Many Ways to Make a Difference



In the fall of 2008, the decision makers at BusinessWest decided the region needed a new recognition program. The magazine had, just a year earlier, introduced the phrase ‘40 Under Forty’ to the local lexicon, a program to recognize the emerging leaders in the 413.

What was needed was a program to recognize … well, everyone.

What the concept really needed was a name, and the chosen brand, Difference Makers, encapsulated everything this was about. There are many ways to make a difference within the community we call home, and this new recognition program was designed to make that clear.

It has certainly done that. Over the years, it has recognized individuals (dozens of them), as well as nonprofits and institutions ranging from the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round to the region’s four community colleges. Each year, there are new stories to convey all the ways there are to make a difference — and inspire others to find their own way.

And the Difference Makers class of 2023 continues that tradition. These inspiring stories share similarities in that they involve individuals and nonprofits committed to helping others, but they are all different:

• Nate Costa, president of the Springfield Thunderbirds, is making a difference not just by making hockey part of the fabric of the region — again — but because of the way he has made this team an economic engine, a supporter of local nonprofits, and a pivotal component of ongoing efforts to revitalize downtown Springfield.

• Steve and Jean Graham make a difference on many levels — as employers, as philanthropists who turned the long-vacant train depot in the center of East Longmeadow into a destination where families can gather and enjoy ice cream and much more, and, in Steve’s case, as a wrestling coach and promoter of the sport who has helped young people across the region absorb the many lessons and benefits from getting on the mat.

• Helix Human Services, formerly the Children’s Study Home, is the oldest social-service agency in the region, tracing its roots back to 1865, when it was known as the Springfield Home for Friendless Women and Childrencaring for destitute women and children orphaned by the Civil War. The mission has changed over the years, and the name changed just last month. But its ability to make a difference in the lives of children and families remains a constant.

• Burns Maxey has long been a believer in the transformative power of the arts, and her volunteer efforts leading the board of CitySpace in Easthampton comprise the most recent, and most exciting, example. The rehabilitation of Old Town Hall into an arts and performance space not only renovates a historic building, but promises to spur economic development and create long-term affordability and accessibility for artists.

• Claudia Pazmany and Gabrielle Gould share an office in downtown Amherst, leading the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and the Amherst Business Improvement District, respectively. Individually, but especially as a team, they have helped this college town find its way through the darkest of days during the pandemic, and continue to work together in many ways to put this community on the map as a place where businesses can thrive.

• Gary Rome was recently named Auto Dealer of the Year by TIME magazine. You don’t get to take home that hardware simply by selling a lot of cars — although that certainly helps. You earn that honor by selling a lot of cars and by being a force in the community. And he is certainly that, both as a philanthropist and by involving his dealerships and employees in causes ranging from the Ronald McDonald House to the Jimmy Fund to Rays of Hope.

• Sports are more than fun and games. They teach important lessons about teamwork and overcoming adversity. They also build character and give people young and old something to look forward to. In that spirit, the organization known as Springfield Ballers continues to make a difference in the way it helps young people get in the game — and get a leg up in life.

• Finally, Henry Thomas has racked up a half-century of difference-making efforts leading the Urban League of Springfield, from its many education and youth-development initiatives to programs ranging from workforce development to productive-aging outreaches to community support, in many forms. Thomas said he’s optimistic that the younger generations will continue to make a similarly powerful difference in their communities and beyond. So are we.