Jessica Roncarati-Howe: 31
Executive Director, AIDS Foundation of Western Mass.
While working toward her master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and Philanthropy at Bay Path College, Jessica Roncarati-Howe was asked by a professor — a trustee of the AIDS Foundation of Western Mass. — to assist with one of that organization’s events.
It turned out to be a life-changing experience.
“When I met with people and saw how dedicated and passionate they were, I was completely hooked,” she said. “After less than a year, I was invited onto the board of trustees.” About five years into that role, that board wanted to hire an executive director, and she got the job.
“I wanted to build a career around working with people with that much passion,” said Roncarati-Howe, who is also an accomplished visual artist. “It was a thrilling prospect.”
And also a challenging one. As the foundation’s only paid staff member, she’s in charge of marketing and development, administering the grant program, co-chairing most events, and overseeing a cadre of volunteers and interns — “everything from vacuuming to major executive roles.”
The AIDS Foundation has three missions: providing financial assistance to about 100 patients a year for expenses like rent, utilities, medications, and other basic needs; educational components, including the training of young peer educators to bring awareness into high schools and colleges; and referral services to help people with the disease access health care and other resources.
Those efforts are making a difference. Greater Springfield has the highest rate of infection in the state, with 1,200 known AIDS patients in the City of Homes alone — many more than that, actually, since typically, only 1 in 5 victims know they’re infected. So Roncarati-Howe knows that her organization’s initiatives are saving lives.
“Every time I’m able to help a person find the services they need, or they receive a grant from the foundation, it could be life-saving or life-altering. It is just unspeakably gratifying,” she said.
“How many people can get out of bed every day and do something they absolutely love?” she added. “Not only that, I’m able to do something that directly affects quality of life for people in our community. I can’t overstate how grateful I am to have that opportunity.”
— Joseph Bednar