ and a ‘need.’

Moving along, in second grade, the tax collector makes his arrival — money is taken from those working to make donuts and given to those working for the government, so students can see where their tax dollars go, among other lessons. In third grade, students learn how a city operates and are introduced to concepts such as zoning, planning, and the basics of running a business.

And on it goes, said Connolly, adding that, by sixth grade, students are learning about cultural differences and why, for example, they can’t sell hamburgers in India. By middle school, there are more in-depth lessons in personal finances, budgeting, branding, and careers — and how to start one — as part of the broad Economics for Success program.

By high school, the learning-by-doing concept continues with everything from actual companies to stock-market challenges; from job shadowing to lean-manufacturing concepts. And while students learn, they also teach, with high-school students mentoring those in elementary school, and college students returning to coach those in high school.

The work of providing all these lessons falls to a virtual army of volunteers, said Connolly, adding that the Western Mass. chapter deployed more than 400 of them last year. They visited 522 classrooms and donated more than 73,000 hours to the area’s communities.

“JA is taking what students are learning in school, the math, the communications, the writing, all of that, and giving it a real-life reason,” she explained, summing up all that programming and its relative importance to the students and the region as a whole. “You need math because … you have to figure out your finances, or you might run a business. You need to understand social studies and geography because we’re an integrated world — where do the products come from?

“And the activities we have in JA are really hands-on, so we really promote critical thinking, analyzing, and problem solving,” she went on. “These are the 21st-century skills that students will really need.”

Returning to that episode involving the high-school girl trying to decide between early-childhood education and the medical field, and the choices involved with each path, Connolly said it reflects many of the lessons and experiences that JA provides.

“We don’t want to show them that everything’s easy — it’s not easy, no matter what you pick,” she explained. “We’re trying to make them think and make intelligent decisions.”

And this is certainly true when it comes to the JA Company Program, as we’ll see.

Course of Action

“Good cop … bad cop.”

That’s how Katie Roeder, a junior at East Longmeadow High School, chose to describe how she and Seth Bracci, co-presidents of a company now selling sweatshirts, work together at their JA venture.

And she’s the bad cop, a role she thinks she’s suited for, and that she enjoys.

Katie Roeder

Katie Roeder says she enjoys her ‘bad cop’ role as co-president of a company at East Longmeadow High School selling sweatshirts.

“I’m the one who lays out the schedule, and I go around to different groups and check on them, and if they’re not where they need to do be, I ask them to do those things as soon as possible,” she explained. “And Seth … he comes in after that and says, ‘c’mon, guys, let’s do it,’ evening out the seriousness with a bit of fun.”

It all seems to be working, she went on, adding that this business doesn’t have a name, really; it’s merely identified by the class title and time slot: Entrepreneurship H Block (12:20-1:01 p.m.). It is one of two JA classes at the school, with the other selling water bottles, as we’ll see shortly.

The H Block class spent a good amount of time deciding on a product, Roeder told BusinessWest, adding that, while young people can buy sweatshirts in countless places, online and in the store, they can’t find one with the distinctive Spartan logo, or mascot, that has identified ELHS since it opened in 1960 — unless they’re on a sports team.

The class then spent even more time — too much, by some accounts — coming up with a design (gray sweatshirt with a red logo, covering both of the school’s colors), she went on, adding that Quercia insisted on making this a democratic exercise, with input from all those involved, to achieve as much buy-in as possible. Then it spent still more time conducting what would be considered market research on who might purchase the product before placing a large order with the manufacturer.

This was a fruitful exercise, Roeder noted, because it informed company officers that those most likely to buy were underclassmen and students at nearby Birchland Park Middle School who would soon become ninth-graders. Thus, the order was for large numbers of smalls and mediums, and only a handful of XLs and XXLs, presumably to be sold to alums at the Thanksgiving Day football game (and there were a few such transactions).

Such hands-on lessons in how businesses run, or should run, are what JA’s entrepreneurship program is all about, said those we spoke with, adding that the year-long exercise is an intriguing departure from learning via a textbook, such as in AP Calculus, which is where Roeder was supposed to be at that moment, only she got a pass so she could talk with BusinessWest.

“It’s great because it’s different from the day-to-day classroom things we do,” she noted. “We handle real money; this is a real business with real stakes. It doesn’t feel like a class at all. We’re learning, but it doesn’t feel like we are. All that knowledge still goes into our mind, and we keep it there.”

Bracci agreed. “It’s interesting to see the inner workings and just how hard it is to create your own business,” he explained, “and how there are many different obstacles you can run into as someone trying to get a product out there.”

Meanwhile, at the water-bottle-selling company gathered next door, in room 111, the discussion focused on sales to date — and how to sell the 30 or so units still in inventory.

Co-president Bridget Arnesen, while occasionally drinking from one of the Spartan-logo-adorned bottles, exhorted her classmates to not rest on their laurels — bottle sales did well in the run-up to the holidays — and keep selling when and where they could, such as at the big basketball game slated for that night against league powerhouse Central.

This was where Kasper stepped in to evoke the ‘80-20 rule,’ which, he said, predicts how roughly 80% of a company’s products will be sold by 20% of its representatives.

A quick look at a tote board of sorts that detailed how many units each class member had sold, revealed that the 80-20 rule certainly held up in this case, with some class members clearly motivated by the $5.67 in commission they make for each bottle sold (one enterprising young woman logged 40 transactions), and others … not so much.

But the walking-around money is just one of the things students can take home from these classes, said Quercia, adding that the doses of reality can help in a number of ways, especially for those who have intentions of getting into business.

And Roeder already has such plans in the formative stage. She’s not sure where she’ll attend college — she says she’ll start kicking some tires next year — but does know that she intends on majoring in pediatric dentistry and probably owning her own practice.

“Business will help with my future career because I want to run a pediatric dentistry,” she explained. “I hope all the things I’ve learned stay in my head, because I’m going to need them.”

Life Lessons

Such comments help explain why those at BusinessWest chose Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts as a Difference maker for 2017 and, more importantly, why the organization continues to broaden its mission and find new ways to impart hard lessons.

Indeed, it is comments of various types and from a host of constituencies that drive home the point that JA’s programs are more important now than perhaps ever before.

We could start almost anywhere, but maybe the best place is with Robbin Lussier, a business teacher at Chicopee High School and another educator who has a long history with JA.

It has included a number of initiatives, including a career-preparation program that has grown to include 120 students, who receive tips on résumés and how to search for a job, and actually take part in mock interviews with area business owners and managers.

Bridget Arnesen and Nathan Santos

Bridget Arnesen and Nathan Santos, co-presidents of the company at East Longmeadow High School selling water bottles, say their class provides real-life lessons in running an enterprise.

The lessons eventually turned into life experiences, she said, adding that many students actually earned jobs with area companies, prompting employers to come back year after year as they searched for qualified help.

Other involvement with JA has included programs in budgeting, personal finance, and the stock-market challenge, she went on, adding that they provided what she called a “heightened sense of reality” that a classroom teacher could not provide.

“It’s a whole new dimension — students are walking away with memorable lessons learned,” Lussier said, adding that some of the more intriguing things she hears are from those who are not taking part in these programs, but wish they could, or wish they had.

“I teach a personal-finance class this year,” she said, “and if I had a nickel for every time a teacher, administrator, or parent at open-house night said, ‘I wish I could take this class’ or ‘I wish they had this when I was in school,’ I could retire.”

Connolly agreed, and cited a 50-question quiz on debit and credit cards given recently to middle-school students at Springfield’s Duggan Academy as an example.

“At the end, after the volunteer had gone through all the questions, one girl turned to another and said, ‘this has been the best day … I learned so much today,’” she recalled. “And another said, ‘can I take this home so I can show my parent? Can I take this home so I can show my grandmother? I want to save this so when I go to college I can make the right decisions.’

“That’s what you live for, students who have that reaction,” she said, adding that she sees it quite often, which is encouraging.

Also encouraging is seeing students learn by doing, even if it’s difficult to watch at times, said Quercia, who was happy to report that both classes, first those selling water bottles and then those peddling sweatshirts, paid back the seed money she invested.

“They handle everything, I act as their consultant, and Al [Kasper] explains how everything they’re learning is like the real world,” she told BusinessWest. “Together, the students face challenges and confront problems and get creative in finding solutions together.”

Kasper, who has been involved with JA in various capacities since the early ’80s and at ELHS for 15 years now, concurred.

“This isn’t MCAS, ‘memorize-this-stuff’ learning,” he said of the company program. “It’s real-life stuff that students get excited about, and because of that, we’ve really grown this program.

“They’re excited to come to class,” he went on. “It’s something new, it’s reinforcing what they’re learning, and it’s fun. They’re still learning, but they’re having fun doing it, so the retention is great, and their confidence goes up.”

It’s All About the Bottom Line

When asked what she had learned about business through her involvement with JAYE, Johnalie Gomez, another member of the team from Putnam now selling wish anklets, thought for a moment before responding.

“It’s not … easy,” she said softly, deploying three little words, in reference to both business and life itself, that say so much that those around her immediately started shaking their heads — not in disagreement, but rather in solid affirmation, as if to say, ‘no, it’s not.’

Everyone who has ever been in business would no doubt do the same. And that’s because they probably have at least one ‘memory box’ or something approximating it somewhere on their résumé — a seemingly good idea that just didn’t work. With each one, there are hard lessons that bring pain, maturity, and, hopefully (someday), laughs.

Delivering such vital lessons when someone is in the classroom — or the conference room in the suite at Tower Square — so that they may resonate later and throughout life is why Junior Achievement was formed, why it continues to thrive, why it is even more relevant now than it was 98 years ago, and why the organization is a Difference Maker.

Just ask the ‘tax collector,’ or, more specifically, those young students who don’t want to be him.

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

Class of 2017 Difference Makers

The ‘Unflappable’ Joan Kagan

Leader Guides Square One Through All Kinds of Adversity

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Joan Kagan’s corner office on the second floor of 1095 Main St. in Springfield comes complete with two large windows offering stunning views of the ongoing construction of MGM Springfield.

That’s the good news — and the bad news.

Indeed, while she and others have been fascinated by the panorama presented by this front-row seat, Kagan readily admits that at times — or most of the time, to be more precise — it can be a huge distraction and even an impediment to workflow.

“It’s … amazing,” Kagan said of the beehive of activity that has been a constant for more than a year now. “A few days ago, I’m at my desk working, and all of the sudden I see this huge piece of equipment dangling in front of my window; I look out, and they’re placing it on an 18-wheeler parked on Main Street.”

She acknowledged that, while she, other staff members, and certainly the children at Square One have been captivated by the construction work and giant cranes moving steel and equipment just a few feet from those windows, the demolition work that preceded it was equally, if not more, compelling and attention-diverting.

“When they were moving the [former First Spiritualist] church, I think we were down to about 10% productivity,” she said with a wry smile, noting that the historic structure seemed to move at a snail’s pace, but that didn’t stop observers from becoming entranced by the exercise. “It was fascinating, but it made it tough to get work done.”

She’s seen worse impediments to productivity, unfortunately. Much, much worse.

Start with the June 1, 2011 tornado that roared down Main Street and then through Square One’s former offices just a few hundred yards to the north, displacing young students and staffers alike and leaving the agency without a permanent home for … well, even the current quarters wouldn’t exactly be considered permanent.

Joan Kagan with several of the students at Square One

Joan Kagan with several of the students at Square One. Since 2003, she has led the agency through profound change — and large amounts of adversity.

But the tornado did more than dislocate employees and programs. It seriously impacted cash flow by removing from the equation invaluable seats in early-childhood-education classes, and it would be years before those losses could be made up.

Then there was the natural-gas explosion roughly 18 months later that absolutely erased the gentlemen’s club on Worthington Street next to another Square One facility, leaving it uninhabitable, thus displacing more people and programs and further imperiling the bottom line.

Kagan’s actions during both disasters, but especially the tornado, have been described as heroic, in both a literal and figurative sense, with the latter saved for how she fashioned response plans and rallied the various troops. As for the former, she acted quickly and calmly that June afternoon to help move young students and employees — and even a technician in the building working on the air conditioning — to safety in the basement. Then, while standing in the middle of Main Street surveying the considerable damage and hearing police issue loud warnings about gas leaks and a second tornado, she essentially commandeered a school bus to get students and staff to a shelter set up down the street at the MassMutual Center.

“She was … unflappable,” said Kevin Maynard, an attorney with Springfield-based Bulkley Richardson, a long-time (now former) Square One board member, and current volunteer, who would use that word often to describe Kagan’s work before, during, and well after those calamities . “After both the tornado and the gas blast, Joan leaned on the board for support, but the board really leaned on Joan. She was rock-solid, knew what she had to do, and worked with others to get it all done.”

She continues to fight every day, through all the bureaucracy, to make sure that Square One and other organizations are heard and they’re able to meet their individual mission statements.”

While being unflappable in the face of natural and man-made disasters is certainly part of the reason Kagan was named a Difference Maker for 2017, there is, of course, much more to this story — and this individual.

It involves not only her work to stabilize, diversify, and expand Square One, an agency that was in a definite state of disarray when she arrived in 2003, but also her tireless efforts to bring attention to the critical need for not only early-childhood education, but other programs focused on strengthening families and championing their cause — on Capitol Hill, Beacon Hill, and everywhere in between.

Bill Sullivan, a long-time Square One board member

Bill Sullivan, a long-time Square One board member, said of Joan Kagan’s outlook on children and families and society’s responsibilities to them, “she gets it.”

Bill Sullivan, first vice president of Commercial Loans at PeoplesBank and another long-time board member, summed it all up succinctly and effectively.

“She gets it,” he told BusinessWest. “She understands that human services, and especially childcare, is really the foundation of the whole local — and national — economy. If you have an employee who doesn’t have safe, secure childcare, what is that employee’s attendance going to be like?

“Joan gets that,” he went on. “And she continues to fight every day, through all the bureaucracy, to make sure that Square One and other organizations are heard and they’re able to meet their individual mission statements.”

Not Child’s Play

As he talked further about Kagan, Sullivan said the place to start the discussion was not with the day she was hired at Square One — and he was one of those on the search committee that hired her — or that fateful June day in 2011, or even the day after Thanksgiving in 2012, when the natural-gas explosion leveled a city block.

Instead, he chose an unlikely place and time — the funeral services he attended for Kagan’s mother in Pittsfield 2013. That’s when and where he gained a real understanding of — and a deeper appreciation for — her passion for helping others, and especially children.

“Her mother really was involved in the community, and she understood the social activism that’s needed to make sure people are heard, especially the people who are less fortunate than we are,” Sullivan explained. “My epiphany at that time was ‘Joan’s pretty good, but now I understand why she’s pretty good. She comes from a family that has a long heritage of giving back.”

That heritage has defined her career through a number of career stops, including an unlikely starting point, and a certainly intriguing 14-year stint at Square One, one that has seen everything from the adaptation of that name (the agency was formerly known as Springfield Day Nursery) to a profound broadening of its mission to what everyone would agree has been far too much practice dealing with adversity.

Our story begins in New York City in the fall of 1975. Kagan had recently earned a master’s degree in social work (MSW) at Columbia University, but was confronting a historically bleak job market.

Indeed, the Big Apple was in the depths of its worst financial crisis since the height of the Great Depression, and was teetering on bankruptcy that would only be avoided when President Gerald Ford, who initially balked at a $4 billion federal bailout of the city (the New York Daily News headline on Oct. 29 famously read ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead’), eventually relented.

But the federal assistance would come far too late to improve in any way Kagan’s job-search prospects.

“I couldn’t buy a job, and in fact, some of the people I was calling to inquire about opportunities with were telling me they were getting laid off,” she explained while talking about the months after she graduated. “So I went back home with my tail between my legs.”

Kevin Maynard

Kevin Maynard says that, during times of crisis, Joan Kagan would lean on her board, but the board would really lean on her.

Home was Pittsfield, a city dominated in every way, shape, and form by its largest employer, General Electric. And while she thought ever-so-briefly about trying to work there, Kagan instead joined the field she was trained for. Well, not really, but it was in the ballpark, as they say.

She found an opportunity at Berkshire Home Care, tending to the needs of the elderly, not those at the other end of the spectrum, as she desired. But it was work, and it was actually much better than that.

Indeed, at age 25, she was named client-service supervisor — the job demanded an MSW, and there were not many people with that credential — and tasked with overseeing co-workers and coordinating services with other community agencies. This would be the first of a host of leadership roles on her résumé.

The next would come a few years later, after a short stay as a social worker at Child & Family Services of Springfield Inc., when she became supervisor of Social Services at Brightside for Families and Children in 1979.

She would stay with that West Springfield-based agency for 17 years, serving in no fewer than 12 positions, ranging from program manager for the Family Resource Unit to the last one, vice president of Community Development.

“I kept getting promoted and given new management responsibilities and training,” she explained. “Brightside was going through a major transition, and I had a lot of opportunities for growth and development, and appreciated that very much.”

In 1996, she would apply those skills to a new career challenge serving as administrator of the Western Mass. region for the Mass. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC), a position — one that saw her supervise a staff of nearly 400 — she would keep for seven years before deciding she was ready for “something else.”

That turned out to be the administrator’s role at a Springfield institution with a proud past, a shaky ‘present,’ and uncertain future.

Name of the Game

Indeed, as he talked about the situation at Springfield Day Nursery when Kagan arrived, Maynard spoke in measured tones, choosing his words in a careful, diplomatic manner, while still getting his point across.

His point was that the agency was at a crossroads in many respects, and in need of strong leadership to return it to stability.

“We had gone through some tumultuous times and several changes in leadership,” he explained. “The organization very much needed someone like Joan, with her credentials and her experience, to right the ship, which had been roiled by some pretty big waves.”

Kagan, being equally diplomatic, agreed.

“When I arrived, Springfield Day Nursery needed a lot of restructuring, fiscally as well as programmatically and administratively,” she said, adding that the CFO left just before she arrived, and the agency’s board had just closed its center in East Longmeadow and was in the process of closing the facility in Tower Square.

“Eight centers immediately became seven, and I consolidated two of those centers, so the seven became five, and that’s how we were rolling along until the tornado,” she said, before replaying the tape and moving much more slowly.

June 2011 tornado

In many ways, Joan Kagan and Square One became the face of the June 2011 tornado and its aftermath.

Her first eight years would see expansion of the agency well beyond its Springfield roots (into Holyoke, for example) and its primary mission — to provide daycare services. To undertake this diversification of services, Kagan called upon experience, and perspective, amassed at several of her previous stops.

“They hired a social worker who was coming to them with a background in child welfare and mental health,” she said of her career path. “And with that came a perspective, or philosophy, that the strategic point of intervention in making a difference with children is the family.

“You cannot work with just the child — you must work with the family,” she went on. “I said that before I even got hired during the interview phase; I said I wanted to integrate early-childhood education, child welfare, and mental health.”

That’s because many of the same families she saw at the MSPCC were arriving at the doors at Springfield Day Nursery, she said, adding that a far more holistic approach to serving children was needed.

So, over her first several years, she implemented one, after first educating the board and then gaining its blessing.

“I’m not sure anyone really knew what I was talking about or quite understood it,” she said with a laugh. “But I think it was intriguing enough that they went with it.”

In 2006, Kagan, amid some skepticism, hired the agency’s first social worker with the help of a grant and some other funding cobbled together, thus beginning the process of changing the conversation from a focus on the child to a focus on family-support services.

“I remember someone saying to me, ‘how can you hire someone? — this is a one-year grant; you’re just going to have to lay her off,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘welcome to the world of nonprofits — this is what we do. And over the next year, we’re going to work very hard to find more funding and hire more of these people.’”

And she did. There are now 40 social workers, funded in large part by a contract through the Children’s Trust Fund called Healthy Families. Other contracts would follow, including one with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department to work with individuals who have been incarcerated.

These various forms of expansion involving geography and programming created the need for a name change, she explained, adding that neither ‘Springfield’ nor ‘day nursery’ really worked anymore.

Several options were considered, before the board, after much debate, decided upon ‘Square One,’ a name crafted to connote that this was where a child got a solid start and a foundation he or she could build on.

Little did board members and agency administrators know they would be going back to square one themselves in the years to come, and in ways they probably couldn’t have imagined.

A Force in the Community

Before moving on to Columbia, Kagan earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. While there, she received an informal education in a much different subject matter — tornadoes.

Indeed, while that Missouri city located on the banks of the Mississippi River isn’t as noted for twisters as sections of Oklahoma and Kansas, it is visited by them frequently, she told BusinessWest. “We never had a direct hit while I was there, but there were times when it got pretty scary; it would get very dark and very still, and the winds would pick up, and the pressure would build.”

She would call on those experiences nearly 40 years later on that fateful afternoon in 2011, reacting instinctively, for example, to get her assistant away from the large window through which she first spotted the twister, and then herd everyone into the basement, including that reluctant air-conditioning technician.

Joan Kagan chats with state Sen. Eric Lesser

Joan Kagan chats with state Sen. Eric Lesser. Over the years, she’s lobbied tirelessly for programs benefiting children and families.

Thinking back, Kagan said that, while everything happened very quickly — three minutes total, by her estimate — she remembers events unfolding almost in slow motion. And what she remembers most are sights and sounds.

Starting with the latter, while most would compare the noise generated by the twister as it passed over and through the building to a freight train moving at high speed, she would get into even more detail.

“It was deafening,” she said while recalling the brief time she and several others spent in the basement listening to what was going on overhead. “It was like you were on a airport tarmac, and jumbo-jet engines were running, and someone was taking pieces of metal and throwing them into those engines. It was like metal crunching, and it was very loud.”

As for the sights, there are too many to recount, but the one that resonates most, perhaps, was the view she had of the building next door to Square One’s after arriving on a chaotic Main Street.

“The wall had been sheared off … I’m looking at it, and I’m looking at people’s offices; I can see their pictures on the wall,” she recalled. “It was totally exposed; it was like a doll’s house.”

In the days and weeks after the tornado, Square One, and especially its president and CEO, would become the face of the tornado and the recovery that followed — quite literally.

Indeed, the June 20 issue of BusinessWest, bearing the headline “Blown Away: Business Community Grapples with the Tornado Aftermath,” features a picture of a grim-but-determined-faced Kagan with a pile of rubble that used to be the Square One offices in the background.

And that verb grapple was the operative word. While the tornado packed a wallop, the aftermath was in many ways far more grueling, said those we spoke with, noting that the challenges were many, ranging from simply finding new quarters to the immediate and severe cash-flow problems, to dealing with insurance companies that covered the agency.

“The tornado totally took out our infrastructure — the administration building was demolished — and dramatically altered our business plan,” Kagan explained. “That spring, we had just secured funding to renovate our King Street site; our plan was to add 100 more children there. When we lost the Main Street site, instead of being able to add 100 children, I ended up having to place the 100 children we were serving on Main Street to King Street.”

Those renovations weren’t ready until August, she went on, adding that the agency had to find temporary space for the displaced children while waiting for an insurance settlement and finding a new home for administrative offices.

Unfortunately, and almost unbelievably, the agency’s misfortunes would be compounded by a different disaster, the natural-gas blast 18 months later. Kagan was actually out of town traveling when it happened, but quickly returned to handle an aftermath that featured far too much déjà vu.

“Just as we were getting things together from the tornado, the gas explosion hit, and we lost the capacity to serve another 100 children,” she said. “We were rocking and reeling and trying to find places for those kids, dealing with staff issues, dealing with the insurance companies, dealing with Columbia Gas … on it went.”

The twin disasters certainly tested the agency’s mettle, said Sullivan, adding that, in many ways, the present tense is still needed, because Square One is still dealing with infrastructure and cash-flow issues and still rewriting its business plan; it has gone from serving 1,000 children to handling roughly 700.

“Instead of growing, we were just trying to keep things together,” he said, adding that Kagan’s calm, determined brand of leadership has been a key factor in weathering those storms. “She never gets rattled; she’s been the voice of reason, and that has certainly helped us as we’ve fought our way back.”

Battle Tested

But while Kagan has in many ways become best-known for her leadership in the form of disaster response — something they don’t teach people in business school, let alone the social-work program at Columbia — her work before and after those calamities has more far-reaching implications for Square One and the community as a whole.

In recent years, that work has increasingly focused on the day-to-day fiscal challenges facing all nonprofits today, as well as bringing attention to a challenging, almost debilitating system for funding agencies like Square One and lobbying for a replacement that enables such institutions to function more effectively.

“They pay you per child, per day,” said Kagan, adding that this puts enormous pressure on efforts to build capacity, efforts that have been, as noted, crippled by those twin disasters, but also by simple demographics.

Joan Kagan and students at Square One

Joan Kagan and students at Square One pose with members of the Western Mass. delegation to the state Legislature.

“Because of the population we serve, it’s very hard to keep children in the seats day after day,” she explained, adding that the current system would be akin to a college being paid only for the classes a student attends, rather than a designated tuition amount set to cover a host of expenses. “We have all these fixed costs, and they’re the same whether we have 15 kids in the class or 20. But if we only have 15, they’ll only pay us for 15, which makes it very difficult to operate.”

For years, Kagan and others have been lobbying for change, and a sliver of hope for such a system has come in the form of a pilot program, which Square One is now part of, whereby agencies are paid on a reimbursement system based not on students in the classrooms, but costs incurred.

“It’s still difficult, but it’s better; if I spend this amount on teachers, that’s the bill I submit,” she explained, adding that there are still challenges, because the agency incurs expenses one month, bills the state the next month, and gets reimbursed the third, which adds up to serious cash-flow-management issues at an already-difficult time for nonprofits.

“We can manage now,” she went on, adding that the challenge ahead is to convince the state to change its funding model because, with the old (current) one, center-based care is simply not viable, let alone profitable.

Fighting this fight is just one example of the strong leadership Kagan has provided to the larger community of Greater Springfield and all of Western Mass., said Sullivan, adding that she has never stopped battling for children and families — and won’t.

“The state looks at centers like this, and it figures there will be 50% private pay, something you can make margin on, and 50% are poor children who have to be subsidized,” he explained. “Well, Square One doesn’t have that benefit; all our children are subsidized. The children we serve are the future employees in this city, and she’s out there saving souls every day.

“Joan’s been a director, but also a kind of battlefield commander,” he told BusinessWest, referring specifically to the twin disasters but also to the sum of the challenges she and the agency have confronted. “She gets her arms around things quickly and can understand what has to be done.”

Family Business

As he talked about Kagan’s career — the chapters that have been written and those still to be penned — Bill Sullivan harkened back to the woman he came to know and fully appreciate at that memorial service in Pittsfield more than three years ago.

“I think about how proud Joan’s mother would be knowing what a tremendous human-service advocate her daughter has been, and how she has continued that family legacy by passing it on to her children,” he said, adding quickly that Irene Besdin Kagan certainly wouldn’t be the only proud one.

All those who had the foresight to hire her daughter would fall into that category, he said, as would everyone who has the opportunity to work with her — at Square One, all her other career stops, and within the community as well.

Through more than 40 years of service to children and families in need, she has been not only a true leader, but, as Maynard so eloquently put it, “unflappable,” especially during the times when that quality was most urgently needed.

And for that, Joan Kagan is truly a Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2017 Cover Story Difference Makers

Difference Makers to Be Honored on March 30


When BusinessWest launched the Difference Makers program in 2009 (see past winners HERE), it was with the understanding that there were several components to this initiative.

The first is what this special edition has become, a comprehensive effort to shine a light on individuals, agencies, and institutions that are finding profound and often unique ways to improve the quality of life in the community we call Western Mass. These light-shining efforts are profiled with words and pictures that collectively tell some very poignant stories.

The second component of this program, the more fun one, is the event at which the honorees are recognized for their various accomplishments and contributions. Since the beginning, those of us at BusinessWest have struggled with what exactly to call this gathering.

‘Dinner’ doesn’t quite work, because, although the food at the Log Cabin is certainly excellent, the evening’s festivities encompass so much more. ‘Gala’ falls short, too, because this connotes black ties and formality, and there is little of that at this event.

No, we prefer the word ‘celebration,’ because that’s exactly what this is — a celebration of those who stand out and make this region a better place to live, work, and conduct business because of their efforts. And this year, there is much to celebrate:

The region’s community-college presidents

The region’s community-college presidents, from left, Bob Pura, Ellen Kennedy, John Cook, and Christina Royal.

• We start  with a nod to the region’s community colleges. While perhaps not as famous as the region’s many fine private schools or UMass Amherst and other four-year institutions in the state system, these schools — Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, and Springfield Technical Community College — are playing an absolutely critical role in the development of this region.

They act as both a door of opportunity, especially to those who don’t have many available to them, and a pathway to careers, through both degree and certificate programs that provide job skills and also transfer opportunities to four-year schools. Meanwhile, behind almost every major economic-development initiative in this region, there is a community college playing a significant role.

Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round

Some of the many passionate Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round: from left, Jim Jackowski, Barbara Griffin, Angela Wright, and Joe McGiverin.

• We continue  with the Friends of Holyoke Merry-Go-Round Inc. The story of how this group raised the money to save the carousel at Mountain Park and keep it in the Paper City has been told many times. But there’s a reason for it. This is an epic tale of a community coming together and battling long odds to save a treasure that could very easily have become someone else’s treasure.

But buying the carousel was just the first chapter in the story, really. Keeping it operating amid a host of stiff challenges so that it may be enjoyed by more generations of ‘young’ people (with young in quotation marks for a reason) is an ongoing saga and one certainly worth celebrating.

Denis Gagnon

Denis Gagnon

• As are the contributions of Denis Gagnon Sr. He has improved our lives by dramatically reducing the amount of time we need to spend in the restroom drying our hands with his company’s XLERATOR. But that’s not why he’s being honored. OK, that’s part of it.

The other, much bigger part is how he has devoted generous amounts of time, energy, and imagination to groups and causes ranging from the Boy Scouts to the Children’s Study Home to a host of veterans’ initiatives, and, while doing so, serving as a true inspiration to others.

Jennifer Connolly

Jennifer Connolly stands beside the portrait of JA co-founder Horace Moses at the agency’s offices in Tower Square.

• Also worth celebrating are the contributions of Junior Achievement of Western Mass. This is a group that has been around a long time now (its centennial is coming up in 2018), and it would be easy to take its many programs for granted.

That would be a big mistake. As the story reveals, JA programs run much deeper than showing high-school students how to make and sell lamps (although that’s where it all started, and that solid foundation remains).

The organization begins by teaching vital lessons in financial literacy to kindergarten students, and stays with these young people until they’re ready for college or whatever other path they choose. And because JA stayed with them, the lessons stay with them as well.

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

• Last but certainly not least, there is Joan Kagan, whose career and accomplishments are worth celebrating for many reasons.

She has steered the organization known as Square One (formerly Springfield Day Nursery) through treacherous whitewater in the form of seemingly endless adversity. It has come in waves, literally and figuratively, from a tornado to a natural-gas blast to persistent fiscal challenges.

But her more lasting contribution has been tireless efforts to not only serve children and families, but lobby state and federal leaders for the many kinds of support they need and deserve.

As we said, this year’s honorees offer much to celebrate. And we’ll do it on March 30. Here’s what you need to know:


Fast Facts:

What: The 2017 Difference Makers Celebration
When: Thursday, March 30
Where: The Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, Holyoke
COST: Tickets are $65 per person, with tables of 10 available. To order, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100.
For More Information: Call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100, or go HERE.

Sponsored by:

RoyalPC SunshineVillage first-american-logo nortwestern-mutual
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Class of 2016 Difference Makers

More than 450 people turned out at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke on March 31 for a celebration of the 2016 Difference Makers, the eighth annual class of individuals and organizations honored by BusinessWest for making an impact in their Western Mass. communities. The photos below capture the essence of the event, which featured entertainment from Veritas Preparatory Charter School and the Taylor Street Jazz Band, as well as fine food and thoughtful comments from the honorees. This year’s class, chosen by the editor and publishers of BusinessWest from dozens of nominations, include Hampden County Sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr.; the late Mike Balise, Balise Motor Sales and philanthropist; Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire counties; Bay Path President Carol Leary; and John Robison, president of Robison Service and advocate for individuals on the autism spectrum. Once again, the honorees received glass plates handcrafted by Lynn Latimer, representing butterflies, the symbol of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers since the program was launched in 2009.

Class of 2016 Difference Makers Features

Scenes From the Eighth Annual Event

2016 AwardMore than 450 people turned out at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke on March 31 for a celebration of the 2016 Difference Makers, the eighth annual class of individuals and organizations honored by BusinessWest for making an impact in their Western Mass. communities. The photos below capture the essence of the event, which featured entertainment from Veritas Preparatory Charter School and the Taylor Street Jazz Band, as well as fine food and thoughtful comments from the honorees. This year’s class, chosen by the editor and publishers of BusinessWest from dozens of nominations, include Hampden County Sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr.; the late Mike Balise, Balise Motor Sales and philanthropist; Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire counties; Bay Path President Carol Leary; and John Robison, president of Robison Service and advocate for individuals on the autism spectrum. Once again, the honorees received glass plates handcrafted by Lynn Latimer, representing butterflies, the symbol of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers since the program was launched in 2009. Photos by Leah Martin Photography

Sponsored by:


A chorus of young singers

A chorus of young singers from Veritas Preparatory Charter School in Springfield kicks off the evening’s festivities.

2016 Difference Maker Big Brothers Big Sisters

From 2016 Difference Maker Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS): from left, Angela Smith-LeClaire; her ‘little,’ Abby; Executive Director Danielle Letourneau-Therrien; and Kate Lockhart, all of BBBS of Hampshire County; and Ericka Almeida from BBBS of Franklin County.

Marisa Balise (left) and Maryellen Balise

Marisa Balise (left) and Maryellen Balise, daughter and wife, respectively, of Difference Maker Mike Balise.

Representing event sponsor Northwestern Mutual, from left: Nico Santaniello, Dan Carmody, and Darren James.

Representing event sponsor Northwestern Mutual, from left: Nico Santaniello, Dan Carmody, and Darren James.

Bill Hynes, Baystate Health Foundation

Bill Hynes, Baystate Health Foundation (left), and Hector Toledo, People’s United Bank.

Deborah Leone

Deborah Leone with 2013 Difference Maker James Vinick, Moors & Cabot Inc.

event sponsor Royal, P.C.,

Back row: from event sponsor Royal, P.C., from left: Julie Cowan, Sarah Reece, Shawna Biscone, Founding Partner Amy Royal, Tanzi Cannon-Eckerle, Joe Eckerle. Front row: from left, Amy Jamrog, the Jamrog Group; Dawn Creighton, Associated Industries of Massachusetts; Mike Williams, Royal, P.C.; and 2010 Difference Maker Don Kozera, Human Resources Unlimited.

From event sponsor EMA Dental

From event sponsor EMA Dental, from left: owners Dr. Vincent Mariano and Dr. Lisa Emirzian, Christine Gagner, Colleen Nadeau, Amy Postlethwait, Dr. Rebecca Cohen, and Dr. Colleen Chambers.

from event sponsor First American Insurance

Back row, from left: from event sponsor First American Insurance, Edward Murphy, President Corey Murphy, Chris Murphy, and Molly Murphy; and Jim Fiola, Westwood Advertising. Front row, from left: from First American Insurance, Amber Letendre, Jenna Dziok, Alicja Modzelewski, Dina Potter, and Noni Moran.

t sponsor Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.,

From event sponsor Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C., back row, from left: Brandon Mitchell, Managing Partner Jim Barrett, Kristi Reale, Joe Vreedenburgh, and Jim Krupienski. Front row, from left: Howard Cheney, Donna Roundy, and Melyssa Brown.

Representing event sponsor PeoplesBank

Representing event sponsor PeoplesBank, back row, from left: Xiaolei Hua, President Tom Senecal, Meghan Parnell-Gregoire, Matt Krokov, Cindy Wszolek, and Mary Meehan. Front row, from left: Shaun Dwyer, 2009 Difference Maker Doug Bowen, Anna Bowen, and Matthew Bannister.

sponsor Health New England

From event sponsor Health New England, back row, from left: Dan Carabine, Steven Webster, Elaine Mann, Rosa Chelo, and Sandra Bascove. Front row, from left: Brooke Lacey, Aracelis Rivera, Sandra Ruiz, and Nicole Santaniello.

: Jill Monson-Bishop

Back row, from left: Jill Monson-Bishop, Inspired Marketing; Darren James and Nico Santaniello, event sponsor Northwestern Mutual; and Heather Ruggeri, Inspired Marketing. Front row, from left: Daryl Gallant, Joe Kane, Donald Mitchell, and Dan Carmody, Northwestern Mutual.

From event sponsor Sunshine Village

From event sponsor Sunshine Village, back row, from left: Jeff Pollier, Michelle Depelteau, Marie Laflamme, and Ernest Laflamme. Front row, from left: Colleen Brosnan, Richard Klisiewicz, and Executive Director Gina Kos from Sunshine Village, and Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos.

From event sponsor Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

From event sponsor Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C., from left: Joe Vreedenburgh, Jim Krupienski, and Managing Partner Jim Barrett.

Brenda Olesuk

Brenda Olesuk from Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C., an event sponsor.

David Beturne

David Beturne, executive director, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hampden County, and his wife, Julie.

From left: Western Mass. Economic Development Council President

From left: Western Mass. Economic Development Council President and CEO Rick Sullivan, BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti, and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno.

2016 Difference Maker John Robison

2016 Difference Maker John Robison, who could not attend the event, addresses the audience remotely.

Jack Robison

Jack Robison, son of 2016 Difference Maker John Robison, speaks about his father’s life and work on behalf of individuals on the autism spectrum.

Mike Balise

Mike Balise, honored posthumously as a 2016 Difference Maker, is memorialized by, from left, his children David and Marisa, and his wife, Maryellen.

Carol Leary

Carol Leary, honored as a 2016 Difference Maker, addresses the packed room at the Log Cabin.

 Michael J. Ashe Jr.

2016 Difference Maker Sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr. takes in the evening’s presentations.

Class of 2016 Difference Makers

His Legacy of Generosity, Inspirational Living Will Carry On

Mike Balise

Mike Balise, September 2015

Kathleen Sullivan was doing fine, talking in calm, measured — you might even call them precise — tones about Mike Balise and his many forms of support for the Homer Street School, which she serves as principal, until…

Until the conversation turned to the events of last fall — specifically, Mike’s latest, but certainly not last, gesture regarding what has become known simply, and famously, as the ‘coat thing.’ That’s when the dam holding back the emotions broke.

And with very good reason.

To explain, one needs to go back two more Octobers. That’s when Mike first entered the Homer Street School as a celebrity reader with the Link to Libraries program. As he walked down the main hallway, he noticed a number of winter coats, department-store tags still on them, hung on hooks along one wall.

Upon asking what this was all about, he learned that many students’ families cannot afford winter coats, so the school has long been proactive in soliciting donations of coats and money to buy more. But need had traditionally exceeded supply, he was told.

According to Homer Street School lore, Mike then asked what he could do to help close the gap, and soon commissioned a check for $2,000 — much more than was requested.

A year later, and a few weeks after he was diagnosed with incurable stomach cancer, Mike was back at the school — to read and present another $2,000 check for coats. And last October, after already living longer than his doctors told him he probably would, he was back again, to read and do a lot more than cover another year of coats.

“He said to me, ‘I might not be here next year, but those kids will be here, and some of them will need coats, so I want to give the students at Homer Street School $2,000 for an additional five years,’” said Sullivan, her voice cracking before she had to stop for a minute and compose herself. “And later, he wrote me an e-mail a few days before he passed away to thank me for an inspirational message I had sent to him, and for allowing him to be part of something special here at the school.

“That’s the kind of person he was,” she went on. “He was always thinking of others and how he could help, even while battling cancer.”

The coat thing is one very literal example of how Mike’s generosity, his ability to make a difference, will live on long after his passing. There are many others, from the donation the Balise company made to the expansion of the Sister Caritas Cancer Center in Springfield, to his work supporting efforts to assist autistic children and their families (one of his daughters has autism).

Mike Balise began his relationship with Homer Street School

Mike Balise began his relationship with Homer Street School as a celebrity reader with Link to Libraries; it soon evolved into much more.

Indeed, Mike made Community Resources for People with Autism, an affiliate of the Assoc. for Community Living, the primary beneficiary for those wishing to honor him following his death. Jan Doody, the recently retired executive director of the center, said it’s far too early to know how the funds received in Mike’s memory will be used, but she does know they will certainly advance the agency’s mission for years to come, and help fill recognized gaps in support for individuals with autism.

While effectively filling such gaps is certainly one reason to call Mike a Difference Maker, another was the inspiration he provided to those across the area through the courageous manner in which everyone says he fought cancer and the death sentence he was given.

Everyone, that is, except his brother, Jeb, who took a departure from the rhetoric that usually accompanies such a battle, and offered a different, quite profound take on what went down over the 15 months after Mike was diagnosed.

“What he did, and I think he did it better than most people in that situation, is that he didn’t really battle cancer,” Jeb explained. “What he did was focus on positive things, enjoying life, and making a difference.

Mike Balise Family

Jeb Balise says his brother, seen here with his family, didn’t battle cancer; rather, he fought to get the most out of every day.

“His battle was making sure that he got the most out of every moment, and not allow himself to fall into the trap of ‘how much longer do I have?’ and ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” he went on. “He had one very bad day, as I recall, but otherwise he did an amazing job of focusing on life, not his condition. And that’s what I mean when I say that he didn’t really fight cancer.”

By focusing on life, not only for those 15 months after his diagnosis, but for all 50 of his years, Mike Balise remains an inspiration to all those who knew him. For that reason, and for spending much of that time devoted to finding ways to help others, he was — and indeed always will be — a true Difference Maker.

Warm Feelings

Mike died early in the evening on Dec. 23, roughly a week after entering hospice care, and several days into Homer Street School’s two-week winter break.

Thus, the staff at the facility didn’t have a chance to collectively grieve until a meeting after school let out on Jan. 4, their first day back. It was an emotional session, said Sullivan, noting that there was literally not a dry eye in the room. People shared their thoughts on the many ways he supported the institution, she went on, and initiated talks on how best to honor him.

A statue of a man reading a book to children — a non-personalized model that Sullivan had seen on some Internet sites — was one early proposal, but the concept now gaining serious traction is a plan to name the school’s library after him.

That would certainly be fitting, because although he actually read to students there only a few times, Homer Street, a nondescript school in the city’s Mason Square neighborhood that opened its doors in 1896, and is thus the city’s oldest elementary school, has become a kind of symbol of Mike’s work within the community.

The building itself is slated to be replaced over the next few years, said Sullivan — work to identify a site in the area, near American International College, is ongoing — and there will very likely be a new name as well.

But the ‘coat thing’ and the way in which Balise attached himself to the needs of the students at the school will long outlive both the man and the structure.

Indeed, in many ways, his work there epitomizes not just what he did, but how, and the enthusiasm and tireless energy he brought to such endeavors, said Susan Jaye-Kaplan, co-founder of Link to Libraries (LTL) — she was among BusinessWest’s first Difference Makers in 2009 in recognition of her efforts — and a self-described friend of Mike’s.

Upon that first visit to Homer Street School in late fall 2013, she recalled, he adopted the facility in a manner that went well beyond reading on the rug at the front of a third-grade classroom.

“He told me that he would read at other schools over the course of the year,” she said, “but he said, ‘I have to go to Homer Street in the fall for the coats.’”

And the need for such items there was acute, as poignantly explained by Nancy Laino, the school’s instructional reading specialist, who was happy to use the past tense as she talked.

“Kids wouldn’t come to school when it was very cold outside because they didn’t have a coat,” she told BusinessWest. “And sometimes, two siblings would share a coat; one would come to school one day, the other would come the next day.”

This reality explains why teachers would pitch in money themselves and work with a host of service agencies to purchase coats — and why Mike saw several along the wall of the main hallway on his first visit to the facility.

But, eventually, his commitment to the school went behind the coat thing. Indeed, last fall, Mike told Jaye-Kaplan he wanted Balise to sponsor the school as part of LTL’s Business Book Link program. She told him it already had a sponsor, albeit one on a one-year contract, a reply that drew a response she said she won’t ever forget.

“He said, ‘I don’t care if there’s six sponsors at Homer Street; we want to sponsor them,’” she recalled. “He said it had nothing to do with the coats, that they would take care of themselves. He said the company wanted to sponsor a school and he would have members of his team read there.”

And this aggressive form of attachment to a cause was hardly isolated, she went on, using the word ‘humble’ and ‘committed’ frequently as she talked about him.

“When he saw a need, he was always quick to act,” Jaye-Kaplan recalled. “There was no hesitation, and he always followed through. When he said he was going to do something, you could count on him to do it.”

Wear There’s a Will…

Mike Balise, second from left, presents a check to Community Resources

Mike Balise, second from left, presents a check to Community Resources for People with Autism to, from left, James Foard Jr., former president of the board of directors of the Assoc. for Community Living, parent of Community Resources; Jan Doody, recently retired director; Nancy Farnsworth, educational advocate; and Kaitlyn Holloway, projects manager.

Such character traits explain why, even though the Balise company’s many and diverse philanthropic efforts were and are undertaken by a team, and Mike was simply a part of that team, he nonetheless stood out when it came to work in the community, said Jeb.

He was, in most respects, the face of the company — even if it was his voice, heard on countless Balise radio commercials, that most people knew, Jeb went on. But his work at Homer Street School and many other places went well behind that.

“When Mike saw the ability to make a meaningful difference, he would step in and do it,” Jeb explained, adding that his contributions often came with causes that fell between the cracks, groups that could use his organizational — and entertainment — skills, and with filling gaps in funding.

He cited a number of examples, starting with the many requests the company receives for donations of vehicles to help individuals, families, or nonprofits in various types of need. Summing up the corporate response to such requests, he said there are many social-service agencies that, among their many other responsibilities, handle such matters, and Balise will step in only if such needs can’t be met through such channels.

“There are so many great services that will handle such requests,” he explained. “It takes time, there’s bureaucracy, and you have to go through paperwork, but there are agencies that meet these needs. If we believed the system provided for these people, we would tend to say ‘no.’

“But quite often, Mike would give a vehicle to a person who didn’t fall into any of those categories,” he went on. “It would be a mom whose husband died … she had four kids … one of the kids has a job but now he’s going to lose his job because he has no transportation to it, that kind of thing. It was people like this, people who fell under the radar screen, that he sought to help — and he helped a lot of them.

“That’s what Mike was good at — finding people who really needed the help,” Jeb continued, adding that one of the causes he attached himself to years ago was autism.

This work has taken many forms, from working with his friend Doug Flutie to stage a free-throw-shooting competition at the Basketball Hall of Fame to raise money for Flutie’s foundation, which assists those with the condition, to taking an autistic child to visit New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick last fall.

But the main beneficiary (literally and figuratively) of his time, talents, and desire to help was Community Resources for People with Autism.

Founded in 1989 by a group of parents with autistic children, this state-funded organization, as the name suggests, is focused on providing resources to a host of constituencies. These range from individuals diagnosed with the condition to their families to the school systems tasked with providing them with an education.

The resources provided by the Easthampton-based agency, one of seven across the state with the same mission, vary as well, from information and referrals to a resource library; from training and education to educational advocacy.

It is with the last item on that list that Mike (whose family received various forms of support from the agency), acting as part of that aforementioned team at Balise, decided to step in and fill another critical gap.

Indeed, educational advocacy, which involves guiding parents though the individualized education program (IEP) and special-education processes, is the only service not funded by the state. But it’s something many parents need, said Doody, adding that it is very difficult for them to articulate and then fight for all the services their child needs and is entitled to.

“It’s hard for a parent to know how the law works, let alone possess the negotiating skills needed, to advocate for their child in front of school officials,” she explained, adding that Nancy Farnsworth, the agency’s educational advocate, has both parts of the equation covered.

The rate for her services generally runs about $45 per hour, although there is a sliding scale, Doody went on, noting that families sometimes need help meeting such costs. Various forms of support have been secured over the years, she explained, but, as with the coats at Homer Street School, there was a gap between need and the help available.

“Sometimes we would try to divert some of our fund-raising toward that project and cobble money together somehow,” she told BusinessWest. “But it was always underfunded.”

It was roughly 16 months ago, or just after Mike was diagnosed with stomach cancer, that the Balise company was first approached by the agency about helping to close that gap.

The $20,000 the company eventually donated last fall — Mike presented the ceremonial check at one of the company’s dealerships — will provide scholarships and assistance for roughly 10 to 15 families, said Doody, making this a substantial gift that will have a lasting impact.

The same can certainly be said for Mike’s decision to name the agency his beneficiary of choice.

“We were surprised but very pleased that they chose Community Resources as the beneficiary,” she said. “Knowing how many people he was connected to and the many ways he was involved in the community, this is a real honor, and I’m imagining that a lot of people will want to remember him with a gift.”

Doody placed herself in that category, noting that she dropped off a check in Mike’s name early this month.

She said it certainly isn’t known yet how her gift and all the others will be put to use by the agency to support its mission. But there is already some sentiment toward using at least a portion of those funds to expand the educational-advocacy program — Farnsworth currently works part-time — and provide more help to those who need such services.

If that is what transpires, it will be just one example of how Mike and the Balise company will be closing gaps long after his passing.

Clothesing Thoughts

There is just one coat hanging

There is just one coat hanging in the hanging in the hallway at Homer Street School, said Principal Kathleen Sullivan, because everyone who needs one has one.

Today, there is just one winter coat, a large blue one with gold accents, hanging in the main hallway at Homer Street School, just a few feet from a large collection of hats, mittens, and gloves.

And it’s been there for a while, said Sullivan, adding that this is because every student who needs a coat has one, a departure from years past.

Mike Balise saw to it that this was the case, and he will continue to see to it, even though his fight with cancer has ended.

This is an example of how his work as Difference Maker continues to live on. And there are many more where that came from.


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

Class of 2016 Difference Makers

Changing Lives, One ‘Little,’ One ‘Big’ at a Time

From left, David Beturne, Danielle Letourneau-Therrien, and Renée Moss.

From left, David Beturne, Danielle Letourneau-Therrien, and Renée Moss.
Leah Martin Photography

Angela Smith-LeClaire was relatively young (age 8) when she became involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) as what that organization calls a ‘little.’

So the memories of her time spent with Lisa, who spent five years as her ‘big,’ are scattered, somewhat selective, and certainly not as complete as she would like. She admits, with some embarrassment in her voice, that she knows she and Lisa went to one of the organized events staged by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County years ago, but couldn’t say exactly when, where, or even what it was.

What she clearly remembers, though, and always will, are the dinners she shared at the home of Lisa and her husband, and the air of stability that warmed the room, something decidedly missing from her own home, where alcoholism was taking a heavy toll on day-to-day life.

What she remembers also is at some point making a kind of pledge — that one day she would seek to bring that same sense of stability to a young girl who lacked it in her life. That day came a few months ago, not long after Smith-LeClaire and her husband, Anthony, purchased a home in Millers Falls.

Angela Smith-LeClaire

Angela Smith-LeClaire fulfilled a promise she made to herself years ago by becoming a big sister to Abby.

Today, following a lengthy matching process, she is the ‘big’ for Abby, whose family life has been scarred by drug addiction. And one of the things they share is dinner in Angela’s home. They’ve also gone bowling, made Christmas cookies and tree ornaments, cooked a Thanksgiving turkey, and gone on lengthy walks with Angela’s dog, Cooper.

And only three months into this relationship, she feels comfortable saying that it is more — in every sense of that word — than she imagined it could be all those years ago.

“Abby has brought so much joy into my life, and I get so excited being able to hang out with her, knowing that there’s so many things she hasn’t done so far in her life,” she said. “I want to bring some joy into her life, because she’s already bringing a lot of happiness to me.”

Scott Howard can relate.

His story is somewhat different, but there are several common threads between his, Angela’s, and that of almost everyone who becomes a ‘big.’

Scott Howard, seen here with Noel

Scott Howard, seen here with Noel, or ‘Macho,’ as his friends call him, wonders why he waited so long to become a big brother.

Now serving as associate dean of students at Amherst College, Howard was in another job and another life situation years ago, when he first started thinking about becoming a ‘big.’ He decided that he should wait until a time when he could better handle what he thought would be a huge time commitment.

Now, five years into his relationship with Noel, or ‘Macho,’ as his good friends (including Howard) call him, he’s wondering why he waited so long. He could have had perhaps a few more years enjoying a friendship he described thusly: “Let me put it this way: I’m not close to getting married, but if I was, Macho would be one of the groomsmen.”

Like Howard, Brian Ortiz said he’s long thought of becoming a big brother, and the time became right this past fall, soon after he became residence director at Magna Hall at American International College.

He said his own brother is 13 years older than he is, and thus was not around when he was growing up. Ortiz said he had plenty of mentors, though, and has long desired to become one himself as a way of giving back. Today, he’s the ‘big’ to Desmond, and believes he’s getting at least as much out of this relationship as his ‘little.’

“It’s been a great experience for me, and I think it’s been the same for him,” he explained. “I honestly didn’t think I’d be as involved in it as I am; I enjoy serving as a role model.”

The tireless work of generating these kinds of matches is what BBBS has been all about since 1904. It is an assignment replete with a host of challenges, from the increasingly daunting task of finding young men willing to be ‘bigs’ to raising the money needed to make and administer the matches.

Brian Ortiz

Brian Ortiz says there are many rewards that come with being a role model for Desmond.

The three area chapters have responded to those challenges with creativity and determination, and the fruits of their efforts can be seen in the photos that accompany this story. They depict bigs and littles sharing time and enriching one another’s lives.

And as you read how the three chapters make it all happen, it will become clear why they were chosen as Difference Makers for 2016. But in a way, all those involved with this nonprofit are making a difference — from the corporations and schools that support the organization to the local offices that create the matches; from the mentors who provide stability to those being mentored, who provide their ‘big’ with friendship and so much more.

It’s All Relative

In many ways, Howard’s story represents about the best kind of PR that BBBS could ever hope for.

Indeed, he is a young male professional, the type of individual that this organization has struggled to recruit in adequate numbers since day one; recruiting women is also a challenge, but less so than men. Also, he throws a large bucket of cold water on the argument that young people don’t have time to be a mentor — for whatever reason — or often need to wait until a better, more stable time in their lives to take part.

Not only that, when he talks about his experiences with Macho, he says things like this: “I don’t feel like I’m doing service; I just feel like I have a friend who is a really good friend, with whom I do a lot of things that my other friends don’t do. I get to be with someone who brings a lot to my life, helps me feel young, and gives me a perspective on the world that I would never see otherwise.”

And the story just keeps getting better from a PR perspective. Indeed, it drives home the point that poverty and struggling families are harsh realities in every community, even one named Paradise City, which both Howard and Macho call home.

“He and I live half a mile from each other, but it’s like our worlds couldn’t be more different,” Howard explained, adding that this experience opened his eyes to that other world as much as it has opened Macho’s — and both individuals are wiser and better for it.

But convincing more people like Howard to become ‘bigs,’ and persuading all young professionals that they’re not too busy to change a child’s life, are only a few of the myriad challenges that BBBS chapters around the world — and in the 413 area code, for that matter — face as they attempt to secure proper matches.

Big Brothers Big Sisters

Big Brothers Big Sisters has been making fulfilling matches since 1904.

Susan-(Big)-and-Juleima-(Little)In rural Franklin County, statistically the most impoverished county in the Commonwealth, for example, basic transportation is an issue, said Danielle Letourneau-Therrien, executive director of that office, noting that, once outside Greenfield, mass transit is hit or miss at best. Meanwhile, reliable Internet service, something most now take for granted in Greater Springfield, is a foreign concept in places like Rowe, Heath, Charlemont, and Ashfield, a fact of life that often makes it difficult to communicate with ‘bigs’ and ‘littles’ alike.

These two factors, among others, makes the process of enrolling families and creating matches more time-consuming and more complicated, because BBBS has to go to those families, instead of the families going to BBBS.

Still another obstacle is the loss of a number of manufacturers in the region, which moved south or offshore. These large employers were financial supporters of BBBS, and their workforces were solid sources of ‘bigs.’

“Over the past 15 or 20 years, we’ve lost access to people at many workplaces — companies that were run by someone who lived locally. You could say, ‘I need to see the boss,’ and they’d let you in,” she said. “It’s different now, and I think the people who work in those places don’t have the time, like they did years ago, because the world is crazy and life is busy.”

Meanwhile in Hampshire County, as mentioned earlier, it’s often a challenge simply to convince young professionals that there is a need for big brothers and big sisters on that side of the ‘Tofu Curtain,’ a region known for its colleges, arts, restaurants, and trendy downtowns, but where poverty and troubled young people can certainly be found, and without looking very hard.

“One of my challenges is making sure people understand what life feels like for those in our community who are living with a lot of invisibility,” Renee Moss, director of CHD/Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hampshire County, explained. “A lot of families and kids are marginalized in their own communities — they’re isolated and very invisible. The reality is that places like Amherst and Northampton have these apartment complexes on the periphery of Main Street and what appear to visitors to be these hip, trendy downtowns.

“For our kids who live in Florence Heights in Northampton, most of them have never been to the city’s downtown,” she went on. “They have no sense of entitlement in their own community; in Amherst, 50% of the kids entering school have free or reduced lunches. The poverty is there, but the towns manage to keep it pretty invisible. Things are not what they seem.”

And in Hampden County, well, the overwhelming issue has been, and always will be, need and meeting it, said David Beturne, executive director of that office, adding that it handles two of the state’s most impoverished cities — Springfield and Holyoke — as well as two of its wealthier communities, Longmeadow and Wilbraham, and the need for ‘bigs’ exists at both ends of the spectrum.

That’s because the issues that create need for big brothers and big sisters, including everything from incarceration to opioid abuse; from bullying to alcoholism, don’t discriminate along family-income levels, he told BusinessWest.

And his county, like the others, is dealing with the loss of some major employers over the past few decades, as well as an ongoing spate of mergers and acquisitions that have left fewer businesses in the hands of local ownership that lives in the communities being served by BBBS.

Thus, need has always exceeded not only the supply of ‘bigs’ in the pipeline, but the ability to simply make more matches because of budget and, therefore, staffing constraints.

“I can’t match any more kids than I’m currently matching at the pace I am, because my staff would kill me right now,” Beturne said, noting that, even if he could find an adequate number of willing ‘bigs,’ he simply doesn’t have the infrastructure to coordinate matches.

“You can’t just say to someone like me, ‘go match 20 more kids than you’re already serving,” he went on. “Our product, the end product, is our match, but we’re not selling a product. Instead, we’re changing lives; that takes money, time, patience, and creating effective matches, not just more of them.”

On to Something Big

Meeting need and overcoming this large assortment of challenges requires persistence, imagination, and relationship-building skills — in equal quantities. And because they’ve been able to display those qualities on a consistent basis, and literally change lives in the process, the three chapters can definitely be considered Difference Makers.

The persistence is required because the need never stops. It is, as all three directors indicated, a constant, because there will always be young people who lack stability and a role model in their lives. And imagination is necessary for that same reason, but also because need doesn’t come in one flavor — and, as Bertune said, BBBS isn’t focused on simply making matches; it’s dedicated to making matches that work.

As for relationship building, it goes hand-in-hand with the first two components in the equation and goes a long way toward explaining how that mission is accomplished.

Examples of imaginative response and relationship building can be found with each area office.

In Hampshire County, for example, there is an initiative that matches young people who have been adopted with students at UMass Amherst who were adopted, the only such program of its kind in the country, said Moss, adding that it was conceptualized out of both need and a valuable resource at UMass — the Rudd Adoption Research Program, which is affiliated with the Center for Research on Families.

“The Amherst schools had identified this as a need because a lot of their kids were adopted,” she explained. “They were seeing these students start to have a lot of issues once they reach middle school, and they reached out to see if there was something we could do to address that specific need.”

The initiative is simply one example of how the Hampshire County BBBS works to tap what is easily that region’s best asset, its colleges — specifically, in this case, UMass, Amherst College, and Smith College.

“We don’t really have a corporate base, so probably 50% of our mentors are college students,” Moss explained, adding that some take part in the traditional community-based model of service, while others are involved in site-based programs on the campuses.

“In Hampshire County, a lot of our ‘littles’ come from families where no one has ever graduated from high school, let alone gone on to college, and they’re growing up in the shadows of higher ed,” she explained. “So, once a week, the school bus drops them off on the campus, where they meet their big brother or big sister, use the facilities on campus — the basketball court or the pool, for example — and then they’ll get together as a group and have dinner in the dining halls.

“We’ve had kids say, ‘I’m going to college here because the food is great,’” she went on. “That’s a very specialized program for us because we’re using a tremendous resource that we have.”

Similarly, the Franklin County chapter has tapped into its respected private schools, Deerfield Academy and Northfield Mount Herman School in Gill, for mentors, said Letourneau-Therrien.

A modified but still strenuous screening procedure is used in the matchmaking process, she said, noting that these students, roughly halfway through their junior years when the matches start, are still teenagers for the most part.

The ‘bigs’ and ‘littles’ meet on Friday nights, use the facilities at the school, and eat in the dining commons, she explained, adding that the institutions have been involved for many years, and the ratio of men to women who take part is far better than that in the so-called real world.

And in Hampden County, that office has met that aforementioned enormous need through a host of partnerships, with large corporations like MassMutual and colleges such as Bay Path University. But even with those more traditional relationships, there are unique twists.

Big Brothers Big Sisters Grad

Big Brothers Big Sisters has been changing lives for all those involved in their programs.

Indeed, MassMutual’s program, called Pathways, which involves employees across a host of departments mentoring students from Putnam and Sci Tech high schools, has its own spinoff.

“Those high-school students receiving mentorship from a MassMutual employee are turning around and being mentors at STEM Academy,” he explained. “It’s a sort of third-generation thing going on, where high-school students are mentoring fifth-graders, because that transition from middle school to high school is extremely difficult; it’s been identified as a case where it’s not a matter of ‘when you get to high school, are you dropping out,’ it’s ‘are you getting to high school.’

“So who better to share that experience and tell people what it’s like than someone who’s being mentored, and someone who’s also in high school?” he went on. “So that’s working out very well for us.”

The fruits of all this persistence, imagination, and relationship building are the matches themselves, which are the real story at BBBS and the most visible manner in which it is making a difference. And our three stories are perfect examples.

The ‘Little’ Things

Macho is one of those young people from Florence Heights who hadn’t seen downtown Northampton — until he became matched with Scott Howard.

And making that introduction, if you will, is only one of the ways Howard says he’s been able to broaden the horizons of his mentee and take him well beyond his historic but impoverished neighborhood — literally and figuratively.

As he listed them, he started with hiking and mountain climbing, two of his passions, as was explained to Macho by those who made the match between the two.

“So the first time I met him, he was trying to be cool, trying to impress me, trying to get me to think he was cool — and he is cool, so it worked,” Howard recalled. “So I said, what are you into?’ He said, ‘climbing mountains.’ When I asked him where he likes to go, I thought he was going to say, ‘something in the [Holyoke] range’ or ‘Mount Sugarloaf.’ Instead, he pointed to the snowbank at the end of his street and said, ‘I climb that mountain every day.’”

Their first official time out together was spent on the Mount Sugarloaf access road in South Deerfield, which was an eye-opening experience for Macho, to say the least.

“He didn’t know that kind of thing existed, let alone was right in our own backyards,” said Howard. “That was not a life experience that he had.”

Generating new life experiences, for both the ‘big’ and ‘little,’ is just part of what the program is all about. There’s also that stability factor that Smith-LeClaire mentioned, as well as that role-modeling work that Ortiz described.

Indeed, while Ortiz has taken Desmond to Interskate 91 and to see Goosebumps, and plans to take him to see The Force Awakens — he needs to see the first six Star Wars movies himself first so he can understand what’s going on — he’s also taken him to the art museum and the library, and lent a hand with homework.

“I think one of the biggest things is trying to be a good role model,” he said. “I enjoy helping him with homework, and teaching him little things here and there about reading, writing, and math, and also class behavior, how to take notes, and things like that.”

And while that constitutes a learning experience for Desmond, it’s the same for Ortiz, who said he’s learned a lot about himself and the fine art of giving back through this process. In the meantime, he’s doing a lot of the things he didn’t get to do as a kid.

As for Smith-LeClaire, when asked if she thought she was providing Abby with that same calm, stable environment that Lisa gave her, she said simply, “I hope so.”

Elaborating, she said that Abby’s mother’s wish is that this experience with BBBS helps her child “act like a kid,” said Smith-LeClaire, adding that she sees a lot of herself in her mentee and can associate with every experience and emotion she’s witnessed.

“In a lot of ways, I can relate to Abby because I grew up with an alcoholic parent and a really unstable environment,” she noted. “I know what her personality is like, and I want her to be able to have fun with me, but also feel close enough to me to talk about things I can relate to and have a different perspective on than other people.

“For kids who are going through a lot in their lives, having that stable environment is really important,” she went on. “If I can help provide her with that, then I’m doing something very worthwhile.”

A World of Difference

Continuing his unofficial role as BBBS pitchperson, Howard said that, if the program were to “somehow evaporate tomorrow,” he and Macho would still be good friends and still hiking on Mount Sugarloaf together.

Perhaps there’s no better testimony to the power of these matches and what they bring to both parties involved. As Howard said, it’s not about service, it’s about making a friend — one who would be standing next to him the day he got married.

It’s also about bringing stability into lives where that precious commodity is in short supply — as Lisa brought to Ashley, and Ashley now brings to Abby 20 years later — and about opening eyes and experiencing different worlds.

That’s why all those involved with making matches like those described here are true Difference Makers.

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

Class of 2016 Difference Makers

This Inspirational Leader Isn’t in the Community; She’s of the Community

Carol Leary

Carol Leary, President of Bay Path University
Leah Martin Photography

Carol Leary says the executive search firms, the headhunters, don’t call very often any more. In fact, she can’t remember the last time one of them did.

She still gets e-mails gauging her interest in various positions, but they’re almost always of that variety that goes out to hundreds, if not thousands, of people. “Are you interested in, or would you care to nominate someone for, the job of president of ‘fill-in-blank college’” is how they usually start.

But not so long ago, Leary, who took the helm at Bay Path University in Longmeadow in late 1994, was getting calls all the time, most of them related to attractive opportunities within the broad realm of higher education. She declined to get into specifics, but said one of them was “very, very flattering.”

Still, it met with the same response as all the others — no response.

When asked why, Leary offered an answer that went on for some time. Paraphrasing that response, she said she was in a job — and in a community — that she was very committed to. And she had, and still has, no intention of leaving either one.

“Noel and I are not dazzled by big or prestigious; we’re dazzled by mission, vision, and making an impact,” said Leary, referring to her husband of 43 years. “We really love this community. We think you can make an impact here; you can make a difference.”
And the evidence that she has done just that is everywhere.

It is in every corner of the Longmeadow campus, starting with the brick sign at the front gate, which declares that this nearly 120-year-old institution, once known as a junior college, is now a university.

Carol Leary is where she always is

Carol Leary is where she always is — the middle of things — after a recent Bay Path commencement exercise.

It also exists in the many other communities where Bay Path now has a presence, including Springfield, where the school located its American Women’s College Online in a downtown office tower in 2013, and East Longmeadow, where it opened the $13.7 million Phillip H. Ryan Health Science Center a year ago.

It’s also on the recently unveiled plaque at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts at the Quadrangle, the one that reads ‘The Carol and Noel Leary Gallery of Impressionist Art’ in recognition of their $300,000 contribution to that institution, which Noel has served as a board member for many years.

And, in a way, it’s in virtually every business and nonprofit in the region — or, to be more specific, any organization that has sent employees to the Women’s Professional Development Conference, which Leary initiated amid considerable skepticism (even at Bay Path) soon after her arrival.

When the conference was first conceptualized, organizers were hoping to draw 400 people; 800 turned out that first year. Today, the event attracts more than 2,000 attendees annually, and over the years it has welcomed keynoters ranging from Margaret Thatcher to Barbara Walters to Maya Angelou.

But Leary is best known for the turnaround story she is very much still writing at Bay Path, a school that was struggling and suffering from declining enrollment when she arrived.

Over the past two decades, she has led efforts that have taken that enrollment from just under 500 to more than 3,000 when all campuses and all programs, including online offerings, are considered. When she arrived, the school offered 14 associate degrees and three baccalaureate degrees; now, it offers 62 baccalaureate degrees and 20 graduate and post-graduate degrees.

In 2015, for the second year in row, the Chronicle of Higher Education included Bay Path on its list of the fastest-growing baccalaureate colleges in the country, and just a few months ago, Leary and Bay Path were ranked 25th in the 2015 ‘Top-100 Women-led Businesses in Massachusetts’ compilation sponsored by the Boston Globe and the Commonwealth Institute.

The sign at the main entrance

The sign at the main entrance explains just how far Bay Path has come under Carol Leary’s stewardship.

Such growth and acclaim didn’t come overnight or very easily, said Leary, who attributed the school’s success to vision, assembling a focused, driven team (much more on that later), and a responsive boards of trustees — all of which have facilitated effective execution of a number of strategic plans.

“Let’s see … there was Vision 2001, and 2006, and 2011, which we had to redo halfway through because of the crash, so there was 2013, and Vision 2016, which ends in June, and then we just launched Vision 2019,” she said, adding that she would like to be around for its end.

“I’ll do it only as long as my board wants me and the faculty and staff feel I can be effective as their leader,” she explained. “And as long as I can get up every day and say ‘wow, it’s great to go to work today.’”

She’s said that since day one, and it’s an attitude that only begins to explain why she’s a Difference Maker.

Making a Course Change

Leary told BusinessWest that, with few exceptions, all of them recently and schedule-related, she has interviewed the finalists for every position on campus, from provost to security guard, since the day she arrived on campus, succeeding Jeanette Wright, who passed away months earlier.

And there’s one question she asks everyone.

She wouldn’t divulge it (on the record, anyway) — “if I did, then someone might read this, and then they’d be prepared to answer it if they ever applied here” — but did say that it revealed something important about the individual sitting across the table.

“To me, that’s the most important part of any CEO’s job — the hiring of the individuals who will be working in the organization,” she explained. “Beyond the résumé and the skill set, I dig a little deeper. And my question tells me what that person cares about; it tells me what motivates them.”

The practice of interviewing every job finalist — but not her specific question of choice — was something Leary took with her from Simmons College, where she spent several years in various positions, including vice president for Administration and assistant to the president, the twin titles she held at the end of her tenure.

But that’s not all she borrowed from that Boston-based institution. Indeed, the Women’s Conference was based on an event Simmons started years earlier, and Leary has also patterned Bay Path’s growth formula on Simmons’ hard focus on diversity when it comes to degree programs.

She applied those lessons and others while undertaking a turnaround initiative at Bay Path that almost never happened — because Leary almost didn’t apply.

“I sent in my letter of interest and résumé on the last day applications were due,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she was encouraged to apply by others who thought she was ready and able to become president of a college — especially this one — but very much needed to be talked into doing so.

“I was nominated for this job — I wasn’t even looking for a presidency,” she went on, adding that, while she had her doctorate and “six years in the trenches,” as she called it, she wasn’t sure she was ready to lead a college. “I loved Simmons, I loved my job, I loved the mission, and I loved working in Boston; it was great.”

It was with all that love as a backdrop that she and Noel, while returning to Boston from a vacation in Niagara Falls that August, decided to swing through the Bay Path campus to get a look at and perhaps a feel for the institution. Suffice it to say they liked what they saw, heard, and could envision.

Indeed, what the two eventually found beyond the idyllic campus located in the heart of an affluent Springfield suburb was a college that possessed what Leary described using that time-honored phrase “good bones.”

And by that, she meant that it still had a sound reputation — years earlier, it was regarded as one of the top secretarial schools in the Northeast, if not the country — and, perhaps more importantly, a solid financial foundation upon which things could be built.

“I knew that Bay Path had been challenged with a decrease in its enrollment over several years,” she recalled. “But all the presidents had kept the institution financially strong; they kept deferred maintenance down, and the endowment was healthy for such a small school of 500 students. I looked at their programs, and I saw the challenges they were facing. But I looked at the balance sheet, and we both said, ‘we can see ourselves here; this has incredible potential as a women’s college.’”

When asked about those struggles with enrollment, Leary said they resulted in part from the fact that there was declining interest in women’s colleges, fueled in part by the fact that most every elite school in the country was by that time admitting women, giving them many more options. But it also stemmed from the fact that Bay Path simply wasn’t offering the products — meaning baccalaureate and graduate degrees — that women wanted, needed, and were going elsewhere to get.

So she set about changing that equation.

But first, she needed to assemble a team; draft a strategic plan for repositioning the school; achieve buy-in from several constituencies, but especially the board of trustees; effectively execute the plan; and then continually amend it as need and demand for products grew.

Spoiler alert (not really; this story is well known): she and those she eventually hired succeeded with all of the above.

To make a long story short, the college soon began adding degree programs in a number of fields, while also expanding geographically with new campuses in Sturbridge and Burlington, and technologically. It’s been a turnaround defined by the terms vision, teamwork, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

Milestones along the way include everything from the establishment of athletics (there are eight varsity sports now) to the first graduate-degree program (Communications and Information Management), launched in 2000, a year ahead of schedule; from the introduction of the innovative One-Day-a-Week Saturday College to those new campuses; from the launching of the American Women’s Online College to the school’s being granted status as a university in 2014.

Add it all up, and Leary and her staff have accomplished the mission she set when she arrived — to make Bay Path a destination.

That’s a great story, but the better one — and the reason why all those executive search firms were calling her — is the manner in which all this was accomplished.

Study in Relationship Building

And maybe no one can explain this better than Caron Hoban.

She didn’t work directly with Leary at Simmons — they were assigned to different campuses but served together on a few committees — but certainly knew of her. And when Leary went to Bay Path, Hoban decided to follow just a few months later.

“I knew her a little bit, and I was looking to make my next move just as she had been made president at Bay Path; they had a position open, and I applied for it,” said Hoban, who now holds the position of chief strategic officer.

When asked to summarize what Leary has accomplished at the school and attempt to put it all in perspective, Hoban obliged. But is doing so, she focused much more on how Leary orchestrated such a turnaround and, perhaps even more importantly, why.

And as she articulated these points, Hoban identified what she and others consider Leary’s greatest strengths — listening and forging partnerships.

“One of her greatest gifts is relationship building,” Hoban explained. “So when she came to Bay Path and the Greater Springfield area 21 years ago, she really committed to not just learning more about the college, but really understanding the whole region. She met with hundreds and hundreds of people and just listened.

“At my first meeting with her, she said, ‘what I’ve really been trying to do in my early days is listen to people and understand what the college needs and what the region needs,’” Hoban went on, adding that from this came the decision to create a women’s professional conference modeled on the one at Simmons, and a commitment to add graduate programs in several areas of study.

“She knew that the way to grow the campus and move from 500 students, which is what we had when she arrived, to the 3,000 we have now is by adding master’s-degree programs,” Hoban went on. “And these came about by her going out and listening to what the workforce needs were in the community.”

But Hoban said Leary’s listening and relationship-building talents extended to the campus community, the people she hired, and her own instincts, and this greatly facilitated what was, in every aspect of the word, a turnaround that was critical to the school’s very survival.

In 2007, President Leary welcomed poet, author, and civil-rights activist Maya Angelou

In 2007, President Leary welcomed poet, author, and civil-rights activist Maya Angelou to the Women’s Leadership Conference.

Indeed, in 1996, Leary recalled, she essentially asked the board for permission to spend $10 million of the $14 million the school had in the bank at the time over the next several years to hire faculty, add programs, and, in essence, take the school to the next level.

“I remember the conversations that were had around the table, and there was one member of the board, the chair of the academic committee, who said, ‘if we don’t do this, there might not be a future for Bay Path,’” she recalled. “I recommended that we make that investment — it had athletics in it, the Women’s Leadership Conference, and much more; that was Vision 2001.”

As it turned out, she didn’t have to spend all the money she asked for, because those degree programs added early on were so successful that revenues increased tremendously, to the point where the school didn’t have to take money out of the bank.

Looking back on what’s transpired at Bay Path, and also at the dynamics of administration in higher education, Leary said turning around a college as she and her team did is like turning around an aircraft carrier; in neither case does it happen quickly or easily.

In fact, she said it takes at least a full decade to blueprint and effectively execute a turnaround strategy, and that’s why relatively few colleges fully succeed with such initiatives — the president or chancellor doesn’t stay long enough to see the project to completion. And, inevitably, new leadership will in some ways alter the course and speed of a plan, if not create their own.

But Leary has given Bay Path not one decade, but two, and she’s needed all of that time to put the school on such lists as the Chronicle of Higher Education’s compilation of fastest-growing schools.

In keeping with her personality, Leary recoils when a question is asked with a tone focusing on what she has done. Indeed, she attributes the school’s progression to hiring the right people and then simply providing them with the tools and environment needed to flourish.

“I got up every day and knew I had to hire the best possible staff, people who believed in the mission,” she recalled. “And when people ask why Bay Path has been so successful, I say it’s because I hired the right people at the right time, and they just threw themselves into their jobs.”

While giving considerable credit to those she’s interviewed and hired over the years, Leary saved some for Noel and his willingness to share what she called “an equal-opportunity marriage.”

Elaborating, she said she agreed to uproot and follow him to Washington, D.C. and a job in commercial real estate there decades ago, and he more than reciprocated by first following her to Boston as she took a job at Simmons, then making another major adjustment — trying to serve his clients in the Hub from 100 miles away — when she came to Bay Path. He did that for more than a decade before retiring and taking on the role of supporting her various efforts.

“Noel has been a tremendous, tremendous support to me,” she explained. “He basically said, ‘this is an important job, I love what you’re doing, and I enjoy being a part of it.’”

And she implied that what he meant by ‘it’ was not simply her work at the campus on Longmeadow Street, but her efforts well outside it. They are so numerous and impactful that Hoban chose to say that Leary isn’t in the community, “she’s of the community.”

And perhaps the best example of that has been the women’s conference and how the region’s business community has embraced it.

Learning Curves

Dena Hall says it’s a good problem to have. Well … sort of.

There are more people at United Bank, which Hall serves as regional president, who want to go to the conference than the institution can effectively send.

Far more.

And that has led to some hand-wringing among those administrators (like Hall) whose job descriptions now include deciding who gets to go each spring and who doesn’t.

“We’ve gotten to the point where we have too many who want to go — we just can’t accommodate everyone, because we can’t have 50 current or emerging leaders out of the company at one time,” she explained. “So we’ve put it on each of our managers to identify one or two women in their business line who they believe should attend the conference and who will really benefit from what they see and hear.”

But these hard decisions comprise the only thing Hall doesn’t like about the women’s conference, except maybe finding a parking space that morning. That, too, has become a challenge, but, for the region as a whole, also a great problem to have.

Because that means that 2,000 women — and some men as well — are not only hearing the keynoters such as Walters, Angelou, and others, but networking and learning through a host of seminars and breakout sessions.

“You always learn something,” said Hall, who has been attending the conference for more than a dozen years. “Last year, I participated in the time-management workshop, and it changed the entire way I look at my schedule from Monday through Friday; the woman was fantastic.

“And there’s tons of networking,” she went on. “We use the conference here as a coaching and development tool for the more junior women on our team. There’s a lot of value in it, and for us, the fact that it’s five minutes away makes it so much easier than sending someone to Boston or New Haven or anywhere else.”

The conference is a college initiative — indeed, its primary goal beyond the desire to help educate and empower women is to give the school valuable exposure — but it is also a community endeavor, and one of many examples of how Leary is of, not just in, the community.

Others include everything from her service to the Colony Club — she was the first woman to chair its board — to her time on the boards of the Community Foundation, the Beveridge Foundation, WGBY, and United Bank, among others. She was also the honorary chair of Habitat for Humanity’s All Women build project in 2009.

And then, there was the support she and Noel gave to the museums and the current capital campaign called “Seuss & Springfield: Building a Better Quandrangle,” a gift that Springfield Museums President Kay Simpson described as not only generous, but a model to others who thought they might not be able to afford such philanthropy.

“One of the motivating factors for Carol and Noel,” she noted, “is that they wanted to demonstrate that, even if you don’t think you can make a substantial gift, with planning, you can do it.”

Leary said planning began years ago, and was inspired by a desire to preserve and expand a treasure that many in this area simply don’t appreciate for its quality.

“We really believe in the museum — we absolutely adore it,” she said. “I said to my niece and nephew at the gala [where the gift was announced], ‘this is your inheritance; you might be in the will, but there isn’t going to be any money in it — it’s going right here, so you can bring your children and your children’s children here decades from now.’

“Noel told the audience that night, ‘we have some big birthdays coming up, but forget Tiffany’s; we’re giving it to the museums,’” she went on. “That’s how much we think of this region; there are so many gems, like the museums, the symphony, CityStage, and others that need support.”

From left, Donald D’Amour, Michele D’Amour, Carol Leary, and Noel Leary

From left, Donald D’Amour, Michele D’Amour, Carol Leary, and Noel Leary at the ceremony marking the naming of the Gallery of Impressionist Art.

And looking back on her time here, she said it has been her mission not only to be involved in the community herself, but to get the college immersed in it as well. She considers these efforts successful and cites examples of involvement ranging from Habitat for Humanity to Big Brothers Big Sisters; from Link to Libraries to the college’s sponsorship of the recent Springfield Public Forum and partnerships that brought speakers such as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and author Wes Moore.

“You can’t be an ivory tower,” she told BusinessWest. “We have to be part and parcel of the good, the bad, and the ugly of any community.”

As she talked about the importance of involvement in this community, Leary made it a point to talk about the region itself, which she has chosen to call home. She said it has attributes and selling points that are easier for people not from the 413 area code to appreciate.

And this is something she would like to see change.

“People underrate this area, and the negativity has to stop,” she said with twinges of anger and urgency in her voice. “The language and the perception has to start changing from all of us who have a voice; we have to talk more positively.”

A Class Act

When asked how long she intended to stay at the helm at Bay Path, Leary didn’t give anything approaching a specific answer other than a reference to wanting to see how Vision 2019 shakes out.

Instead, she conveyed the sentiment that was implied in all those non-responses to inquiries from executive search firms: she’s not at all ready to leave this job or this community.

As she said, one can have an impact here. One can make a difference.

Not everyone does so, but she has, and in a number of ways.

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

Class of 2016 Difference Makers

His Efforts on Behalf of the Autistic Are a Global Phenomenon

John Robison

John Robison, President of J.E. Robison Service
Leah Martin Photography

On the sill of the window in the front office at JE Robison Service, the one that offers a view into a long row of service bays that hosted Jaguars and Land Rovers, sits a display of the three books written by the company’s founder, John Robison, about Asperger’s syndrome and his life with that condition.

In chronological order, these would be Look Me in the Eye, which archives his life growing up; Be Different, which offers practical advice for Aspergians; and Raising Cubby, a memoir of his unconventional relationship with his son, who was also born with Asperger’s.

Near the middle of the display is a book with the title Wychowujemy Misiaka, which, says Robison, is the Hungarian version of Raising Cubby, only he doesn’t know if that’s a direct translation of those two words; a book will often take another title when published in a foreign country. For example, the Dutch version of Look Me in the Eye is titled I Always Liked Trains Better.

Meanwhile, there’s another book written in Russian; Robison thinks it’s Look Me in the Eye, but he admits he’s not sure and knows only that it’s one of his.

While the display creates some questions and confusion, it makes it abundantly clear that Robison’s efforts to raise awareness of disorders in what’s known as the autism spectrum, and advocate for the estimated 5 million people living with such conditions, are now a truly global phenomenon.

It’s an initiative with many moving parts — from the books to his numerous speaking engagements around the country; from a program at his foreign-car sales and service shop to train people with autism to be auto mechanics, to his participation on a number of panels created to help define the autism spectrum and improve quality of life for those who populate it.

John Robison

John Robison says awareness that his differences stemmed from Asperger’s was empowering and liberating.
Leah Martin Photography

But, over the past few years, Robison’s efforts have moved well beyond the realms of awareness and advocacy, and this dynamic goes a long way toward explaining why BusinessWest chose him as one of its Difference Makers for 2016.

Indeed, Robison now represents the tip of the spear in a movement, for lack of a better term, that he and others are calling ‘neurodiversity,’ or neurological diversity, and all that this phrase connotes.

“This is the idea that neurological diversity is an essential part of humanity, just as racial, cultural, religious, or sexual diversity are,” Robison explained as he sat on a couch in that front office. “Those are all accepted things, and now we recognize that conditions like autism have always been with us, and we recognize that some autistic people are profoundly disabled — and indeed I’m disabled in many ways. But I’m also gifted in many ways, and that’s what people need to understand; autistic people have unique contributions to make to the world because of their difference, and the world needs that.”

While speaking on this subject, Robison also drives home the point that individuals within the spectrum — like those protected classes he mentioned — have a right, like those other groups, to be free from profiling and discrimination. And, at present, they are not.

As just one example, he cited one of the many mass-shooting episodes that have become commonplace in this country.

“The big thing about autism is how we’re treated related to other groups,” he explained. “I recall reading in the newspaper about how a bunch of people were murdered, and it said that the killer was on the autism spectrum.

“That’s a familiar headline for people, stuff like that,” he went on. “Can you imagine what would happen if someone went on the nightly news and said ‘seven people were murdered at a shopping center in Hartford today, and the killer was a Jew’? That guy would lose his job tomorrow. And yet someone can go on the news and say ‘seven people were killed in a theater, and the killer had autism.’

“Autism is no more predictive of mass murder than being Jewish,” he continued, adding that there is much work to do simply to make this fact known and fully understood, let alone prompt society to embrace neurodiversity, or the concept that society should accept people whose brains function in many different ways.

For doing that hard work, in many different ways, Robison can add the title Difference Maker to the several he already has.

Mind over Matter

There will soon be a fourth book competing for space on that shelf in Robison’s office.

It’s called Switched On, and its subject matter represents a radical departure from his previous works. This tome, finished several months ago, chronicles Robison’s participation in experiments at Harvard Medical School and Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital involving transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). The treatment is aimed at changing emotional intelligence in humans by firing pulses of high-powered magnetic energy into the brain to “help it re-wire itself,” said the author.

Those experiments, conducted from 2008 to 2010, yielded a mixed bag of results, said Robison, who explained, in some detail, what he meant by that.

“I think it succeeded beyond their wildest hopes in some ways,” he said of the regimen. “But as much as it turned on abilities in me, that came at a cost. It cost me relationships, and it made me more up and down, where before, I’d been on kind of an even keel all along.

“Suddenly, I felt suffocated by my wife’s long-time depression, I felt like I was drowning, and then ultimately I wasn’t able to stay married anymore,” he went on. “And before, I’d been oblivious to what people thought and said when they came in here for service; suddenly I began to see that some people were contemptuous of me and the business, and I didn’t like that. So I dismissed a good number of people I didn’t want to do work for anymore.”

All things considered, he describes what’s happened as a good tradeoff; he says he’s more knowledgeable and has greater ability to engage people. He was going to say more, but essentially decided that, if people want to know more, they could, and should, read the book, which will be out in March.

While Robison has devoted much of the past few years to this latest tome, he’s devoted much of his adult life to many types of work involving the autism spectrum.

That work started roughly the day he found out he was part of that population, he went on, adding that he didn’t know he belonged until a self-diagnosis, if one could call it that, several years ago that was spurred by one of his foreign-car customers.

Before detailing that episode, though, we need to back up a little and explain how Robison arrived there, because doing so helps explain his passion for what you might call his ‘other work.’

John Robison

John Robison says much of his current work involves the emerging concept of neurodiversity.

By now, many people know at least the basics of Robison’s story. When he dropped out of high school, he essentially taught himself electrical engineering, and soon found success in the rock ‘n’ roll industry designing sound equipment and items like smoke-bomb-equipped guitars, with Pink Floyd and KISS among those on what could be called his client list.

His career track then took a sharp turn, and he ventured into the corporate world, first as a staff engineer at Milton Bradley in the late ’70s, and later as chief of the power-systems division for a military laser company. But while he had the technical know-how to succeed in those environments, he was missing the requisite social, interactive skills, including the simple yet important ability to look people in the eye.

“I didn’t fit in at large corporations,” he explained. “I didn’t say the right things, I got into trouble, I would say inappropriate things, I was rude. But, at the same time, I was a good engineer; I look at the stuff that I designed in rock ‘n’ roll and the toy industry with Milton, and I think my engineering work speaks for itself, even today.

“But I had significant social problems, and therefore I felt that I was a failure in electronics because of those things and because I couldn’t read other people,” he went on. “So I decided that, if I was failing at electronics, I would start a business where I wouldn’t be subject to being just dismissed; that’s what made me turn to fixing cars.”

And, eventually, selling them, restoring them, and connecting people with them. Indeed, his venture deals in high-end foreign makes and hard-to-find vehicles. He started working out of his home in South Hadley, later moved into space on Berkshire Avenue in Springfield, and now has what amounts to a complex on Page Boulevard.

The business grew to the point where he hired mechanics to handle the cars, and his work shifted toward operations, ordering parts, and dealing with customers. One of them, a regular, was a therapist, and during one discussion with him, the subject turned to Asperger’s. The therapist eventually gave Robison a book on the subject, one of many he would soon devour.

It was that reading that opened his eyes and eventually brought him to what can only be considered a global stage when it comes to advocacy for those on the autism spectrum.

A New Chapter

“It was a remarkable thing,” he recalled of the events that led him to understand why he was the way he was, even though a formal medical diagnosis would come later. “I learned things like autistic people have difficulty looking other people in the eye; it makes us uncomfortable. So, all my life, people had said things like, ‘look at me when I talk to you.’ I would look up and then quickly down, and I had no idea that other people were different in that regard.

“I felt all my life I was complying with what other people said, and yet they continued to be after me about it,” he went on. “It was only after reading that book that I understood how certain things that I did, like that, were different from what other people expected, and it’s because I was neurologically different. No matter how smart you are, you can’t possibly just figure that someone else sees the world differently than you do. So that book was life-changing.”

RobisonBookCoverBeDifferentRobisonRaisingCubbyBookAnd as he talked about the process of discovering the cause of his “own differences,” as he called them, Robison used the words ‘empowering’ and ‘liberating’ to describe the phenomenon.

“If you’ve been told that you’re lazy, stupid, retarded, defective, or no good, for you to learn that you are touched by a form of autism, that’s … an explanation, and that’s really good,” he said, adding that, with this explanation, he would learn the ways autistic people (including those with Asperger’s) were different, and “teach myself to behave more like people expected.”

This was a transformative change, he went on, adding that he became more accepted in the community and forged real friendships, and this helped inspire his gradual development as an advocate, work that could be summed up as efforts to provide others with those same feelings of empowerment and liberation.

He said ‘gradual’ for a reason, because this work has certainly evolved over the years.

It began with speaking engagements to groups of young people at venues like Brightside for Families & Children and youth-detention facilities. The talks focused on autism, but also on Robison’s childhood, one marked by various forms of abuse.

“I realized that I could be speaking to young people about having a good life despite having that in your background, too,” he explained, adding that eventually he sought to reach a broader audience.

That led to Look Me in the Eye, an eventual bestseller published in 2006, and later his other works, all of which are now sold around the world. He believes that, worldwide, sales of the three books have topped 1 million copies.

But the books and the speaking engagements are only a few manifestations of Robison’s advocacy for people on the spectrum.

There is also the training school he’s created at his business for young people with autism. Conducted in partnership with the Northeast Center for Youth and Families, the initiative has transformed three bays at the Page Boulevard facility into what amounts to an instructional classroom for young people with learning challenges.

It was created with the goal of steering participants toward good-paying jobs in the auto-repair sector, and reflects Robison’s broader mission of transforming how people with differences should be valued and treated by society, and seen as productive contributors to society.

Other forms of service — and they often represent opportunities and appointments created through the exposure generated by his books — include participation on several boards and commissions involved with autism treatment and policy.

Four years ago, Robison was asked by then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to serve on the committee that produces the strategic plan for autism for the U.S. government; that appointment has since been renewed by current HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell. He also serves on a panel that evaluates autism research for the U.S. Department of Defense as well as the steering committee for the World Health Organization developing ICF (International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health) core sets for autism-spectrum disorder.

He also served a stint on a review board with the National Institutes of Health, tasked with determining how economic-stimulus money appropriated in 2008 should be spent on autism research.

While doing all that, he also teaches a class in neurodiversity at the College of William & Mary, one of the first programs of its kind in the country.

Add all that up, and Robison has a lot of frequent-flyer miles. More importantly, he has an ever-more powerful voice — one he’s certainly not afraid to use — when it comes to the rights of all those within the autism spectrum, how those rights are not being recognized or honored, and how all that has to stop somehow.

It all starts with recognition of those rights, he said, adding quickly that discrimination against those in the autism spectrum is more difficult to recognize because most people don’t see it as discrimination.

As one example, he cited educational testing, a realm where discrimination against some classes has been identified — because of which questions are asked and how — and, in many cases, addressed. Not so when it comes to those with autism.

“You could administer a math or reading test to someone like me, and because I can’t do math problems in the conventional way, I would fail that test,” he explained. “Yet, I could solve complex problems in math in real life, like doing wave-form mathematics in the creation of sound effects when I worked in electronics.

“If you were to test a person like me in a culturally appropriate way, I’d be a bright guy,” he went on. “But if you tested me the way Amherst High School tested me, I was a failure, and there are a lot of autistic people who are like me today. That testing sets us up for future failure, and it’s a form of discrimination.”

When asked if, how, and when various forms of discrimination, such as those headlines involving mass shootings, might become a thing of the past, Robison said this constitutes a difficult task, because so many don’t even recognize it as discrimination.

Progress will only come if adults within the spectrum take full ownership of their condition. And, by doing so, they would also stand up for their rights, as he does.

“We need adults with autism to own it and to say, “I’m autistic, and I’m going to fight for my equality,” he explained, adding that is what the memnbers of various ethinic, racial, and religious groups have done throughout history.

“Autistic people need to do the same thing,” he went on. “They need to say, ‘I’m an autistic adult, and I’m here to say that we’re no killers, we’re not this, and we’re not that; we’re parts of your community everywhere.’”

Summing up what he’s been doing since his customer gave him that book all those years ago, he would say it comes down to getting other people on the spectrum to assume that ownership.

The Last Word

As he talked with BusinessWest, Robison had to stop at one point to take a call concerning flight options for an upcoming speaking engagement in Florida.

It’s fair to say he’s mastered the art and science of booking flights, finding deals, and filling a schedule in a manner that allows him to do all he needs to do.

And that’s only one example — the books on that shelf, as mentioned earlier, are another — of how his work is now truly global in scope.

He said that book he read long ago opened his eyes, empowered him, and liberated him. Helping others achieve all that and more has become a different kind of life’s work.

And another way to make a difference.


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

Class of 2016 Cover Story Difference Makers

Their Contributions to Be Honored on March 31

The 2016 Honorees:

• Hampden County Sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr.

Mike Balise, Balise Motor Sales, Philanthropist (1965-2015)

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire Counties

Bay Path University President Carol Leary

John Robison, president, J.E. Robison Service

The old line about pictures and how they’re worth a thousand words has been around seemingly since Mathew Brady poignantly documented the Civil War.

It usually doesn’t work effectively with business journalism, but in the case of this year’s Difference Makers, it certainly rings true.

This year’s special section features a number of pictures that could be called powerful, and that certainly tell the story at least as effectively as the accompanying words.

Start with the image of Homer Street School Principal Kathleen Sullivan standing next to a lone winter jacket hanging in the main hallway of that facility. It doesn’t have an owner, because every student at the school who needs a jacket — and there are many in that category because Homer Street is in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the state — has one because of Mike Balise.

He succumbed to stomach cancer late last month, but not before making sure his annual donation of money for coats, started two years ago, would continue after his death.

Then, there are the many images of big brothers and big sisters with their ‘littles,’ as they’re called. Individually and collectively, they effectively drive home the point of how this organization, and specifically the Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire County chapters, work to create matches that bring stability into the lives of young people and forge friendships that last a lifetime.

Meanwhile, the two images of Hampden County Sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr. convey both the passage of time — he’s been in this post for more than 40 years — and how he’s taken corrections from one era, when inmates were essentially warehoused, to another, in which rehabilitation is the watchword.

There are other impactful images, including several involving Bay Path President Carol Leary. Two depict high-profile speakers who have keynoted the Women’s Professional Development Conference, and another depicts the sign at the front entrance declaring that this former junior college is now a university, one of many huge developments that occurred during her watch.

And then, there’s the image of John Robison posing near a half-million-dollar Italian sports car, a picture that depicts his success in business, as well as his determination to help others within the autism spectrum reach their full potential.

Meet the first seven classes of Difference Makers

Together, these pictures are worth several thousand words, and they collectively help explain some of the many ways in which individuals and groups in this region can make a difference.

The specific ways found and developed by members of the Difference Makers Class of 2016 are explained in far greater detail on the pages of this special section. And these contributions will be celebrated at the annual gala on March 31 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke.

The gala has become one of those not-to-be-missed events on the regional calendars. It is a wonderful networking opportunity, but more importantly, it is a chance to recognize those who have made a huge difference in the lives of countless others.

The March 31 gala will feature butlered hors d’oeuvres, lavish food stations, a networking hour, introductions of the Difference Makers, and remarks from the honorees. Tickets cost $60 per person, with tables of 10 available.

For more information about the event or to reserve tickets, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100, or go HERE.

Sponsored by:


Photo portraits by Leah Martin Photography

Class of 2016 Difference Makers

His Career Has Been All About ‘Embracing the Challenge’

Hampden County Sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr.

Hampden County Sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr.
Leah Martin Photography

Since taking office back in January 1975, Michael Ashe has spent roughly 15,000 days as sheriff of Hampden County.

The one everyone remembers was that Friday in October 1990 when he led what amounted to an armed takeover of the National Guard Armory on Roosevelt Avenue in Springfield. It was mounted in response to what Ashe considered dangerous overcrowding at the county jail on York Street, built in 1886 to house a fraction of the inmates he was hosting at the time.

The incident (more on it later) garnered headlines locally, regionally, and even nationally, and in many ways it finally propelled Hampden County’s commissioners to move toward replacing York Street — although nothing about the process of siting and then building the new jail in Ludlow would be considered easy.

While proud of what transpired on that afternoon more than 25 years ago, Ashe, now months away from retirement, hinted strongly that he would much rather be remembered for what transpired on the 14,999 or so other days. These would be things that didn’t land him on the 5 o’clock news, necessarily (although sometimes they did) — but did succeed in changing lives, and in all kinds of ways.

Summing up that work, he used the phrases “embracing the challenge” and “professional excellence” for the first of perhaps 20 times, and in reference to himself, his staff, and, yes, his inmates as well.

Elaborating, he said professional excellence is the manner in which his department embraces the challenge — actually, a whole host of challenges he bundled into one big one — of making the dramatic leap from essentially warehousing inmates, which was the practice in Hampden County and most everywhere else in 1974, to working toward rehabilitating them and making them productive contributors to society.

This philosophy has manifested itself in everything from programs to earn inmates a GED to the multi-faceted After Incarceration Support Systems Program (AISSP), to bold initiatives like Roca, designed to give those seemingly out of options one more chance to turn things around.

Slicing through all those programs, Ashe said the common denominator is making the inmate accountable for making his or her own course correction and, more importantly, staying on that heading. And the proof that he has succeeded in that mission comes in a variety of forms, especially the recently released statistics on incarceration rates in Hampden County.

They show that, between September 2007, when there were 2,245 offenders in the sheriff’s custody — the high-water mark, if you will — and Dec. 31, 2015, the number had dropped to 1,432, a 36% reduction.

Some of this decline can be attributed to lower crime rates in Springfield, Holyoke, and other communities due to improved policing, but another huge factor is a reduction in the number of what the sheriff’s office calls “recycled offenders” through a host of anti-recidivism initiatives.

Like the Olde Armory Grille. This is a luncheon restaurant and catering venture (a break-even business) operated by the Sheriff’s Department at the Springfield Technology Park across from Springfield Technical Community College, and in one of the former Springfield Armory buildings, hence the name. It is managed by Cpl. Maryann Alben, but staffed by inmates engaged in everything from preparing meals to cashing out customers.

‘Bill’ (rules prohibit use of his last name) is one of the inmates currently on assignment.

He’s been working on the fryolator and doing prep work, often for the hot entrée specials, and hopes to one day soon be doing such work in what most would call the real world, drawing on experiences at the grille and also while working for his uncle, who once owned a few restaurants.

He said the program has helped him with fundamentals, a term he used to refer to the kitchen, but also life in general.

“I went from being behind the wall to being out in the community,” he said. “And now I’m into the community.”

Bill’s journey — and Ashe’s life’s work — are pretty much defined by something called the “Hampden County Model: Guiding Principles for Best Correctional Practice.”

There are 20 of them (see bottom), ranging from No. 4: “Those in custody should begin their participation in positive and productive activities as soon as possible in their incarceration” to No. 15: “A spirit of innovation should permeate the operation. This innovation should be data-informed, evidence-based, and include process and outcome measures.”

But it is while explaining No. 2 — “Correctional facilities should seek to positively impact those in custody, and not be mere holding agents or human warehouses” — that Ashe and his office get to the heart of the matter and the force that has driven his many initiatives.

“It is a simple law of life that nothing changes if nothing changes,” it reads.

By generating all kinds of change, especially in the minds and hearts of those entrusted to his care, Ashe is the epitome of a Difference Maker.

Coming to Terms


The old and the new

The old and the new: above, Mike Ashe at the old York Street Jail, which was finally replaced in the ’90s with a new facility in Ludlow, bottom.

Ashe told BusinessWest that, when he first took the helm as sheriff in 1975, not long after a riot at York Street, he was in the jail almost every day, a sharp departure from his current schedule.

Perhaps the image he remembers most from those early days was the white knuckles of the inmates. They were hard to miss, he recalled, as the prisoners grasped the bars of their cells, an indication, he believed, of immense frustration with their plight.

“There was a great deal of tension, and you see it in those knuckles.” he said. “Inmates had a lot of time on their hands; people were just languishing in their cells. I think the only program they had at the time was a part-time education program conducted with the Springfield School Department, an adult basic-education initiative. That was it, and it was only part-time.”

Doing something about those white knuckles has been, in many ways, his personally written job description. As he talked about everything involved with it, he spent most of his time and energy discussing how one approaches that work, using more words that he would also wear out: ‘intensity’ and ‘focus.’

Together, those nouns — as well as the operating philosophy “firm but fair, and having strength reinforced with decency” — have shaped a remarkable career, one that he freely admits lasted far longer than he thought it would when he took out papers to run for sheriff early in 1974. It’s been a tenure defined partly by longevity — since he was first elected, there have been seven U.S. presidents (he had his photo taken with one — Jimmy Carter); eight Massachusetts governors (nine if you count Mike Dukakis twice, because he had non-consecutive stints in office); and eight mayors of Springfield — but in the end, that is merely a sidebar.

So too, at least figuratively speaking, are the takeover of the Armory and the building of a new Hampden County jail, although the former was huge news, and the latter was a long-running story, as in at least 20 years, by most accounts.

Recalling the Armory seizure, Ashe said it was a back-door attempt — literally, the sheriff’s department officials gathered at the front door while the inmates were brought in through the back — to bring attention to the overcrowding issue, because all other attempts to do so had failed to yield results.

“We were trying to get people to listen, because it was clear to us that they weren’t listening,” he explained. “We went to the Armory that Friday afternoon and basically evoked a law that went back to the 1700s. Getting into the building was key; once we did that, we knew we’d get everyone’s attention.”

No, the sheriff’s story isn’t defined only by the Armory takeover or his long tenure. It involves how he spent his career working to give his staff less work to do — or at least fewer inmates to guard.

To explain the philosophy that has driven the many ways Ashe has worked to lessen that workload, one must go back to guiding principle No. 2.

“If incarceration is allowed to be a holding pattern, a period of suspended animation, those in custody are more likely to go back to doing what they have always done when they are released,” it reads, “because they will be what they have always been. The only difference may be that they have more anger and more shrewdness as they pursue their criminal career.”

Elaborating on what this principle and the others mean in the larger scheme of things, Ashe said most inmates assigned to his care have been given sentences of seven to eight  months. Relatively speaking, that’s a short window, but it’s an important time. And what the sheriff’s office does with it — or, more importantly, what that office enables the inmate to do with it — will likely determine if the individual in question becomes one of those recycled offenders.

So we return once more to the second principle for insight into how Ashe believes that time should be spent.

“Most inmates come to jail or prison with a long history of social maladjustment, carrying a great deal of baggage in the form of histories of substance abuse; deficits in their educational, vocational, and ethical development; and disconnectedness to the mores and values of the larger community,” it reads. “Given the time and resources dedicated to corrections, it is absolute folly in social policy not to seek to address these deficit areas that inmates have brought to their incarceration.”

And address them he has, through programs that have won recognition nationally, but, more importantly, have succeeded in bringing down the inmate count by reducing the number of repeat offenders.

Sentence Structure

As he talked about these programs, Ashe began by offering a profile of his inmates, one of the few things that hasn’t changed much in 40 years.

“Roughly 90% come there with drug or alcohol problems,” he explained. “You’re looking at a seventh-grade education, on average; 93% of them lack any kind of marketable skill; and 70% of the people are unemployed at the point of arrest.

“Everyone knows that, in the state of Massachusetts, no one just happens to end up in jail — they land there after a long period of what I call irresponsible behavior,” he went on, adding that, likewise, no one just happens to correct that behavior and rehabilitate themselves.

Instead, that comes about by addressing those gaps he mentioned, or doing something about addiction, the lack of an education, the shortage of marketable skills, and the absence of a job.

In a nutshell, this is what the sum of the programs Ashe and his staff have created — both inside and outside the prison walls — is all about.

“What I’m most proud of, I think, is that we never waved at those gaps,” he told BusinessWest. “We put together strategies to deal with these issues.”

And as he likes to say — in those principles, or to anyone who will listen — re-entry to society begins on the first day of incarceration.

That’s when an extensive, seven- to 10-day orientation program and testing period begins, one designed, as Ashe said, to let staff “get to know the inmate — let’s find out who this guy is.”

Such steps are important, he went on, because even amid all those common denominators concerning education, addiction, and lack of job skills, there is still plenty of room for individualization when it comes to correctional programs.

Orientation is then followed by a mandatory transitional program, during which the sheriff says he’s trying he capture the inmate’s heart and mind. Far more times than not, he does, although sometimes it’s a struggle.

And as he said, the work has to begin immediately.

“I didn’t want them to languish,” he explained. “In years past, we would have programs, but they would have a beginning and an end, so you had waiting lists; to get into the GED program would take three weeks, to get into anger management would take four weeks, and I didn’t want that.

“If they come in and just languish in a cell for four, five, or six weeks, I’ve lost them,” he went on. “The subculture wins out — the inmates take over.”

There are always those reluctant to enter the mandatory transition program, the sheriff noted, adding that these individuals are sent to what’s known as the ‘accountability pod,’ a sterile environment where there are fewer rights and privileges. In far more cases than not, time spent there produces the desired results.

“Inevitably, what happens is, at the end of two to four weeks, they say, ‘Sheriff, I get it,’” Ashe told BusinessWest. “They say, ‘this is a coerced program … mainstream me; I’ll go to your programs.’ Not all the time, but a lot of the time, inmates will look back and say, ‘Sheriff, I’m glad you forced me to go through this.’”

Elaborating, he said ‘this’ is the process of addressing the various forms of baggage identified in principle 2 — addiction, lack of education, and a lack of job skills. Initiatives to address them include intense, 28-day addiction-treatment programs; GED classes; an extensive vocational program featuring graphics, welding, carpentry, food service, and other trades; and more.

Many of those who take part in the culinary-arts program will then move on to work at the Olde Armory Grille, an example — one of many — of how the work that begins inside the walls can lead to a productive life when one moves outside those walls.

Indeed, roughly 80% of the women who work in various capacities at the grille — and statistics show women enter the county jail with even fewer marketable skills than men — are finding work in the hospitality sector upon release, said Ashe.

To find out how that specific program works, and how it exemplifies all the programs operated by the Sheriff’s Department, we talked to Alben and Bill.

Food for Thought

The grille, which opened its doors in 2009, is in many ways an embodiment of that line explaining principle 2 regarding change. Indeed, there was a good deal of apprehension about this initiative at first, the sheriff recalled, adding that those attitudes had to change before the facility could become reality.

Over the years, it has become one of the most visible examples of the Sheriff’s Department’s focus on providing inmates with a fresh start — and a popular lunch spot for the hundreds of employees at the tech park and the community college across Federal Street.

Sheriff Ashe with Maryann Alben

Sheriff Ashe with Maryann Alben, catering and dining room manager at the Olde Armory Grille.

The restaurant is designed to provide real work experience and training for participants returning from incarceration as they re-enter communities, said Alben, adding that it involves inmates from the Ludlow jail, the Western Mass. Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee, and the Western Mass. Correctional Alcohol Center. These are inmates in what is known as ‘pre-release,’ meaning they can leave the correctional facility and go out into the community and work.

When asked what the program provides for its participants, who have to survive a lengthy interview process to join the staff, Alben didn’t start by listing cooking, serving, making change, or pricing produce — although they are all part if the equation. Instead, she began with prerequisites for all of the above.

“Self-esteem is huge,” she said. “When most women come in here, they have slouched shoulders … many of them have never had a job before,” she explained, adding that this is reality even for individuals in their 40s or 50s. “You bring them in here, and you try to build them up. Some of them will catch on sooner than others; some of them worked in restaurants way back when.

“We help them understand how to work with customers and leave the jail behind them,” she went on, adding that inmates don’t often exercise their people skills inside the walls, but must hone those abilities if they’re going to make it in the real world.

And many do, she went on, adding that there are many employers within the broad restaurant community who are able and, more importantly, willing to take on such individuals.

In fact, roughly 87% of those who take part are eventually placed, usually in kitchen prep work, she said, a statistic that reflects both the need for good help and the quality of the program.

Bill hopes to be a part of the majority that uses the grille as an important stepping stone.

“This is the next step in getting back into the community 100%,” he explained. “Not only with getting up early with a job to go to five days a week, but in the way it prepares me mentally and fundamentally for the next step into the real world.”

Such comments explain why an inmate’s final days at the grille involve more emotions than one might expect.

Indeed, the end of one’s service means the beginning of a new and intriguing chapter, which translates into happiness tinged with a dose of apprehension. Meanwhile, there is some sadness that results from the end of friendships forged with customers who frequent the establishment. And there is also gratitude, usually in large quantities.

“We’re giving them a chance to prove themselves,” said Alben. “And when they leave here, most of all them will say, ‘thank you for believing in me.’”

If they could, they would say the same thing to Sheriff Ashe. He not only believed in them, he challenged them and held them accountable, a real departure from four decades ago and what could truly be called white-knuckle times.

No Holds Barred

When asked what he would miss most about being sheriff of Hampden County, Ashe paused for a moment to think back and reflect.

“I think I would have to say that it’s the challenges, embracing the challenges,” he said one last time. “I’ll miss the work of recognizing the problems that our society faces and trying to come up with solutions.”

That answer, maybe as much as anything that he’s done over the past 41 years and will do over the next 11 months, helps explain why Ashe will be remembered for much more than what happened at that National Guard Armory.

And why he’s truly a Difference Maker.

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


Guiding Principles of Best Correctional Policy

(As developed by the Hampden County Model, 1975-2013)

1. Within any correctional facility or operation, there must be an atmosphere and an ethos of respect for the full humanity and potential of any human being within that institution and an effort to maximize that potential. This is the first and overriding principle from which all other principles emanate, and without which no real corrections is possible.

2. Correctional facilities should seek to positively impact those in custody, and not be mere holding agents or human warehouses.

3. Those in custody should put in busy, full, and productive days, and should be challenged to pick up the tools and directions to build a law-abiding life.

4. Those in custody should begin their participation in positive and productive activities as soon as possible in their incarceration.

5. All efforts should be made to break down the traditional barriers between correctional security and correctional human services.

6. Productive and positive activities for those in custody should be understood to be investments in the future of the community.

7. Correctional institutions should be communities of lawfulness. There should be zero tolerance, overt or tacit, for any violence within the institution. Those in custody who assault others in custody should be prosecuted as if such actions took place in free society. Staff should be diligently trained and monitored in use of force that is necessary and non-excessive to maintain safety, security, order, and lawfulness.

8. The operational philosophy of positively impacting those in custody and respecting their full humanity must predominate at all levels of security.

9. Offenders should be directed toward understanding their full impact on victims and their community and should make restorative and reparative acts toward their victims and the community at large.

10. Offenders should be classified to the least level of security that is consistent with public safety and is merited by their own behavior.

11. There should be a continuum of gradual, supervised, and supported community re-entry for offenders.

12. Community partnerships should be cultivated and developed for offender re-entry success. These partnerships should include the criminal-justice and law-enforcement communities as part of a public-safety team.

13. Staff should be held accountable to be positive and productive.

14. All staff should be inspired, encouraged, and supervised to strive for excellence in their work.

15. A spirit of innovation should permeate the operation. This innovation should be data-informed, evidenced-based, and include process and outcome measures.

16. In-service training should be ongoing and mandatory for all employees.

17. There should be a medical program that links with public health agencies and public health doctors from the home neighborhoods and communities of those in custody and which takes a pro-active approach to finding and treating illness and disease in the custodial population.

18. Modern technological advances should be integrated into a correctional operation for optimal efficiency and effectiveness.

19. Any correctional facility, no matter what its locale, should seek to be involved in, and to involve, the local community, to welcome within its fences the positive elements of the community, and to be a positive participant and neighbor in community life. This reaching out should be both toward the community that hosts the facility and the communities from which those in custody come.

20. Balance is the key. A correctional operation should reach for the stars but be rooted in the firm ground of common sense.

Difference Makers


Photos From the 2015 Difference Makers Gala

Thursday, March 19, 2015 held at the Log Cabin, Holyoke

Sponsored By:
Photos by Denise Smith Photography
To see all the photos go HERE

Difference Makers 2015More than 350 people turned out at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke on March 19 for a celebration of the Difference Makers for 2015. The photos on the next several pages capture the essence of the event, which featured entertainment from the Springfield Boys & Girls Club, as well as fine food and thoughtful comments from the honorees. This year’s class, chosen by the editors and publishers of BusinessWest from dozens of nominations, include Katelynn’s Ride, represented by Domenic Battista, Michelle Battista, Kim Zachery, Dan Williams, Steve Stark, and Corinne Briggs; MassMutual Financial Services, represented by Nick Fyntrilakis; Spirit of Springfield Executive Director Judy Matt; Valley Venture Mentors, represented by Paul Silva, Scott Foster, and Jay Leonard; and the new ownership group of the Student Prince/Fort: Andy Yee, Peter Picknelly, Michael Vann, and Kevin Vann.

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 1From left: John Veit, marketing and recruiting senior associate, Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; 2015 Difference Maker Paul Silva, executive director, Valley Venture Mentors; and 2013 Difference Makers Sr. Kathleen Popko and Sr. Mary Caritas of the Sisters of Providence.

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 2Ethel Griffin (left), program manager, Revitalize Community Development Corp., with 2014 Difference Maker Colleen Loveless, the organization’s executive director.

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 3From left: BusinessWest Publisher John Gormally; 2013 Difference Maker Jim Vinick, senior vice president of investments, Moors & Cabot Inc.; and Marjorie Koft.

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 4
Scott Foster (right), partner at Bulkley Richardson and board member with 2015 Difference Maker Valley Venture Mentors, with his wife, Stephanie Foster, and son, James Foster.

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 5From left: Brenda Olesuk, director of operations and development, Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; Kathleen Plante, advertising consultant, BusinessWest; Meghan Lynch, CEO and president, Six-Point Creative Works; and 2009 Difference Maker Susan Jaye-Kaplan, founder of GoFIT and co-founder of Link to Libraries.

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 62015 Difference Maker Andy Yee (right), one of the new owners of the Student Prince/Fort, with his wife, Sarah Yee, and son, Matthew Yee.

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 7Peter Galiardi (left), president and CEO, HAPHousing, with 2011 Difference Maker Bob Perry, retired partner/consultant at Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 8From left: 2015 Difference Maker Peter Picknelly, chairman and CEO of Peter Pan Bus Lines and one of the new owners of the Student Prince/Fort; Paul McDonald; Susan Walsh; and Dennis Walsh, general manager, Sheraton Springfield.

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 9Once again, the honorees received glass plates hand-crafted by Lynn Latimer, representing butterflies, the symbol of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers since the program was launched in 2009.

DSC_7880From left: Maureen Scanlon, owner, Murre Creative; Susan Bergeron-West, owner, Sirius Design; Jean Jinks; Florence DeRose; and 2015 Difference Maker Judy Matt, president, Spirit of Springfield.

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 10
Front row, from left: from Health New England, Nicole Santaniello, content management specialist; Brian Kivel, sales executive; Elin Gaynor, assistant general counsel; and Cinnamon Azeez. Back row, from left: also from HNE, Laura Dellapenna, administrative assistant; Heidi Fountain, senior special accounts manager; and Robert Azeez, Medicaid behavioral health manager.

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 11Front row, from left: Robert Zywno, attorney, Royal LLP; Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle, attorney, Royal LLP; and her husband, Joe Eckerle. Back row, from left: Joanne Salus, director of Human Resources, Community Enterprises Inc.; and Karina Schrengohst, attorney, Royal LLP.

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 12Front row, from left: from MassMutual Financial Group, Michelle Sussmann, assistant vice president and chief of staff, Marketing Strategy, Planning, and Operations; Nick Fyntrilakis, vice president, Community Responsibility; Cindy Adams, program manager; and Nicole Fyntrilakis. Back row, from left: also from MassMutual, Tracy Shaw, assistant vice president; John Chandler, chief marketing officer; Mike McNamara, Media Relations and Communications; and Sonja Shaw, relationship manager.

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 13
Front row, from left: from Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C., Kaylin Helitzer, associate; Jim Krupienski, senior manager; Kristi Reale, senior manager; and Jim Barrett, managing partner. Back row, from left: also from MBK, John Veit, marketing and recruiting senior associate; Brenda Olesuk, director of operations and development; Melyssa Brown, senior manager; Chris Marini, associate; and Kris Houghton, partner.

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 14Front row, from left: Dennis Murphy, administrative specialist, First American Insurance Agency; Noni Moran, Human Resources director and claims adjustor, First American Insurance Agency; and Molly Murphy. Back row, from left: Moe Brodeur, controller, Peter Pan Bus Co.; Tom Picknally, senior vice president of Maintenance, Peter Pan Bus Co.; David Matosky, operations director, First American Insurance Agency; and Edward Murphy, chairman, First American Insurance Agency.

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 15Front row, from left: from Fathers and Sons, Lori Monroe, business development; Trae Morrison, product specialist; and Bill Visneau, product specialist. Back row, from left: also from Fathers and Sons, Angela Lebel, service advisor; and Steve Langieri, sales manager.

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 16Musical performances by area children are a Difference Makers tradition, and this year was no exception, with a choir from the Springfield Boys & Girls Club kicking off the evening’s ceremonies by singing Mariah Carey’s “Hero” and Katy Perry’s “Roar.”

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 17BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien (center) presents the 2015 Difference Makers award to the new ownership group of the Student Prince/Fort, from left, Andy Yee, Peter Picknelly, Michael Vann, and Kevin Vann.

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 18BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien (third from left) presents the 2015 Difference Makers award to representatives from Katelynn’s Ride, from left, Corinne Briggs, Domenic Battista, Michelle Battista, Kim Zachery, Dan Williams, and Steve Stark.

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 19Front row, from left: Marsha Montori, chief client strategist, Six-Point Creative Works; Marion Griswold, membership coordinator, Connecticut River Watershed Council; and Angela Mrozinski, outreach and events director, Connecticut River Watershed Council. Back row, from left: Melody Foti, senior vice president, Investments, Wells Fargo; and Meghan Lynch, CEO, Six-Point Creative Works.

Difference Makers 2015 Gala 20Representing 2015 Difference Maker Valley Venture Mentors, from left, Jay Leonard, Paul Silva, and Scott Foster.

Class of 2015 Cover Story Difference Makers
Difference Makers Will Be Celebrated on March 19 at the Log Cabin


Sponsored By:
Photos by Denise Smith Photography

While each of the first six classes of Difference Makers was diverse, and effectively showed just how many groups and individuals are worthy of that phrase, the group being honored this year probably sets a new standard.
It includes the region’s only Fortune 100 company, three nonprofit agencies — one committed to fostering and nurturing entrepreneurship, another focused on improving quality of life in Greater Springfield through a host of family-centered events, and the third created to raise funds for childhood cancer facilities in the name of a spirited 11-year-old who succumbed to the disease — and an assembled team of entrepreneurs that kept Springfield’s most iconic restaurant open for future generations to enjoy.
“The stories that start on page A4 are all different, and they show what those of us at BusinessWest knew when we started this program back in 2009,” said Kate Campiti, the magazine’s associate publisher. “And that is that there certainly are a number of ways that people can make a difference in the community.”
The honorees, to be feted on March 19 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House are:

Katelynn’s Ride: Created in 2011 to honor the memory of Katelynn Battista, who lost her courageous battle to leukemia at age 11, the K-Ride, as organizers call it, raises money for both Baystate Children’s Hospital and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute through the Jimmy Fund. Locally, some of the funds awarded to Baystate have gone to support a new position, a nurse practitioner who acts as a liaison between the families of cancer patients and the teams of specialists that provide care.
Meanwhile, those who participate in the ride say the event itself has become a Difference Maker by providing camaraderie and a forum in which they can fight cancer together and honor both those who have survived their battles and those who have lost, and the ways in which those individuals inspire others.

Judy Matt, president of the Spirit of Springfield: For more than three decades, Matt has been at the forefront of coordinating family-focused events for the residents of Springfield and surrounding communities. That list includes Fourth of July fireworks, the annual pancake breakfast (once touted as the world’s largest), the Big Balloon Parade, and Bright Nights, the holiday lighting display that is on many national lists of must-see attractions.
Those who have worked with Matt praise not only the depth of her work, but the energy and imagination she brings to it, and the way in which she has brightened some very dark days for the city. Said Bill Pepin, president of WWLP and the first board chair of the Spirit of Springfield, “Judy has been a true champion of Springfield, a real believer, especially during the tough times, when a lot of people were saying, ‘if you’re the last one to leave, turn out the lights.’

MassMutual: The financial-services giant is being honored not simply for the depth of its philanthropy or community involvement, but the strategic nature of such endeavors. Focused in three areas — education, economic development, and ‘community vitality,’ the company’s many contributions are long-term in focus, with the goal of strengthening the community and building a quality workforce.
Said Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, “from the beginning, this city has always been able to count on MassMutual. It’s been a source of jobs, a force on economic development, and a philanthropic monster. And it should never, ever be taken for granted, because not every city has a MassMutual — and every city would love to have one.”

The new ownership team of the Student Prince and the Fort: Last summer, Rudy Scherff, second-generation co-owner of the Springfield-based institution known as the Student Prince and the Fort, announced that, if new ownership could not be found, the iconic restaurant and tavern would likely close amid falling profits and rising expenses. Into the breach stepped a somewhat unlikely group — Peter Picknelly, owner of Peter Pan Bus Lines; the Yee family, owners of the Hu Ke Lau in Chicopee and other restaurants; and Kevin and Michael Vann, father-and-son consultants who have worked with a number of restaurateurs over the years.
When they announced their intentions to give the landmark a facelift and a slightly altered menu and reopen the day before Thanksgiving, they not only saved a part of Springfield’s fabric, said Sarno, they gave the entire city a shot in the arm.

Valley Venture Mentors: While only a few years old now, Valley Venture Mentors, an agency tasked with mentoring entrepreneurs and fostering entrepreneurship, is already making a difference in the broad realm of economic development.
Through a host of initiatives ranging from monthly mentoring sessions to shared-workspace initiatives, to a new accelerator program which just welcomed its first cohort of 30 companies, VVM is, according to many observers, making real progress in creating an entrepreneurial renaissance in Springfield and the region as a whole.

The March 19 event will feature butlered hors d’ oeuvres, lavish food stations, a networking hour, introductions of the Difference Makers, and remarks from the honorees. Tickets are $60 per person, with tables of 10 available.
For more information, or to order tickets, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100, or go HERE.

Previous difference makers

• Doug Bowen, president and CEO of PeoplesBank
• Kate Kane, managing director of the Springfield office of Northwestern Mutual Financial/The Zuzolo Group
• Susan Jaye-Kaplan, founder of GoFIT and co-founder of Link to Libraries
• William Ward, executive director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County
• The Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield

• The Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation
• Ellen Freyman, attorney and shareholder at Shatz Schwartz and Fentin, P.C.
• James Goodwin, president and CEO of the Center for Human Development
• Carol Katz, CEO of the Loomis Communities
• UMass Amherst and its chancellor, Robert Holub

• Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission
• Lucia Giuggio Carvalho, founder of Rays of Hope
• Don Kozera, president of Human Resources Unlimited
• Robert Perry, retired partner/consultant at Meyers Brothers Kalicka
• Anthony Scott, police chief of Holyoke

• Charlie and Donald D’Amour, president/COO and chairman/CEO of Big Y Foods
• William Messner, president of Holyoke Community College
• Majors Tom and Linda-Jo Perks, officers of the Springfield Corps of the Salvation Army
• Bob Schwarz, executive vice president of Peter Pan Bus Lines
• The Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts

• Michael Cutone, John Barbieri, and Thomas Sarrouf, organizers of Springfield’s C3 Policing program
• John Downing, president of Soldier On
• Bruce Landon, president and general manager of the Springfield Falcons
• The Sisters of Providence
• Jim Vinick, senior vice president of investments at Moors & Cabot Inc.

• The Gray House
• Colleen Loveless, executive director of the Springfield chapter of Rebuilding Together
• The Melha Shriners
• Paula Moore, founder of YSET Academy and a teacher at Roger L. Putnam Vocational Training Academy
• Michael Moriarty, attorney, director of Olde Holyoke Development Corp., and supporter of childhood-literacy programs

Class of 2015 Difference Makers
This Agency’s Mission Is to Launch an ‘Entrepreneurial Renaissance’


From left, VVM Executive Director Paul Silva with board members Scott Foster and Jay Leonard.
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Scott Foster says the genesis of Valley Venture Mentors sounds like one of those old jokes.

“A lawyer and a physicist go into a bar,” he deadpanned, adding that, in this particular case, he was, and still is, the lawyer. The physicist was Paul Silva, although he isn’t in that line of work and never really was.

The bar in question was in Amherst, and what the two protagonists, meeting for the first time after taking in an entrepreneurship event at UMass, started talking about over a cold beer was the need to create a mentoring program for entrepreneurs that went beyond the existing initiatives, such as those created by the Grinspoon Foundation, focused on college students.

Foster called it a “finishing school” for those with entrepreneurial spirit and an idea in some stage of development.

It would take four years to open this finishing school, but the partners prevailed. They called it Valley Venture Mentors and gave it a bold mission statement — “to launch an entrepreneurial renaissance in the region.” It staged its first monthly meeting in early 2011, bringing together mostly young entrepreneurs, many of them still in or just out of college, and mentors ready to help with advice on how to take an idea to the next level, whatever that might be.

To say those were humble beginnings, and that VVM has come a long way in four short years, would be an understatement. The first sessions were staged in the spacious, donated conference room of the Springfield-based law firm Bulkley Richardson, for which Foster is a partner. Most meetings drew 25 to 30 people. The organization had roughly $25,000 to work with, said Silva, now its executive director, and had no paid staff.

mentoring is a big part of the equation at VVM

As the agency’s name would suggest, mentoring is a big part of the equation at VVM as it goes about helping entrepreneurs get started and get to the next level.

Today, the meetings are held in the Food Court at Tower Square because attendance has grown to 150 or more, and that’s the only spot big enough to seat that many. Thanks to donations from MassMutual (see related story, page A10), the state, and other sources, VVM now has $5 million with which to administer a number of programs, including those monthly meetings, pitch camps, a pitch contest that has become a pivotal component of BusinessWest’s annual Western Mass. Business Expo, co-working space initiatives, and a new accelerator program, based on the MassChallenge model, that will bring 30 emerging companies together for four months of intensive learning, sharing, and competing for no less than $225,000 in prizes. There are now several paid staff members and a host of interns from area colleges working for VVM.

That profound growth shows how far VVM has come, but it doesn’t explain why this organization, still very much in the start-up phase like the companies it works with, has been designated a Difference Maker.

What does explain it is commentary from those who are in various ways part of the VVM phenomenon, or impacted by it. Using different words and phrases, these individuals make it clear that VVM is making a difference by creating what many call “collisions” involving people with ideas, valuable insight in business, and capital to make these ideas reality, and, in the process, create that aforementioned entrepreneurial renaissance and spark a revival in Springfield’s long-struggling central business district.

“The economic development of Springfield is a six-legged stool, and VVM is definitely one of those legs,” said Delcie Bean, founder and president of Paragus Strategic IT, BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2014, a frequent mentor at VVM meetings, and a key player in efforts to revitalize downtown. “We need a place for very early-stage companies to go, be supported and mentored, and pushed and accelerated to get off the ground. If we’re going to have a successful city that’s going to rebound, that’s one of the critical elements.”

Evan Plotkin, a commercial real-estate broker, co-owner of 1350 Main St. in downtown Springfield, and a force behind many efforts to revitalize the central business district and grow the cultural economy in the city, agreed, and said VVM is generating momentum by bringing like-minded entrepreneurs and innovators together, creating what he called “entrepreneurial energy.”

“Creating these collision spaces and creating opportunities for interaction allows for ideas to take root, develop, and expand,” he noted. “VVM not only provides a forum for that kind of brainstorming and thinking, but it also contributes by finding ways to help those ideas become successful businesses.”

Getting the Idea

Both Silva and Foster used the phrase ‘turning point’ to describe what 2014 became for VVM and those who administer it.

This was a year when the agency grew exponentially — in terms of funding, programming, facilities, publicity, and, perhaps most importantly, respect from the many constituencies monitoring its progress or impacted by its widening reach, including then-Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration and the region’s only Fortune 100 company.

That upshift in momentum started roughly a year ago, when the Mass. Technology Collaborative announced that it was awarding VVM a $150,000 grant to fund its various endeavors, a development that gave the organization some exposure — and some validation that it was becoming an important economic-development initiative.

VVM helps entrepreneurs

Among other things, VVM helps entrepreneurs master the art and science of the pitch.

“That was essentially the collaborative’s stamp of approval for what we were doing,” said Foster, adding that VVM was the only entity west of Route 495 that prevailed in competition for funding. “We were invited to multiple meetings across the state, we were introduced to others as an innovative program that was really doing cutting-edge mentoring — and that’s when we realized that we were doing something special.”

More validation would soon come from the governor himself, who met with VVM administrators in the spring, during one of his many visits to Springfield.

“He essentially said, ‘I think we need to do more for you guys — you’re doing some pretty interesting things, and we can help with some capital,’” said Foster, adding that he backed up those words with a $2 million commitment to the agency.

More money would come VVM’s way in the form of a $1.6 million donation from MassMutual (the company also created the $5 million Springfield Venture Fund, designed to encourage companies to locate or relocate within Springfield), and awards from the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation and the Community Foundation.

With some of that money, VVM created physical space within Tower Square, first with a co-working space and then with a facility for its accelerator program, and made plans to become a major tenant in the Springfield Innovation Center on Bridge Street, an undertaking led by DevelopSpringfield, with construction set to begin soon.

What all that additional funding, operating space, and programming does is give VVM exponentially more resources to do what it was created to do. As they elaborated on that, Silva and Foster went back to the beginning, that first monthly session, because, while the setting has changed, the rooms are bigger, and the budget involves two more zeroes, the mission, as well as the basic strategy for meeting it, remains the same.

“We had 24 people at that first meeting, and Paul and I were two of them,” Foster recalled. “We had four entrepreneurs, so that means there were 18 others — 18 mentors. We didn’t really know quite what we were doing, but we knew we wanted the entrepreneurs to pitch, and we wanted the mentors to give them feedback, and we didn’t want it to be chaos.

“Early on, we decided we wanted this kind of a breakout idea,” he went on. “We wanted people to go and talk to whomever they wanted to talk to, and we wanted to have enough structure so it was meaningful, but not so much structure that it stifled creativity and the natural chaos of meeting other people and having those chance interactions.”

That word ‘interactions’ probably best describes what VVM is all about, said Foster, adding that they come in many shapes and sizes, and all of them could be very impactful.

Entrepreneurs can interact with seasoned business owners, he explained, or with individuals who have expertise in their chosen industry, or with other entrepreneurs dealing with many of the same issues and challenges they are, and, in what would likely be the best of scenarios, they could interact with an individual or venture fund willing to invest in their concept.

Parker Holcomb, who created what was known then as Five College Storage (it is now All College Storage, an indication of how it has grown geographically) while attending Amherst College, credits VVM with helping him “move the needle” with his venture, which places students’ belongings in storage between semesters and delivers them when school is back in session.

“VVM was my first professional network — it was my first opportunity to interact with people, ask questions, and figure out ways to leverage those peoples’ experiences,” he explained, adding that he credits VVM with helping him expand his company to 23 schools in five states.

He said it has also enabled him to sharpen his presentation skills, an important consideration for any small business that has to continually pitch its product or services, and develop accountability, something that’s often difficult in a one-man show.

“The practice I gained in presenting over the past several years could not have been more valuable,” he explained, adding that he has put those skills to work in everything from business-plan competitions to product demo days. “When you’re making a pitch to them, they say, ‘present the problem, present the potential market, present your solution, explain why your solution is defensible, talk about your team and what your advantages are.’ Practicing all that in front of a critical yet supporting group is extremely valuable.”

Moving Experiences

But while VVM’s basic mission hasn’t changed since that first meeting back in 2011, it has been broadened somewhat and certainly facilitated by many of those aforementioned developments in 2014.

Indeed, as part of that goal of creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem, VVM is focused on not only fostering entrepreneurship and mentoring business owners, but making it easier — and more desirable — for ventures to take root in Western Mass. and remain here.

And both the accelerator program and the Springfield Venture Fund should assist in these efforts, said Foster.

The new accelerator facility at Tower Square

The new accelerator facility at Tower Square opened its doors in January.

The accelerator, for example, will give 30 companies the opportunity to vie for at least $225,000 in prizes that will come without strings, he explained, adding that the money is essentially a carrot. The real prize in this exercise, the reason why VVM and its funders want companies to engage in it, is to take part in those interactions, take advantage of the support being offered, and realize the many potential advantages to basing a business in the 413 area code.

And Silva, a serial entrepreneur of sorts who has launched several small businesses, used his own experiences to get his point across.

“I’m not from Western Mass. — I came here for school, and I was very likely to leave, like all of my friends who took off and constantly tell me how much warmer it is where they are,” he told BusinessWest. “The reason I stayed was because the embryonic version of this entrepreneurial ecosystem was here in the Valley, and it loved me and gave me help to start my first company, so that’s why I stayed.

“So, if we can provide that kind of incredible, intense support and relationships, then we can impact these baby companies that don’t have roots yet,” he went on. “They can set down roots wherever someone will give them fertile ground. So we’re going to bring them in, we dangle the carrot to get them here, but the real value is that they see all this amazing stuff, they’re given opportunities to engage, and the ones that are a great fit are going to put down roots here.”

Those supporting the accelerator program through funding were asked to make a three-year commitment, and they did, said Foster, adding that it will likely take some time for VVM’s leaders, like startup business owners themselves, to “figure out what’s wrong, fix it, and do it better the next time.”

The first 30 companies in the program, based on the hugely successful MassChallenge model, which awards roughly $2 million in prize money, got down to business in mid-January. Among them is a venture called MachineMetrics, the latest endeavor launched by serial entrepreneur Bill Bither.

Using patented software, the company automatically collects and analyzes data from CNC machines, sending out notifications when production falls behind. It also provides a real-time dashboard that allows operators and managers to keep tabs on production at all times.

The product differentiates itself from others on the market by enabling managers to identify problems quickly and fix them, said Bither, who met a manufacturer who agreed to let his shop become a beta-testing site for the software at a VVM meeting. He told BusinessWest that he was drawn to become one of the 120 applicants for the first accelerator session because of the prize money — and the training and mentoring that can help him, well, accelerate his pace of growth.

“I think our company can benefit from the structure, and from the experience of the mentors,” he said. “But the cash grants are nice, and we hope to be one of the teams that wins one.”

As for the Springfield Venture Fund, it made its impact felt for the first time late last year, when it provided a large portion of the $1.25 million commitment from area investors that prompted video-game maker HitPoint Studios to relocate from Amherst to downtown Springfield. More such developments are expected in the months and years to come.

Looking at the larger picture, at the ecosystem created by the various entrepreneurship programs, Jay Leonard — an economic researcher for MassMutual subsidiary Babson Capital, a board member for VVM, and one of its mentors — said it has the potential to change the landscape in Springfield’s downtown. In some ways, he notes, it already is.

“We’ve had more than 150 people at our last five monthly meetings, which is pretty amazing for a Wednesday night in Springfield,” he said. “At any given time, we have 10 teams involved in our mentorship program, 30 teams associated with the accelerator … add this all up, and it brings an amount of positive energy to downtown Springfield.

“The accelerator becomes part of building out this entrepreneurial ecosystem, and it’s one of the notions that MassMutual and our other sponsors have bought into — the notion that entrepreneurship really can change Springfield,” Leonard went on. “Supporting this ecosystem means there will be more young people here; it means there will be more young people doing value-added activities and positive economic input. It provides us the ability, as a community, to grow without seeking outside support.”

Bottom Line

No one involved with VVM or any other element of the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem expects Springfield or the Pioneer Valley to become another Cambridge or Silicon Valley, probably the nation’s two most popular addresses for startup companies.

But they do expect this area to increase the number of young entrepreneurs ready and willing to call it home, and perhaps dramatically.

For that to happen, entrepreneurship must be fostered, entrepreneurs need to be mentored, and incentives must be created for companies to take root here, as Silva did years ago. VVM is already doing all that, and it has laid track that will enable it to do so on a much larger scale in the years to come.

That’s why a fledgling agency, started only a few years ago when a lawyer and a physicist walked into a bar, is already a Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2015 Difference Makers
Rescue of a Springfield Landmark Gave the City a Needed Shot in the Arm

From left, Andy Yee, Mike Vann, and Peter Picknelly

From left, Andy Yee, Mike Vann, and Peter Picknelly, members of the new ownership team at the Student Prince and the Fort.
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Steve Roberts was recounting some of the hundreds of memories he’s stashed away from nearly a half-century of frequenting Springfield’s iconic Student Prince restaurant, a.k.a. the Fort.

He talked about his favorite items on the menu, some of the traditions, like Game Fest, some of the many special occasions that have taken place there, the countless times he took clients there for lunch and dinner, and … swiping beer glasses.

“As a kid, stealing shells (smaller glasses), mugs, and steins from the Fort was a sport,” he said of the pilferage, adding quickly that he was more than a little embarrassed to admit his actions, which occurred more than four decades ago. But feelings of guilt or remorse have mostly been replaced by a sense of pride from having made good with the Fort’s owner at that time, Rupprecht (Rupert) Scherff.

“I can remember one day when I came in … I was married, I was back in town, I’d been living in my house for a few years, and I said to Rupert, ‘can I buy 24 shells and six steins?’” said Roberts, now the CEO of the third-generation business F.L. Roberts. “And he looked at me and said, ‘you haven’t stolen enough of them?’

“I said to him, ‘Rupert, I’m embarrassed; you tell me how many of those you think I’ve stolen of each,’” he went on. “He gave a number, and I told him to pack up a case of each, subtract from the cases what he thought I’d stolen, add a few more to that total, and bill me for whole cases. And Rupert and I were friends from that moment on.”

These days, Roberts is adding more memories to his huge portfolio, and because he can, Peter Picknelly and Andy Yee, who partnered with Kevin and Michael Vann to create and execute a survival plan for the Student Prince and the Fort, have been chosen by BusinessWest as Difference Makers for 2015.

Some might ask why such an honor would be bestowed on a few businesspeople who stepped in and purchased the landmark when the next generation of the Scherff family declared they could no longer make a go of it. But those who have frequented the establishment and understand its place in the city’s history — and its psyche — see no need to ask.

They know why. Because they, like Roberts, don’t have to stop collecting memories on Fort Street.

By now, most know the gist of this story — how Rudi Scherff, Rupert’s son and co-owner, announced early last summer that the landmark was struggling and would likely close if new ownership could not be secured. And how Roberts convinced the Vanns, who have consulted for a number of restaurant owners, to survey the landscape at the Fort. And how the Vanns saw a business with challenges, but ones that could be overcome. And how they helped facilitate talks and eventually a partnership between Peter Pan Bus Lines CEO Peter Picknelly, who not long after Scherff’s announcement made clear his intent to save the icon, and Yee, whose family owns the Hu Ke Lau in Chicopee and other eateries.

Andy Yee, right, with then Gov.-elect Charlie Baker

Andy Yee, right, with then Gov.-elect Charlie Baker at the well-attended grand reopening of the Student Prince and Fort on Dec. 3.
Photo by Robert Charles Photography

While that story played out, another one emerged. In this one, the city of Springfield, which had been visited by so much bad news in recent years and had lost some of its identity — including some other iconic, family-owned restaurants — over the past few decades, was spared more of the same.

It’s not hyperbole to say that the city itself was lifted by the turn of events.

“For them to step forward was really a huge shot in the arm for the entire city,” said its mayor, Domenic Sarno. “It sent a ripple effect of anticipation and helped spread a can-do attitude here in Springfield. You can’t put a price tag on the morale boost this has given the city.”

The significance of the reopening hit home for Picknelly, and in a poignant way, on Dec. 18 as the Student Prince — and the Picknelly family — continued a long-standing tradition of caroling at the restaurant.

“That would have been my mother-in-law’s 82nd birthday — she passed away more than 10 years ago,” he recalled as he set the stage. “We go every year as a family with my in-laws, and we honor her; that’s the only thing she ever wanted to do for her birthday — have the whole family go out and hear the carolers.

“I was looking around that night … the place is humming, it’s packed, people are smiling, they’re having a great time, families are together,” he went on. “And I’m saying to myself — and I later said to Andy — ‘imagine this not happening in our city.’”

Because of the new ownership team’s decisive action, no one has to engage in that exercise.

It’s Their Bread and Butter

As he talked about his decision to help resuscitate the Student Prince, and all that has happened since, Picknelly stressed repeatedly that he entered this journey knowing little, if anything, about the restaurant business.

Peter Picknelly says he’s proud to be able to continue such long-standing Student Prince traditions such as caroling during the holidays. Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Peter Picknelly says he’s proud to be able to continue such long-standing Student Prince traditions such as caroling during the holidays.
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Suffice it to say that he’s learning fast — about everything from the wholesale price of veal shank to how many 12-ounce glasses of beer there are in a keg (330 by his count), to Christmas Eve and how a decision to close at 2 p.m. that day was a “critical mistake” that won’t be repeated.

And he’s also learning about just how loyal customers are to the landmark’s many traditions — large and small.

Like the slices of bread that were, for decades, served before lunch or dinner, almost always with pats of butter that were rock hard and therefore impossible to spread. As part of a strategy to implement change where they thought it was needed, Picknelly and Yee eventually replaced the bread with fresh rye rolls brought in daily from a bakery in Boston.

But not for long, as things turned out.

“This just blows my mind,” said Picknelly. “I thought these rolls were awesome — every morning delivered from Boston. But the number-one complaint we received from people … they wanted that old sliced bread back. So we stopped the rolls, and we’ve got the sliced bread. I don’t get it, it blows my mind, but that’s what they want.”

Actually, the partners were able to improve on that tradition, said Yee, by serving it with “whipped, room-temperature butter that’s easily spreadable.”

In a way, that’s what they are doing with many facets of the restaurant — from the décor to the layout of the bar to the menu items. The new owners are making improvements without changing the character of this 80-year-old institution or the tangibles and intangibles that “make the Fort the Fort,” as Yee said.

And many improvements were needed, said Mike Vann, who recalled for BusinessWest the prognosis that he and his father, Kevin, arrived at for the Student Prince after a thorough look at the operation last summer.

“We concluded that the patient needed to be fixed,” he said, adding that its condition was far from critical, but it was worsening. “The revenue, generally speaking, was still very strong, so it was a matter of cost containment and cost management. They were still doing pretty good numbers, but the food costs were high, and the labor costs were high, and when you walked through the building, you could see that it needed some love and attention — it hadn’t had that in a while. From a financial standpoint, these were fixable things.”

The importance of finding someone to provide that love and attention hit home to the Vann family and many others, said Mike, because the city had already seen two of its iconic restaurants — Lido’s (or the Lido, as it was known to many) and Sylvano’s, Italian restaurants located only a few blocks from each other on Worthington Street in the city’s downtown — close their doors.

Both were, like the Student Prince, family-owned Springfield institutions that provided memories for several generations of many families.

“When Lido’s closed, that was huge news,” said Vann. “Our family was there for four generations. For us, having the Lido close was devastating, because that’s where we would go for our family meals. And one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about the Fort so far is how many families have traditions that revolve around it.

“The Fort was the last iconic restaurant in Springfield,” he went on, adding that, for him, his father, and really all those who were and still are involved in the endeavor to keep it from becoming another statistic, it has been a rewarding experience on many levels.

Salad Days

The story of how Picknelly, the Yee family, and the Vanns came together as the new ownership team has already been told through a number of media outlets and is fast becoming part of Springfield lore.

To recap, Roberts, concerned about the fate of the restaurant he’d been coming to since the ’60s, learned of the seriousness of the situation from Rudi Scherff. He then asked the Vanns, as veteran consultants to restaurateurs, to look at the books, draw up a road map for the future, and explore options for a new ownership team. Meanwhile, Picknelly, who had been coming to the Fort for as long as he could remember with parents, grandparents, and his own children, had let it be known that he would step forward and be part of the effort to revitalize the institution.

But he knew he needed a partner, because, as noted earlier, he knew very little about this business.

Andy Yee, on the other hand, grew up in the industry, learning the ropes from his father, Johnny, who started the Hu Ke Lau in 1965 and eventually opened a number of restaurants around the country. The two came together as a result of what has already become a famous phone call.

“He called up and said, ‘Andy, this is Peter Picknelly … I got your cell phone number from a mutual friend of ours, [state Rep.] Joe Wagner,’” said Yee, noting that he prepared himself for a long conversation. “Within 15 minutes, we knew we had a deal. We didn’t actually have one, but knew there would be one.”

It would take several weeks to hammer out all the details — Picknelly would take a 50% stake in the operation, the Yee family 40%, and the Vanns 10% — but long before the ink on any paperwork was dry, there was anticipation, enthusiasm, and, as Sarno mentioned, a can-do attitude.

It would be needed, because the new owners set an aggressive target date for reopening — the day before Thanksgiving — and were already scaling up plans to give the landmark a new, more modern look, a slightly revamped menu, and a new lease on life.

The festive scene at the restaurant’s grand reopening ceremonies on Dec. 3. Photo by Robert Charles Photography

The festive scene at the restaurant’s grand reopening ceremonies on Dec. 3.
Photo by Robert Charles Photography

Darby O’Brien, whose South Hadley-based advertising agency was hired to handle the marketing for the ‘new’ Student Prince, coordinate its grand-opening ceremonies (which included a visit from the governor-elect), and other duties, believes the enthusiastic response from the public regarding the new ownership team and its plans helped inspire what became a comprehensive makeover.

“I don’t think they were going to spend the kind of dollars they did to bring it back, but the response from people all over the place once they announced this team-up really excited them, and they just pushed it,” he told BusinessWest. “They said, ‘let’s do it now,’ rather than just clean it up, brush it up, and get back in the ring. They said, ‘let’s do this thing right.’

“My biggest concern was about whether they understood the charm, the character, the personality, and the traditions that have been a part of this restaurant for years,” O’Brien went on as he recalled his thoughts as the new owners went about their work. “I knew Peter did, but I wasn’t sure about Andy. I was wondering, ‘where would he take it?’ What really impressed me quickly was the fact that he had this really talented Boston designer who really understood German restaurants and really understood all of the Fort’s personality and character — and enhanced it.”

O’Brien went so far as to draw an intriguing analogy between the Fort and the iconic, 103-year-old home of the Red Sox, which has been renovated and in some ways modernized in recent years, but in ways that haven’t compromised its character.

“I said to those guys in the beginning, ‘you’re like the caretakers of Fenway Park,’” said O’Brien. “[Red Sox owner] John Henry and company understood the character of the place, and they really brought it up to date, but they didn’t jeopardize the place. I think that’s what they’ve done with the Fort — they did a really interesting job with the place.”

Icing on the Cake

The renovated and revitalized Fort has been open only a few months, but all those we spoke with said the new ownership team is off to a fast and solid start.

O’Brien praised its ability to listen to commentary and criticism — and there’s been a lot of both — and respond accordingly and appropriately, as evidenced by the return of not only the sliced bread, but the Fort’s signature ‘boot’ glasses, in a street-legal size.

Roberts, who has frequented the restaurant eight or 10 times since it reopened, by his count, gave it good reviews while noting that there are still some bumps to smoothen out and changes to make — like bringing back lunch specials. Overall, he’s confident that the new owners will make their business venture successful.

Vann, for his part, believes considerable progress has already been made.

“The response thus far has been great — people are in there, they’re coming back, and they’re talking about it,” he said. “It’s definitely relevant; it’s a place that people want to be seen at and want to eat at. From that standpoint, it’s mission accomplished.”

Perhaps, but Picknelly and Yee would probably prefer ‘mission in progress.’

Indeed, they say they’re mulling more changes and additions that fall into that category of improvements that don’t alter the landmark’s overall character.

Plans are being drafted for more and different kinds of entertainment, pig roasts on Fort Street during the warmer months, additional choices during Game Fest, and much more.

And then, there’s the menu, which remains a work in progress, said Yee, adding that the Fort reopened with what he called menu release 1.0, and he’s already working on version 1.2.

“We have a lot of eyes on us on this one, and we continue to work through the steps and measures to get the menu where we want it to be and get everything just right; we’re still fine-tuning,” he said. “The menu is not an exact science; it’s really what the people want, and the Fort is such an institution that people are programmed to enjoy their favorites for a long, long time.

“Like the veal shank,” he went on, referring to a long-time favorite of many. “I’m pulling my hair out trying to source out a veal shank to make it affordable because it’s such a high-price item.”

Picknelly said one overarching goal is to make the Fort, which has traditionally been what he called a ‘holiday restaurant,’ into more of a 12-month venue.

“What we’re trying to do is make the Fort a destination — and not just for Christmas,” he explained. “We’re looking to make this an event place; we want to make the restaurant a Springfield institution year-round.”

While the Fort is off to a good start, all those involved know that a host of challenges await and success is certainly not guaranteed. But already, the new owners are feeling a sense of accomplishment from keeping the landmark open and allowing new memories to be created.

To emphasize that point, Picknelly returned to Dec. 18 and the carolers.

“There are thousands of families that would have lost this tradition if the Fort had closed,” he said. “And no matter what we do going forward, that night made it all worthwhile — for me, anyhow.

“They were singing ‘Silent Night,’ first in German and then in English, and they turned the lights down,” he went on, recalling the most poignant moment from that evening. “They turned the lights back on, and there were people crying in the restaurant. I already knew that this was a good thing to do for the city, but at that moment, I realized just how important it was.”

And so did everyone else.

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

Class of 2015 Difference Makers
City’s Biggest Cheerleader Has Generated Light During Some Dark Times

Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Photo by Denise Smith Photography

It was with a strong dose of pride in her voice that Judy Matt explained that she keeps everything, and never tosses anything.

To prove it, she had a staff member at the Spirit of Springfield (SOS) retrieve an old briefcase from storage in the agency’s office at 1350 Main St.

In it was an eclectic array of items from her years at the helm of something called the Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs, or MOCA, in the mid-’80s, and also from her prior work for the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB). They included several program booklets from inaugural ceremonies involving a few mayors, but especially Richard Neal, who served from 1984 to 1989 and recruited Matt to lead MOCA; some marketing materials she created while at the GSCVB that featured the phrase ‘Metro Springfield,’ which she concocted; and a program book from the grand opening of the ‘old’ Basketball Hall of Fame in 1985.

And then, there was a promotional piece called “The Great Trees of Our City,” a pamphlet that highlighted a number of Springfield’s more noted examples of arboreal splendor, from a river birch on the grounds of MassMutual’s headquarters to the famous black walnut on State Street that now stands guard in front of the new federal courthouse.

“Richie Neal liked to build pride in the city — he did a lot of things like that,” Matt said of “The Great Trees.” “He was always looking for ways to showcase the city and make everyone proud.”

Suffice it to say that Matt’s efforts to promote Springfield, engender pride, and create positive vibes in a city that has sorely needed them, have come a long way from that brochure.

A very long way.

Indeed, over the past 30 years or so, first with MOCA and especially with the nonprofit Spirit of Springfield, formed after MOCA’s demise, Matt has spearheaded everything from the Big Balloon Parade down Main Street to what was, for some time, called the ‘World’s Largest Pancake Breakfast’; from First Night festivities to fireworks on the Fourth of July long after the city lacked the ability to pay for them.

And then, there’s the holiday lighting display Bright Nights, which recently celebrated its 20th year. The largest endeavor of its kind in the country, it has put Springfield on the map and found itself within a few lines of the majestic fountains of the Bellagio resort in Las Vegas on many national lists of must-see attractions.

Meanwhile, there have been other special occasions and events for which the city has turned to Matt to play the lead role in both making them happen and making them special. That list includes everything from city birthday celebrations to Larry Bird’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, to the massive — and carefully orchestrated — funeral arrangements for slain Springfield police officer Kevin Ambrose in 2012.

Bright Nights

Bright Nights, which recently celebrated its 20th year, is now a permanent fixture on many national lists of must-see attractions.
Photo Courtesy Spirit of Springfield

But when you talk with those who have worked with Matt on these initiatives and others over the years, they inevitably talk as much about how she carries out her work as they do the volume of work. They use words like ‘energy,’ ‘enthusiasm,’ ‘determination,’ ‘imagination,’ and ‘passion’ (that’s the one you hear most often) to describe her approach to meeting her job description. They also speak to a unique talent for marshaling the forces needed to make all these events happen — from corporate sponsors for Bright Nights to the volunteers holding the ropes on the Cat in the Hat balloon — and an ability to somehow bring needed light during some of the city’s darkest times.

“Judy has been a true champion of Springfield, a real believer, especially during the tough times, when a lot of people were saying, ‘if you’re the last one to leave, turn out the lights,’” said Bill Pepin, president of WWLP Channel 22 and the first president of the Spirit of Springfield board. “She never gave up on Springfield, and has always been of the opinion that, when times are tough, that’s when you need the Spirit of Springfield most. And we’ve had a lot of tough times.”

Jane Albert, current chair, agreed, and noted that putting on a fireworks display or staging a parade may not be saving lives, combatting poverty, or eradicating homelessness, but Matt is improving quality of life, which certainly qualifies her as a Difference Maker.

“Judy makes a difference in the lives of so many people,” Albert told BusinesWest. “She’s passionate about what she does, and she cares deeply about the community. Most cities don’t have a Judy Matt, and Springfield’s very fortunate that it has her.”

Let There Be Light

During a lengthy interview with BusinessWest in the late summer of 1998, Matt told this writer that her job, “pure and simple, is to make the boss look good.”

She summoned those words while talking about a lifelong desire to toil in the background (although that’s impossible to do as director of the SOS) and direct praise to those for whom she worked for a particular event or initiative. And over the years, the word ‘boss’ came to mean many things. Early on, in the days of MOCA, and to a large extent today as well, it means the city’s mayor — even though the Spirit of Springfield is not a city department, a common misperception.

But it also means the members of her board, the corporations and individuals who have donated millions of dollars over the years to make events happen, and even the residents of Springfield and surrounding communities.

And this desire to please so many bosses is what drives Matt to not only produce events, but do them in a big (and, yes, expensive) manner where cutting corners is simply not an option, even if some of those bosses might have suggested (quietly and even loudly) that she might want to consider doing so.

And there’s no better example of all this than Bright Nights.

That story begins in the spring of 1995, when Pat Sullivan, director of Springfield’s Parks and Recreation Department, came into possession of a brochure from the Carpenter Decorating Co., a North Carolina-based business that designed and manufactured holiday lighting displays.

Intrigued by what he saw, Sullivan envisioned Forest Park, one of the largest municipal parks in the country at 735 acres, as a site for such a display. He brought the concept to Matt, who soon took Sullivan’s vision to a much higher level.

Indeed, while early discussions focused on using only the park’s baseball fields for off-the-shelf lighting displays such as Santa Claus throwing snowballs, Matt envisioned using the entire park and creating displays that paid tribute to the city’s history and noted residents such as Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Everett Barney, who donated land for Forest Park and invented the first clamp-on ice skate.

Working with John Catenaci, design director for Carpenter Decorating, Matt and Sullivan started advancing a plan for a two-and-a-half-mile-long series of displays that would thread its way through the park. Making this vision reality required clearing a host of hurdles, from logistical matters including wiring the park and digging trenches for that wiring, to the matter of convincing a very skeptical board of directors to go along with the idea, to finding corporate sponsors for the ambitious lighting displays.

The Big Balloon Parade

The Big Balloon Parade has become a Springfield tradition, one of many launched, or continued, by the Spirit of Springfield and its president, Judy Matt.
Photo Courtesy Spirit of Springfield

“When we look back, we often laugh and say, ‘how did we ever get all of that done?’ But if you believe in something, you can accomplish it, and Judy believed in it,” said Sullivan, adding that, by Thanksgiving, a host of displays, from Seuss Land to North Pole Village to Toy Land, were ready for prime time. And Matt had added ‘Wonder Woman’ — a phrase summoned by a city official upon his first look at the completed Bright Nights — to a host of unofficial titles bestowed upon her over the years, including ‘Springfield’s biggest cheerleader,’ ‘Mrs. Springfield,’ and the ‘First Lady of Springfield.’

How she would come to eventually earn such names is an intriguing story. It begins when Matt, living then in Connecticut, followed her husband, somewhat reluctantly, to Western Mass. in 1970 as he took a job here.

As for her own employment situation … well, she actually put an ad in the local paper stating a desire to find a suitable opportunity, as well as her credentials. The former Chicopee Bank and Trust responded and eventually offered her a job heading up its first MasterCard program.

She moved from there to a job leasing space in the recently opened Baystate West (now Tower Square) and was soon promoted to the position of marketing director. Soon after Neal was elected mayor in November 1983, he asked Matt to coordinate his inauguration ceremonies. She remembers being taken aback by that request — “I didn’t really know him that well, and I said, ‘Richie, I don’t know anything about inaugurals’” — but took on the assignment. She impressed him enough that, when Rick Norcross left his position as head of MOCA, Neal recruited her to take the helm. Over the next several years, she handled everything from the city’s 350th birthday festivities in 1986 to the “Great Trees” brochure.

When funding for MOCA was attached to a proposition 2½ override bid that would fail, the office’s doors closed. It wasn’t long, however, before people like Pepin, Mercy Hospital President Sr. Mary Caritas, and Republican Editor Arnie Friedman, among others, concluded that its work must continue, and that the logical choice for an individual to lead such an organization was Matt, who eventually accepted the job.

But to say that the entity that would come to be known as the Spirit of Springfield had humble beginnings would be a huge understatement.

“Attorney Mike Wallace, who was one of the board members, gave me some space in his office at 95 State St.,” Matt recalled. “We had a desk and a phone, and I would spend almost a year just trying to re-establish us.”

In December of 1989, the agency became a nonprofit, 501(c)3 organization and received its first major gift, $20,000, from Tom Burke, president of Burke Beverage, to stage its first event, the Taste of Springfield.

“In was hard to raise money and for people to gain confidence in us in the early years,” Matt noted, adding that the agency managed to gain a firm foothold thanks to early corporate supporters such as Burke, Friendly Ice Cream, Milton Bradley (now Hasbro), and “some of the local banks that aren’t around anymore.”

The rest, as they say, is history in the making.

Some Bright Ideas

While, to many casual observers, the Spirit of Springfield’s work goes on easily and seemingly effortlessly, the reality is much different.

Indeed, funding the various events and initiatives is an ongoing battle, said Matt, adding that even Bright Nights, which many perceive to be a huge money maker, struggles in its mission to both pay for itself and fund other events such as the balloon parade. And a rough winter — like the one experienced in 2013-14, when five nights were lost due to snowstorms — can wreak havoc with the agency’s budget.

“Doing all that she does hasn’t been easy — it hasn’t been easy at all,” said Pepin. “Once in while I’ll run across someone who will say ‘Bright Nights … they’re making a lot of money off that.’ The reality is that they’re not — they’re surviving.

“It’s not like they’re rolling in dough — they’re not holding their board meetings in Tahiti,” he went on. “Funding all these events is a constant struggle.”

And fighting the budget battle is only one challenge that Matt must confront. There is the lingering perception that the agency, its many initiatives, and Matt’s salary are funded by the city, a factual error that can make it difficult to secure funding or support in the court of public opinion.

Meanwhile, Matt has often had to battle red tape and both bureaucratic and fiscal obstacles put in front of her by the communities she’s serving.

“She was doing things for the city when everyone else had essentially given up — she was trying to make things positive for the city,” said Pepin.

“And the city itself hasn’t really gone out of its way to make things easy for her or for organization,” he added. “Here’s an organization that’s trying to do positive things for the residents of Springfield and the surrounding areas, and over the years, they’ve thrown obstacles in her way. Instead of rolling out the red carpet and saying, ‘how can we help you?’ they’ve created issues and obstacles.”

The funeral for slain Springfield police officer Kevin Ambrose

The funeral for slain Springfield police officer Kevin Ambrose was one of many special events that Judy Matt has helped coordinate for Springfield leaders.

In the course of navigating all that, Matt has been driven, said those we spoke with, to create special and lasting memories for area residents, and make things brighter during dark and difficult times. And there have ben many such periods, ranging from city fiscal crises to the events of 9/11 to the tornado that roared through the region on June 1, 2001.

And, again, Bright Nights is a good example.

“Springfield was in a dark and low point at that time,” said Sullivan in reference to the mid-’90s, when the project was conceived and taken from the drawing board to reality. “There was a recession and things happening that you don’t want to happen.

“There wasn’t a good feeling in the city overall — the economy was distressed,” he went on. “And Bright Nights was a catalyst … it helped project that feeling you needed in the city, that Springfield was a place to come and visit, and we should be proud to live in the city. That’s what it meant to me.”

Albert remembers the days after the tornado struck, when there were discussions about whether the city should go forth with the fireworks at a time when so many had seen their lives uprooted. And she remembers Matt not only insisting they that go on, but that they be made special.

“She was so committed to making it incredible for the residents because it was such a low time for the city,” said Albert. “There have been many times when the city was challenged, but the tornado was a very difficult time for the community, and she just said, ‘we have to do this … we have to make this happen for the city, and we have to do a great job.’ And she did.”

Matt’s ability to get things done has prompted several mayors and other administrators to call on her to help with events that are not directly under the purview of the Spirit of Springfield, but nonetheless reflect on the city in many ways.

Albert cited the funeral arrangements for Ambrose as just one example of how Matt can move quickly and decisively and maximize the many strong relationships she’s built over the decades to the betterment of the city.

“There were 1,000 to 1,200 police officers in Court Square for that event,” Albert recalled of the Ambrose proceedings. “She had just a few days to pull that together; she just picked up the phone, called the presidents of large companies in this area, and said, ‘we need some funding to do this,’ ‘this is what we need to do,’ and ‘will you help?’

“I’m not sure if the city went to Judy or if this was Judy’s idea, because she’s always had that sensitivity,” she went on, “and has always wanted to help the city put its best foot forward.”

The Spirit Moved Her

For that interview with BusinessWest back in 1998, Matt summed up her office and her work this way:

“A city isn’t just buildings and streets and bridges. Those things don’t make a city, people do, and part of what makes a community livable is celebrations — they’re a part of us.”

Anyone who has driven through Bright Nights, taken in the fireworks on the Fourth of July, or watched the giant balloons make their way down Main Street would agree.

And for making all these happenings happen and putting smiles of the faces of millions of people, Matt is truly the First Lady of Springfield — and certainly a Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2015 Difference Makers
Company’s Contributions to the Region Extend Well Beyond Check Writing

Nick Fyntrilakis

Nick Fyntrilakis, the company’s vice president of Community Responsibility.
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Nick Fyntrilakis certainly wasn’t around for what’s known in local lore as the Great Flood of ’36, when the Connecticut River, swollen by large amounts of melting snow and persistent rains, spilled over its banks in mid-March, breaching dams, knocking bridges off their foundations, and destroying homes and businesses.

But he’s heard the stories — and seen some of the photos — related to how MassMutual Financial Group, the company he now serves as vice president of Community Responsibility, opened its purse strings, not to mention its doors (quite literally), to help Springfield residents weather that disaster.

“We sheltered people in our home office on State Street because they didn’t have any place to go — we had people sleeping on cots in a gymnasium that we had at that time,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he references that story often because it helps explain the company’s long history of community involvement and the many different forms it has taken.

Actually, that history goes back well before 1936, he said, adding that it is his unofficial job description to help write more chapters and also create new ways to support area cities and towns (especially Springfield, its home base) and improve overall quality of life.

And in recent years, he and others at the company have added to the portfolio of community involvement in some intriguing — and what many would consider non-traditional — ways, from the many layers of support provided after the devastating tornado in 2011, to several forms of assistance to the nonprofit agency DevelopSpringfield, which grew out of a State Street revitalization initiative and is now involved in a wide range of economic-development-related activities, to multi-tiered support for Valley Venture Mentors and other groups and initiatives created to foster and nurture entrepreneurial activity and, ultimately, create jobs.

These come on top of more traditional forms of support, such as scholarships for high-school students, mentoring and internship programs, funding of cultural institutions such as the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and CityStage, and continued support for the many events staged by the Spirit of Springfield, including its annual Fourth of July fireworks display.

Add it all up, and it becomes apparent that MassMutual, a Fortune 100 company (number 96 in the last compilation, with more than $33 billion in annual revenue) is making a huge impact in the community, one that certainly epitomizes the phrase Difference Maker.

The numbers certainly support such a designation:

• In 2014, MassMutual supported 109 Springfield-area entities, spreading $4.8 million among them;
• The company’s aggregate support of DevelopSpringfield from 2008 to 2014 totals more than $4.3 million, including a $1.6 million contribution toward planning and rebuilding following the tornado;
• This past year, MassMutual awarded $1.6 million to Valley Venture Mentors over the next three years to support an accelerator program and created the $5 million Springfield Venture Fund;
• Over the past five years, the company has granted internships to nearly 500 high-school and college students. Job offers were extended to 23 of the participants, and 17 are still with the company; and
• Company employees mentor roughly 35 Springfield high-school students each year, and has had 175 mentor matches since the 2010-11 school year.

But such statistics tell only part of the story. Indeed, Fyntrilakis, as well as representatives for some of the agencies supported by MassMutual, say the company’s involvement goes well beyond check writing, and is part of broad strategy to strengthen the Greater Springfield area and position it for a better economic future.

Jay Minkarah, president and CEO of DevelopSpringfield, called it a “holistic approach,” one that he believes separates MassMutual from most other corporate donors.

“One of things that distinguishes MassMutual’s support for initiatives like ours is that these are not just a nod toward giving back to the community or a feeling that the company should support charitable endeavors,” he explained. “These are different. These are strategic investments in the community.”

Summing up the company’s philosophy involving community involvement, Fyntrilakis said it mirrors its corporate outlook as well, meaning a focus on the longer term.

“We make decisions that are 50-year decisions — we don’t worry about the next quarter or what the stock price is going to look like in two days; we’re worried about how our company is going to be faring 50 years from now so we can deliver on the promises we make to our policy holders,” he explained. “And as a result, that translates into the way we engage our community and our corporate responsibility. We want to ensure that our region is strong into the future so that we can have a workforce that can deliver on the things that we need for our policy owners, and we want to continue to thrive as an organization. As goes our community, so goes our ability to do things.”

In Good Company

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno told BusinessWest that any community fortunate enough to have a Fortune 100 company headquartered within its boundaries should certainly expect that employer to be a solid corporate citizen.

Springfield’s fireworks

Springfield’s fireworks display now bears MassMutual’s name as lead sponsor — one of the company’s many examples of philanthropy in the category of community vitality.

But he and others are of the opinion that what MassMutual has done over the past 164 years goes above and beyond what could — and should — be expected.

“From the beginning, this city has always been able to count on MassMutual,” said Sarno, who has been in the corner office through a number of natural disasters and economic initiatives that the company has responded to. “It’s been a source of jobs, a force on economic development, and a philanthropic monster. And it should never, ever be taken for granted, because not every city has a MassMutual — and every city would love to have one.”

Fyntrilakis said the contributions made within the community are part of a corporate culture. “We are responsive and engaged and committed to serving our community,” he said, adding that, as the company has grown over the decades and expanded physically within other communities, that philosophy has followed.

“We support other communities where we have a presence,” he explained, “including Enfield, Phoenix, Memphis, and now Boston, where we have an office. We are engaged there as well.”

But the level of engagement is much higher in Springfield, he said, and for obvious reasons. The company traces its roots here, to 1851, when Caleb Rice, then an insurance agent working for Hartford-based Connecticut Mutual Life, decided to open a similar company — one owned by its policy holders — in Massachusetts. The company’s growth mirrored the nation’s — in other words, it expanded west, opening offices in several Midwestern states, and eventually reached the West Coast in 1868.

But it has always had Springfield has its base, with several headquarters facilities, including the current home on State Street, opened in 1927. Along with Smith & Wesson (because of that company’s strong brand recognition), it is the corporate entity most associated with the City of Homes.

“We have a much deeper involvement in Springfield, both from a financial perspective as well as a human-engagement perspective,” said Fyntrilakis, “in the sense of me serving on boards of directors, having our employees volunteer in the community on various things, and employees being generous with their own dollars to causes that we support or drives that we have for food or toys or things of that nature.

“It’s pretty special — it’s a meaningful degree of support,” he went on. “It goes along with being a Fortune 100 company, but it’s not just about how big we are or what people think we should do. It’s about what we think we should do and our own commitment.”

Fyntrilakis told BusinessWest that the phrase ‘corporate responsibility’ cuts across most all aspects of the company and includes employees in many departments and on many levels. Examples include everything from environmental responsibility — an important consideration for a company with such a large footprint, and one embodied in such initiatives as solar panels on the roof of the company’s headquarters and electric-car-charging stations in the parking lot — to employee benefits and training initiatives.

But perhaps the most visible component of corporate responsibility is the many actions that fall into the broad category of philanthropy or community involvement.

Historically, there are three main categories for this involvement, he said: education, economic development, and what the company calls ‘community vitality,’ and there are many examples of each.

School of Thought

Before elaborating on each area, Fyntrilakis first went into more depth about the philosophy that governs decisions on community involvement, because doing so helps explain directions taken by the company.

“We’re not ashamed to say that it’s important for our charitable activity to align with our business strategy,” he explained. “Because, in order for us to support charitable activity, our business needs to be strong.”

And one of the keys to achieving that strength (again, for the long term) is through a quality workforce and effective means of attracting and recruiting talent. Thus, many of the philanthropic initiatives within the realm of education involve initiatives that would help better train a workforce locally and also introduce young people to the company and its myriad employment opportunities. Meanwhile, initiatives within the area of community vitality are aimed at improving quality of life, but also to make the region more attractive to potential job candidates.

On the national level, he went on, many initiatives, such the LifeBridge and FutureSmart programs, are designed at enhancing the corporation’s brand and reputation, as well as empowering more Americans to become educated financially, which ties into MassMutual’s core business.

LifeBridge is a unique, free life-insurance program that helps children of income-eligible families pay for their education expenses if their insured parent or guardian passes away during the term of the policy, while the FutureSmart Challenge, conducted in conjunction with select NBA teams, stages interactive seminars at which students learn the importance of savings, career choices, staying in school and going to college, and how each has a profound impact on their future financial success.

Locally, within the category of education, said Fyntrilakis, the emphasis is on grades 6-12, with a focus on academic achievement and career pathways. Individual initiatives involve grants to specific programs to improve academic achievement, scholarships, mentoring students at the Springfield High School of Science and Technology and Putnam Vocational Technical High School (both located nearly across State Street from the company’s headquarters building), internships, job-shadowing programs, and others.

“Our hope is that we can create a pipeline for some of those young people to come and work at MassMutual,” he explained. “Many of our initatives are aimed at prompting the diverse, talented young people that we have to think about a career at MassMutual, and have a progression and a way that they can do that.”

MassMutual’s support to Springfield

MassMutual’s support to Springfield after the 2011 tornado came in many forms, from a $1.6 grant toward the rebuilding effort to a loaned executive to help draft a recovery plan.

In the realm of community vitality, support is directed toward those events and institutions that will attract people to the city of Springfield and the region as a whole, said Fyntrilakis. That list includes everything from the recent Spalding Hoophall Classic, which brought top high-school basketball players from around the country to the City of Homes for a three-day tournament, to Bright Nights, the Fourth of July fireworks, and other events staged by the Sprit of Springfield; from the SSO to CityStage and the Springfield Museums.

As with programs in the realm of education, MassMutual’s initiatives in community involvement usually go well beyond simply writing checks.

Indeed, Audrey Szychulski, outgoing executive director of the SSO, said the company’s contributions to that institution go well beyond its sizeable season sponsorship (a six-figure gift). Indeed, several officers of the company sit on the orchestra’s board, including Chief Marketing Officer John Chandler, the current chair.

“Besides funding, MassMutual has a core group of people who interact with us on a regular basis,” she explained, adding that the company has also assisted with strategic planning, marketing initiatives, introducing the SSOP to young professionals new to the region, and even a complete IT analysis. “And when it comes to a donation of that size, it’s really an investment in our general operating needs to ensure that we really can serve our community. To them, it’s not just about the concert, but the whole experience and helping to ensure that we can touch as many people as possible through outreach initiatives.”

Response to the tornado of 2011, as well as the flood of 1936 and other natural disasters, does not fall neatly into any of the three main categories of community involvement, but it does reflect the company’s sense of responsibility to the city and its residents.

“It was an extraordinary event, and we certainly wanted to step in,” Fyntrilakis said, adding that support took forms ranging from an immediate $100,000 donation to the American Red Cross to a $1.6 million contribution to DevelopSpringfield for its Rebuild Springfield Fund, to a donation of his time and energy to co-chair the rebuilding effort.

Fueling Entrepreneurship

But if the tornado does fit into a category, it would likely be economic development, said Fyntrilakis, adding this is a relatively new classification of community involvement for the company — but one that has garnered most of the headlines in recent months.

The sharpened focus on this realm dates back roughly to 2008 and the Great Recession, he told BusinessWest, noting that the company recognized a need to reach out and help the city, which was, like many former manufacturing centers, struggling to reinvent itself and stimulate new job growth.

“We stepped back and we decided that we really needed to help the community leverage the assets it had and really take advantage of opportunities to grow and strengthen its economy,” he explained. “It’s great for us to be able to do lots of things charitably, but the reality is, the better the economy is, and the better the opportunities for people to get jobs and for the tax base to grow — that’s really what’s going to help strengthen the community a lot more than charitable contributions that aren’t going to facilitate that.”

This emphasis on economic-development-related support has taken more forms, starting with a State Street Corridor initiative that remains a work in progress. As part of that endeavor, the company helped facilitate creation of DevelopSpringfield, which Fyntrilakis called a “bricks-and-mortar organization” charged mostly with developing and repurposing underutilized properties, thereby revitalizing many of the city’s neighborhoods.

Current projects include several on State Street, including development of a supermarket, reuse of the former River Inn, razed in 2013, and redevelopment of the so-called Gunn Block. Other initiatives include renovation of the Ansel Phelps House on Maple Street and DevelopSpringfield’s commitment to build an innovation center in two long-vacant buildings on Bridge Street.

That facility will become the new home to Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), another of the Difference Makers for 2015 (see related story, page A28) and one of the focal points for MassMutual’s multi-pronged efforts to promote entrepreneurship and encourage businesses to locate within Springfield.

Overall, the company is investing $6.5 million in that realm, with $1.5 million going to VVM over the next three years for a startup accelerator — the first cohort of 30 companies started its six months of programs in January — and $5 million for creation of the Springfield Venture Fund, which will invest in startups located in Springfield or willing to relocate there.

In December, video-game developer HitPoint Studios became the first company to receive an investment ($500,000) from the fund, relocating from Amherst to a suite in 1350 Main St. in Springfield.

“We kept hearing how entrepreneurs were chasing capital, and capital was dictating where folks were locating — Boston, Cambridge, and San Francisco were putting money on the table and driving people to those communities,” said Fyntrilakis as he discussed how and why the fund came about. “Those are great cities with wonderful entrepreneurial ecosystems, but we felt that we had, through VVM and others, a good entrepreneurial ecosystem in Springfield, but the early-stage capital just wasn’t available, and folks were leaving to pursue capital elsewhere.”

By providing that early-stage capital, as well as other forms of support for entrepreneurship, MassMutual is taking a somewhat bold step in the arena of community involvement, one that should pay huge dividends down the road, said Jay Leonard, a board member at VVM and one of those who helped guide it though its formative years.

“MassMutual’s support of both the accelerator and the fund has been critical,” said Leonard, who serves as an economic researcher for one of the company’s subsidiaries, Babson Capital Management, and has served as a go-between of sorts for VVM and the corporation. “The best way to provide economic development is to invest in companies that are going to be successful, and MassMutual’s doing that.”

Minkarah agreed, and returned to that word ‘holistic’ to describe the company’s community involvement, especially with entrepreneurship initiatives.

“The company has provided support for the Springfield Innovation Center and Valley Venture Mentors, and it created the Springfield Venture Fund, and you can’t just look at any of these in isolation,” he explained. “When you look at that total package, here are very well-thought-out strategic investments designed to create a physical place that will support and foster innovation and entrepreneurship, support an organization that can actually run the program, and provide funding to support startups and high-growth companies that are innovative and entrepreneurial themselves.

“These are investments that MassMutual is making in the long-term economic health of the community,” he went on, “because they believe these are strategically positioned initiatives that can have a catalytic effect.”

Flood of Memories

It’s unlikely that anyone was using the word ‘catalytic’ with any degree of frequency back in 1936.

And that term probably wouldn’t be used to describe people sleeping on cots in MassMutual’s gymnasium because the flood leveled their homes.

But times change, in some ways, and that word is certainly appropriate now.

That’s because, while the company is basically continuing a 160-year-old tradition of community involvement, it is finding new, dynamic, and in some ways groundbreaking ways for it to evolve.

And that’s one of many reasons why it is a Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2015 Difference Makers
Event Provides Memories, Camaraderie, and a Chance to Help ‘Kick Cancer’s Ass’

Domenic and Michelle Battista (front row, left), with K-Ride founders (from left) Kim Zachery, Dan Williams, and Steve Stark. Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Domenic and Michelle Battista (front row, left), with K-Ride founders (from left) Kim Zachery, Dan Williams, and Steve Stark.
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Dr. Satkiran Grewal says that, when parents first hear the word ‘cancer’ used in the same sentence as their child’s name, they often don’t really hear much, if anything, said immediately after that.

They’re listening, said Grewal, chief of Pediatric Oncology at Baystate Children’s Hospital, but often what is said doesn’t fully register because there is a surreal quality to the news they’ve been given, and they’re still attempting to digest it while trying to anticipate what happens next. Later, parents and other family members will inevitably need help understanding, coordinating, and simply coping with the many aspects of a prolonged cancer battle.

And these are some of the many reasons why, in 2012, Baystate created a new position, an individual (a nurse practitioner, or NP) who acts essentially as a liaison between the families of children and adolescents diagnosed with cancer and the specialists providing them care. It’s a position funded in part by money raised by participants in Katelynn’s Ride, or K-Ride, as it’s called, an annual event created to honor the spirit and courage of Katelynn Battista, who lost a decade-long battle with leukemia in 1997 at age 11.

“Katelynn’s riders have supported one of Baystate’s most patient-focused initiatives — the work of a designated care coordinator who helps patients and families navigate the complexities of the healthcare system amid serious illness,” said Grewal. “It’s a very important role, and we’re grateful for their assistance.”

But support for this position is just one of many reasons why K-Ride is being honored as a Difference Maker for 2015.

Indeed, while the money it raises for both Baystate Children’s Hospital and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute through the Jimmy Fund, and also for individual families in the form of $1,000 grants to help them cope with the many expenses associated with a cancer diagnosis, is substantial ($1.7 million to date), it is only part of the story.

The event itself, through the camaraderie it creates and the critical help it provides to those coping with this deadly disease, makes a difference in the lives of those who participate and, while doing so, brings different, often-inspiring storylines to the ride’s starting line on the grounds of Hampshire College.

People like Deb Rossmeil, who started riding to honor the successful fight against leukemia waged by her son, Adam, and to help others facing similar battles. In the beginning, she would ride with a few family members, but today, the team now known as Adam’s Animals brings as many as 30 people to the ride and is annually one of the top fund-raisers.

There’s also 10-year-old Luke Bradley, a fifth-grader from South Hadley who, last May, had the honor of serving as one of the event’s ambassadors, those who cut the ribbon to start the various rides — 5, 10, 25, 50, and 100 miles. That role had traditionally gone to individuals (usually parents) whose loved one had lost their fight with the disease. But for 2014, organizers wanted to extend the honor to a young person at a key turning point in their battle.

So it was for Luke, who only a few weeks before the ride had undergone what would be his last treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, essentially ending a three-year fight. He was still rather weak as he undertook the 5-mile ride himself, but he finished it.

“It was fun, and I had a great time,” he said, adding that this was an experience he’ll never forget, and he intends to be back next year with his parents and younger siblings.

And then there are Michelle and Domenic Battista, Katelynn’s parents. They both recall having mixed feelings when they were approached about creating a ride in honor of their daughter only a year after she died, but they eventually said ‘yes,’ and they’ve served as gracious hosts ever since, and say the event provides a powerful, meaningful, and at times emotionally exhausting way to honor Katelynn’s indomitable spirit.

“It’s difficult in some ways because Katelynn’s not with us,” said Michelle. “It’s overwhelming to see all the people who come out, not only for our family, but their own families, where they have a situation where someone’s battling cancer. It’s great to see a lot of the survivors, especially the children, but it’s bittersweet because our daughter’s not there.

“But I know Katelynn’s looking down on all this and smiling,” she went on. “It’s nice for her to be remembered in such a way and to have her go on inspiring people.”

Profile in Courage

Domenic Battista said Katelynn was a child who could light up any room just by walking into it.


Michelle Battista says cancer couldn’t stop her daughter, Katelynn, from doing anything she wanted to do.

“She had that kind of personality,” he recalled. “She was never down on herself; she just had that glow to her. She was caring for others — she knew she had a serious illness, and she fought it with … I don’t want to say ‘style,’ but I guess maybe that works.”

Michelle remembers that Katelynn was committed to not letting her cancer get in the way of whatever she wanted to do, and, for the most part, she succeeded with that mission.

“She tried to maintain her normal self and activities, just like any other child,” she told BusinessWest, “because she just wanted to be a kid and do the things that her friends did. Cancer did not hold her back; she was still involved in all her sports — she danced, she played soccer, she played basketball, she played piano, all while she was sick. She didn’t miss out on anything that she wanted to do.”

And while doing all that, Katelynn decided she would also make time to appear on a radiothon staged by radio station WHYN to raise money for Dana Farber, where she received some of her care.

It is here where the story of K-Ride begins, because it was roughly at that point where Katelynn began inspiring people to do things in her name in the ongoing fight against cancer.

Two of the hosts for that radiothon were Dan Williams and his wife and long-time radio and TV partner Kim Zachery. Williams’ best friend, Steve Stark, worked for the Postal Service, as did Domenic Battista. “It turns out we all knew other, and so we all got very involved in Katelynn’s story,” said Zachery, adding that Katelynn became a regular on radiothons.

For Williams and Stark, that involvement eventually included a cross-country bike ride they undertook in 1996 — soon after Katelynn, who had been in remission, was again diagnosed with cancer — to raise money for Dana Farber and get the infusion room there named in her honor.

“Katelynn became our inspiration,” said Williams, adding that, two years after that cross-country trek, he and Stark took part in something called the Race Across America, a 2,740-mile, non-stop relay that they and other team members completed in just under seven days. “In 1996, when we did the cross-country bike ride, we did it in honor of Katelynn, raising something like $50,000, and then in 1998, we did it in her memory — she died the year before.”

And it wasn’t long after she passed away before Williams, Stark, and Zachery started conceiving an event that would enable Katelynn to go on being an inspiration — for hundreds of people, many of whom had never met her.

“When she passed away, we knew we had to keep her name and her legacy going,” said Zachery, “because she was such a wonderful little girl and had such a fierce spirit of determination.”

The first K-Ride was staged in 2001 with roughly 60 riders. That number rose steadily to about 300, said Stark, and it has stayed around that level, dipping during the Great Recession, when most all fund-raising initiatives suffered, but rising again when it ended.

Over the years, the event has expanded to include several different rides, and also a walk, with participants coming mostly from this region but some from well outside it.

These are not races, but chances for individuals and teams to raise money through donations from friends and relatives in recognition of their participation. Riders 18 and over must raise $300 each, while riders under 18 and walkers 12 and over must raise $100. The format is similar in many ways to the popular PanMass Challenge, a bike ride that raises millions each year for the Jimmy Fund, but it is less demanding from a fund-raising perspective (PanMass Challenge participants must raise $4,000), and more of the dollars raised stay in this region.

And while the K-Ride has grown in terms of participation, it has also gained a number of corporate and media sponsors who underwrite nearly all of the operating expenses, meaning that all the money raised by the riders goes to Baystate and Dana Farber.

Fun with a Purpose

All those we spoke with said the K-Ride is much more than a sporting activity created to raise money for cancer programs. It’s an event, they note, and a family event at that, complete with a barbecue, a live band, and a host of activities.

Williams joked that riders are “pampered,” with numerous water stops, fruit, sports bars, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, shower facilities, and even a massage station.

But it is an event with a purpose, one that is reflected in everything from the names of the teams that participate (many, like Adam’s Animals, were inspired by people who have battled cancer) to the ambassadors who cut the ribbon, to the position at Baystate supported by the ride.

And that purpose isn’t lost on anyone.

Luke Bradley

Luke Bradley served as ambassador at the 2014 edition of Katelynn’s Ride only a few weeks after his last treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Photo courtesy of Driscoll Photography

For Jeff Neumann, an artist from New York State, K-Ride offers him an enjoyable opportunity to fund more of the research and new treatment options that helped him beat back the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma he was diagnosed with nearly 20 years ago.

“If it wasn’t for medical science and technology, I wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t be able to participate in such an event,” said Neumann, who has long been a friend of Williams, started riding at his urging, and joined him in recent years on a team, a fund-raising juggernaut, called K.C.A., short for ‘Kicking Cancer’s Ass.’ “I’m extremely grateful that I’m able to contribute and help some kid who may be in jeopardy of being able to ride his bike in the future.”

For Rossmeil, there are many connections between her son, Adam, and Katelynn and her family. Both families are from West Springfield, and Adam was diagnosed with the same form of leukemia (acute myeloid, or AML) as Katelynn.

Adam is now in the sixth grade and recently marked the 10th anniversary of his bone-marrow transplant. He’s been a participant in the K-Ride since he was 3, riding first with his father, before graduating to his own bike and successfully completing first the 10-mile and then the 25-mile ride.

The Rossmeil family rides and volunteers for the event to both celebrate what Adam has accomplished and create more stories like his.

“The thing we like the most is that they’re raising money for the Jimmy Fund and for the Baystate Cancer Center — Adam was treated in both facilities,” she said. “But it’s also a big family event. We get to see the Battistas every ear, and also one of Adam’s nurses from the hospital — she rides on our team — and we get to see the doctor who took care of him when he was first diagnosed; he also rides. It’s just a great event.”

Williams told BusinessWest that the ride has generated many traditions over the years, none more poignant for him than the ambassadors.

“There have been some inspirational stories over the years, and there have also been some very sad stories,” he said in reference to those who cut the ribbons. “Even though this is a day of celebration, we’re still dealing with cancer, so we’ve had families representing a child that may have passed away from cancer cutting the ribbon. That has a sobering effect, but it reminds everyone of why we’re doing this, why we’re all together on this particular day, and why we’re riding when it’s 95 degrees out or the rain is coming down sideways.”

For the Battistas, meanwhile, the ride is a day that generates a wide range of emotions, from sadness to elation to pride in what has been accomplished.

“We have some riders who have been with us since day one, and it’s great to see them come back each year,” said Domenic. “We’re here 15 years later, and I never thought it would get this big or go this long, but it has, and that’s a tribute to a dedicated crew we call the Friends of Katelynn. It’s a long day, but a nice day, a family day of remembrance for Katelynn while we’re helping to fund this position at Baystate.”

Katelynn’s ride participants describe it as a family event packed with fun, purpose, and poignancy. Photo courtesy of  Driscoll Photography

Katelynn’s ride participants describe it as a family event packed with fun, purpose, and poignancy.
Photo courtesy of Driscoll Photography

Such an individual was not available to families when Kateylnn was battling cancer, he said, adding that, when Grewal and others at Baystate indicated a desire to direct some of the K-Ride’s donations in that direction, organizers were in full support.

Hired in 2012, the nurse practitioner has been an effective addition to the staff at Baystate, working with patients and their families in both inpatient (at Baystate Children’s Hospital) and outpatient (at the Sadowsky Center for Children) clinical settings.

The NP assists families with everything from managing medications properly to scheduling tests to answering the myriad questions that are inevitably raised during a cancer battle, said Grewal, adding that, while the survival rates for childhood cancer are quite good, that doesn’t mean the process of treatment is in any way easy or without stress.

And starting just after the news is broken to parents, the nurse practitioner serves as an intermediary of sorts and a needed source of information and support during an often-years-long ordeal that can and usually will test a family’s patience — and mettle.

“There is a shock that comes to the family, and after the initial news on the first meeting, most of the things just fly over their heads,” Grewal explained. “We as physicians meet with the family on multiple occasions, but a nurse practitioner fills that role in between. And I wouldn’t say it’s hand-holding, although there is some of that. There are also many questions to be answered.

“I’ve been guilty, like everyone else, of using technical terminology,” he went on. “Parents won’t interrupt me while I’m doing that, but they’ll sit down with the nurse practitioner later, go over everything again, and they’ll say, ‘I didn’t understand what he said when he was saying this.’”

The Ride Stuff

While the K-ride is fun and rewarding, Zachery told BusinessWest, it is also a great deal of work. And that’s why organizers have at times — usually just after the event is staged — stopped to consider if this is something they want to continue doing.

“But then, the e-mails start coming in from people telling us this was the best ride ever, or that they plan to keep coming back, or that they’re really inspired by what we do,” she told BusinessWest. “And that keeps us going.”

If they wanted another reason to push on, they need only recall something Katelynn said not long before she died: “nothing is ever too hard to do if your faith is strong and your purpose is true.”

Those words apply to a cancer fight, obviously, but also to life in general — and perhaps a 100-mile bike ride as well.

And they represent only one way in which Katelynn — and all of her many friends — continue to inspire and make a difference.

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

Difference Makers

Event-78-EditMore than 300 people turned out at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke on March 20 for a celebration of the Difference Makers for 2014. The photos on the next several pages capture the essence of the event, which featured entertainment from the Children’s Chorus of Springfield and the Taylor Street Jazz Band, as well as fine food and some poignant comments from the honorees. This year’s class, chosen by the editors and publishers of BusinessWest from dozens of nominations, and seen in a group photo above, are, from left: Paula Moore, founder of the Youth Social Educational Training (YSET) Academy; the Melha Shriners, represented by Potentate William Faust; the Gray House, represented by Executive Director Dena Calvanese; Colleen Loveless, executive director of the Springfield office of Rebuilding Together; and Michael Moriarty, attorney and president of Olde Holyoke Development Corp., chosen for his work with youth literacy.

For more photos go to here

Sponsored By:

Baystate Medical PracticesFirst American Insurance • Health New England • Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.Northwestern Mutual • Royal LLP • Sarat Ford Lincoln • 6 Pt. Creative Works

For reprints contact: Denise Smith Photography / www.denisesmithphotography.com / [email protected]

Difference Maker Colleen Loveless, center, stands with her parents, Jim and Pat Shanley, left, her husband, Donald Loveless, and her daughter, Taylor Loveless, prior to the ceremonies.

Difference Maker Colleen Loveless, center, stands with her parents, Jim and Pat Shanley, left, her husband, Donald Loveless, and her daughter, Taylor Loveless, prior to the ceremonies.

From left, Srs. Jane Morrissey and Cathy Homrok, members of the Sisters of St. Joseph and two of the founders of the Gray House, one of this year’s honorees, with Dena Calvanese, executive director of the Gray House, Leyla Kayi, director of Donor Relations, and Glenn Yarnell, director of Adult Education.

From left, Srs. Jane Morrissey and Cathy Homrok, members of the Sisters of St. Joseph and two of the founders of the Gray House, one of this year’s honorees, with Dena Calvanese, executive director of the Gray House, Leyla Kayi, director of Donor Relations, and Glenn Yarnell, director of Adult Education.

Lynn Ostrowski, director of Brand and Corporate Relations for Health New England, one of the event’s sponsors, with Brian Kivel, right, sales executive for Health New England, and Patrick Ireland, president and founder of Neutral Corner Inc.

Lynn Ostrowski, director of Brand and Corporate Relations for Health New England, one of the event’s sponsors, with Brian Kivel, right, sales executive for Health New England, and Patrick Ireland, president and founder of Neutral Corner Inc.

Carol Katz, member of the Difference Makers Class of 2010, talks with  2014 Diffference Maker Michael Moriarty, director of Olde Holyoke Development Corp., during the event’s VIP hour.

Carol Katz, member of the Difference Makers Class of 2010, talks with 2014 Diffference Maker Michael Moriarty, director of Olde Holyoke Development Corp., during the event’s VIP hour.

Jim Vinick, senior vice president of investments at Moors & Cabot Inc. and member of the Difference Makers Class of 2013, poses with speech pathologist Marjorie Koft, left, and Jane Albert, vice president of development at Baystate Health, another of the event’s sponsors.

Jim Vinick, senior vice president of investments at Moors & Cabot Inc. and member of the Difference Makers Class of 2013, poses with speech pathologist Marjorie Koft, left, and Jane Albert, vice president of development at Baystate Health, another of the event’s sponsors.

Corey Murphy, far right, president of First American Insurance, one of the event sponsors, with, from left, team members Dennis Murphy, document processor, and Edward Murphy, chairman, network with Adam Quenneville, president of Adam Quenneville Roofing and Siding (second from right).

Corey Murphy, far right, president of First American Insurance, one of the event sponsors, with, from left, team members Dennis Murphy, document processor, and Edward Murphy, chairman, network with Adam Quenneville, president of Adam Quenneville Roofing and Siding (second from right).

Kate Kane, left, managing director of the Springfield office of Northwestern Mutual (an event sponsor) and member of the Difference Makers Class of 2009, talks with Cathy Crosky, senior leadership consultant for Charter Oak Consulting Group, and Jeremy Casey, assistant vice president of Commercial Services at Westfield Bank, and president of the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield, Difference Makers Class of 2009.

Kate Kane, left, managing director of the Springfield office of Northwestern Mutual (an event sponsor) and member of the Difference Makers Class of 2009, talks with Cathy Crosky, senior leadership consultant for Charter Oak Consulting Group, and Jeremy Casey, assistant vice president of Commercial Services at Westfield Bank, and president of the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield, Difference Makers Class of 2009.

Karina Schrengohst, left, an attorney with Northampton-based Royal LLP, an event sponsor, talks with Crystal Boetang, an intern with the firm.

Karina Schrengohst, left, an attorney with Northampton-based Royal LLP, an event sponsor, talks with Crystal Boetang, an intern with the firm.

Paula Moore, founder of the Youth Social Educational Training (YSET) Academy and 2014 Difference Maker, networks with Robert Perry, a retired partner of Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C. (an event sponsor) and member of the Difference Makers Class of 2011.

Paula Moore, founder of the Youth Social Educational Training (YSET) Academy and 2014 Difference Maker, networks with Robert Perry, a retired partner of Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C. (an event sponsor) and member of the Difference Makers Class of 2011.

Team members of Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C., an event sponsor, gather prior to the ceremonies to show their support at the event. Front row, from left: John Veit, marketing and recruiting coordinator; Cheryl Fitzgerald, senior manager of Taxation; Brenda Olesuk, director of Operations and Development; and Robert Perry, past honoree and retired partner. Back row, from left: James Barrett, managing partner; Kelly Dawson, manager of Audit and Accounting; Kevin Hines, partner; and James Krupienski, senior manager of Audit and Accounting.

Team members of Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C., an event sponsor, gather prior to the ceremonies to show their support at the event. Front row, from left: John Veit, marketing and recruiting coordinator; Cheryl Fitzgerald, senior manager of Taxation; Brenda Olesuk, director of Operations and Development; and Robert Perry, past honoree and retired partner. Back row, from left: James Barrett, managing partner; Kelly Dawson, manager of Audit and Accounting; Kevin Hines, partner; and James Krupienski, senior manager of Audit and Accounting.

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse takes a few minutes at the podium to welcome the audience to his city and commend Difference Maker Michael Moriarty for his work in the realm of youth literacy in the Paper City.

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse takes a few minutes at the podium to welcome the audience to his city and commend Difference Maker Michael Moriarty for his work in the realm of youth literacy in the Paper City.

Difference Maker Paula Moore, recognized this year for her outstanding work with Springfield’s youth, offers words of inspiration after receiving her award.

Difference Maker Paula Moore, recognized this year for her outstanding work with Springfield’s youth, offers words of inspiration after receiving her award.

Continuing a Difference Makers tradition, the Children’s Chorus of Springfield kicked off the festivities. Led by Wayne Abercrombie, artistic director, the chorus performed three inspiring songs.

Continuing a Difference Makers tradition, the Children’s Chorus of Springfield kicked off the festivities. Led by Wayne Abercrombie, artistic director, the chorus performed three inspiring songs.

Gwen Burke, senior advertising consultant at BusinessWest, talks with Jeff Sarat, general sales manager at Sarat Ford, one of the event’s sponsors.

Gwen Burke, senior advertising consultant at BusinessWest, talks with Jeff Sarat, general sales manager at Sarat Ford, one of the event’s sponsors.

Difference Maker Colleen Loveless, executive director of the Springfield chapter of Rebuilding Together, was recognized this year for her work to help low-income families stay in their homes. Here, she introduces Oscar and Carol Granado, a couple whose home was renovated thanks to the organization.

Difference Maker Colleen Loveless, executive director of the Springfield chapter of Rebuilding Together, was recognized this year for her work to help low-income families stay in their homes. Here, she introduces Oscar and Carol Granado, a couple whose home was renovated thanks to the organization.

The Melha Shriners were recognized as Difference Makers for their commitment to bettering children’s lives, especially through their support of Shriners Hospitals for Children. Here, Potentate William Faust shares some thoughts with the audience after receiving the award on behalf of the organization.

The Melha Shriners were recognized as Difference Makers for their commitment to bettering children’s lives, especially through their support of Shriners Hospitals for Children. Here, Potentate William Faust shares some thoughts with the audience after receiving the award on behalf of the organization.

Michael Moriarty, honored as a Difference Maker for his work in youth literacy, shares his thoughts on that subject after receiving his award.

Michael Moriarty, honored as a Difference Maker for his work in youth literacy, shares his thoughts on that subject after receiving his award.

Meghan Lynch, right, president of Six-Point Creative Works, an event sponsor, networks with, from left, Gwen Burke, senior advertising consultant at BusinessWest; Jeremy Casey, assistant vice president of Commercial Services at Westfield Bank; and Peter Ellis, creative director at DIF Design.

Meghan Lynch, right, president of Six-Point Creative Works, an event sponsor, networks with, from left, Gwen Burke, senior advertising consultant at BusinessWest; Jeremy Casey, assistant vice president of Commercial Services at Westfield Bank; and Peter Ellis, creative director at DIF Design.

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


Sponsored By:
Baystate Medical PracticesFirst American Insurance • Health New England • Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.Northwestern Mutual • Royal LLP • Sarat Ford Lincoln • 6 Pt. Creative WorksDiffernceMakers0213sponsors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class of 2014 Difference Makers

Executive Director of the Springfield Chapter of Rebuilding Together

This Administrator Is Certainly a Momentum Builder
Collen Lovelace

Colleen Loveless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rebuilding Together brand

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green-N-Fit 10 in 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tyler Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac Newman, seen here with his father, Howard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shriner clowns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The statue outside the Shriners Hospital

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

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

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

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

Life and Limb

Isaac Newman will be graduating from high school next year.

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

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

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

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

Class of 2014 Difference Makers

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

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

Paula Moore

Paula Moore
Photo by Denise Smith

Paula Moore had officially made up her mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The former School Street School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paula Moore wears many hats at YSET Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently, he is not heeding that advice.

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

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

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

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

Class of 2014 Difference Makers

Attorney and Director of Olde Holyoke Development Corp.

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

Michael Moriarty

Michael Moriarty
Photo by Denise Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holyoke, the nation’s first planned industrial city

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Moriarty stayed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Between the Lines

Michael Moriarty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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