Executive Director, Berkshire Hills Music Academy
Michelle Theroux was a member of BusinessWest’s first class of 40 Under Forty honorees. That was back in 2007, for those who don’t know the history of this program.
At that time, she was executive director of Child and Family Services of Pioneer Valley, and as she talked with BusinessWest on that occasion, she noted that her background in dance — she began studying tap, jazz, and ballet at age 5; added dance instruction when she was just 16; and later toured nationally in a jazz-based children’s show — helped her generate the skills, including discipline, drive, and “balance,” needed to effectively lead a nonprofit.
In her 40 Under Forty picture, her ballet shoes are prominently displayed. In her profile piece, she noted, “now, dance is sort of my balancing piece. It evens out stress. Still, in my life, sleep is optional.”
Sixteen years later, as she was being interviewed as a finalist for the Alumni Achievement Award — the first time she has achieved that honor — the shoes were not visible, but the arts are still a big part of her life, personally and professionally. And between her day job, the arts, and her considerable work within the community, sleep … well, that remains optional.
Indeed, she still dances and teaches dance, and that day job, one she has held for the past decade, is executive director of the Berkshire Hills Music Academy. The South Hadley-based facility is a unique, college-like program for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as autism and Down syndrome, who are looking to expand their social, vocational, and music skills in a music-infused environment.
“Our uniqueness comes from how we integrate music, dance, and other art forms into our programs so that individuals who are musically talented or art-minded can use that to scaffold to other skills, creating better opportunities for independence and developing their life skills such as money management, cooking, and more,” she explained.
Students at the school are provided with opportunities to perform locally, individually, and as part of groups, Theroux noted, and in settings ranging from local schools to Fenway Park, where students have sung the national anthem.
“It gives individuals who otherwise would not have had that opportunity the chance for their ability to be heard, not necessarily their disability,” she went on. “When you hear one of our performers playing, you hear their music; you don’t see their disability — and that’s the mission behind all that we have done.”
Theroux’s role there brings her passion for managing nonprofits and her passion for the arts together in a role she finds both challenging and, in many ways, invigorating.
“This place really blended my nonprofit-management skillset with my dance background,” she said, adding that, during her tenure, she has been able to put the agency on firmer financial ground while expanding its footprint and growing its client base.
“When you hear one of our performers playing, you hear their music; you don’t see their disability — and that’s the mission behind all that we have done.”
As she leads the organization, Theroux continues to lean on those skills she honed through dance — and an impressive track record of managing nonprofits; after spearheading a merger between Child & Family Services and the Center for Human Development, she remained with CHD, serving as vice president of its clinical division.
At Berkshire Hills, she has acted as a change agent for the nonprofit, stabilizing all facets of the operation, creating an operational budget surplus, doubling the operating budget over a two-year period, expanding contracts with the Department of Developmental Services, and exceeding set goals for a capital campaign.
While building on her impressive résumé of work leading nonprofits, Theroux has also built upon a strong track record of service to the community. Most notably, she currently chairs the board of trustees for Mercy Medical Center, and is also a regional board member for Trinity Health Of New England.
But her involvement in the community takes many forms, especially in South Hadley, where she lives and works. She has been a board member for the South Hadley/Granby Chamber of Commerce for nearly a decade now, and served as president of the board from 2018 to 2022. Within the community, she is a member of the Master Plan Implementation Committee and the Redevelopment Authority, and is also a town meeting member.
Other work within the region includes a decade of service to MicroTek Inc., a Chicopee-based manufacturer of custom cable and wire configurations that maintains a focus on employing people with disabilities and supporting these individuals. Theroux has served on its board of directors since 2014, currently as its vice president. Previously, she has been involved with the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts and the Human Service Forum.
At Mercy, Theroux has led the board during a time of extreme challenge — the pandemic tested the hospital and its staff in every way imaginable.
“It was awe-striking in a lot of ways,” she said, “starting with your admiration for the healthcare workers and the day-to-day challenges that they were facing, on all levels — those on the front lines, the administrators trying to make sure everyone was safe, everyone throughout the entire system.
“And then, you’re dealing with the reality of a pandemic and patients who were fighting in the ICUs and the COVID units,” she went on. “You were seeing both, while trying to manage and make sure that you could get as many resources into place as possible to support both ends of that paradigm.”
Her work to help lead the Mercy system through those dark and challenging times is just one example of how Theroux has continued to grow as a manager and a leader since she was first named a 40 Under Forty honoree, and why she is a finalist for the AAA Award.