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Women of Impact 2021

Cover Story Women of Impact Women of Impact 2021

Women of Impact Awards Ceremony

Thursday, December 9, 2021 • 5- 8 p.m. • Sheraton Springfield

Tickets $85 per person • Call: (413) 781-8600 or Email [email protected]

Honorees to Be Saluted on Dec. 9

Leader. Inspiration. Pioneer. Mentor.

You will read plenty of words like these over the next eight profiles as BusinessWest introduces its fourth annual cohort of a program called, appropriately enough, Women of Impact.

Appropriate, because these women aren’t only business successes and community leaders; they are, indeed, impactful — in ways that reverberate far beyond their office, their sector, and even this present time.

These are compelling stories about remarkable women, and as you read them, you’ll quickly understand why BusinessWest added Women of Impact to its list of annual recognition programs four years ago. In short, these stories need to be told — or told in a different way than you’ve heard before.

These eight stories detail not only what these women do for a living, but what they’ve done with their lives. Specifically, they’ve become innovators in their fields, leaders within the community, and, most importantly, inspirations to all those around them. Crucially, they’re creating a legacy for other women to build upon.

The stories are all different, but there are many common denominators: these are women and leaders who have vision, passion, drive to excel, and a desire to put their considerable talents to work mentoring and helping others.

 

Individually and especially together, they’re making this a much better place to live, work, raise a family, and run a business.

And they will be celebrated on Dec. 9 at the Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel. So, after reading their stories, we invite you to come and applaud some truly impactful women. The 2021 honorees are:

• Jessica Collins

Executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts;

Elizabeth Dineen

CEO of the YWCA of Western Massachusetts;

Charlene Elvers

Director of the Center for Service and Leadership at Springfield College;

Karin Jeffers

President and CEO of Clinical and Support Options;

• Elizabeth Keen

Owner of Indian Line Farm;

• Madeline Landrau

Program Engagement manager at MassMutual;

• Shannon Mumblo

Executive director of Christina’s House;

• Tracye Whitfield

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officer for the town of West Springfield; and Springfield City Councilor.

Thank You to Our Sponsors!

Presenting Sponsors

Supporting Sponsors

Meet the Judges

Michele Cabral

Michele Cabral is interim executive director of Professional Education and Corporate Learning at Holyoke Community College and director of Training & Workforce Options. She started her career as a CPA for KPMG Peat Marwick, graduated from the Leadership Development Program at CIGNA Insurance Companies, and joined Farm Credit Financial Partners Inc. as CFO and COO. At HCC, Cabral has held positions as an Accounting professor, then dean of the Business and Technology Division, and she currently leads the HCC Women’s Leadership Series.

Dawn Fleury

Dawn Fleury is the first senior vice president of Corporate Risk at Country Bank in Ware. In her current role, she oversees the bank’s comprehensive risk-management programs. Before joining Country Bank, she had a 21-year career with the FDIC as a commissioned senior bank examiner in the Division of Supervision. Fleury serves on the board of Christina’s House in Springfield, which provides transitional housing for women and their children, as well as educational programming as families transition from homelessness to permanent, stable living environments.

Ellen Freyman

Ellen Freyman is a shareholder with Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, P.C. in Springfield. Her practice is concentrated in all aspects of commercial real estate: acquisitions and sales, development, leasing, permitting, environmental, and financing. She has been recognized for her community work and was named to Difference Makers and Women of Impact by BusinessWest, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly Excellence in the Law, and the Professional Women’s Chamber Women of the Year. She also earned a Pynchon Award from the Ad Club of Western Massachusetts.

Women of Impact 2021

Executive Director, Christina’s House

She Helps Homeless Moms and Kids Achieve Stability and Independence

One Sunday morning in 2010, Linda Mumblo was sitting in church when she felt God calling her to minister to homeless women and children.

“She noticed there were a lot of services for men in the area, but she felt there weren’t a lot of services for women,” said Linda’s daughter-in-law, Shannon Mumblo, adding that Linda turned the idea, which she called Christina’s House, into a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit within the month.

Shannon was a nurse and licensed clinical social worker at Baystate Medical Center at the time, but she was intrigued by Linda’s vision — for a very personal reason.

“I knew I wanted to be a very big part of what she was going to do because, growing up, I was the child who lived in a situation with an alcoholic mom, who lived in an apartment with just a mattress on a floor and didn’t always know where my next meal was going to come from.”

Fortunately, her grandmother stepped in. “She became the person for me that was my encouragement, that provided me with the love and support that I needed to allow me to have opportunities in life that I feel like I would not have been able to have with my mom,” Mumblo told BusinessWest.

And she saw Christina’s House as a way to help children be reunified with their mothers, and to help women realize their full potential and be the best parents they could be, she explained, “so that those children can grow up with their moms or have the opportunity to have a relationship with their mom that they might not otherwise have had. That’s how I started to be involved.”

Today, as executive director of Christina’s House, Shannon Mumblo has grown the organization to two large homes in Springfield, each serving up to 16 individuals at any given time, who live there for up to two years not only to escape homelessness, but to develop the skills and education necessary to live independently, with financial security, afterward — and deliver it all through a faith-based model.

“Growing up, I was the child who lived in a situation with an alcoholic mom, who lived in an apartment with just a mattress on a floor and didn’t always know where my next meal was going to come from.”

“In 2012, when we incorporated and formed the board,” she explained, “our mission was to educate, embrace, and encourage mothers and their children who are homeless or near-homeless through the love of Jesus Christ.”

The results — specifically, the many lives changed not only in the moment, but for the long term — speak for themselves, and demonstrate why Mumblo, by taking her mother-in-law’s vision to new heights, is certainly a Woman of Impact.

 

Teach a Woman to Fish…

At its heart, Christina’s House provides a program for moms and their kids to transition out of homelessness or near-homelessness and into independent living, Mumblo explained.

“It’s not a shelter — it’s a transitional, educational facility. We didn’t just want to house people, we wanted to teach them then skills they needed to break the generational patterns of poverty, abuse, trauma, all the barriers that keep people in a place of poverty. It’s education.”

The first Christina’s House location on Madison Avenue

The first Christina’s House location on Madison Avenue was followed last year by a second site on Union Street.

The program can last anywhere from 18 to 24 months, Mumblo said. “It can take six months just to earn their trust that we don’t want anything from them, just the best of who they are, and the motivation to be part of the program — six months to let their walls down and receive what we’re giving them.”

Early on, she and her team members break down with each client what their goals are — financial, educational, employment, health, parenting, even spiritual — and create a syllabus to help them achieve those goals. “Every week, we look at each of those categories and more and go through them and start to unpack them — look at what they need in each area and seek resources to help fill the gaps.”

Those resources include community partners ranging from Dress for Success and Springfield WORKS to local churches and community colleges. And the program ranges from job-training initiatives to classes that bolster life skills from parenting to anger management. Counseling is a part of every client’s schedule, including financial counseling from the United Way of Pioneer Valley’s Thrive program. After about a year in the program, discussions begin on planning for independent living, whether in a house or apartment.

Mumblo said she wants to stay in contact with graduates for at least five years after they leave, not only to track their self-sustainability and independence, but because the stories can be inspiring.

“It literally saves lives; some of our moms have been on the brink of suicide because they just didn’t have somebody to help them.”

“Once you’re really invested in the program, this becomes like a family. Most of our moms and kids didn’t have a family coming in here, so this becomes their family, and we don’t let them go,” she said, noting that one of the program’s first graduates came back to volunteer, and Christina’s House sent her son to summer camp for two weeks.

“She’s saving up for a house now. She’s still independent, still growing, still getting raises in her job. She’s a corrections officer — that was always her dream, and that’s what she’s doing.”

Even those who don’t finish the program can reap its benefits, she noted, recalling a woman who left the program early, and how devastated she felt about that. But then the woman stopped by recently to donate some of her granddaughter’s clothes.

“It was such a healing experience,” Mumblo said. “She shared that the seeds planted during her time here never left her. She kept hearing our words about what it meant to be financially independent, kept hearing our words about boundaries and parenting and all the things that were taught during her time here. So even though she didn’t finish, she’s still a success.

“I gave her a big hug and said, ‘whatever you need, we’re still here; we never left,’” she went on. “And for her, she felt like it was one last piece she needed to have healing and wholeness. So we never understand the full impact of the seeds we plant. Experiences like that make me excited to get up and be in a job where this is my calling.”

 

From the Ground Up

That calling took plenty of work — and faith. The first Christina’s House on Madison Avenue was owned by Cottage Hill Church, which gave the keys to Shannon and Linda at a time when the fledgling nonprofit had $300 in the bank, so they could give tours and raise awareness of the mission.

A fundraising ball later that year netted $8,000, and between that and donations from supporters, they were able to put a down payment on the house and move in.

A connection with the Springfield Police Department proved to be a key source of early support. Mumblo wanted to name a room after the late Kevin Ambrose, an officer who died while protecting a mother and child in a domestic-abuse situation. After visiting the house, Ambrose’s widow, Carla, decided to make Christina’s House her charity of choice.

Later that year, police Sgt. John Delaney launched the Ride to Remember, a fundraising bike ride in honor of fallen first responders, which donated $64,000 to Christina’s House in its second year to help repair the leaking roof and paint the house.

These days, donations — from individuals, businesses, and churches, as well as a few grants — are more steady, and the annual ball, now in its ninth year, is a $100,000 fundraiser.

“I feel like it started on faith, and every step of the way, we had faith,” Shannon said, and that went for buying and renovating a second Springfield location on Union Street in April 2020, to serve even more families. “The vision started in a church, and everything we do here has been a leap of faith, so to speak.”

Asked why she emphasizes a faith-based model, with a program delivered from a Christian perspective, with regular Bible studies, and her answer was simple yet firm.

“If we took God out of it, it wouldn’t be the program that it is. I’ve said it from the beginning — this has been about faith; this has been God’s mission and vision that was placed on my mother-in-law’s heart, and we give him all the glory for everything here every day. It’s not about us, it’s not about me — it’s about God working through me to do this work that I do every day.”

Mumblo believes it’s a model that can be replicated in other areas that need such a facility.

“I see God growing Christina’s House; it’s so needed,” she said. “It literally saves lives; some of our moms have been on the brink of suicide because they just didn’t have somebody to help them.

“And it’s about giving these kids the ability to have a mom and to have love around them and be in a safe environment where they don’t have to have drugs around them, and they don’t have to worry about what they’re going to eat,” she went on. “They’re fed, they’re cared for, they have a beautiful house to live in, and they have us long-term. We don’t go anywhere.”

Her clients, meanwhile … well, they’re going places.

“The most gratifying thing is watching the moms and kids grow and be successful and realize their potential, realize their goals, get that CNA certificate, get their GED, get a scholarship to attend school,” Mumblo said. “It’s more than I could have ever asked for in this lifetime.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Women of Impact 2021

Program Engagement Manager, MassMutual

A Success in Business, She Is Also a Force in the Community

Maddy Landrau was returning home from a lengthy business trip to Texas. As the car that picked her up at the airport was approaching her home in the Brightwood section of Springfield, she was surprised to see a small crowd of people, including her husband, Carlos Landrau, gathered on her porch.

As she walked toward the door, she recognized the five young girls who lived next door and other children from the neighborhood, but still didn’t know quite why they were there. She would soon find out.

“They were there … with their report cards,” she told BusinessWest as she fought back tears (unsuccessfully), adding that the girls, especially, couldn’t wait — quite literally — to show them off to the person they deemed most responsible for the higher grades they’d achieved.

“They would come to me, and I’d be saying to them, ‘this is your education … you have to do well; education is your ticket out of here. No one can take away that A, no can take away your grades,’” she said, adding that the girls from her neighborhood are just some of the many she’s counseled on a wide range of matters, but especially education and its importance to quality of life.

There are many ways to explain why Madeline (Maddy) Landrau has been named a Woman of Impact for 2021, but that story — and the setting for it — probably do it best.

Indeed, mentoring young people has long been a big part of her life and career, the latter dominated by a series of assignments at MassMutual, the latest as program engagement manager, a position with a broad range of responsibilities in (and on behalf of) the community, as we’ll see.

As for the setting … that’s another huge part of this story.

Landrau left Brooklyn for Springfield at the behest of a friend more than 30 years ago. She settled in the North End and the Brightwood neighborhood, one of the poorest in the city (and the state, for that matter) and home to many Hispanics … and never left, even when friends, colleagues, and Realtors alike were advising her to look elsewhere when she and her husband decided to build a home.

“There was an opportunity to purchase land in the Plainfield area of Springfield, and my husband and I took a deep dive — we said, ‘let’s do this,’ she recalled. “There were appraisers and contractors who would say, ‘what are you doing? You could move to Agawam, South Hadley, or Wilbraham.’ And I said, ‘you’re missing the big picture, the sense of community.’ That’s what I wanted to leave my children.”

Landrau’s devotion to Brightwood, the people who live there, and the region as a whole is summed up by Jean Canosa Albano, herself a Woman of Impact (class of 2018), who nominated her for the same honor.

“Maddy believes that there is a narrow path — be it to education, financial literacy, or workplace success. All you have to do is make the path wider. And she does it! She is inclusive and representative of communities who in some places may not find a place on that path.

“She believes in leading from the rear, not seeking the spotlight, and recognizes others’ humanity,” Albano continued. “She doesn’t seek to shatter the glass ceiling as much as to open the windows and welcome more people in.”

That comment, one of many poignant takes in the nomination, explains what drives Landrau and why she has touched so many lives in so many ways.

So does this comment from Lydia Martinez-Alvarez, assistant superintendent of Springfield Public Schools and another Woman of Impact (class of 2019).

“Many young adults call her ‘mom’ because of the impact that she has had on their lives,” she wrote. “Maddy is always helping someone with whatever they need. She often puts others ahead of herself; she is a mentor to many in our community and volunteers her time to ensure that our community is a better place for all to live in.”

 

Moving Thoughts

As noted earlier, Landrau grew up in Brooklyn, specifically the Bay Ridge neighborhood.

It was a close-knit, very diverse community, but there were few Hispanics, she told BusinessWest, using ‘mixed salad’ rather than ‘melting pot’ to describe it, adding that it was a very welcoming and tolerant environment.

“Many young adults call her ‘mom’ because of the impact that she has had on their lives.”

As much as she liked those elements of home, she desired to make a new life for herself and her two young sons, and, at the behest of a friend in Springfield who promised to help her get settled, packed her bags.

“I did not want to raise them in New York City, the fast and the furious — I needed something slower,” she said. “I felt bad when I told my dad I was leaving, but I knew that I needed this challenge, this opportunity to start afresh — a white canvas.”

The picture that now fills that canvas is one that tells of a young women taking advantage of opportunities afforded her, but mostly making her own opportunities — while never, ever forgetting that neighborhood she moved to and the people, like her, who still call it home.

Upon arriving in Springfield, in quick order, she secured an apartment, a job, and daycare so she could work that job. She married Carlos, a police officer, and the two created a blended family and “pulled it together,” as she put it.

That same phrase applies to her career and her ladder climbing at MassMutual.

She started in Accounts Receivable and quickly advanced, first to a leadership role in that department, then the IT department, and later Sales and a management position in that department. In 2011, she became director of Life Company Marketing and, among other initiatives, led the development and execution of marketing and recruiting strategies to help the company reach the U.S. Hispanic and Latino markets.

Maddy Landrau engages in a game of dominoes with some North End residents.

Maddy Landrau engages in a game of dominoes with some North End residents.

In her current role, Landrau has a number of responsibilities. She manages the MassMutual Foundation’s Anchor Institution Grantee Portfolio, which represents $5 million in funding to more than 20 organizations across the state. She also leads the company’s national LifeBridge life-insurance program, which offers free life-insurance coverage to eligible parents for the benefit of their children’s education. And she also leads and executes the FutureSmart Challenge Program in markets across the country. On pause because of COVID-19, the program is MassMutual’s proprietary financial-education program that educates middle- and high-school students about making smart financial decisions and career choices.

All throughout her career, she has been active within the community, and especially the North End. Early on, she volunteered on the board of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and also served on the New North Citizens Council. Currently, she serves as a trustee at Westfield State University — she’s the first Latina to serve in that capacity — and is now vice chair of a subcommittee of the Finance & Capital Assets Committee, as well as a trustee with the Baystate Health Foundation.

But while influential in the boardroom, she has been most impactful in the community itself and working with people (especially young Latinas) as a mentor, second mother on many occasions, and role model in every way imaginable.

She said she is connected with mentees through the New North Citizens Council, Springfield Technical Community College, neighbors, and other channels. Slicing through what she tells them and she guides them, she said there is a dominant message.

“They create these challenges for themselves … and I tell them that, if only they were to make the right choice at the given time, I foresee that they wouldn’t have so many challenges,” she explained. “If they only took a pause and said, ‘this isn’t life the way it’s supposed to be,’ and if they created this opportunity for themselves to be happy and not allow others to make them happy, but also to become financially sound.

“I see many of these mentees living beyond their means,” she went on. “The ‘wants’ become more important than the ‘needs,’ and in my mentoring I’m trying to change that — how do you create the ‘needs’ as a priority? I stress the importance of being financially sound and educated, and that these are the things they need to pass on to their children.”

She said she mentors mostly young people, in the 13-18 age bracket, but also young adults and even a few grandmothers raising their grandchildren, whom she advises to look at things differently and not try to raise young people the way they were raised.

“When I meet with them, I tell them they have to meet me halfway. They have to do their part; let’s build trust, build the communication pattern, and share the good, the bad, and the ugly. I tell them that I want to hear more good, but don’t be afraid to share the bad — and the ugly.”

With each mentee, the basic ground rules for the relationship are the same.

“When I meet with them, I tell them they have to meet me halfway,” she continued. “They have to do their part; let’s build trust, build the communication pattern, and share the good, the bad, and the ugly. I tell them that I want to hear more good, but don’t be afraid to share the bad — and the ugly.”

 

Passing It On

That’s what you might expect from someone who’s made it her life’s mission to not necessarily shatter that glass ceiling, as Albano noted (although she has done that in some respects), but rather open the windows and welcome more people in.

It’s what you would expect from someone who had a crowd of young people waiting to show her their report cards as she returned from a trip, and what you would expect from someone who passed on Wilbraham and Agawam and stayed in the neighborhood where she raised her children.

And it’s what you would expect from someone who personifies the phrase ‘Woman of Impact.’

 

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

Women of Impact 2021

Owner, Indian Line Farm

She’s Continuing an Agricultural Legacy — and Cultivating Her Own

 

By Mark Morris

Elizabeth Keen’s journey to becoming a successful farmer in Western Mass. began in Mexico and Guatemala.

Shortly after graduating from Colorado College, Keen joined an effort by Witness for Peace to work with Guatemalan refugees living in the south of Mexico who were looking to return home. In the three years she spent with the Guatemalans, Keen saw how their entire subsistence was based on working and growing food. It left a lasting impression.

“I thought I would return to the states and work for a nonprofit,” she said. “But I also wanted to learn about and understand sustainable agriculture so I could someday return to Guatemala and offer a technical skill to the people looking to go back to their homeland.”

Upon her return to the U.S., friends who had accompanied Keen on the Central American trip invited her to take part in a 1,000-mile bike tour of New England as a fundraiser for an organization called the Guatemala Accompaniment Project.

During the bike tour, she reconnected with a friend who lived in Great Barrington who knew a farmer in need of apprentices. Keen committed to a year-long apprenticeship at what is known as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm.

Through a CSA farm, the public can support local agriculture by purchasing farm memberships. In return, members are offered a weekly bounty of vegetables, fruits, and herbs. According to the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, CSAs are a way for the food-buying public to create a relationship with a farm and bring home plenty of healthy produce to boot.

“It was amazing to work with your hands and see the results of your work. The physical strain also made me feel that what I was doing was valuable.”

While she did not have previous experience with this type of work, Keen said she fell in love with the physical-labor part of farming.

“It was amazing to work with your hands and see the results of your work,” she said. “The physical strain also made me feel that what I was doing was valuable.”

During the apprenticeship, she met Al Thorp, and they began a relationship that would eventually lead to their marriage — and to an intriguing agricultural success story.

In January 1997, Robyn Van En, owner of Indian Line Farm in South Egremont, died suddenly of an asthma attack at age 49. Members of the community were stunned and worried about what would happen to this historic land, site of the first CSA farm in the U.S. Meanwhile, Keen and her husband had just completed their apprenticeship and were considering their next move. Keen had worked briefly with Van En before she died and appreciated the beauty and viability of Indian Line.

People in the community feared the land was vulnerable to developers and wanted to make sure it would stay a working farm, so they encouraged the young couple to take over the operation of Indian Line.

“With six months experience for me and a year and a half for Al, we started a farm,” Keen said. “We started from scratch and did not know what we were doing.”

Along with Keen and Thorp, the Nature Conservancy and the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires worked together to keep Indian Line a working farm. The couple purchased the buildings on the property, and the other entities secured the land with a lease to ensure its exclusive use as a farm for the next 99 years.

Now with a mortgage to pay, Keen took on running the farm while Thorp, an engineer by training, began working three days a week in a surveyor’s office. Keen explained her husband’s role at the farm as “the person who fixes everything that breaks.” Now a licensed surveyor and engineer, Thorp continues his roles on and off the farm. It’s a division of labor that has worked well for both of them.

Elizabeth Keen’s impact extends beyond her own farm to broader efforts like the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training.

Elizabeth Keen’s impact extends beyond her own farm to broader efforts like the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training.

“I do all the member interaction, employee management, and the daily work of the farm,” Keen said. “But when I need a new greenhouse, Al will take that on and get it done.”

 

Growing Community

Currently, 200 members belong to the Indian Line Farm CSA. Keen pointed out that each membership represents a household, so her farm is providing food for well over 400 people in the Berkshires through this one program.

From arugula and kale to carrots and a variety of radishes, the farm offerings vary by season. Keen provides members with familiar as well as not-so-familiar vegetable offerings.

“Our climate doesn’t allow us to just grow the most popular vegetables,” she said. “I have to grow what the seasons will allow.” That means daikon radishes and Japanese turnips become part of the vegetable selection. “I introduce my members to lots of new things and try to provide recipes for vegetables that might not be as familiar to people.”

Vegetables are only part of what grows and develops at Indian Line Farm. Keen and Thorp are longtime participants in the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT), a program that enhances educational opportunities for apprentices through visits to a number of farms and networking with fellow apprentices and farmers. The couple were part of this program during their apprentice days and wanted to pay forward their experience as a CRAFT farm.

“I’m able to share some knowledge with our apprentices, but CRAFT visits give them a much wider perspective of what’s going on in agriculture,” Keen said. For the last 20 years, three or four workers each year complete an apprenticeship at Indian Line, with nearly half of them pursuing a career in agriculture.

More than half of Keen’s apprentices over the years have been women, many of whom have told her the example she sets as a female farmer is meaningful to them.

“I came to farming at age 26 with no experience in how to mow, use sharp tools, or drive a tractor,” she said. “I benefited from wonderful mentors, and now I have the opportunity to share these experiences with other women. It’s empowering for them and for me.”

“Getting to know other farmers reinforces that we are all in this together; we recognize all the challenges and complications that come with this life, and we’re not facing it alone.”

While she has also taught plenty of men how to drive a tractor, women are often less likely to have had the opportunity to learn these types of skills.

While the demands of the farm can easily keep Keen busy from dawn to dusk, she and Thorp felt it important to develop a community among others who were farming in the area. They began by informally reaching out to other farmers to get together and socialize. Keen wanted something more intentional, so she started a group called Farmers Gather.

“A meeting consists of a tour at an area farm with a potluck dinner to follow,” she explained. Before COVID-19 put a damper on regular meetings, the gatherings often brought together farmers who had lived in the area for many years, but didn’t really know each other.

“In a social sense it’s been terrific, but it’s even more than that,” she said. “Getting to know other farmers reinforces that we are all in this together; we recognize all the challenges and complications that come with this life, and we’re not facing it alone.”

Margaret Moulton, executive director of Berkshire Grown, noted that, on top of Keen’s contributions to the farming community, her work to eradicate food insecurity ranks among her most impressive efforts.

“Through Berkshire Grown’s Share the Bounty program in partnership with the People’s Pantry, Elizabeth provides tons of fresh food to low-income residents in the county,” Moulton said.

Keen estimated that 10 shares of food reach the People’s Pantry through her personal contributions, and other members spend a little extra for their shares to help out. The arrival of COVID last year greatly increased the need — and the generosity of even more members who donated extra money to make more food available to their neighbors who needed it.

“It’s easy for me to be generous because, over the years, people have been so generous to us,” she said. “There are also many people helping in important ways, such as transporting the food from the farm to those who need it; that’s a huge part of the effort.”

 

The Next Generation

During her time in Guatemala, Keen learned to speak Spanish. When snowfall covers the farm, one of her winter passions is practicing her Spanish as an interpreter for Volunteers in Medicine, a clinic located in Great Barrington with a mission to improve access to healthcare for Berkshire residents.

And, yes, she did return to Guatemala. In 2016, she and her children, Colin and Helen (ages 18 and 15, respectively), spent six months in one of the small indigenous communities where Keen had worked many years before. After a humbling moment when she realized Guatemalans have survived for centuries without her farm knowledge, Keen instead taught English in the middle school.

“This was a chance to give back in a way that felt concrete,” she said. As a bonus, Colin and Helen learned Spanish while there.

“I’m really proud that Al and I have been able to parent two children who can say they grew up on a farm,” she said. “I don’t think they are going to be farmers, but they know how to work, use tools, and they are both strong.”

Keen feels her greatest professional achievement has been to keep the farm where the CSA movement started a success today and into the future. “It’s an honor to keep Robyn Van En’s vision alive here at the birthplace of CSA.”

With everything she does for the farming community and neighbors in need, many would say Keen is forging her own legacy — as a true Woman of Impact.

Women of Impact 2021

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, Town of West Springfield; Springfield City Councilor

She’s an Entrepreneur, Public Servant, Mentor, and True Role Model

 

 

To effectively convey the depth of Tracye Whitfield’s impact within the community, one should probably start with her business cards — as in the plural.

She carries three of them. Sort of.

She usually has only one on her, and that’s for the job she started just four months ago — as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officer for the town of West Springfield. That’s a new position, and in it, she’s essentially starting from scratch and drafting the blueprint for a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Department, an assignment she describes with the single word ‘difficult’ (much more on that in a bit).

But she also has a business card identifying her as an at-large city councilor in Springfield — she said she had to make it herself; the city does not supply them — and another one explaining that she is a principal with T&J Tax and Credit Savers, the most recent iteration of a small business she started seven years ago.

Together, these business cards tell a compelling story. It’s about a single mother who started working at a call center in the late ’90s because it was a way to get more doors to open for her, including the one at MassMutual, where she would become inspired — and receive the tuition reimbursement — to earn first a bachelor’s degree in business administration and finance and then a master’s in accounting and taxation, both at American International College.

She would use those degrees to launch her own tax business — one she has built steadily over the years — and eventually move on to different career challenges, including one as director of Business Development for the Training and Workforce Options (TWO) program operated by Springfield Technical Community College and Holyoke Community College, and, well before that, as a finance analyst for Springfield Public Schools.

It was while in that job that Whitfield realized many constituents were missing out on resources and program funding because they were simply not aware of them. Later, as she talked within the community about the need for better communication and a voice for all residents, friends and relatives encouraged her to become that voice by running for City Council.

Neither she nor most of the members of her team had any experience with election campaigns, but she ran hard, knocked on more doors than she could count, and would up finishing a strong sixth, just out of the running, in the 2017 election. But she was later placed in an at-large seat when Tom Ashe became chief of staff for Mayor Domenic Sarno. Today, she is vice president of the Council and running for a third term.

Yes, it’s a compelling story, and one that forms the basis of what she considers the advice she passes on to the many young people she mentors.

“There are no real barriers other than the ones we place on ourselves — we can do whatever we want to do,” she said. “And I also tell them to give back; whatever you learn, bring it forward to the next person so they can learn it, too. That’s how we’ll maintain a culture of togetherness and just helping one another. And we’re all far better off when we can do that.”

“Whatever you learn, bring it forward to the next person so they can learn it, too. That’s how we’ll maintain a culture of togetherness and just helping one another. And we’re all far better off when we can do that.”

Those sentiments, and, yes, those business cards and all they stand for, explain why Tracye Whitfield is a Woman of Impact for 2021.

 

Running Story

As noted, Whitfield is running for re-election this fall. That means an already-hectic daily schedule becomes even more so.

Indeed, in addition to her day job in West Springfield, her duties as city councilor — which include countless meetings (many now thankfully conducted via Zoom) and events — and her work handling clients who asked for extensions on filing their tax returns, she must now campaign.

Such work is a little different in a pandemic, she explained, adding that there will be less knocking on doors (at least for her). But there are still the events and the stand-outs with supporters at busy intersections. Whitfield is an at-large councilor, so she must blanket the entire city; some of her favorite stand-out locations are the convergence of Wilbraham Road and Parker Street and at the X by the CVS.

Tracye Whitfield stands outside Town Hall in West Springfield, where she now serves as the community’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officer.

Packing a lot into the hours available in a day is nothing new to Whitfield, who long juggled work, school, and parenting duties, and still does to some extent, although now it’s her first grandchild, different kinds of work, and different kinds of education.

Born and raised in Springfield, she said she had her first child at 18 and, like many single teen mothers, faced a number of daily challenges. But unlike many others like her, she had a plan — and a path — as well as a desire to set the tone for her children.

“I wanted to set a good example for them,” she said, adding that she took a job at First Notice Systems, a giant call center, with the larger goal of taking her experience in customer service and use it to get a foot in the door at MassMutual.

She eventually joined the financial-services giant in 2000, working her way from customer service representative to ‘top Blue Case manager,’ to accounting specialist.

Along the way, as noted, she earned two college degrees and set her career sights higher. After stints with Springfield Public Schools, Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services, and Springfield Technical Community College, she landed a job as director of Business Development for TWO, a position that was eventually eliminated due to cuts forced by COVID-19, a setback that brought her back to the job market and, eventually, to apply for a new position posted by the town of West Springfield.

She saw it posted on Indeed, and after talking with friends and colleagues, she decided to apply. She prevailed and started just four months ago, becoming one of a growing number of people with ‘Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officer’ printed on their business cards.

“I have seen how much people can change their life and advance through workforce development.”

When asked about this movement, if it can be called that, she said these positions are being created out of obvious need.

“It’s important to bring everyone’s voice to the table,” she said, noting that many area communities, including West Springfield, are becoming increasingly diverse. “There’s a large refugee population in this community, and from what I’ve gathered from meeting and interviewing people, they do feel left out and isolated because communication isn’t in their language, and they don’t know where to go; they don’t have a lot of guidance and resources to help them navigate the town process itself.”

Her work is pioneering in many respects, she said, adding that there is no blueprint to follow — as noted, she’s creating one. Thus, she’s reaching out to others in this emerging field of equity and inclusion for advice and best practices. And, following a pattern from earlier in her career, she’s continuing her education. Indeed, she’s pursuing a certificate in diversity, equity, and inclusion from Cornell and attending a number of forums.

Her first assignment is to hire a strategic consultant to help chart a course, and eventually she plans to create a town Equity Advisory Committee.

While breaking new ground in West Springfield, Whitfield continues to serve her constituents across the river in the City of Homes.

As an at-large councilor, she represents the entire city and has established some priorities or specific points of focus, including transparency, finance, public safety (she’s been chair of the Mason Square C3 Initiative since 2016), home ownership, and education and workforce development.

Those are all matters to which she can speak from experience, especially when it comes to seeing how higher education can change one’s career path — and their life.

“I have seen how much people can change their life and advance through workforce development,” she told BusinessWest. “College isn’t for everyone right after high school, so I think workforce development is a great path.” 

 

Paying It Forward

Amid her myriad roles, Whitfield saves time to mentor others, especially a small group of young women, including some on her campaign team. She advises them on subjects ranging from politics to entrepreneurship; from credit repair to home ownership.

“I feel that anything I’ve done … I can pass that on to others,” she said. “If someone asks, and they’re serious, I’m definitely going to help them.”

And there is much she can help with, as we know from those business cards. Together, they speak of someone who used education to change her life, someone who has chosen not to just live in a community, but get involved in it — someone who has molded herself into a Woman of Impact.

 

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

Women of Impact 2021

President and CEO, Clinical & Support Options

She’s Growing Her Agency and Cultivating the Next Crop of Behavioral-Health Leaders

By Mark Morris

Karin Jeffers knew she was taking a big risk.

It was 2005, and she had the opportunity to take the reins at Clinical & Support Options (CSO) — a nonprofit community behavioral-health agency that had lost several large contracts and had just parted ways with its third CEO in five years, the last one under investigation for Medicaid fraud in Vermont.

At the time, Jeffers was the regional director for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC), a job she greatly enjoyed. However, though secure in that role, she decided to take the risk and accept the top job at CSO. Reactions from her colleagues ranged from the polite — “we’re surprised to see you do that” — to the blunt: “what are you thinking?”

But during the interview process, Jeffers met the CSO staff and found people who were passionate and capable, and who cared about providing quality service.

“At that moment, it became clear the problem was leadership and not the staff or the agency mission,” she said. So she accepted the position with a realistic attitude. “We’re either going to fall on our face, or we’re going to make something of this.”

Fortunately for people all over Western Mass., she did make something of it. When Jeffers first joined CSO, it was a $4 million agency with 90 employees. Today, she manages a $45 million budget with more than 600 employees who provide services to 19,000 families and individuals.

This impressive growth resulted in large part from Jeffers adopting the philosophy that a nonprofit organization is a business and should be run like one.

“Nonprofit is a tax status, not a business model,” she said. “As important as our employees and clients are to us, profit and loss statements matter, too.”

To achieve the right balance, she believes in open communication. “Our manager meetings include behavioral-health people as well as fiscal staff,” she explained. “When there is something we would like to do but can’t, we are transparent about it so everyone understands how we reached our decision.”

Paying close attention to both the service and fiscal parts of the organization was key to CSO surviving and now thriving.

“When I joined CSO, we were days away from closing down, and there were weeks when we struggled to make payroll,” she recalled. “Now that we have enough capital to invest in the company, we are able to look at providing services five, 10, even 15 years out.”

 

Ladders to Success

That willingness to take risks goes back to her days as a sports physical therapy student at Springfield College. Physical therapy seemed like a logical major for Jeffers, who was a runner on the SC track team. Three years into her studies when the clinical practicum began, Jeffers discovered that working in physical therapy no longer appealed to her as a career.

“At that same time, I was taking an abnormal psychology class that was fascinating to me,” she recalled. She switched her major to psychology, then remained at SC, earning a master’s degree and later became a licensed mental-health counselor.

“We’re either going to fall on our face, or we’re going to make something of this.”

“I was the typical soon-to-graduate student,” she said. “I sent out 50 résumés and landed only one interview.” That interview was with MSPCC, which hired her as a therapist.

“I could not have asked for a better place to learn so much about the industry,” Jeffers noted. “Thanks to some fabulous mentors who were willing to teach and guide me, I kind of grew up professionally at MSPCC.”

Karin Jeffers says trauma-informed care informs not just clinical operations at CSO, but all departments, from IT to maintenance.

Karin Jeffers says trauma-informed care informs not just clinical operations at CSO, but all departments, from IT to maintenance.

In nearly 14 years, she rose through the ranks, holding several management positions, until she became regional director, overseeing operations across all of Western Mass.

As a leader, she appreciates that her success was due in large part to the internal promotions she received at MSPCC and the mentors who were willing to take a chance on her. “I wasn’t always the most experienced person, and I didn’t have all the answers, but there were people willing to invest in me and provide the opportunity.”

Because of that experience, internal promotions are strongly supported at CSO. Among 135 managers, she noted, 67% were promoted from within.

“Whether I’m mentoring women or men, I believe in giving someone an opportunity to take a risk and let them learn instead of looking for what they are doing wrong,” she said, adding that the result is a team of people who are invested and who can shine in their work.

“Promoting from within has helped define who we are as an agency,” she added. “It’s helped us grow, become more innovative, and provided stability in our management.”

While women outnumber men in direct human-services positions, the ratio reverses at top leadership levels, where women are less likely to be found. Jeffers became president and CEO at age 35, and, while she felt up to the task, there were some who questioned her abilities based on her age and gender.

“There is some truth to the idea that a woman has to work a little harder to get a seat at the table,” she told BusinessWest. “Once at the table, though, I’ve had wonderful experiences feeling very much on a level playing field among colleagues who are respectful to me.”

Behavioral-health workers often hear they are doing “God’s work.” While Jeffers agrees with that sentiment, she believes it’s also important to recognize these are medical professionals and should be compensated as such.

To that end, she serves on several influential boards, most notably the Assoc. of Behavioral Health and the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, where she advocates for parity in the way behavioral-health professionals are paid compared to those in physical care. Jeffers has testified to the state Legislature about where the disparities are and how to address them.

“Whether I’m mentoring women or men, I believe in giving someone an opportunity to take a risk and let them learn instead of looking for what they are doing wrong.”

“Investments in the workforce will make or break the future of community-based behavioral healthcare,” she said. While pandemic-relief money has been helpful in providing some immediate support, the goal is long-term salary increases.

“We have a seat at the table, and people are listening,” she added. “Now we need to see this turn into action.”

Currently, the state is looking at a redesign of its behavioral-health services, which gives Jeffers hope for lasting change. “It could really turn the tide for behavioral health in Massachusetts.”

 

Stepping Out

CSO is one of the first agencies in Western Mass. to adopt a training technique known as trauma-informed care (TIC). Because trauma can impact every aspect of health, TIC encourages a more compassionate approach in client interactions.

According to one TIC training website, asking someone “what happened to you?” instead of “what’s wrong with you?” is a simple example of the attitude shift when using this method. More than a treatment plan for clients, Jeffers sees TIC training as a model for how to do business at CSO.

“Our maintenance staff, IT, front desk, everyone is included in this training,” she said. “The goal is to shift the way we interact with clients and each other toward a culture of care.”

 

For Jeffers, risk taking is not limited to work. Her husband, Scott, lost his sales job after his company was acquired by a larger entity. As his next act, Scott considered purchasing the Daily Pint, a small pub that was for sale in Wilbraham, where he had grown up.

“Using all the risk taking we had applied at CSO, we took a leap of faith and said, ‘why not?’” Jeffers explained. So they acquired the Daily Pint, two years before the pandemic threw a wrench into plenty of business plans. After the initial impact of having to close and endure layoffs, the hometown pub has been making a comeback with the same staff returning to work.

“It’s really Scott’s day job, but since I’m a co-owner, I have to pull my weight there, too,” she said with a laugh.

When she can take time to reflect, Jeffers appreciates all the challenges CSO has overcome since she joined the agency in 2005.

“We serve about 19,000 people each year, and over the last 15 years, that’s a lot of people,” she said. “I feel privileged that the great team here at CSO allows me to be their leader.”

She also expressed gratitude that her team is willing to follow her and take risks as well.

“There were times when I’ve asked people to just trust me,” she said. “I’m so lucky to have people who do trust me and then get things done. It’s a real can-do attitude we have here.”

Smart risks and a can-do spirit — they’re just part of what makes Karin Jeffers a Woman of Impact.

Women of Impact 2021

Director, Center for Service and Leadership at Springfield College

She’s Built Stronger Bridges Between the College and the Neighborhoods Around It

 

Charlene Elvers says she and others at Springfield College affectionately refer to it as the “listening tour.”

It happened around seven years ago, she noted, and as that name suggests, there was a lot of listening going on — and there is still a good bit of it today. This tour, if you will, was prompted by her desire to build more and stronger bridges between the college and the two neighborhoods that surround it — Old Hill and Upper Hill — which, when you get right down to it, is her basic job description as director of the school’s Center for Service and Leadership.

The assignment, which had many components, included asking residents in those neighborhoods if they saw any tangible benefits to having the college in their backyard and, likewise, asking SC students if they saw any benefits, as in learning or growing opportunities, from being in that neighborhood. When both constituencies answered, for the most part, ‘no,’ Elvers knew she had to take some steps to change those responses.

“I wanted to someday talk with people who said, ‘one of the great benefits of living here is having Springfield College as a neighbor,’” she said, adding that, as a result of all that listening and the answers garnered, she spearheaded the creation of the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement, an arm of the Center for Service and Leadership. It’s located in a three-story house a few blocks from campus and is, quite literally, a bridge between the community and the school.

It is mostly quiet now as a result of the pandemic, but before COVID-19 arrived, it housed a homework-help drop-in center and a middle-school mentoring program — initiatives that are both being carried out remotely.

“It is great when college students really see things from a different perspective, when they develop relationships with people who come from a different place than they came from.”

In the future, Elvers sees vast potential for the site also housing a bicycle-repair shop — her listening revealed that there isn’t one anywhere in the city, and there’s a real need for one — and that the large open space adjacent to the house can be used for fitness and recreation programs.

The Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement is perhaps the most visible manifestation of a 20-year stint at Springfield College that has been spent developing high-impact programs that seek to foster connections between the college and the community while working collaboratively with partners to identify and serve their needs.

Elvers told BusinessWest this is very rewarding work, and one of the biggest rewards is seeing how this involvement with those in the neighborhood prompts students to ask poignant questions about what they see and hear — and start to develop the resolve to help answer them.

“It’s great to have one foot solidly on this campus and another foot solidly in the community to bridge those two organizations,” she told BusinessWest. “It is great when college students really see things from a different perspective, when they develop relationships with people who come from a different place than they came from.

“I see them really begin to gain a broader a broader understanding of some of the social issues that are happening, and that’s when they begin to ask questions,” she went on. “They ask, ‘how did this happen? How did we end up here? Why are we in a neighborhood where there isn’t a grocery store?’”

Through her work to build these bridges between the college and the community, and through her efforts to inspire those kinds of questions from students, Elvers has clearly shown she is a true Woman of Impact.

 

School of Thought

Elvers, who has spent her entire career in higher education, came to Springfield College after a stint at Mount Holyoke College as director of Student Activities. In that capacity, her work drew her increasingly toward helping students connect with — and serve in — the communities they call home.

She summed up her career, and her time at Springfield College, this way. “While I have taught in a classroom from time to time, mainly my teaching is outside the classroom, and it comes through facilitating experiences for students to enhance their educational experience as well as to develop them into leaders.”

This passion, and it can only be called that, has been taken to new and higher levels at Springfield College, where, for more than a decade, Elvers oversaw the school’s annual Humanics in Action Day, which provided direct service throughout the community, and also transformed it — from a day of service to ongoing grants and support for individuals and groups wishing to partner and serve with community organizations.

“There has to be more that we can do to come together as a college and a local community and work together to make this neighborhood everything it can be and everything we want it to be.”

She also succeeded in building upon several existing programs, including a mentoring initiative, called the Partners Program, that has linked students at the college with young students at DeBerry and Brookings elementary schools for nearly three decades now.

“We have 80 pairs of mentors between the two schools,” she said, adding that the college has worked extensively with those elementary schools as well with organizations combating some of the long-standing issues in those neighborhoods, including food insecurity, homelessness, and others.

It was through these initiatives that Elvers came to understand that the college could, and should, take its involvement to a higher plane.

“Over the years, and from just getting to know a number of the families from the DeBerry school and the Brookings school, I began to realize that, in these two neighborhoods, there were a lot of families that had great ideas and things they wanted to see in their neighborhoods that weren’t there. And I began to wonder if there were ways to connect our students and facility and staff directly with the community. Working together, I thought we could start to facilitate some of the changes that we would all like to see.”

Thus commenced the listening tour, which was launched with a basic premise. “There has to be more that we can do to come together as a college and a local community and work together to make this neighborhood everything it can be and everything we want it to be.”

To that end, the school, with Elvers taking a leadership role, acquired the property that became the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement.

Now in its fifth year, the center is a work in progress, Elvers said — progress that has in some ways been limited or slowed by COVID, but progress nonetheless.

From countless discussions with those in the neighborhood and from listening at dozens of school and church meetings, Elvers said two clear needs emerged: educational opportunities for young people outside of school, and health and wellness programs and activities for people of all ages.

The first initiatives launched were the middle-school mentoring program and the homework-help drop-in center, both of which have continued with virtual platforms, a shift that has actually enabled them to help more young people — and get more Springfield College students involved with the community.

And this brings Elvers back to the reason why it is so important to build these bridges between the college and the community. The biggest is to, in some ways, improve quality of life for those in Old Hill and Upper Hill. But there are others, especially the manner in which these programs help open students’ eyes to the challenges facing those living in these neighborhoods, prompt them to ask questions, and perhaps inspire them to help come up with answers.

Referencing the fact that there is no supermarket in that area of Springfield, Elvers said students will hear stories from the families and individuals they work with that really open their eyes.

“I have students who will say, ‘I’m working with these young people, and they have a hard time getting food, and when I ask them about it, they say they have to go somewhere else to go to a grocery store. And they’ll say they take the bus, but the driver only lets my mom take on two bags of food — and we need more food than that.’

“Our students often don’t realize the challenges that sometimes face these families,” Elvers went on. “And when they hear these stories, they start to realize, and that’s when they start to ask questions, like ‘why would there not be a grocery store in this neighborhood?’ and ‘who’s doing something about that?’ and ‘how do we get involved in that?’ and ‘what’s the process by which that can happen?’

“I have seen more college students ask the really important questions and start to engage after they’ve developed a relationship with a local family and learn of the challenges that are happening,” she continued. “These are challenges that some of them would never have faced.”

 

Grade Expectations

Opening students’ eyes to these challenges, these problems confronting those living just outside the campus, has become part of Elvers’ mission and work.

Her business card says she is the director of the Center for Service and Leadership. But she’s really a builder — a builder of relationships, of connections, of bridges between two entities that share a zip code but often little else.

And her success as a builder explains why she’s a Woman of Impact.

 

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

Women of Impact 2021

CEO, YWCA of Western Massachusetts

Her Advocacy for Women and Children Has Taken Many Powerful Forms

 

Liz Dineen was always a bit different from her young peers. During the 1960s, when they were listening to the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones, she would scour her local library for famous speeches — in print and on vinyl — from the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Winston Churchill, and John and Robert Kennedy.

“I was very intrigued by the power of the word to mobilize people into action for good, and to motivate people to change,” she said.

At age 12, watching Bobby Kennedy’s funeral and procession, “I remember saying to my mother and father that day, ‘I want to be a lawyer. I want to make a difference.’ I’ve wanted to be an advocate for women and children my whole life, from when I was 12 years old, and I’ve kind of directed the rest of my life that way.”

Dineen wasn’t interested in criminal law when she entered law school, but an internship in the Hampden County District Attorney’s Office hooked her. So she kept working there, and stayed after graduation — for the next 27 years, in fact.

“I just loved being an advocate, being a trial lawyer and being able to fight in that legal arena for justice for women and children,” she said, specifically on wrenching cases involving physical and sexual child abuse, adult rapes, child murders, and domestic-violence murders.

“I’ve wanted to be an advocate for women and children my whole life, from when I was 12 years old, and I’ve kind of directed the rest of my life that way.”

“Liz Dineen was the epitome of a caring, supportive, and compassionate champion for those victims,” said attorney Stephen Spelman, who met her while working with her in the DA’s office in the 1990s, and later married her. “She was a zealous advocate in the courtroom, renowned throughout the state, and the nation, for getting decades-long sentences on those who had sexually assaulted children and women, or brutally harmed them physically.”

Always thinking innovatively, she also began a series of lectures and meetings among various professional groups (nurses, doctors, law enforcement, and prosecutors) to ensure, while women and children were receiving medical care after being assaulted, that crucial items of evidence were not tossed out or ignored. “These meetings not only improved the collection of evidence for trial, but also improved the medical care of the victims, particularly in sexual-assault cases,” Spelman said.

It was critical, deeply gratifying work, but after 27 years, Dineen felt it was time to step away. She had been teaching law in an adjunct capacity at Elms College and Bay Path University, and when an opportunity arose to chair Bay Path’s Criminal Justice department, she pursued and landed that role in 2009.

 

Liz Dineen with the most recent Springfield Police Academy class, which made a donation to the YWCA’s programs.

Liz Dineen with the most recent Springfield Police Academy class, which made a donation to the YWCA’s programs.

“I reinvented the department,” she said, “with a strong emphasis on developing women leaders within the criminal-justice arena.”

But in 2015, it was time to shift gears again, and this time, for the first time in her adult life, she took six months off to really think about the future. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next, and I knew I was too young to retire,” she said, so she asked people who knew her well what they envisioned for her. “The answer that kept coming back was to go for a judgeship.”

So, with encouragement from judges and others she had interacted with, she applied for a Superior Court judgeship in December 2015. But then something unexpected happened — something that would completely alter Dineen’s life and career, but made perfect sense along her journey as a Woman of Impact.

 

Opportunity Knocks

It was the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, which was looking for an interim executive director, and reached out to ask if she would consider the role.

Coincidentally, Dineen had just finished reading Year of Yes, a book by TV production powerhouse Shonda Rimes. “The whole message was, ‘don’t be afraid to say yes, even if you’re not 100% qualified,’” she said. “Men will say ‘sure,’ while women make sure every ‘T’ is crossed and every ‘I’ is dotted. So I said, ‘sure — I will throw my hat in that arena.’”

Two weeks later, she was on the job — with no nonprofit experience, but plenty of exposure to some of the Y’s programmatic issues, like domestic violence and sexual assault. “It was a real learning curve in terms of how nonprofits work, how to go about maintaining the funding we already have, obtaining new funding, and seeking new opportunities to expand.”

In March, just a few months into the job, the state’s Judicial Nominating Committee contacted Dineen, wanting to interview her for that judgeship. When she told the executive committee of the YWCA board, they didn’t want to lose a good thing — and offered her the CEO position permanently. She said she’d need some time to think about it.

“But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘if I take this position, I can be proactive. If I’m on a bench, I have to be reactive, meaning I have to wait for cases to come to me.’ And you can’t be political at all if you’re a judge. You have to be very selective in terms of who you’re associating with so you avoid any appearance of impropriety or preference. So I said, ‘OK, let’s try it. Let’s stay here and see what happens.’”

“Everyone realized, when the pandemic hit, that this community would need us now more than ever, and people just really stepped up. I’m proud that we could keep offering those services. We didn’t let the community down.”

Importantly, she noted, “I saw it as an opportunity to continue to serve women and children. I saw it as an opportunity to grow this organization and to be a changemaker in the nonprofit arena, especially on issues relating to women and children. And I have not regretted it.”

Besides growing the organization from 70 employees to 150 in just five and a half years, she has developed and expanded a number of programs, all with the YWCA’s mission — to eliminate racism, empower women, and promote social justice — in mind.

The YWCA offers 22 programs, residential and non-residential, to support women and girls, including a large domestic-violence shelter, residential housing for teen mothers, residential housing for women who are survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence, sexual-assault counselors who respond to local hospitals when a woman has been raped, in-court counselors for domestic-violence survivors, a 24-hour hotline, workforce-development programs, and many others.

Programs take a forward-looking approach to immediate crises. For example, the Children Who Witness Violence program provides therapy to kids (ages 3 to 17) who have witnessed or experienced domestic violence. “We’re trying to change the paradigm so they don’t replicate what they saw — so we can change generations going forward.”

Meanwhile, a financial-empowerment program considers that the vast majority of victims of physical domestic violence are also victims of financial abuse. This fiscal-education program dovetails with the YWCA’s workforce-development programs in that they aim to cultivate independence for women down the road, and they are also open to the public, not just to those who enter through the Y’s crisis services.

The YWCA also visits college campuses to talk about domestic violence and sexual assault, both counseling students and teaching about awareness and intervention in the classrooms, with an eye toward preventing those crisis situations to begin with.

Back on her own campus, Dineen finds satisfaction in seeing troubled lives change.

“I go into the shelter every day — it fuels me,” she said. “I particularly like to see the kids because the kids in the shelter are really happy. That surprised me, but it’s a little like camp — they’re around other kids — and they’re happy because they’re safe and they know their mom’s safe. You see a transformation within 24 hours; they come alive again.

“I can’t even imagine being a kid and seeing my mother get abused like that,” she went on. “Especially the little boys — you can see they’re very, very protective of their mothers. Some of them have said to me they feel bad they didn’t protect their mom. And I just keep saying, ‘you’re just a kid; it’s not your job. Your job is to do well in school and then go outside and play and scream and yell.’”

 

Shelter from the Storm

While the pandemic threw the social-service world into disarray, Dineen said she’s proud that all YWCA programs continued — many virtually, but some in person, including the domestic-violence shelter, two teen residential programs, and the supportive-housing program — “and we kept COVID out the entire time, which was a miracle.”

At the same time, many needs became more urgent. “So many women were looking for help, saying, ‘I’m trapped at home with my abuser. How can I get out, how can you help me?’”

The YWCA raised large amounts of money during that time, as individuals and organizations recognized those needs — including the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, which awarded $200,000, some of which was used to place women in hotels because the shelter was full.

“I’m so proud of my staff and my board of directors,” Dineen said. “Everyone realized, when the pandemic hit, that this community would need us now more than ever, and people just really stepped up. I’m proud that we could keep offering those services. We didn’t let the community down.”

Throughout all of that, she’s never forgotten the legacy she’s forged, of empowering women — some in crisis, some learning from her, some working beside her — to move forward in their own lives. “The thing that gives me the most joy and causes this 65-year-old Irish Catholic girl, who never cried before, to actually cry is seeing another woman succeed.”

That goes for the women of color who direct the YWCA’s programs, and are encouraged to continually advance their education and training.

“I keep saying to them, ‘you are the future leaders of nonprofits of Western Mass. I want to be 80 years old, reading in the newspaper that you just got made a director or CEO of some organization.”

A four-decade career spent not only standing up for women, but helping them become advocates for others — that’s a real Woman of Impact.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Women of Impact 2021

Executive Director, Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts

She Builds Coalitions to Tackle the Pressing Issues Facing Our Communities

Jessica Collins majored in history at Wellesley College. Her specific focus, the one she developed her thesis around, was the 1960s, specifically the Kennedy years and the men and women who defined them.

“I always found that time period very inspiring, and I think we’re still leaning from it today — there’s certainly some unfinished business,” she said. “I loved the oratory, the power, and the poetry of so many of the people at that time. I was always touched by it.”

So it probably shouldn’t be surprising that, upon graduating from the elite women’s school, she would heed Kennedy’s mantra of service to country and others and leave for the Pacific Northwest to serve as a Jesuit volunteer care coordinator for people living with HIV and AIDS. Her next stop after that was a two-year stint in West Africa with the Peace Corps — a tour of duty that ended when a coup erupted in Guinea-Bissau.

In both cases, it was public health — and a desire to help populations in need — that prompted which direction she took, both in terms of the compass and her career. And it’s the same today as she serves as executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts (PHIWM), formerly Partners for a Healthier Community.

The population in need is the one living in the 413 and especially Greater Springfield, and Collins and her growing team have responded with initiatives addressing issues ranging from asthma and obesity to food insecurity and oral health.

But they never address issues alone. Instead, it is in partnership with other nonprofits and healthcare providers, which illustrates what has become perhaps Collins’ strongest attribute among many — her ability to forge coalitions that can bring about meaningful change with regard to some of the most pressing, and persistent, public-health issues facing this region.

One of the latest engagements of this nature is called DASHH (Doorway to an Accessible, Safe and Healthy Home), a broad collaborative effort involving the PHIWM, Baystate Health, the Revitalize Community Development Corp., and other players that was recently honored with BusinessWest’s Healthcare Heroes award in the Collaboration in Health/Wellness category.

Through the program, launched in 2015, these organizations not only identify families in need of intervention for environmental health issues and educate them on lifestyle changes, but actually make the needed physical changes to their homes.

This is the kind of collaborative effort that not only brings about positive change within the community, but inspires individuals and groups to think about what else can be done, said Colleen Loveless, herself a Woman of Impact, who nominated Collins for the award this year.

“Jessica has made impactful contributions to the local and statewide community that have had positive ripple effects throughout the nation,” Loveless wrote. “She exemplifies spirit, service, compassion, and empathy for others, and exhibits a high sense of professionalism in everything she does.”

These traits, and especially her ability to listen, learn, and then mobilize forces to combat health and wellness issues and build stronger neighborhoods, have made Collins a true Woman of Impact.

 

Healthy Attitude

Returning to her time at Wellesley, Collins said that, while history and the Kennedy years were — and still are — a fascination, volunteering, or giving back, was — and still is — a passion.

And it took her first to the Northwest and her work with those living with AIDS.

“It was still tearing communities apart at that time,” she said of the disease. “This was still before they developed the ‘cocktail,’ a blend of medications that really came through in the late ’90s. At that time, people were dying, and it was people across all socio-economic classes; it was a very eye-opening experience.”

So, too, was her time in West Africa and the tiny nation of Guinea-Bissau, where she worked at a health center in a small village of 1,700 people. Working with a midwife and a nurse, she provided lessons in health education. “I obviously learned 100% more than what I taught,” she recalled.

Jessica Collins has devoted her career to public health and addressing some of the larger health problems facing society.

Jessica Collins has devoted her career to public health and addressing some of the larger health problems facing society.

“From both of those experiences, I knew I wanted to be part of something that would allow people to be healthy,” she explained. “It just fit my groove.”

Elaborating, she said she came to understand that she didn’t want to do this work one-on-one, but rather in a community-health setting, and with that goal in mind, she went about earning a master’s degree in food policy and applied nutrition from the Friedman School of Nutrition and Policy at Tufts University.

With that degree, she took a job as project manager of the Institute for Community Health in Cambridge, where she oversaw an overweight-prevention pilot study. Later, she served as project manager for Tufts’ “Shape Up Somerville: East Smart. Play Hard” study that received national recognition for reducing BMIz scores in high-risk third-grade students in Somerville Public Schools.

“ Jessica has made impactful contributions to the local and statewide community that have had positive ripple effects throughout the nation.”

When she relocated with her family to Western Mass., she joined PHIWM as director of Special Initiatives, and in 2015 she became executive director. She described the assignment as one that also fit her groove and gave her an opportunity to be a part of broad efforts that would change lives on many levels.

One of her first initiatives was to work with others to form the Live Well Springfield Coalition, which has been successful in increasing access to healthy eating and physical activity for residents and implementing a number of strategic initiatives, including the Go Fresh Mobile Market.

When asked about PHIWM, its mission, and how the agency carries it out, Collins said that, in essence, it watches, listens, identifies issues to be addressed, builds coalition to address them, creates action plans (with the actions varying from case to case), and, eventually, hands the issue off another group to handle and moves on to the next challenge — or challenges, to be more precise.

“We take on issues where we have heard from the community that there needs to be attention paid to that particular health issue,” she explained. “We look at the health issue both from stories we hear from people in the community as well as hard, quantitative data, and then we build a team.

“We invite people to the table with whatever strengths and value they’re going to add, and we lead the process,” she went on. “Sometimes there’s policy outcomes, sometimes there’s programmatic outcomes, and sometimes … there’s all of it. And we hold it close until there’s another group that’s poised to take it over.”

As an example, she cited the GoFresh Mobile Market, which was recently handed over to Wellspring Cooperative, a Springfield-based nonprofit that boasts Wellspring Harvest, a commercial hydroponic greenhouse in Indian Orchard that brings healthy, locally grown produce to area hospitals, schools, and residents.

“That’s just one example of how we incubate, and it’s another opportunity for another organization to take it on, build their mission out, and bring in new funding for themselves,” she said, adding that this has been the pattern followed with several public-health matters, including oral health, asthma, and transportation for patients who need it to get to appointments.

DASHH is another example, she said, adding that the PHIWM incubated the large and persistent problem of asthma and essentially handed off the healthy-homes initiative to the CDC, which can take action to address the matter on a much higher plane.

“It went from basically health education and showing up with a flyer to Colleen’s agency showing up remediating homes,” Collins said, adding that this work eventually led to a broadening of that specific mission to air quality, climate change, and the creation of a new coalition called Social Justice for Climate Change.

And that’s just one example of how interconnected the problems concerning public health are and how difficult it is to generate meaningful change.

“Public health and community health are never cut and dry — there’s not just one solution that’s going to help people lead balanced lives,” she explained. “It’s far more complicated than that, and that’s why we appreciate that this work takes decades, and we’re here to stay with it and to test different programs. It’s slow going.”

 

History Lessons

The next challenge for the PHIWM and Collins will be youth mental health, an issue essentially chosen by the city of Springfield even before the pandemic, which has only added more layers to an already complicated problem.

“We’ve been working on it for a year, and we’re in the phase of building our team and identifying strategies that we want to test in order to support families and kids around anxiety, depression, and suicidality,” she said, adding that still another priority for her agency, being addressed in partnership with the state Department of Public Health, is trying to understand how to “build capacity around the conversation of racial equity in this region,” as she put it.

“When you control for lots of different things when you’re doing data analysis around health indicators, it is clear that the color of people’s skin is still a top indicator for health,” she said. “And bringing health indicators to a level playing field will not be done until we can truly address one of the most significant root causes, which is racism in this country — so we’re working with a lot of different people to try to figure it out.”

That last comment effectively sums up what has become Collins’ life work and her significance to this region. Since arriving here, she has worked with countless individuals and groups to ‘figure it out.’

She is an administrator and advocate for those in need, but mostly she is a builder — of powerful collaborations that are changing the landscape when it comes to public health. It’s happening slowly, as she said, but it’s happening.

And that’s what makes her a Woman of Impact.

 

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

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