A Worthy Class of Difference Makers

BusinessWest’s Difference Makers Class of 2015 may be the most compelling to date, and for many reasons.

For starters, many of the honorees might be considered non-traditional by some. There’s a local employer (granted, a Fortune 100 company); a nonprofit that is, by most standards, still just getting started; the director of another nonprofit, tasked with community events such as fireworks displays and parades; the organizers of a bike race that raises funds to battle cancer; and the new ownership team at a landmark Springfield restaurant, one that only reopened its doors 10 weeks ago (see story HERE).

Because these honorees are non-traditional, that might lead to speculation, if not open debate, about whether some — or all — are worthy of that designation Difference Maker. While we acknowledge that some of these selections are certainly different, a very strong case can be made for each. And we’ll make those cases. In no particular order:

MassMutual. There are some, perhaps many, who would say that giving back to the community is what is a Fortune 100 is supposed to do. Perhaps, but not all of them do, and not many do it to the extent that this Springfield-based institution does.

Meanwhile, it’s not merely the level of philanthropy, or community involvement, that sets this company apart, but the nature of that involvement. Its giving is part of a considered strategy to build a stronger community and a capable workforce for the long term — a holistic approach, as one observer called it.

Judy Matt, executive director of the Spirit of Springfield. While some might debate whether someone who organizes a fireworks display should be placed in the same category as an individual devoted to improving childhood literacy, we do not.

They are both making a difference in their own way. Matt, who has been at the forefront of creating, enhancing, and continuing community-focused, family-focused events for more than three decades, deserves a huge amount of credit for improving quality of life here and providing some light in some otherwise very dark times in Springfield’s history. Bright Nights is her best piece of work, but it is a deep — and powerful — portfolio.

Katelynn’s Ride. When BusinessWest launched this recognition program in 2009, one of the goals was to show that you don’t have to change the world — or be a Fortune 100 company, for that matter — to make a difference. You can do that by changing a small part of the world.

And Katelynn’s Ride does just that. The K-Ride, as it’s often called, named in honor of Katelynn Battista, who lost a courageous battle to leukemia at age 11, makes a difference in the lives of cancer patients and their families through donations to Baystate Children’s Hospital and the Jimmy Fund. And, more specifically, it makes a huge difference locally through its support for a new position at Baystate — a liaison of sorts between families of cancer patients and the specialists who provide care. And it’s making a difference simply by bringing together hundreds of people to battle a common — and hated — enemy.

• Valley Venture Mentors. While this nonprofit, economic-development agency is really just getting started, it is already making a difference as it works toward creating what its founders describe, alternately, as an entrepreneurial renaissance and an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Springfield is light years away from being Silicon Valley or Cambridge, and it will likely never approximate what those communities have done. But at least people can talk in those terms. Years ago, there was no such talk, and VVM has brought about that change.

• The new ownership team at the Student Prince and the Fort. ‘The restaurant has only been open for two and a half months!’ ‘No one’s really sure how it’s going to fare!’ ‘It’s just a restaurant!’ ‘How can these individuals be Difference Makers?’ We acknowledge all these opinions and questions and understand their origins.

But this new ownership team — The Yee family, Peter Picknelly, and Kevin and Michael Vann — are already making a difference by keeping another of Springfield’s institutions from being relegated to the past tense. And they’re making a difference because of the energy they’re creating in Springfield, and for ensuring a better future.