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Difference Makers

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.

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]

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
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]

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

Gray House Executive Director Dena Calvanese.

Gray House Executive Director Dena Calvanese.

The Gray House turns 30 this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gray House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Walsh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class of 2014 Difference Makers

Executive Director of the Springfield Chapter of Rebuilding Together

This Administrator Is Certainly a Momentum Builder
Collen Lovelace

Colleen Loveless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rebuilding Together brand

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green-N-Fit 10 in 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tyler Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class of 2013 Difference Makers
Highlights from this year’s event

BizDiffMakrsLOGO2011More than 350 people turned out at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke for a celebration of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers for 2013. The photos on the next several pages capture the essence of a special night, which featured entertainment from the Children’s Chorus of Springfield and the Taylor Street Jazz Band, fine food, and memorable comments from this year’s winners, who all conveyed the passion that has made them true Difference Makers. This year’s class, chosen by the editor and publishers of the magazine from dozens of nominations, reflects the many ways in which individuals and groups can make a difference in the community. State Troopers Michael Cutone and Thomas Sarrouf, along with John Barbieri, deputy chief of the Springfield Police Department, were chosen for their work to orchestrate the C3 Policing program in Springfield’s North End. John Downing, president of Soldier On, was selected for the many ways that organization improves quality of life for veterans. Bruce Landon, president and general manager of Springfield Falcons, was chosen for his efforts to keep professional hockey in Springfield over the past 35 years. The Sisters of Providence were chosen for their 140 years of service to the community, especially in the broad realms of healthcare, education, and social service. And Jim Vinick, senior vice president of Investments for Moors & Cabot Inc., was chosen for his work with many area nonprofits, especially the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Jimmy Fund.

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

For reprints contact: Denise Smith Photography / www.denisesmithphotography.com / [email protected]

Photos From the 2013 Difference Makers Gala
Class of 2013 Difference Makers

Organizers of Springfield’s C3 Policing Program


Michael Cutone, left, and John Barbieri. (Note: Tom Sarrouf was on assignment with his SF units and not available to be photographed.)

Michael Cutone was asked how he could tell if the C3P, or Counter Criminal Continuum Policing program, in Springfield’s North End was succeeding with its various goals in the manner that organizers anticipated when they commenced the initiative roughly three years ago.

The Massachusetts State trooper and master sergeant in the U.S. Army Special Forces (the Green Berets) paused for a second and nodded his head a few times, as if to indicate that he gets that question often, and that he had an answer.

Actually, he had several.

For starters, he told BusinessWest, there is statistical evidence showing often-dramatic reductions in what would be considered gang-related crime in the Brightwood neighborhood since this program, based on tactics used by the Special Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, went into effect. Comparing 2010 statistics with those from 2009, before the initiative started, there was a 76% decrease in larceny, a 66% drop in weapons violations, a 55% reduction in burglary, and a 47% decline in motor-vehicle thefts.

But there is also anecdotal evidence concerning what is being called a counterinsurgency, or COIN, program, he said, listing everything from reports of gang members throwing their cell phones into the nearby Connecticut River because they believe the police must have them bugged — so accurate is their information about gang activities past and planned — to other reports of gang operatives offering to pay neighborhood residents for information on what those leading the C3P operation are up to.

Meanwhile, there’s the rising number of communities and police departments looking to emulate this model — officials have come from as far away as the Netherlands to observe the concept and talk with its organizers — and the growing volume of press it’s generating; the New York Times and Boston Globe have done stories, and 60 Minutes will present a report on the program later this winter.

Still, with all that, Cutone prefers to sum things up with what he calls the “non-traditional answer,” a summation of what residents and neighborhood activists are saying about C3P at what amounts to the heart of the program, regular Thursday community meetings designed to share information and ideas and continuously strengthen the relationship between the police and area residents. Or what they aren’t saying, as the case may be.

“No one’s saying, ‘you guys suck, and we don’t want you here anymore — this is a all a bunch a crap,’” he explained with a laugh, noting that such sentiments work as effectively (for him, anyway) as the crime stats, media attention, and cell phones in the river.

Collectively, they tell him that the COIN operation is meeting its overriding goal — to make things very uncomfortable for the gangs that once ruled these streets through intimidation, so much so that they’ll want to get out of the various businesses they’re in, especially selling drugs. And this happened because the program has succeeded in getting residents involved in making their streets safer, where once they were “inured, apathetic, and afraid.”

Those are three words that John Barbieri, deputy chief of police in Springfield, used early and often as he talked with BusinessWest about C3P. He is the official within the department with whom Cutone and Tom Sarrouf, a fellow state trooper and team commander of Cutone’s Special Forces (SF) unit, worked most closely to get this program implemented.

“The problem with the communities we’re talking about is that there’s very little involvement with the police,” he said, adding that the gangs in the North End had thrived in part due to what amounted to passive support from the community. “And there are myriad reasons for this, but a lot of this boils down to them not being stakeholders — these people are, for the most part, very poor, and they’d become inured to gang violence, violence in general, and drug dealing.”

In very simple terms, the C3P program has succeeded in making people claim a stake, he went on, and by doing so, they are considerably weakening that base of passive support.

Sarrouf agreed. “The residents there are now engaged in their community, where before they were not, plain and simple,” he said, referring to the most tangible and far-reaching benefit derived from what has become known in SF circles as the “Avghani Model,” named after the small town in Northern Iraq where these tactics were employed successfully to gain the trust and support of the local population and make them a resource in the fight against the enemy.

For their success to date and the promise of much more, Cutone, Barbieri, Sarrouf, and all those people in the community who work with them are truly Difference Makers.

Joining the Force

As he talked about how the COIN program works, Cutone offered a few analogies to help get his points across.

The first is what he calls the “seagulls and the Labrador retriever on the beach” scenario. Elaborating, he said that, while the dog will scare the birds away, they will merely hover or fly off, eventually to return; their lifestyle is interrupted, but not changed. The same is true, he said, with a typical police crackdown, or increased police presence, in an area like Springfield’s North End.

Another analogy involves a water balloon. When one pushes a finger into a full water balloon, it compresses that area, he said, noting that, when the finger is removed, the balloon returns to its original shape. What C3P is designed to do is apply several pressure points and not relieve that pressure, thus permanently altering the shape of balloon, or, in this case, a neighborhood. And a third analogy references a farmer battling weeds; unless one gets to the root of the problem and removes the weeds, they will keep coming back.

Using such effective visuals, Cutone, Sarrouf, and Barbieri explained how a COIN operation, and this one in particular, goes well beyond most traditional police tactics and the community-policing concept as a whole to involve a neighborhood in efforts to reduce crime.

And such extreme tactics are necessary, said Cutone, because gangs, like insurgents in foreign countries, are clever opponents not usually thwarted by what would be considered conventional approaches.

“Gang members and drug dealers are very savvy; they exploit the fact that people don’t want to engage with the police,” he explained. “They exploit that passive support. Just like insurgents, they move into areas where people are not going to report on them. Terrorist training camps don’t set up shop in Longmeadow or Belmont, Mass. They set up in Yemen, Afghanistan … failed states. Well, gang members and drug dealers will move into a failed neighborhood for the same reasons.”

‘Failed’ would be one effective way to describe Brightwood in the early fall of 2009, said Barbieri, adding that it was, at that time, the scene of heightened gang violence and activity, punctuated by several murders, including one “finished off” near the entrance to the trauma unit at nearby Baystate Medical Center.

In response to the surge, Springfield police countered with heightened patrols and a spate of arrests. “We were carrying assault rifles because they were carrying assault rifles,” he recalled, adding that, while police were diligent in their work, the results were basically similar to that of the retriever on the beach.

It was about this time that Cutone — who had attempted to initiate a counter-insurgency program in Brightwood based on tactics used by the SF, but seen it back-burnered — made another push. And the reason was obvious to those fighting crime in that neighborhood at that time, he said.

“It was clear that, just as we couldn’t kill our way out of insurgency in Iraq, we weren’t going to arrest our way out of this gang and drug problem,” he said.

Instead, the answer lay with intelligence, said Barbieri, returning to his thoughts about making residents stakeholders.

“It’s the community involvement that separates these neighborhoods from the suburbs and even the more affluent areas of Springfield, such as 16 Acres and Forest Park,” he explained when talking about the attitude that existed in Brightwood three years ago. “If there’s a crime in those neighborhoods, people become involved. If there’s drug dealing, they don’t tolerate it. When they call the police, they demand results — they go out and take pictures of the people involved; they take down license plates.

“In Brightwood, we were working like animals, but it all boils down to intelligence, and no one was telling us what was going on,” Barbieri continued. “No matter how long I work your neighborhood, no matter how much patrolling I do down there, I don’t know your neighborhood like you do — you know who’s dealing drugs and who’s hanging out in front of your house all day. It’s a community that keeps a community safe.

“Trooper Cutone comes up to me at a meeting and says, ‘I just got back from Iraq; there’s a counterinsurgency model to target gangs where we get the community involved and committed, and we try to change the conditions and build capacity in the neighborhoods,’” he went on. “I was the right target audience, and this was the right target location.”

For Your Information

Cutone recalls that the COIN initiative got its unofficial start with what he described as “dismounted patrols,” where he would get out of his cruiser and walk into shops and engage the owners and employees.

“That’s something we would do in Army SF when we were deployed in remote areas — we would live amongst the villagers and get to know them,” he explained. “Using that principle that I was taught, I would walk into a lot of these Hispanic shops, using my limited supply of Spanish to simply say ‘hello.’ These folks would look at me like a hog staring at a wristwatch, saying, ‘why is this trooper in my shop having coffee and asking me how I’m doing?’ So I got the cold shoulder in a lot of places.”

Changing attitudes and generating the steady flow of information, or intelligence, that the program needs to succeed took the better part of year, said those we spoke with, adding that the process of building trust and a working relationship with the neighborhood’s residents was difficult, and it is in many ways ongoing.

There are many moving parts within the program, but its heart and soul is the regular Thursday community meetings, staged at a few different locations, such as the apartment complex at 101 Lowell St.

At these sessions, updates are given, information is shared, and ideas are launched, such as the so-called ‘walking school bus’ concept — teachers chaperoning groups of students as they walk to school in the morning — which was offered by an employee of the Baystate Brightwood Health Center.

Overall, trust is built and momentum is generated through these meetings and other initiatives, such as regular Saturday neighborhood walk-throughs during which police officers will knock on doors and engage residents, other types of outreach efforts, classes on how to report crimes and spot gang activity, and ‘text-a-tip,’ which enables residents to forward information anonymously, said Cutone and Barbieri, adding that the results have been dramatic when it comes to the residents of the neighborhood taking that stake they once resisted and becoming an invaluable resource.

“We gave them our work numbers, our work cell numbers, our e-mail addresses, we gave them classes in how gangs recruit youths and how to identify if your child is in a gang — those types of things,” said Cutone. “And what happened, little by little, is that, between the Thursday meetings, the walk-throughs on Saturdays, and these classes, the amount of criminal information started increasing exponentially.”

And this volume represents a radical departure from what the police are accustomed to, and normally forced to subsist on.

“Typically, narcotics units and gang units get their information from criminal elements — I arrest a bad guy, he’s looking at X number of charges and X number of years, so all of a sudden, he wants to cooperate with the police, so he gives me another bad guy,” Cutone explained. “That’s a good technique, and we still use that technique; the problem with it, though, is that you’re minimizing your information flow, because 95% or more of the people in a community are law-abiding citizens. If you’re only dealing with the criminal element, you’ve eliminated 95% of your information flow.

“So now I have all this intelligence coming into my work computer — I’ve had guns and drugs located because informants would send material to my work cell phone and we’d be able to make arrests and recover stolen weapons,” he continued. “None of that would have happened if we hadn’t built this rapport with the local population.”

This steady flow of information has changed life for gang members to the extent that there are reports that some are buying new cell phones every month because they believe the police are somehow tapping the lines, said Barbieri, adding that there have been other reports of residents trying to chase away undercover police officers working the neighborhood, believing they’re there to buy drugs.

As for the neighborhood as a whole, there has been palpable change, said Sarrouf.

“When you ask people what’s different about living there now as opposed to before the program started, they’ll tell you very candidly that it’s safer, they feel more engaged in their own community, and they feel more empowered to be able to participate in the direction their community takes with respect to the issues that they had prior to this.

“Before, the North End was just truly chaotic; that’s the only way to describe it,” he went on. “Is there still crime there today? Of course, but it is at a much more manageable level, where there’s trust built between the community, city government, and law enforcement where they can respond more accurately, in a more timely fashion, and with a better approach.”

State Rep. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera, who represents that neighborhood, used different words to say essentially the same thing.
“There’s a renewed sense of hope — that’s the word I keep coming back to,” she explained. “But there’s also a sense of action and responsibility. If I’m a resident and I go to one opf these meetings, I come away thinking, ‘what can I do? — I have a team behind me now. What is my responsibility when it comes to working with that team?’ Is it just to fix my fence or clean up my yard, or is it call text-a-tip because I saw a guy put a gun in his trunk?’ There is a new sense of responsibility.”

To a Different Beat

Despite the gains in Brightwood, Sarrouf said, there is still much work to be done in this neighborhood.

“We’re not trying to fool anyone and present this as any kind of quick fix,” he explained. “Right up front, we said that this is a very long-term project, one that will take years to accomplish all its goals. Are we there yet? No, but we’re seeing incremental dividends with respect to the fact that the community is getting better over time.

“And what we’re not seeing is a fallback to what it was — which is a very good thing,” he continued.

In other words, there is more than sufficient evidence — both hard and anectodal — to suggest that this program is working, and that those who have put it in a position to succeed are worthy of being called Difference Makers.

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

Class of 2013 Difference Makers

President of Soldier On

John Dowling

John Dowling
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

John Downing has file folders full of statistics at his disposal as he talks about the many programs being carried out by Soldier On and the philosophy that powers the organization — from the percentage of veterans it serves who have mental-health issues (78%) to the average hourly wage being earned by the many formerly homeless veterans now working for the agency ($10.89).

But perhaps the most powerful — and poignant — numbers are these:

There are more than 265 ‘residents’ of the homeless veterans shelter and transitional facility in Leeds, where the organization is based, and only about 25 of them went ‘home’ — whatever and wherever that is — for the holidays last December.

“The rest of them were already home,” said Downing, the long-time president of the organization, founded in 1994, who understands fully what those numbers mean and what they tell him his responsibility, and that of his staff, must be to those the agency serves. Basically, to redefine ‘home.’

“These people have lost everything, and so they identify now with the community they’re growing and serving in,” said Downing, who told BusinessWest that, when he took over at the struggling organization, housed at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Leeds, in 2001 at the behest of its board, he did so with the single goal of creating the “Holiday Inn of shelters.”

He did that in what seemed like a few months — although it actually took the better part of a year to complete a full turnaround, thanks to some dramatic changes in the basic approach taken. And looking back over what’s happened since, success with that goal might be considered perhaps his most modest accomplishment.

Indeed, Downing has been able to blueprint and implement a number of innovative programs and services, all designed with the Soldier On slogan — ‘changing the end of the story’ — firmly in mind.

The most intriguing, and celebrated, of these to date is an initiative that provides veterans with the opportunity to transition from homelessness to home ownership through a unique program that enables them to purchase an equity stake in their homes. The Gordon H. Mansfield Community in Pittsfield, where more than 40 veterans now own their own condos, has become a model being emulated around the country, and Soldier On is planning several similar projects in this area, in communities ranging from Northampton to Agawam.

But there is much more to the Soldier On story, including a unique and comprehensive veterans-outreach program that includes case-management and referral services and temporary financial assistance involving everything from daily living activities to transportation to child care.

There’s also a full roster of employment services — a key component in any individual’s struggle for financial independence — that include interview skills, money management, résumé building, training and education, and transportation. And there’s also something called the Veterans Justice Partnership, created with the purpose of developing service and treatment options and, where appropriate, alternatives to incarceration.

Meanwhile, Soldier On recently received a $100,000 grant from the Newman’s Own Foundation to develop a wellness center to support its growing women’s program, said Downing, adding that the money will be used to help fund a multi-faceted treatment plan aimed at “getting them back in the center of their lives.”

And while compassion is the primary driver of these programs, there is a practical side as well: some of those aforementioned statistics show that, while the VA is projected to spend $400,000 to $500,000 on a 54-year-old veteran over the rest of his or her life, in the Soldier On model, that cost drops to $150,000.

Overall, it’s not just what Solider On does that’s so impressive and makes this organization and its leader a Difference Maker, but also how. Its model is founded on the quality of social interaction amongst veterans, and it brings services to them instead of the other way around, while giving them the means to succeed rather than criticizing them when they don’t.

“Our job is to serve veterans where they are, and our job is to take responsibility for their failure,” Downing explained. “You don’t serve people by blaming them, shaming them, and making them afraid.”

For this special section profiling our Difference Makers, we talked at length with Downing about how this approach came about and why it has become so successful in positively impacting quality of life for veterans.

Vetting Process

During the course of his lengthy interview with BusinessWest for this story, Downing interrupted the proceedings on several occasions to bring various members of his staff into the discussion.

There was Maggie Porter, director of Communications; Michael Hagmaier, senior vice president; Dominick Sondrini, director of Outreach and Employment Training and coordinator of the Veterans Justice Partnership; John Crane, director of Case Management; and Katie Doherty, Women’s Partnership consultant, among others.

He wanted to introduce them and have them explain what they do and how, but he also wanted to display the great deal of pride he has in the team he’s assembled, the work it’s doing, and the intriguing approach it’s taking, which he explained in direct, colorful language.

“Everyone who comes to us is broken,” he explained. “And because of their brokenness, we all get to make a wonderful living serving them and figuring out strategies to bring their lives back to meaningful ways for them — not defining what we think is meaningful, but letting them define it for themselves.”

And as he elaborated, he ventured back to the weeks and months after he came to the then-7-year-old Soldier On, the latest in a series of assignments within the broad realm of social service and, especially, reintegration and after-care services.

He found an organization, started by some homeless veterans and employees of the VA hospital, that was functioning at about 40% capacity, had been poorly managed, and was essentially ready to be shut down by the VA.

His work to create that Holiday Inn he spoke of started with cleaning the buildings, replacing dilapidated furniture, and making sure the residents had decent meals and clothing.

And then, the real work started. By that, he meant changing and improving the way veterans were administered services and altering the basic approach taken by the staff. It was no small change.

“Most of us, as Communist-trained social workers, spend most of our adult lives learning how to tell people what to do,” he noted. “We tell people how to get into recovery, what steps they have to take, and what kind of financial planning they need to do. And we know how to tell them how to change their decision making.

“And I just thought that was a very offensive process to me as an adult,” he continued. “If you want to see my oppositional behavior rise up, just tell me what to do — and I’ll show you just what I’m not going to do. And I realized we spent a lot of time doing things that way, so I tried to figure out how to bring about change, because everyone in the recovery business, everyone working with homeless people, have all these rules and regulations that they like to enforce.

“So I decided to run the place with no rules — if you drank, you could stay, and if you missed your appointments, you could stay here, and that was quite different from what everyone else does in this world,” he went on, adding that another radical idea came to him — having the staff essentially take responsibility for the failures of those they’re serving.

This approach essentially changed the conversation, he said, from asking why they did certain things to asking what the staff could do to help them make better choices. That’s a fundamental change in philosophy that has had tremendous results.

“What we saw when we did that was that our number of intakes went from 1,025 for the 265 beds down to to 401,” he noted, adding that another major change was to either bring services to where those needing them lived — or bring them to the services.

Downing said that there are some things that he and his staff have come to understand over the years, and these have become the cornerstones to their model for delivering services:

• Veterans who have been homeless succeed in overcoming addiction, as well as physical and psychological challenges, when they are part of a community of veterans who serve and support each other;

• They typically fare better when they live in a community in which they are surrounded by the various services they need; and

• They require not only counseling and treatment, but education, employment training, and individual case-management services, all on an ongoing basis.

And when an agency can succeed in doing all that, many things are possible in that broad realm of helping veterans define — and achieve — things that are meaningful to them.

Room for Improvement

Nowhere is this more evident than with the program to transition homeless veterans into what amounts to home ownership.

And for the inspiration to take Solider On into this realm — what certainly amounted to uncharted territory and a tangled web of bureaucracy and funding programs — he returned to 2005 and a speech delivered by Army Maj. Ed Kennedy from the Joints Chiefs staff as the project in Pittsfield was being announced.

“As Kennedy finished his talk, he looked out on everyone and said, ‘I’m Major Ed Kennedy, I’m 31 years old, I’m in the Army, and I’m a dad to two children,’” Downing recalled. “And then he said to everyone, ‘I’m going back to Iraq, and I will die for you.’

“When he said that, in my head I was thinking, ‘every veteran in my care said, ‘I will die for you,’ and all 25 million Americans who were veterans said, ‘I will die for you,’ and I never heard it. And I thought to myself, ‘the people who said they would die for me … it’s OK for them to live in transitional housing with used clothing, be treated like second-class citizens, and be grateful for this, because I’ve never been grateful for their commitment.’

“And in that moment,” he went on, “I said, ‘the game is over for building shelters; I’m going to build beautiful housing for these people to own.’ That became the mission.”

The rest, as they might say, is history in the making.

And it’s been an intriguing, often difficult ride — Downing knew next to nothing about housing at that time, and had to endure a challenging learning curve involving something called limited-equity co-op apartments.

He saw a few models, mostly faith-based, in Minnesota and New York City, and took these concepts to a property he acquired in Pittsfield. The working model calls for individuals to buy an equity share in a complex (there are 39 units in Pittsfield, and thus 39 shares), and that share entitles the individual to rent an apartment. Soldier On provides Internet, cable, and 20 meals a month in a dining facility on the campus to help enable veterans to live in the complex on their limited incomes.

“It’s a model that really works — it ends homelessness for veterans, and it ends long-term care for veterans in the Veterans Administration system,” he said, adding that the win-win-win nature of the concept (there are also real-estate taxes to be gained by the community in question) is generating considerable interest in new projects.

There are 44 units planned for the VA complex in Leeds ($6.2 million has been secured from the VA to build it), another project is planned for the former police-training facility in Agawam, and more plans are coming to the drawing board across the country.

And while housing is certainly a huge part of the equation, there are many other ways in which Soldier On is helping to change the end of the story.

Another is through direct employment — there are now just over 100 people on the Soldier On payroll, and 74 of them are formerly homeless veterans — and helping enable clients to enter and succeed in the job market. Through the Homeless Veterans Reintegration (HVRP) program, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, the agency provides veterans with the tools and support necessary for employment, said Downing, adding that this includes maintaining relationships between veterans and area employers.

There is also a greater emphasis on outreach, he continued, as well as on the recently instituted Veterans Justice Partnership, an alternative-sentencing program, involving the four western counties, for veterans who wind up in the court system.

In a nutshell, the program was created to provide veterans with access to information, resources, and programs to help them make positive transitions and lead productive lives.

“We’re in all four western-county jails every week with our staff, meeting with the veterans in jail, running groups, and helping them do their exit planning,” said Downing. “It’s another example of how go where the veterans are, we serve them, and, in this case, we try to prevent them from winding up there.

“The earlier you can intervene, the more effective you can be, and the costs go down,” he continued, adding that this sentiment applies not only to the justice partnership, but also to every Soldier On endeavor, and it goes a long way toward explaining the organization’s track record for success.

Fighting the Good Fight

When it was explained to those veterans who would soon be living in the Gordon H. Mansfield Community in Pittsfield that they would become taxpayers, Downing recalled, some responded with tears.

“They would say to me, ‘Jack, I never thought I could do this again — and I’m so grateful that I can do it,’” he told BusinessWest.

For making it possible for such individuals to give back to the community in such a different and rewarding way, and for truly changing the end of the story in so many positive ways, Downing and the entire staff at Solider On are more than worthy of the title Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2013 Difference Makers

President and General Manager of the Springfield Falcons

Bruce Landon

Bruce Landon
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

It was a few days before the National Hockey League was to begin its abbreviated and condensed season — salvaged by a new collective bargaining agreement reached in early January — and Bruce Landon was talking about the many ways the division-leading Springfield Falcons, the organization he’s been involved with for more than 40 years, would be impacted by those developments.

“We’ve lost six players,” said the team’s president, general manager, and minority owner, referring to the roster members who have been called up to the American Hockey League affiliate’s parent club, the Columbus Blue Jackets, since the labor impasse was resolved. “Every team has lost three to nine; whether we get one, two, or three back remains to be seen.

“They’re going to play 48 games in 99 days, so there are going to be a lot of injuries,” he continued. “So depth is going to be the key to success for teams in this league [the AHL]. It will be important for us to stay healthy here.”

Actually, the team already has a lot of depth, he went on, noting that it was built with the NHL’s labor situation in mind. In fact, the Falcons are carrying between 28 and 30 players, when they normally have 22 or 23 on the roster.

“And when you carry extra guys, it’s always expensive,” said Landon, who would quickly move on to other headaches, including everything from attendance still described by the word ‘flat’ to weather forecasts — not actual weather itself — that are often enough to keep people from driving to the MassMutual Center for a game.

But dealing with such challenges is obviously a labor of love for Landon, and this passion for hockey in Springfield is the sole reason why he’s still dealing with such issues as buying more tape and booking more hotel rooms because he has to keep more players on his roster.

Indeed, on three separate occasions, Landon has put together ownership groups that have allowed the city to keep an AHL affiliate, something it’s been able to do since 1936. And the most recent rescue was also the most harrowing.

It was the 11th hour, and the clock was getting ready to strike midnight. After negotiating with 28 potential ownership groups from Chicago, Washington, and even Russia, an exhausted Landon, whose wife, Marcia, was starting to worry about his health, was running out of options and nearly running out of hope that he could keep the team in Springfield.

That’s because the ownership group in place at that time was almost out of patience and applying some pressure to sell — even it meant to a group that would take the team to another city, like Des Moines, Iowa, which was coming ever more prominently into view as the likely landing spot.

But then, Landon had one more conversation with Charlie Pompea, a Florida-based businessman who had kicked the tires on the Falcons but was hesitant about pulling the trigger. It was after hearing Landon deliver an impassioned speech after the golf tournament they had just played in together — one in which he talked about the importance of preserving the team’s mailing address at Falcons Way in Springfield — that they initiated the talks that got a deal done.

Landon acknowledged that, while his business card says president and general manager, his unofficial job description for much of his tenure has been to keep a team in Springfield. And the main reason, he went on, is because, while Springfield has historically been good for hockey, the community should know and understand that hockey is very good for the city.

“Springfield should be proud to have a team in the American Hockey League,” he said, prefacing his remark by saying that he makes it quite often. “There are only 30 teams, and 30 cities across North America and Canada, and we’re one of them.”

For his untiring work to enable the city to say it is still one of those 30, Landon has been named a member of the Difference Makers Class of 2013.

Several Big Saves

As he talked with BusinessWest, Landon referenced an e-mail he had just received from Chris Olsen, one of the hundreds of interns he’s worked with over the years.

Olsen is currently vice president of Football Administration for the Houston Texans, who were still battling for an NFL championship until the New England Patriots beat them on Jan. 13.

“He wrote to basically say that he was following us and he was happy with our success, and he wanted to thank me for giving a young man an opportunity to get into the business,” said Landon. “Those things are so rewarding, and we’ve seen so many of them over the years.

“I love it when we see people come here and either work for us, or go on to bigger and better things, because that’s what we’re all about,” he went on. “We’re not just a development team for players … we’re also a development business for a lot of aspiring sports professionals as well.”

Helping individuals contemplating careers in everything from broadcasting to marketing to merchandising by giving them real-world experience is just one of the many ways in the which the Falcons have made an impact on this region, said Landon, listing others ranging from direct economic impact to providing wholesome family entertainment.

“We’re more than just a professional hockey team providing great sports entertainment for families,” he explained. “We are, and should be looked at as, a catalyst for downtown; on a good year, we can draw 180,000 people into the city, and the economic spinoff from that is in the millions of dollars.

“We create jobs for people at the MassMutual Center — we have 38 guaranteed dates there,” he continued. “Our players live here and spend money here, we employ people ourselves, we help the parking garage … our franchise is very important to the city in many different ways.”

Landon has been making such comments since Jimmy Carter was in the White House, making him perhaps the most enduring and significant sports figure in the city’s history.

And by now, most people in Greater Springfield know at least the basics of the Bruce Landon story — how the Kingston, Ontario native was drafted by the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and came to the Springfield franchise (then also named the Kings) in 1969, and how he injured his shoulder in the later stages of the Calder Cup championship season of 1970-71, paving the way for future Hall of Famer Billy Smith.

They probably also know that he later went on to play for the New England Whalers in the World Hockey Assoc. (which eventually merged with the NHL in 1979) before returning to Springfield and the AHL in the late ’70s. And they likely know that, while playing for the team, he was also doing some front-office work, something that became a full-time endeavor when he blew out his knee at age 28 in 1977, forcing him to retire.

They might also know that he’s held just about every title one can have with a pro sports franchise, from player to broadcaster; from director of marketing and public relations to general manager and part owner, and that he has plaques in his den, including the James C. Hendry Award, presented annually to the AHL’s outstanding executive, which he earned in 1989.

Less well-known, perhaps, are Landon’s successful efforts behind the scenes to assemble ownership groups. He first did it in 1994 after the then-Springfield Indians (the name the team had for decades in a nod to the famous motorcycles made in the city) were sold to out-of-town interests and moved to Worcester. Partnering with Wayne LaChance, Landon started a new franchise and named it the Falcons after the birds that had famously begun to nest in downtown Springfield office towers.

And he did it in 2002, when he expanded the ownership base to provide more stability for the franchise. He managed to pull together a group of local business people to commit to the team and then stay with it through a succession of parent clubs and seasons that ended with the club at or near the bottom of the standings.

Eventually, the ownership group tired of the team’s lackluster financial performance and initiated the process of exiting the AHL. And it was this latest effort to secure ownership that would keep the team in Springfield that is considered the biggest save of Landon’s career — and the most difficult.

Goal-oriented Individual

“Selling the team at that time was a real challenge,” he recalled, “because no one wanted to keep the team in Springfield — they all wanted to move it. They were looking at other cities and other venues that were available … it’s a great league, and people want to be part of it.

“Had Charlie not stepped up and brought the franchise, there was a significant offer from a group that wanted to move it to Des Moines,” he continued, adding that he’s never made that information public before. “That [Falcons] ownership group had said, ‘there’s not much more we can do — we don’t want to lose money anymore.’ They were getting to the point where they wanted to sell, and if we couldn’t find a local buyer, then they’d take the best offer they could, even if that meant the team would be moved. A message was being sent, and Charlie saved the day.”

But, to borrow a term from his sport, Landon obviously earned a huge assist.

Returning to that golf tournament at which the two played together, Landon said his remarks at dinner obviously struck a chord with Pompea.

“He said, ‘you’re really serious about this, aren’t you?’” Landon recalled, adding that his lengthy answer to that query obviously convinced him he was. “We talked some more, and a few weeks later, we had a deal.”

Looking ahead, something Landon is far more comfortable doing than looking back, especially at his own exploits, he said that, despite the team’s recent success and position at the top of the Northeast Division, well ahead of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and Hartford Whale, there are still many question marks about the future.

“There are no more rabbits left in the hat,” Landon said candidly when referring to the team’s status, using those words to convey his belief that there will be no more 11th-hour rescues for this franchise if the current ownership situation deteriorates.

“We have our lease through next year, and we have our affiliation agreement through next year,” he noted. “But, as Charlie and I talk about, this is a business, not a hobby, and we have to assess how we’re doing from a business standpoint; are we seeing some light at the end of the tunnel, and are we making progress?

“He wants to see this work,” Landon went on, referring to Pompea. “But he is a businessman, as I am. Overall, we’re cautiously optimistic that we’re going to get this thing headed in the right direction.”

He said the team is well-positioned in many respects. It has a solid partnership with the Columbus franchise, a favorable lease arrangement with the MassMutual Center, travel expenses far lower than most other AHL franchises because of its central location, and a lean operation. The keys moving forward are improving attendance, obviously, but also growing revenues across the board.

And this can only be accomplished, he went on, by gaining a full buy-in from the residents of not only Springfield but the entire region.

“I hope that fans understand that they have to engage and embrace this team so it stays here for many more years to come,” he said in summation. “I’ll eventually be leaving this position, and I just hope that the fans — and not just the fans, but the community — realize how lucky they are to have a team of this caliber, and never take it for granted.”

A Game Changer

On several occasions during his recent talk with BusinessWest, Landon heaped praise on Pompea, crediting him with the fact that Springfield currently has a team stirring dreams of another Calder Cup banner hanging from the rafters at the MassMutual Center.

“If it wasn’t for Charlie, this team would have been gone,” he said. “He’s the one who saved hockey here.”

That’s one man’s opinion. Most, however, would say that Landon himself is the individual worthy of that sentiment, earned through more than four decades of dedication to the Kings, Indians, Falcons — and the Greater Springfield area.

For that, he’s truly a Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2013 Difference Makers

Managing Director of Investments for Moors & Cabot Inc.

Jim Vinick

Jim Vinick
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

As he talked about one of his latest — and most intriguing — endeavors, Jim Vinick’s passion, perseverance, and dedication to those causes that are special to him came across quickly and clearly.

And so did his no-nonsense approach to getting things done.

This particular project involves a statue he’s commissioned that will honor the late Einer Gustafson — the individual identified fairly late in his life as the young boy who became the ‘Jimmy’ in the Jimmy Fund — and the man who treated him, Dr. Sidney Farber, founder of the Children’s Cancer Research Foundation (eventually renamed the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute) and the father of modern chemotherapy.

The initiative is the latest manifestation of a 35-year commitment Vinick has made to the Jimmy Fund, service that escalated, and took on a far more personal character, after his son, Jeffrey, was treated at Dana-Farber but eventually lost his battle against rare form of testicular cancer in 1982, and his daughter, Beth, became a cancer survivor.

Originally, the plan was to have the statue also include Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, long known for his devotion to the Jimmy Fund. But Vinick knows his Jimmy Fund history. So he also knows that, when the then-12-year-old Gustafson was selected to speak on Ralph Edwards’ national radio program Truth or Consequences from his hospital bed in 1948, he was surrounded by members of the Boston Braves, the National League franchise that actually started the Jimmy Fund (the Red Sox picked up the mantle after the Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953).

Thus, Vinick decided to remove Williams from his plans, even though he was his close friend for many years and actually still owns the rights to produce his life’s story on screen (more on that later).

But there’s much more to this saga.

Originally, officials wanted the statue placed in what Vinick considered to be a remote corner of a huge facility cluttered with more than 19,000 pieces of art. “I said to them, ‘if we’re going to hide this, I’m not going to do it — not for this price [$150,000],” he told BusinessWest, adding that he then secured a far more prominent location where the statue would be virtually impossible to miss. Meanwhile, Farber’s son wanted some specific wording on the accompanying plaque.

“He wanted it certain ways, and I wanted it certain ways, and finally, I got it may way — and it was going to be my way or the highway,” said Vinick. “I told them, ‘this is my project, and I’m not doing this for Dr. Farber, I’m doing it for the original Jimmy.’ Dr.’s Farber’s obviously a massive part of it, but this all germinated with Jimmy.”

“My Way” is the title to a song made famous by Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, among others, but those two words constitute Vinick’s MO as well.

His way has been to be an ardent, nearly life-long supporter of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, a commitment described by the Hall’s president, John Doleva, this way: “he is unequivocally one of the most passionate and involved board members in the history of Basketball Hall of Fame, and can be seen supporting our important events across the U.S., sharing the pride of the birthplace of basketball.”

His way has been to get deeply involved with the Western Mass. Jimmy Fund Council and stay involved for more than 35 years. His passion has been the Jeffrey Vinick Jimmy Fund Golf Tournament, which has raised more than $9 million in the 34 years it has existed.

His way has been to lend his time, energy, and imagination to groups ranging from the Jewish Community Center to the Willie Ross School for the Deaf; from Temple Beth El to the Springfield Armor basketball team (he’s a partner in that venture).

And his way has been to right some things that he sees as wrong — like the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute not having a memorial to either Farber or the young man who inspired a charitable institution that has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to find cures for a killer.

Because he’s always done things his way, and because that approach has greatly impacted so many lives, Jim Vinick has been chosen as a Difference Maker for 2013.

Star Power

The walls and shelves in Vinick’s office on the 15th floor of One Financial Plaza in Springfield are crowded with photographs, news clippings, and other assorted memorabilia that do a decent job of summing up his life, career, and philanthropic exploits.

The collection includes everything from photos of family members, including his son Jeff, to news reports involving Friendly’s — he controlled a large amount of stock in the Wilbraham-based corporation and was often quoted in recent years on the many developments that have shaped the company — to a snapshot from his early days doing The Vinick Report, the region’s first business-news segment, on Channel 40.

And then, there’s a photo that captures the moment in February 1986 when Ted Williams signed the contract giving Vinick exclusive rights to his life’s story.

“The check was for $125,000 — that was a down payment — and that was the biggest check he’d ever seen in his life,” Vinick recalled, adding that the Splendid Splinter, as he was called, never surpassed $100,000 as a ballplayer, and that figure represented the annual amount paid to him by Sears Roebuck for 20 years to be one of its top pitchmen.

“Ted was under the gun — in 1980, he dropped Sears Roebuck,” Vinick recalled. At the time, the two were close friends who had worked together on many Jimmy Fund initiatives, including the annual Western Mass. sports banquet, at which Williams spoke on several occasions.

Vinick has never been able to get the Williams project off the ground, although it’s not from lack of effort, and he says he’s not through trying. He had a screenwriter interested, fielded inquiries from several actors looking to play the part (including Treat Williams and David Hasselhoff), shopped the project at various Hollywood studios, and spent a lot of money trying to pull a script together. But the pieces never fell into place.

However, frustration with the Williams project has been one of the very few real setbacks for Vinick, who has historically seen his persistence and passion take him — and the organizations he’s supported — to where he wants to go.

Perhaps the best example of this is the Jimmy Fund, which he has served for more than 35 years as a member of the Western Mass. Council, work that could best be described as a mix of personal tragedy, triumph over extreme adversity, and true inspiration.

Most in the region know the story of how Vinick’s son Jeffrey succumbed to cancer after a long fight, and they probably know also how his daughter, Beth, won her battle against the disease, but not before her mother (Vinick’s wife, Harriet) took her own life just days after Beth’s cancer was diagnosed.

“Those are my daughter’s twins there,” said Vinick, pointing at a photo on his wall, adding that his work with the Jimmy Fund takes many forms. The golf tournament is the most visible, but there are many other fund-raising events, including the recent Chef’s Night at Chez Josef.

“For the past several years, the Western Mass. Jimmy Fund Council has raised over $1 million,” he said, “and my family’s been an integral part of that.”

And for his efforts on behalf of the Jimmy Fund, Vinick has receieved one of the highest awards bestowed by the organization, the Bob Cheyne Lifetime Achievement Award.

Far from satisfied, he’s pushing ahead with the statue of ‘Jimmy’ and Dr. Farber. He’s commissioned Brian Hanlon, who he met through the Hall of Fame (he’s the shrine’s official sculptor), who will add this project to a portfolio that includes a statue of Shaquille O’Neal on the LSU campus, one of Bob Cousy at Holy Cross, and planned works on Chuck Bednarik and Yogi Berra.

Court of Opinion

Beyond the Jimmy Fund, Vinick is best noted for his work with the Basketball Hall of Fame, an institution he’s been involved with for about as long as he can remember. Actually, it started with his father. He ran a dry-cleaning business and eventually became involved in the building of the first Hall of Fame on the campus of Springfield College, a project that started in 1959, but was often delayed by funding problems and wasn’t completed until 1968.

Jim Vinick was intricately involved in both the building of the second Hall (the first on Springfield’s riverfront), which opened in 1983, and the current structure, which opened nearly a decade ago.

“I guess that’s my legacy to the city of Springfield,” he said of the current Hall complex. “Obviously, we’ve had a tremendous amount of help everywhere, and I’m just a cog in the wheel … but I’m devoted to it, and I’ve been involved since day one.”

One of his signature projects was the creation of the Jeffrey Vinick Memorial Locker Room in the first Hall on the riverfront.

“He was always in the locker room, so I thought this was the most appropriate way to honor him,” Vinick said of his son, who starred in three sports at Longmeadow High School.

Over the years, Vinick has held a number of positions and titles with the Hall, including board member, governor, treasurer, member of the Audit & Finance Committee, and chairman of the Endowment Fund. For his efforts, he was recognized with the Chairman’s Cup Award in 2010.

Doleva told BusinessWest that it’s not only what Vinick has accomplished, but also how, that stands out.

“He’s a very intense individual, let me put it that way,” he explained. “When I first met him, I kind of felt that he was a little over the top. But you have to take time to understand what Jim is all about, especially when he’s passionate about an organization you’re involved with.

“And it does take time to completely understand where he’s coming from,” he continued. “But there is no one more impassioned, more connected to this organization, than he is.

“We have events all over the country, and very few of my Board of Governors members, who live throughout the country, attend them,” Doleva went on. “Jim’s at almost every one of them, and he’s a local governor. He’ll go to the Final Four, he’ll go to a statue unveiling, he’ll be at various basketball tournaments around the country staged to support the Hall of Fame. And he doesn’t just go to be there and enjoy a good basketball game and a few social events; he’s there, and the switch never goes off — he’s talking about Springfield and the Hall of Fame and the birthplace of basketball. He just never stops.”

This ‘never stops’ quality equates to always looking for new and different ways to give back to the community — such as with another of his more recent endeavors, restoration of Robert Lewis Reid’s historic mural, titled “The Light of Education,” which hung in the auditorium of his alma mater, Classical High School, for more than 70 years.

When the school was converted into condominiums in the late ’80s, the mural was removed and subsequently damaged, said Vinick, adding that he and other members of the class of 1958 are working in conjunction with the Springfield Council for Cultural and Community Affairs to restore the piece and then hang it in the Springfield Library.

“We’re up to about $109,000, and we’re still collecting money,” he said, adding that the efforts recently received a boost in the form of a $23,000 check from Audrey Geisel, widow of Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss). “This is a piece of Springfield’s history, and it should be there for citizens and visitors to enjoy.”

Art of the Deal

Work on the Jimmy statue had been delayed somewhat — Vinick said it took several months to get permission to use the 1948 Boston Braves uniform given to Gustafson by the team’s manager, Jimmy Southworth, in the statue’s design — but everything now appears on track for a spring unveiling.

There have been several challenges to overcome and many logistical hurdles to clear, but they are now all in the past tense.

That’s because Vinick is doing things his way, and also because, as Doleva said, the switch never goes off when it comes to something he’s passionate about.

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

Class of 2013 Difference Makers

Sr. Mary Caritas, SP, left, and Sr. Kathleen Popko, SP.

Sr. Kathleen Popko, SP likes to say that the 700-odd Sisters of Providence, present and past, “share some DNA” with Sr. Mary Providence Horan, the first mother general of the congregation.
And by that, she meant that those who worked beside her or followed in her footsteps have possessed both her many character traits and her broad operating philosophy.
As for the former, these include vision, compassion, determination, a large dose of innovation, and a very strong sense of mission.
“Mother Mary of Providence has always been an inspiration to me,” said Popko, president of the Sisters of Providence. “She had a lot of foresight and was very innovative; she established 20 works of charity within the first 15 years of her becoming head of the congregation. She crossed boundaries — she worked with the Jewish community and the Protestant community to help establish the board at Mercy Hospital, And she was willing to collaborate and ask for help from others to support the work she was doing, whether it was in Worcester or Pittsfield. And she had a great love of learning; those are qualities we like to think we possess today.”
As for the latter, well, that’s perhaps best summed up in a quote often attributed to her: “never rest on what has been accomplished, but continue reaching on to what needs to be done.”
Suffice it to say, the sisters have never done any such resting. Instead, they have, over the decades, responded to changing societal needs with the same zeal and desire that were firmly in evidence when two members of the Sisters of Charity of the House of Providence from Kingston, Ontario, Canada, came to Holyoke on a so-called begging tour in 1873 and were invited to establish a mission there to help the waves of immigrants struggling to carve out a living.
They eventually did, creating a legacy of providence that is captured in the statue of Mother Mary near the entrance to Providence Place in Holyoke, with a commanding view of the valley below. She is depicted holding hands with two young children — a boy carrying a schoolbook and a girl with a broken arm — artistic touches designed to spotlight the two basic tenets of the sisters’ work over the past 14 decades: education and healthcare.
Those two foundations remain, especially healthcare, through work carried out within the broad Sisters of Providence Health System. But the modern work of the Sisters of Providence is quite diverse, said Sr. Mary Caritas, vice president of the congregation, who listed everything from programs to provide healthcare to the region’s homeless population to groundbreaking initiatives in the broad realm of senior living, such as the ‘small house’ concept created at Mary’s Meadow.
“The one constant is need,” she said. “When the sisters came in 1873, it was in response to a need — they saw a need, and they responded. We’re doing things differently in this day and age, but we continue to have that same spirit.
“But they also recognize the need to change as society does — we’ve never been afraid to let go and move on from something because society has changed,” she went on, citing, as just a few examples, the transition of Providence Hospital from acute care to behavioral health; the repositioning of the former Farren Hospital in Montague into the Farren Care Center, a provider of services to people with severe behavioral disorders; and new uses for the facilities at Brightside for Families and Children.
The past several months have been a time of celebration for the Sisters of Providence — specifically, the marking of two important anniversaries.
Last year marked the 120th anniversary of the Sisters of Providence’s 1892 foundation as an independent congregation in the Springfield diocese. And this year marks the 140th anniversary of the arrival of the Sisters of Providence’s foremothers — today’s Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent De Paul in Kingston, Ontario — in Holyoke.
There have been a host of events to mark both occasions, from the planting and blessing of ‘anniversary trees’ to an anniversary procession and prayer; from an “open weekend of gratitude” to a dinner at Mercy Medical Center.
And because of that long history of caring being celebrated, there will be at least one more event to attend — BusinessWest’s Difference Makers Gala on March 21, when the sisters will be introduced as members of the Class of 2013.
For this special section profiling this year’s winners, we spoke at length with Popko and Caritas about how society may have changed over the past 140 years, but the devotion of the Sisters of Providence to their mission of meeting the needs of the most challenged segments of the population certainly hasn’t.

Past Is Prologue
Before talking about Western Mass. in 2013, Popko and Caritas wanted to talk first about Holyoke in 1873. Doing so, they said, would at least start to put the work of the Sisters of Providence in perspective, and also help explain that shared DNA.
Holyoke was the first planned industrial city in the country, they explained, and in the early 1870s, it was the place where some mill owners found fortune and many immigrants found opportunity for employment. But most found only hardship in the form of difficult, often dangerous work; crowded, inadequate housing (tenements built near the mills); and systems of education and healthcare that were nonexistent or extremely lacking.
It was into this environment that Srs. Mary de Chantal McCauley and Mary Elizabeth Stafford ventured on their begging tour in early 1873. They found the climate difficult for philanthropy — the country was in recession, and many of Holyoke’s mills had closed, while others were struggling — but ripe for charity, and for mostly the same reasons.
Fr. Patrick Harkins, pastor of St. Jerome’s Church in Holyoke, proposed that the congregation establish a mission in his parish for sick people and orphaned children, and one was created later that year, with four pioneer sisters from Kingston moving into a house belonging to St. Jerome’s but located across the Connecticut River in South Hadley Falls. The first orphan was admitted one week after their arrival, and the first patient was admitted for hospital care on Dec. 2, the recorded date of the beginning of the House of Providence, the first Catholic hospital in Western Mass.
Two years later, land was acquired for a new House of Providence on Dwight Street, while that same year, six sisters from Kingston, including Mother Mary of Providence, were assigned to teach at St. Jerome’s Institute, a school for boys in Holyoke.
In 1880, 53 acres of property in Holyoke, known as Ingleside, were purchased, and ground was broken for Mount St. Vincent, a home for orphaned girls. Sixteen years later, property on Carew Street in Springfield was acquired and deeded to the congregation for the House of Mercy, which later became Mercy Hospital and is now known as Mercy Medical Center.
In 1890, Bethlehem House, a home for infants and toddlers, opened at Brightside in Holyoke, Farren Memorial Hospital was dedicated, and schools of nursing were opened at Providence Hospital, Mercy Hospital, and St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, establishing a pattern of caring and growth that continued unfettered for decades.
“When the sisters came here, they were not here a week, and they had an ophan at the door, and then the alms person in the city decided to send some more,” Popko explained. “It wasn’t long before the need was manifested, and they responded, whether it was with orphaned children or with healing the sick, oftentimes in their homes, or it was with making burial plots because there was no one to do that.
“And I think that’s why the Sisters of Providence ministries have been so diverse, from the beginning,” she continued. “It wasn’t simply that we started a healing ministry and were in hospitals, although that evolved most significantly. We were also involved in caring for the elderly or the orphaned or abandoned children, or in burying the dead, or doing home care. We were trying to be the providence of God in the lives of others, and in doing that, we reached out into healing ministries.”
Today, the area facilities operated by the Sisters of Providence include Providence Hospital, Mount Saint Vincent Care Center, Beaven Kelly Home, Providence Place retirement community, and Mary’s Meadow long-term nursing care and rehabilitation center, all in Holyoke; Mercy Medical Center and St. Luke’s Home in Springfield; Saint Luke’s Hospital in Pittsfield; Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester; Farren Care Center; Genesis Spiritual Life Center in Westfield; and the many agencies of Brightside for Families & Children. There are also operations far outside this region, ranging from a home-health agency, hospital, and retirement village in North Carolina to a health clinic and multiple social-service agencies in an impoverished section of Santiago, Chile.
The specific missions and constituencies served vary with each ministry, said Popko, but there is a common denominator — bringing care to those who need it, and to those who may have no other alternative.

Innovative Spirit
The stories of many of these various ministries, as well as the people who inspired and created them, are told in a recently released book titled 140 Years of Providential Caring — The Sisters of Providence of Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Authored by Suzanne Strempek Shea, Tom Shea, and Michele Barker, it chronicles how many programs and facilities were developed, and is told largely through the eyes and thoughts of the individuals who paved those roads. There’s a chapter, for example, on Sr. Julie Crane and her work to create Health for the Care of the Homeless, another on Sr. Caroline Smith and her efforts to create the Sisters of Providence Methadone Maintenance Program, and still another on Sr. Elizabeth Oleksak and her work at Genesis Spiritual Life Center.
These chapters serve as both historical record and source of inspiration, said Popko.
“The individual stories demonstrate how that original spirit has been the driving force for us for 140 years, and how it’s certainly taken different shapes and forms and responded to the different calls of providence in each of our lifetimes,” she explained. “It’s certainly been an amazing journey, and for us to look back on it all in 2012 and 2013 and to read some of our archival material and relive some of the extreme dedication and willingness to reach out in multiple ways, is certainly inspiring.”
And moving forward, the unofficial assignment for the Sisters of Providence is to write more chapters for the next book, said Popko and Caritas. This means finding new ways to carry out the original mission, while also strengthening the infrastructure and operating philosophy that will ensure that this work is carried out in the decades to come, long after the last of the current sisters, already dwindling in number, are gone.
This is part of the legacy of never resting on one’s laurels that continues today, said Caritas, adding that there are several examples of how it manifests itself.
One involves a portion of the former Brightside property, used for residential treatment programs that were discontinued in 2010.
“I’m sure Mother Mary would have been thinking, as we have been for the past three years, about what to do with that property,” Caritas told BusinessWest, adding that plans are emerging to relocate the Sisters of Providence home-care and hospice programs in the main administration building at Brightside, while the ground floor will be used for something called PACE, or the Program for All-inclusive Care for the Elderly.
Elaborating, Popko said the initiative is a capitated-insurance program that provides essentially whatever care is needed to enable an older individual to remain in his or her own home. “They come to the site three or four times a week,” she explained, “and they might get all kinds of care, be it socialization, they might get a bath, there will be a clinic there so we can look at their healthcare needs and medication. They will be assessed, and care will be coordinated. It’s all designed to prevent those higher-cost institutionalizations by treating them effectively in the short run.”
In other words, it’s another imaginative approach to meeting recognized needs in the community, said Caritas, adding that there are other possible reuses of the Brightside facilities coming into focus, including low-income elderly housing, a geriatric-assessment center, and other coordinated facilities.
“It will be a full-service site,” she noted, “one that will provide all-inclusive care for those who participate.”
Securing funding for the project is ongoing, and it will be a challenge, said Popko, adding that there is no firm timetable in place for this strategic initiative. But the manner in which it is coming together speaks to the legacy of the Sisters of Providence and that notion of never resting on laurels.
“It references a vision of the future, a responsiveness to the needs of the times, and a creative reuse of existing resources — a replanting of the seeds, if you will, that were put down 140 years ago,” she said. “That’s what we’ve been doing throughout our history.”

Mission: In Progress
Returning to her thoughts on Mother Mary of Providence one more time, Popko said that she’d been doing some reading about her lately, and learned that her skills extended into architecture and building practices.
“I just read a quote recently … she said, ‘the next hospital we build is not going to be the conversion of some big house so we can fit in beds,’” Popko recalled. “She said, ‘we’re going to build a modern facility designed for the care of people.’
“Meanwhile, she designed Mount St. Vincent herself,” she went on. “She saw the first plans and went to the bishop and said, ‘these plans are totally inadequate.’ So they made her a committee of one; they tore up the plans, let her design her own building, and pretty much built off what she drew up.”
The current sisters are not architects in the same literal sense, but they are designers and builders in a figurative manner — blueprinting new ways to expand the mission launched 140 years ago.
And in that respect, the DNA is the certainly the same. The 700 Sisters of Providence through history have always been Difference Makers.

Class of 2012 Difference Makers

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

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

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

It’s called the Y-AIM Program.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is just a partial list of those reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider this exchange:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— George O’Brien

Class of 2012 Difference Makers

President, Holyoke Community College

WilliamMessner Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Photo by Denise Smith Photography

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

And with good reason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— George O’Brien

Class of 2012 Difference Makers

Officers, the Springfield Corps of the Salvation Army

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— George O’Brien

Class of 2012 Difference Makers

Executive Vice President, Peter Pan Bus Lines

Bob Schwarz Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Bob Schwarz
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— George O’Brien

Class of 2012 Difference Makers

Represented by Carla Oleska and Shonda Pettiford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— George O’Brien

Difference Makers
BusinessWest’s Program Spotlights the Many Ways People Can Make an Impact

BizDiffMakrsLOGO2011More than 350 people turned out at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House on March 24 for a lavish ceremony to honor the Difference Makers for 2011. Attendees, including area business and civic leaders, as well as friends, family, and colleagues of the five honorees, were treated to fine food, entertainment, thoughts from event sponsors, introductions of the winners, remarks from each recipient, and an update on the ongoing initiative known as Project Literacy.
Following an hour of networking, members of the Maurice A. Donahue School in Hoyoke kicked off the formal program with several patriotic songs. The evening’s events were punctuated with words of praise for the Difference Makers and inspirational thoughts from them about ways others can and must give back to the community. “It was an incredible night,” said Kate Campiti, associate publisher and advertising manager of BusinessWest. “Our honorees showed the many ways in which one can make a difference here in Western Mass., and provided inspiration for everyone to find their own ways to make an impact on the community.”

•••••••• Click here to view images of the March 24 celebration ••••••••
Class of 2011 Difference Makers

Founder, Rays of Hope

Lucy Giuggio Carvalho

Lucy Giuggio Carvalho

Lucy Giuggio Carvalho calls them her “million-dollar sunglasses.”

She found them in a bargain bin at T.J. Maxx in the summer of 2009, and knew at first sight that she had something special.

“I think I paid $2 for them; they’re pink, they’re sparkly, they’re different,” said Carvalho, who gave them their name because she thought that, by wearing them, she could help will the fund-raising walk known as Rays of Hope — which she founded after becoming a breast-cancer survivor in 1994 — over the $1 million mark for that year’s walk.

Thus far, the shades haven’t lived up to their name — the tallies for the past few walks have come tantalizing close to what is, for now, anyway, the magic number, but haven’t crossed that threshold. But Carvalho isn’t ready to give up on her latest good-luck charm.

“They’ll be back for a third year,” she said with a large dose of conviction, adding quickly that her choice of eyewear is just one of myriad decisions to make when it comes to her Rays of Hope ensemble (everything goes with pink sneakers, apparently). Indeed, over the years she has collected vast amounts of keepsakes and gifts from event organizers and fellow walkers — survivor pins and badges, scarves, T-shirts, and assorted chochkies, as she calls them. “I couldn’t wear it all,” she joked. “If I did, it would weigh me down so much I couldn’t walk.”

There are far more scientific ways of measuring just how far Rays of Hope has come in 17 years than Carvalho’s inventory of options when it comes to accessorizing for the annual walk — such as the total raised to date, more than $8 million. But there are perhaps none that are more poignant.

They show how the event has evolved into more than a fund-raiser — although it is that, first and foremost. It has become, said Carvalho, a very powerful show of strength, and unity, in a fight that’s far from over — a sobering fact that draws more individuals and teams to the starting line every year.

For creating and nurturing this show of unity, Carvalho, a former oncology nurse and currently director of case management for Jewish Geriatric Services, has been named one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers for 2011. She said that, if she had her way, she would bring the tens of thousands of walkers and event organizers to the podium with her, because it is their collective efforts that have made the event, through the dollars it raises, a difference maker in the lives of breast-cancer victims, and a role player in the ongoing efforts to find a cure.

When asked how Rays of Hope came to be, Carvalho didn’t start with her own well-documented battle with breast cancer, which began when she discovered a lump during a self-exam. Instead, she focused on her nephew’s involvement, and also her own, in an AIDS walk in Boston several years earlier, and the very important lessons she took from it.

“I come from a family that gets involved,” she said while explaining how and why she became a participant. “And it’s from that walk that I gained a lot of the vision that I wanted to see happen here. That’s where I learned so much about how important it is, and how much you can do, if you can get a group of people who are dedicated to a cause and try to make a difference.

“They raised a lot of money, and they made it fun,” she continued. “They made it fun, exciting, and educational. While you were walking, you talked with people and learned about the disease; all that made it such a fulfilling experience that you wanted to do it again, and we did.”

To make a long and inspiring story short, Calvalho and other Rays of Hope organizers have managed to do the same with their event.

Indeed, with memories of that AIDS walk still fresh in her mind and an American Cancer Society breast-cancer walk that netted $400,000 in the pouring rain further inspiring her, Carvalho, while still recovering from her own lengthy battle with the disease, set out to create her own event.

She recruited organizers, secured a media sponsor (Channel 40), and gained commitments for startup funds. Still, many people involved with her wanted her to wait a year to get on even more solid ground. She listened to that advice, but pressed ahead with her plans for that year, and is glad she did.

“I believe to this day that, if I waited a year, it wouldn’t have happened,” she explained. “It had to happen, and it had to happen that year. I had the energy, I had the passion, I had the motivation, I had the group … the stars were aligned, and it was meant to be.”

Today, funds from Rays of Hope go in several directions. Some are put toward ongoing research, including work at the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute in Springfield. Funds also go toward a wide range of services, including what are known as ‘complementary services’ for those battling the disease. These include yoga, Reiki, and something known as Art from the Heart.

Carvalho is traditionally assigned the task of reviewing requests in this complementary-services category, which she says has perhaps the most compelling direct impact on breast-cancer patients.

“It’s probably the most unscientific aspect of all this, but the piece that really helps people,” she explained. “It’s promoting wellness, and a way of helping people through the process.”

Over the years, Carvalho has turned over most all of the operational aspects of the walk to partner Baystate Health, employees there, and a massive team of volunteers. She describes the broad planning and execution process as a “well-oiled machine” with which she is still quite active.

She has what she considers a lifetime seat on the committee that receives and considers funding requests and ultimately rewards proceeds, and played a role in a five-year strategic plan for the walk undertaken in 2004. “Obviously, we’re overdue for another one.”

As for walk day itself, she said she has a badge (somewhat lost amid everything else she wears) that identifies her as the founder. “It gets me a parking space close to the start line,” she joked, adding that she is largely anonymous for the event itself, walking with a team from JGS and family members, and getting to meet as many new people as time and circumstances allow.

Carvalho told BusinessWest that fund-raising veterans have marveled at the longevity of Rays of Hope. “They say an event like this one usually runs its course in 10 years, and then you have to find something else. This one, though, shows no signs of slowing down; I don’t see it ending unless we find a cure for breast cancer.”

The one constant, she said, is change — in everything from the size and composition of the crowd of participants, to new wrinkles (a run and a walk in Greenfield were added for 2010), to the programs funded by the proceeds.

One thing that won’t change for 2011 is that pair of million-dollar sunglasses.

Carvalho isn’t sure what else she’ll be wearing — again, there are a lot of decisions to make — but weather permitting (and perhaps even if it doesn’t), the shades will return.

And Carvalho believes this year they will live up to their name.

— George O’Brien

Class of 2011 Difference Makers

President, Human Resources Unlimited

Don Kozera

Don Kozera

Don Kozera says he applies a number of lessons from his time in teaching to his day-to-day work as president of Human Resources Unlimited (HRU).

And one of the most important dates back to his first full day at Green Mountain Union High School in Chester, Vt., and what happened after.

“The administration thought it would be an excellent idea to have the students choose their homeroom teacher,” he recalled for BusinessWest in a voice conveying no small dose of cynicism, “because if they choose their homeroom teacher they’ll be more bonded to that individual, and the teacher will become their advisor … that was the theory, anyway.

“I was a young guy right out of school, 22 years old. I coached soccer, and some of the kids thought I was a cool guy who could relate to people,” he continued. “Anyway, I had no idea what I was doing, really, but I had 300 names on my door when I arrived that first day. And then, there was this extremely experienced, but tough, science teacher across the hall from me, and she had two.”

The moral to this story? “The concept was a great one, but the execution of it just created all kinds of problems,” he explained. “That woman … she hated me for the rest of my time there, and she made my life a living hell.

“Often in management, there is great intent on the part of people like those administrators at Green Mountain Union,” he went on. “But when you put it into action, the unintended consequences of that decision were worse than having left things the way they were. By choosing their homeroom teacher, the students did bond better with the teacher — that part was true, but what they failed to realize was that they destroyed the collaboration between teachers, the sharing of information; everybody then became an island.

“That piece is something I carry with me all the time,” he continued, “and the way you apply it is that you don’t think you know the answer, and you don’t do things in isolation.”

Kozera has let that experience and many others help guide him as he’s steered HRU to continued growth and success as an organization devoted to helping mentally and physically disabled individuals find work — and, in the process, gain confidence, self-esteem, and all the other rewards that come with meaningful employment, and become productive members of society.

Since arriving in 1980 as fiscal director of what was known then as the Carval Workshop, Kozera has led the agency, which currently operates on an annual budget of $7.5 million and assists more than 1,500 people a year, on a course of expansion and evolution to where it now includes a number of working parts, including:

• A component known as Workforce Alternatives, which helps transition individuals from public assistance to the workplace through job-readiness skills, placement assistance, and ongoing support;

• Pyramid, a ‘day habilitation’ program that provides a caring environment in which individuals with developmental disabilities can enhance their physical, mental, and social competencies;

• ETS (Employment Training Support) Career Services, which provides individuals who are disabled or have developmental or other disabilities with opportunities to increase their vocational skills and find meaningful work that ranges from light assembly to sorting greeting cards bound for the Final Markdown;

• Custom Packaging, HRU’s commercial division that provides a wide range of customers with services that include light assembly, heat-sealing, shrink-wrapping, folding, collating, and mailing; and

• Four clubhouses — Lighthouse, Star Light, Forum House, and Trade Winds — that help transition members, who join on a volunteer basis, to meaningful employment.

For these efforts, as well as his recent and ongoing efforts to successfully combat what he called “mission drift,” Kozera has been named one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers for 2011. More specifically, Kozera is being recognized for his work in leading the organization through times of change and extreme challenge.

This leadership comes in a number of forms — from successfully managing day-to-day operations to conducting long-term strategic planning, to maintaining the critical balance that is part and parcel to both of those assignments. And, overall, and to borrow Kozera’s own words, “making sure that the guiding principles of the organization are not simply words on a wall.”

When asked for his job description and the approach that he takes to everything on that list, Kozera thought for a minute and said that, at the end of the day, it is essentially to set goals for the agency and give his staff the tools and the direction to meet them.

And these goals must be realistic, he continued.

“That’s because, when people are constantly working on unrealistic goals, they become deflated, and then it becomes OK never to achieve — they just work hard, but they don’t achieve,” he explained. “You must have action phases that are really defined, timelines that are really defined, and goals that are aggressive but ultimately achievable.

“My job is to really define reality and to make sure everyone knows what that reality is and to pull people toward that vision and ensure that we stay in balance,” he continued. “Staying in balance is how you manage change.”

Kozera said that, whenever he’s looking or acting like the bureaucracy or regulatory aspects of his work are dragging him down, they’ll find some way to get him out to one of HRU’s various programs.

“They’ll call one of the managers to invite me to the program for some purpose,” he explained, “and then I’m fine. That’s when I’m reminded of exactly what I’m doing; by far the most rewarding thing for me is seeing the outcome of those programs.”

Which brings him back to that mission drift he mentioned and the need to be vigilant about allowing it to happen.

“Especially in bad times, it’s easy to get mission drift and essentially chase money, and we have not done that,” he explained. “Sometimes you’ll see agencies like ours, specializing in employment services, see a residential contract come out and say, ‘let’s do some residential work.’ Is that really their expertise? And is there a need for that? Often, they’re just trying to make their organization survive.

“We’ve remained very true to our mission, even in the tough times, and there have been none tougher than what we’re seeing now,” he continued. “We have a niche mission — our major focus is employment services; they are the tool to empowerment for us. In these times, everyone’s grabbing, and it’s not just on human services — you’re seeing painters looking at paving; people are just trying to stay in the game. We’re very conscious of mission drift and are committed to not letting that happen.”

As he goes about meeting that overriding goal, Kozera will keep in mind the lessons he’s learned over the past 30 years, and some that go back further, to those lists of names on the teachers’ doors at Green Mountain Union High School.

In short, he won’t just think he knows the answer, and won’t do anything in isolation.

— George O’Brien

Class of 2011 Difference Makers

Retired Partner/Consultant, Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

Robert Perry

Robert Perry

Robert Perry admits that he’s not much of a handyman.

So he makes no apologies for the fact that, over the course of more than a decade’s work with Greater Springfield Habitat for Humanity, he’s probably spent three or four days “working,” at least by his estimation.

And while others would disagree with that math — they say Perry enjoys getting his hands dirty and is always ready, willing, and able to pitch in — they usually don’t quibble with his numbers, or his leadership, for that matter.

That’s because Perry’s contributions usually haven’t been with a hammer, shovel, or level, but rather with a telephone, gavel, and calculator. A quasi-retired CPA — ‘retired partner/consultant’ with Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C. in Holyoke, to be more exact — Perry spent an unheard-of seven years as president of the organization’s board (“I wasn’t smart enough to find a replacement”) while also serving as treasurer.

He said that, instead of framing, tiling, or putting up sheetrock, his main contributions to Habitat’s mission have come in the form of leadership, organization, fund-raising, finding and cultivating sponsors, and keeping track of the financial details.

Those who have worked with him over the years would say that he and his wife (Bob and Bobbi to those who know them) have provided something else — hefty amounts of inspiration. A large dose of it came in late 2008 when, in conjunction with their 35th wedding anniversary, they donated and raised $35,000 each toward the construction of a Habitat home in Monson.

Perry said there was a was good deal of serendipity, or symmetry, to that project — it was the 35th house built by the Greater Springfield Habitat group, and it was dedicated on Valentine’s Day in 2010. And, overall, it was an appropriate way for he and his wife to give back and celebrate all they’ve been able to enjoy together. “We’ve had a lot of good things happen in our lives.”

Meanwhile, the overall experience with Habitat has been perhaps the best example of how, through more than 30 years of work within the community — here and elsewhere — he’s sought out opportunities where the results are visible and significant. It was this way with his work at Big Brothers Big Sisters in Framingham much earlier in his professional career, and also with his recent efforts mentoring students at Putnam Vocational-Technical High School in Springfield.

“The connection I made between being a big brother and being in Habitat is being able to see the results of your efforts every day,” he explained. “When I was working as a big brother with a kid, you could see his progress — you could see his self-esteem growing, you could see him learning things that you were imparting. In Habitat, when we raised some money or when we found a family, you could see the change immediately — you could see the cause and effect of your relationship.

“That’s the essence of Habitat for me,” he continued. “We all know we’re doing good when we donate to cancer or when we take part in the breast-cancer walk, or take part in Rotary, but it’s a little more difficult to connect the dots. And that’s one of the big benefits of work with Habitat; you truly get to see that every day.”

Recapping his professional career and work in the community, Perry said they’ve dovetailed nicely. He told BusinessWest that he was always drawn to accounting work, and, after graduating from Northeastern, he went to work for Alexander Grant in Boston. After a stint as a CFO for a textile manufacturer in the late ’70s, he went to Greenberg Rosenblatt in Worcester, and later, when that firm bought an accounting practice in Springfield, he was transferred here to run that operation. After a few years as a self-employed consultant, he went to work for Meyers Brothers, which merged with the Kalicka firm in 2003.

Today, Perry is what one colleague, also semi-retired, calls a “partner emeritus.” He says he spends about 500 hours a year as a consultant — 250 during the three crunch months of tax season, and the balance spread out over the remainder of the year. The rest of his time is devoted to a few passions, but especially golf and community service.

He and Bobbi are members at Wilbraham Country Club (he’s a 16 handicapper and she’s a 20), and they play together frequently. As for the community-service piece, it’s been a career-long constant, inspired in part by Bobbi’s work with deaf children and their families.

Perry spent several years as a member of the Exchange Club that serves Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, and Wilbraham, but found he wanted to be more on what he called the “front lines” of community work. He looked for ways to address this desire, and found one when friend York Mayo, then-volunteer president of Habitat for Humanity, recruited him to look at the group’s finances.

Little did he know that he would soon work his way up to president and spend seven years in that seat, helping the organization “get to the next level” organizationally, as he put it, while also building three or four houses a year.

As for the house he and Bobbi helped sponsor for their 35th anniversary, Perry said, “sometimes, things just come together in a natural sort of way. “This was the 35th house. We saw it coming, looked at it, saw an opportunity to give back, and worked with some church groups to make it happen.”

He’s been making things happen with other organizations as well, especially the Greater Springfield YMCA, which he’s served on the corporate and finance boards, as chair of the audit board, and as co-chair of the Scantic golf tournament. He also involved with Springfield School Volunteers, and is currently in his second year of mentoring students at Putnam.

“I have a sophomore student who’s on point,” he said. “He’s a little shy; I think he’s looking for some self-confidence, and he’s looking for someone outside his family to be a role model. It’s a mini-version of Big Brothers Big Sisters, and I find it very rewarding.”

Mayo, summing up Perry’s contributions to Habitat and other groups, had this to say: “Bob has compassion for others. He converts his beliefs into action through hard work and relentless dedication. When he makes the decision to support an organization, he is the first to roll up his sleeves and get involved. He is persistent and never gives up.

“He is a critical thinker, learns quickly, and is a great listener,” Mayo continued. “His contribution to Habitat for Humanity is immeasurable. But Habitat is not the only recipient of Bob’s many talents. A partial list includes ReStore Home Improvement, the Red Cross, the YMCA, the Roger L. Putnam Technical Fund, and the Millbrook Scholars Fund for homeless high-school students.”

As for what he considers a lack of handyman skills, “I think it’s funny that I would get involved in a volunteer construction organization,” Perry joked, adding quickly that he believes he’s more than made up for that deficiency with organizational and leadership abilities.

And no one would argue with that point.

— George O’Brien

Class of 2011 Difference Makers

Police Chief, City of Holyoke

Anthony Scott

Anthony Scott

Anthony Scott was talking about his penchant for garnering media attention.

He insists that he’s not a publicity hound, and that newspaper headlines and broadcast sound bites “have just happened” — everywhere he’s gone, including Holyoke.

But Scott, the city’s police chief since 2001, freely admits that he tries to align himself with the press — “I meet the media on their grounds” — and use its reach to get his various messages across. “You can’t sit down and talk to 40,000 people,” he said, noting the approximate population of the Paper City, “but you can use the media to reach them.”

As for what he does with the press and how he does it, he summons a few quotes from an old Cajun friend, passed along when Scott was a young officer with the New Orleans Police Department.

“He told me to never get into a pissing contest with someone who buys their ink by the barrel, their paper by the ton, or their videotape by the mile,” Scott told BusinessWest, acknowledging that this is time-honored advice uttered by many. “He also said that, if you can’t say something kind, nice, or good, tell the truth.”

And through a 44-year career in law enforcement, that’s exactly what Scott has been doing — telling the truth. Sometimes, actually, much of the time, it comes with a little sarcasm, and more often than not it hurts those to whom he’s referring. But this certainly has never stopped the truly outspoken Scott, who will be retiring in April, from speaking his mind.

Consider these comments concerning various topics and constituencies:

On the Holyoke City Council, with which he has butted heads seemingly since the day he arrived: “It’s funny … but when an individual gets 400 or maybe 1,000 votes, they suddenly think they know more about your job than you do. I’ve only been doing this for 40-something years. I’m not trying to be a smart aleck, but I think I know a little more about law enforcement than the average politician.”

On his seemingly incessant criticism of judges for what he considers light sentences and releasing criminals on their own recognizance, and whether this campaign has made an impact: “The judiciary won’t admit it, but it has. We can see that judges are getting a little stiffer on the sentencing and bails are increasing. I’ve been a royal pain in their tuckus; they don’t like me, and personally, I don’t care. I’m here to look out for the citizens of Holyoke, and I’m going to do that until the day I walk out of this office.”

And how about this letter, which Scott wrote to the state parole board when informed that one Angel Santiago, found guilty of breaking and entering and assault on a police officer, was scheduled for a parole hearing just six days into a 60-day sentence? “Inmate Santiago hasn’t had sufficient time to adjust to the luxuries in his present surroundings within the House of Corrections before you are in a rush to push him out the door and back into the civilized community to which he has shown nothing but contempt. Once again I ask that you excuse my sense of right and wrong, but scheduling a parole hearing does not appear to be in the best interest of public safety, nor does it send a message that one must pay for the crimes they commit. Inmate Santiago is a thief, and at the young age of 21, inmate Santiago has been arraigned 11 times in the Holyoke and Springfield district courts. To even consider this rascal for parole is an insult to me, the arresting officers, and the citizens of Holyoke.”

Scott told BusinessWest that he considers such letter-writing, such telling it like it is, to be an important part of his job. He describes all of these various efforts as part of his work to be a voice for victims — and he says there are not enough of them.

“You have a lot of people out there who are very vocal about the rights of criminals, and how fairly criminals should be treated when they go to court,” he said. “There are a lot of voices out there. But not a lot of voices saying, ‘how about the victims of crime?’”

For standing up for victims and, more importantly, for making Holyoke an inhospitable place for criminals and would-be criminals, Chief Scott has made another headline, this time as one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers for 2011.

And the chief found a little irony in the fact that he was being honored by a business publication, because he has a degree in business, and, more to the point, he approaches crime like a business.

Well, to be more specific, he says he wants to make it so criminals won’t want to do business in his city.

“If a business is operating within a city and that city continues to raise its taxes and raise its fees, and the business overhead gets to be expensive for them, they’ll relocate,” he explained. “They’ll go to another city where the taxes are lower and the fees are low enough so they can operate and make a profit.

“I look at that the same way I do at criminals,” he continued. “I try to make the overhead as high as possible; I try to wreck their drug business, I try to get fees and fines increased … and those individuals from the dark side, the attorneys, help me out a lot. They charge a great deal of money for their services. So the criminal has to pay higher attorney fees, higher fines, they lose their drugs — so they are going to seek out a city that’s not driving up the overhead. I get calls from correctional officers working in Massachusetts and Connecticut who tell me that the criminal element is telling other criminals, ‘don’t go to Holyoke — that chief is crazy.’”

Dark side?

Lawyers probably like Scott because his war on crime has created more business for them, but if they don’t, it really doesn’t matter to him. As he said, he’s told the City Council on many occasions, “I don’t do touchy-feely. My job is to remove the criminal element from the street and make the community safe.”

Scott will reach mandatory retirement age (65) in a few months, and is stepping down in April. He said his plan for life after police work — and it seems well-thought-out — is to do consulting work with police departments, handle background checks on candidates for executive positions, and similar investigatory work. He said he won’t miss the judges — and took one more shot on his way out the door, saying he’ll be extra careful in retirement “because, if I get arrested for a parking ticket, I’m going to jail” — or the city councilors. He will miss the people of Holyoke, though.

“They welcomed me into their community and made me feel at home,” he said, adding that he’s not quite sure what retirement will bring for him.

Probably more of what he’s been doing all along: telling the truth.

— George O’Brien

Difference Makers Features
Celebrate This Year’s Difference Makers on March 24

Kate Campiti, BusinessWest’s associate publisher and advertising director, says that, when the magazine created the Difference Makers recognition program more than two years ago, it did so knowing that there were many ways in which recipients could live up to that title.
And never has that been more evident than with the class of 2011, recently chosen by the magazine after receiving dozens of worthy nominations. Indeed, this year’s cast consists of:

• Pioneer Valley Planning Commission Executive Director Tim Brennan, who has kept one eye on the present and the other on the future — sometimes decades into the future — as he goes about helping to create a better quality of life for area residents and enabling this region to effectively compete in an increasingly global economy. He has many legacies, including the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, a cleaner Connecticut River, several bike trails, and the Plan for Progress — with more on the horizon;

• The founder of Rays of Hope, Lucia (Lucy) Giuggio Carvalho. A breast-cancer survivor, she took inspiration, and some practical lessons in how to wage an effective event, from an AIDS walk in Boston led by, among others, her nephew, and created a walk that today draws more than 18,000 participants annually. In 17 years, Rays of Hope has raised more than $8 million for breast-cancer services and research, while also creating a strong show of unity in the ongoing fight against this killer;

• Don Kozera, president of Human Resources Unlimited, who, over the course of three decades of leadership, has enabled the organization to expand and evolve while remaining true to its original mission: helping individuals with mental and physical disabilities find employment and thus become productive members of society. Kozera has steered the agency though a number of fiscal and bureaucratic challenges while keeping it on course with its all-important goals;

• Robert Perry, a quasi-retired accountant who has, over the course of his career, devoted generous amounts of time, energy, imagination, and dedication to a number of nonprofit organizations, especially Habitat for Humanity. While lending his financial acumen and strong leadership and organizational skills to that agency as president and treasurer, he and his wife, Bobbi, also provided a large dose of inspiration when they committed to donating and raising $35,000 each toward the construction of a Habitat home, the building of which coincided with their 35th wedding anniversary; and

• Holyoke’s police chief, Anthony Scott, who says that his decade-long mission in that job — one that most would say he’s accomplished — has been to “increase the overhead” on criminals in that city, thus driving them out of business, or at least to another community. While doing so, he’s kept the heat on judges and probation officers to keep criminals in jail and off the streets.

“This year’s class of Difference Makers clearly show that there are, indeed, many ways to make a difference in our community,” said Campiti, noting that the award was created to highlight this fact and hopefully inspire others to find new and different ways to continue this legacy.
The class of 2011 will be honored at a gala slated for March 24 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke, beginning with a networking hour starting at 5 p.m. The event will feature entertainment, butlered hors d’ouevres, lavish food stations, introductions of the Difference Makers, and remarks from the members of this year’s class.
Tickets are $50 per person, with tables of 10 available. For more information or to order tickets, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 10, or visit www.businesswest.com.

Class of 2011 Difference Makers

Executive Director, Pioneer Valley Planning Commission

Tim Brennan

Tim Brennan

Tim Brennan was talking about the specific skills one must possess to be a successful planner, especially a long-range planner, which is his unofficial job title.

And he focused on two traits — patience and tenacity — noting that one must have them in abundance in this arena, because some — actually, it’s more like most — initiatives don’t take a few months or years to become reality; they take a few decades, at least.

“If you get disappointed easily, and you don’t have the grit to keep coming back over and over again and make the plans work that you think should work, then you’ve picked the wrong job,” he told BusinessWest, laughing as he did so. “And it happens; some people just don’t have that demeanor for this.”

As an example of patience and tenacity, he cited work to create bike paths in the region, an initiative that dates back to when he started working for what was then known as the Lower Pioneer Valley Regional Planning Commission (LPVRPC), as the transportation planner, in 1973.

“There were none at that time, but the temperature started to change and the federal government became interested in things other than autos and transit,” he explained. “We started working on what was then the Five College Bikeway, which was a conceptual idea. Once the media-release value was gone, everyone abandoned it; but we stayed with it, and 20-something years later, I’m at the ribbon-cutting for the trail. I’m not the planner in the Transportation Department, I’m the director, and I’ve got two young daughters who are going to be able to use the Norwottuck trail.

“That’s a long time to wait for some satisfaction,” he continued, putting extra emphasis on that word ‘long.’ “But now we have these bikeway projects springing up across the area, and I think they’re really attraction amenities; they add a lot of value to communities, and when we get them to hook up with one another, they’re great assets.”

There are several other examples from Brennan’s tenure with what is now simply the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. They include everything from Connecticut River clean-up efforts to initiatives to bring more and better rail service to the area; from work to maximize the CSX complex in West Springfield as a regional economic-development asset to efforts to promote greater regionalization in this region and also neighboring Northern Conn.

For achieving progress in these areas and, overall, for giving that grit he described earlier, Brennan has been named one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers for 2011. Some of the work he’s led is easy to see, such as those bike trails, a cleaner Connecticut River, and a reconstructed Coolidge Bridge. But some of it is outwardly less visible, yet equally important, such as the creation in 1994 of the Plan for Progress — a blueprint for helping the Valley remain competitive in an increasingly global economy — and its many updates since.

Brennan has seemingly always been a little ahead of his time, dating to when he did his thesis at UMass Amherst on issues concerning the collection and management of solid waste, and, specifically, the need for greater recycling. “That was kind of a radical idea at the time,” he said.

While at UMass, he took part in an internship with the city of Northampton, “which at that time was as downtrodden as any city you could imagine,” and worked on solid waste and, eventually, planning issues for then-Mayor Sean Dunphey. He was part of efforts to create a new master plan and revamped zoning laws, and was there to see the very beginnings of that city’s renaissance.

After graduating from UMass, Brennan commenced a search for employment in the region and found an opportunity at the LPVRPC as transportation planner. While in that position, he led the formation of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA), one of many regional transit systems created by the state Legislature.

In 1980, when the directorship of the LPVRPC came open, Brennan applied, but did not get the nod. But when the individual who was chosen ultimately decided not to relocate from Illinois, another search was commenced, and this time Brennan triumphed.

When asked what’s kept him in this job for more than 30 years, working for and alongside countless mayors, selectmen, and planning and development leaders, Brennan said it’s the diversity of the work and the satisfaction that comes with overcoming the many challenges it takes to bring projects that are decades in the making to fruition.

He also likes the balance between working in both the present and future tenses.
“I tell people, and I really believe this, that one of the interesting things about planners is that you have to be bipolar in terms of your time zone,” he explained. “And I don’t know if you can quantify it, but both switches are always on because, if you can’t demonstrate that you’re relevant to the present, all your conjecture about the future gets completely tuned out.”

So when asked what the Greater Springfield area might look like in 30 years, the man who always has one eye focused at least that far down the road said there will be some recognizable changes.

“What’s going to shape the region is energy and climate change,” Brennan said. “Suddenly, it’s politically unpopular to talk about climate change, but the scientists are screaming that it’s real and we have to do something about it. A few weeks ago, the state set greenhouse-gas emission-reduction goals for 2020 and 2050. I don’t think I’ll be around in 2050, but it’s my job to start, with my colleagues, to take this seriously and try to get us ready.

“So what I see is that we won’t be on fossil fuels anymore; we’ll be running off different kinds of fuels, and we’ll need a more-compact land-use pattern — we can’t keep spreading out like we have been,” he continued. “We’ll be going back to the future in a way, where some of the places that we depopulated get repopulated, including many of the urban areas, the downtowns.”

Meanwhile, the Valley will have to focus its energies on successfully existing in one of what are projected to be a dozen or so ‘super regions,’ the one in question stretching from Philadelphia to Boston.

“We have to be connected to the Northeast mega-region, or we’re toast,” Brennan told BusinessWest. “There was a guy here 10 years ago who has a national reputation, who said that if we didn’t have firm plans and follow through on them, much of New England, including this region, could end up as a cul-de-sac, and that really stuck in my mind.

“I think the Valley has all the right building blocks to be one of those regions that can sustain itself going into all these major changes,” he continued. “That’s why we’re working on rail, that’s why we’re working on the broadband, that’s why we will be working on food security; these are all designed to put the infrastructure in place for the region to be vibrant and attractive.”

Getting to that place won’t be easy, but Brennan has the requisite personality traits — patience, tenacity, and that all-important grit — to get the job done.

— George O’Brien