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Alumni Achievement Award

Hampden County District Attorney

It’s called the Emerging Adult Court of Hope, or EACH for short.

The court, blueprinted by Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni in partnership with Springfield District Court and the Massachusetts-based youth-justice nonprofit Roca, is one of very few in the country to focus specifically on high-risk young adults typically aged 18 to 25.

And it was created with the goal of helping these young adults — whose brains, research has shown, are still developing, and whose understanding of consequences and of risk taking is not the same as it is for adults — break the cycle of crime and incarceration that has ruined so many lives by intervening and putting them on the path to not just a job, but a career.

“These are young people who are starting off 100 steps behind, really at birth,” Gulluni told BusinessWest. “They are born into really poor situations, disadvantaged situations with poor role models around them … they never get off on the right foot in school, they’re not supported, they’re not enriched, they’re not resourced, and they end up committing crimes.”

EACH is just one of the number of new programs, initiatives, and events launched by Gulluni and his office since he prevailed in the race for Hampden County DA in 2015, a lengthy list that easily explains why the judges made him a finalist for the 2021 Alumni Achievement Award. Others include:

• A Cold Case Unit that has experienced a number of successes, including an arrest and later a guilty plea to first-degree murder in the 1992 slaying of Lisa Ziegert and, more recently, what amounted to a deathbed near-confession on the part of defrocked Catholic priest Richard Lavigne in the death of Chicopee altar boy Daniel Croteau (Lavigne died before he was set to be charged with the crime);

• The Hampden County Addiction Task Force, a collaboration of community resources, local and state law enforcement, healthcare institutions, service providers, and community coalitions working toward the common goal of a county-wide approach to addressing drug overdoses, addictions, and preventions;

• Development of the Western Massachusetts Human Trafficking Task Force, a collaboration of local, state, and federal law-enforcement partners working on a new approach to pursuing and prosecuting human-trafficking cases based on an understanding that some of those who are traditionally prosecuted for prostitution are victims of force, threat, and coercion;

• The Campus Safety Symposium, which focuses on a multi-disciplinary team approach to the investigation of sexual-assault and domestic-violence complaints and a review and update of applicable laws and the legal issues frequently occurring during these investigations;

• A training event called “Protect, Report and Preserve: Fighting for Elders and Persons with Disabilities” for service providers and care workers to learn best practices for the recognition and reporting of abuse;

• Creation of the District Attorney’s Youth Advisory Board, which consists of local high-school students who meet on a regular basis with the DA’s office to address issues facing today’s teens and research-effective prevention strategies;

• A training event called “How Can You Not Remember? Understanding a Victim’s Response to Violence” for members of the law-enforcement community to highlight a trauma-informed approach to interviewing victims of sexual assault;

• The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children conference, designed for healthcare, mental-health, law-enforcement, and school professionals to provide tools and skills for recognizing and accessing the necessary resources in the aid of children suspected to be victims of exploitation;

• A #StoptheSwerve public-service-announcement contest for Hampden County high-school students to highlight the dangers of impaired driving; and

• A summer job fair and 3-on-3 basketball tournament that combines fun with a chance to learn about employment opportunities.

Slicing through all those new initiatives, Gulluni said that they are the embodiment of the mindset he took while first campaigning for the office.

“During that campaign, we communicated to the public that we could build a safer community by engaging with young people, by preventing crime, and by dealing with the core issues that cause crime, namely addiction, mental illness, and others, while also continuing to do the core work of the district attorney and law enforcement,” he explained, “which is to deter serious crime and to take people who are violent and repeat offenders off the streets.

“And when I look back on the first six and half years, I really feel that we’ve lived out that very philosophy,” he went on, adding that recent headlines have provided testimony to the progress his office has made.

Lavigne’s deathbed interview with Massachusetts State Trooper Michael McNally, which was front-page news across the state and beyond, tops that list in most respects, but there have been many other developments, including multiple arrests of members of the Knox Street Posse, a local street gang in Springfield, the first strike made by the Strategic Action and Focused Enforcement Team, which operates out of the DA’s office. The sweep resulted in the seizure of 20 firearms, 100,000 bags of heroin, and approximately 2.8 kilograms of cocaine.

And then, there’s EACH, which was first conceived more than four years ago. It first convened in March 2020 and was slowed in its development by the pandemic, but early results are very positive, said Gulluni, noting that the court has caught the attention of both the press and other regions looking to emulate it because of its potential to intervene and help steer young, high-risk youths to a different path.

“We’re intervening and wrapping these young people with support and services,” he explained. “We have seven young people in the court, and they’ve really begun their turnaround. And we’re dealing with high-risk young people — these are people with records who have committed serious offenses for which they would almost certainly be going to jail.”

As noted, EACH is just one of the initiatives that have not just made Gulluni a finalist for this award, but are changing lives in this region.

 

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

President and Owner, Chikmedia

Meghan Rothschild says the role of event emcee comes naturally to her — and that’s just one of the many reasons why the requests for her to take on those duties keep pouring in from groups ranging from the Ad Club of Western Massachusetts to the American Cancer Society’s regional chapter.

She’s adept behind the mic and standing in front of people because … well, she’s had a lot of experience doing so — as a college instructor, specifically in marketing and public relations, and as a public speaker delving into subjects ranging from social-media marketing to sun safety (she is a melanoma survivor who started survivingskin.org to help share her message).

Sometimes she gets asked to emcee, but quite often she volunteers, one of many ways she gives back to specific nonprofits and the community at large.

“I really enjoy it,” she said. “And I try to use a little humor, a little self-deprecation, and try to get people to laugh; I try to reflect what the organization wants me to reflect.”

Rothschild, a member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2011, has been a finalist for the Alumni Achievement Award, formerly known as the Continued Excellence Award, on several occasions. And it’s easy to see why different panels of judges have come away so impressed.

Indeed, over the ensuing decade, she has continued to add scores of new lines to her résumé (figuratively but also quite literally).

She started Chikmedia in 2014 and has grown the agency to a staff of five and a client list that includes Dunkin’ Donuts, Papa John’s Pizza, Square One, and many others. In addition to being an entrepreneur, Rothschild has also become a mentor to several young women in the region and a coach and resource for many women-owned businesses looking for effective ways to tell their story.

Efforts in this realm also include the recent creation of scholarships for women of color pursuing degrees in marketing and public relations. Last year, the first for this initiative, the company awarded one $500 scholarship; this year, it awarded four because several area companies heard about the program and wanted to be part of it.

“This was something we felt passionate about last year, when everything was going on in the country and there was so much turmoil over racial injustice,” she told BusinessWest. “It was something we needed to do to give back and try to combat these issues; since we’re very much focused on women’s empowerment, we thought this was a great way to support a young woman who is pursuing a degree in this field.”

In addition to her success in business and efforts to mentor and coach other women in business, Rothschild is well known for the many ways in which she gives back to the local community, and especially its nonprofits.

Indeed, she has become a resource on many levels, from those aforementioned emceeing duties to the way in which she engages the classes she teaches at Springfield College and Southern New Hampshire University in building social-media strategies for selected nonprofits (five to 20 of them, depending on the size of the class).

Meanwhile, Chikmedia chooses three to five nonprofit events each year to sponsor on a pro bono basis, with help ranging from free publicity to fundraising to event coordination. Beyond that is ongoing support to several nonprofits. Rothschild said she started her company with such efforts to give back in mind, and it has become a huge part of the culture of the business, one that others are now striving to emulate.

“We donate five hours of time every month to Girls Inc. of the Valley, we work with Square One, we have been very involved for years with all of the Food Bank of Western Mass. events, and I’ve been volunteering for and emceeing events for the American Cancer Society for many years,” she said, offering just a partial list of such efforts.

But Rothschild and her company go further in their backing of nonprofits by compelling their for-profit clients to make support for, and alignment with, a nonprofit part of their overall marketing plan.

“Every marketing strategy I devise for my for-profit clients aligns them with a nonprofit that makes sense for their mission; that’s something I’ve always been passionate about,” she explained. “Yes, you can buy traditional advertising, and that’s great; you can place digital advertising, you can do all these things. But if you can find a nonprofit or a charity you can support, it’s going to really help reinforce your mission, but it’s also what you should be doing.”

Rothschild’s effort to mentor others, work within the community, and be a role model to countless others was summed up perfectly by Heather Clark, event manager for Baystate Children’s Hospital, who nominated her for the Alumni Achievement Award.

“People tell me all the time how much Meghan inspires them through her passion for not only helping businesses to succeed through great marketing and PR, but also her straightforward approach,” she wrote. “She cares deeply about her clients and about the nonprofits for which she volunteers her time. Most importantly, Meghan is as authentic as a person gets, and is the best friend anyone could ask for. She has personally lifted me up more times than I can count and encouraged me to follow my dreams.

“She doesn’t settle for mediocre, but instead demands the best from herself and everyone around her,” Clark went on. “I truly wouldn’t be in the career I am today without her encouragement and leadership. I have learned so much about business, marketing, and events, and I push myself each day to present myself in a way that would make me proud.”

Those sentiments, echoed by many others, explain not only why Rothschild is a finalist for this award, but why she has become a true business leader in this region — in every sense of that word.

 

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

State Senator, First Hampden and Hampshire District

Eric Lesser

Eric Lesser

Eric Lesser says he doesn’t know if a proposed high-speed rail project linking the eastern and western parts of the state has enough support on Beacon Hill to become reality.

What he does know is that the concept has never been this close to becoming reality, and he isn’t shy about touting his role in getting what has become known as ‘east-west rail’ as far down the tracks as it has ever traveled.

“We’re at a closer and more exciting moment than we’ve ever been,” he said of the initiative. “With Joe Biden in office, with the feasibility study done … after eight years of advocacy and work, we have the best chance we’ve ever had of making this reality.”

The rail proposal is just one of the initiatives Lesser has led since first being elected to the First Hampden and Hampshire District Senate seat in 2014 (and earning a 40 Under Forty nod the following year). Most, but not all, of them have fallen into the broad realm of economic development and, more specifically, into the area of leveling the playing field between east and west within the Commonwealth and bringing opportunities to the people — and communities — of the four western counties.

“The animating principle of both my campaign in 2014 and, really, every day I’ve been in office since then has been unlocking and creating economic opportunity for Western Mass. that’s comparable and equal to people in Eastern Mass.,” said Lesser, a first-time finalist for the Alumni Achievement Award. “I will have succeeded if a child born in Springfield or Chicopee or anywhere in Western Mass. has the same shot at making a good living and supporting a family as a kid born in the Boston area.”

By now, most know the story of how Lesser, then 29, moved to the State House from the White House, specifically a position in the Obama administration as a special assistant to Senior Advisor David Axelrod. Lesser, who has a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard and a juris doctor from Harvard Law School, started his career as an aide on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Today, he holds several leadership positions in the Legislature. He is Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, Senate vice chair of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, Senate vice chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation, and Senate chair of the Joint Legislative Manufacturing Caucus, the Gateway Cities Caucus, and the Libraries Caucus.

Recent initiatives have included a number of efforts to bolster the state’s manufacturing sector and raise awareness of the 10,000 vacant manufacturing jobs in the four western counties, including work to create apprenticeship tax credits and fund mid-career training programs for workers. Lesser has also been at the forefront of efforts to create the Student Loan Borrower Bill of Rights, which recently became law in the Commonwealth.

As for those efforts to level the playing field between east and west, they come in a number of forms, said Lesser, who started by referencing the Clinical Trials unit at Baystate Health, which will open in the fall, part of the Life Sciences Bill passed several years ago. It will create jobs, but also enable people in this part of the state to take part in clinical trials without having to travel to Boston.

He also cited his efforts to lead an initiative to encourage more people to relocate to Western Mass. through a remote-worker incentive, which would pay workers up to $10,000 to move to this region, a concept that, given the lessons provided by the pandemic about where people can work and how, proved to be ahead of its time.

And then, there’s east-west rail.

“Frankly, I got laughed out of a lot of rooms when I talked about connecting Springfield and Boston by train service,” he told BusinessWest. “People said it would never happen; they said it was something we shouldn’t focus on. But now, our chances are as good as they’ve ever been, and the next year will provide the answer. We need to get the federal money secured, and we’re closer than we’ve been to seeing that happen.

“A major unfinished piece is the governor supporting it from there,” he went on. “That’s a major piece that requires our focus and our attention. An eyelash isn’t batted about investments in Boston, but when an investment will help the whole state … suddenly there’s a lot of questions about how expensive it will be.”

Lesser’s latest assignment is as co-chair of the new Future of Work Commission, which will include 17 members from across the state who will address a topic that was already dominated by question marks before the pandemic.

“These are some of the biggest questions in society right now,” he said. “How are people going to work in an era of remote working? How are benefits going to work? How is commuting going to work? What does transportation look like when people are no longer in 9-to-5, in-an-office-building jobs? How is automation going to be impacting society? These are some of the biggest questions we have, and this commission will look to answer them.”

Summing up his first seven years in the Legislature, Lesser said this time has been a learning experience, and what he’s learned is that change and progress come through patience and diligence.

“Success in politics is about methodical, persistent progress,” he explained. “Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back; sometimes it’s two steps forward, three steps back. But staying focused on the ultimate goals and working collaboratively with people is the key. One of the things I’ve seen seven years in is that some of the seeds we’ve planted back in 2015, 2016, and 2017 are now blooming.”

By keeping that focus and working collaboratively, Lesser has certainly seen many of his initiatives bear fruit, which helps explain why he is a finalist for the coveted Alumni Achievement Award.

 

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

Vice President and Senior Private Client Relationship Manager, TD Private Client Group

Gregg Desmarais

Gregg Desmarais

It was more than 10 years ago now, but Gregg Desmarais still remembers the day one of his managers at TD Bank invited him to spend part of a Saturday joining others as they did some work revitalizing one of Springfield’s neighborhoods.

“I joined him and a few other volunteers cleaning up an old lady’s house and tidying up her yard, cutting down some trees, stuff like that,” he recalled. “I liked doing that kind of work anyway, and knowing that it helped someone in need made it even more enjoyable.”

And so began what has become a long and ongoing tenure of service to Revitalize Community Development Corp. (CDC), a nonprofit that serves the Greater Springfield area and performs critical repairs and modifications to the homes of low-income families with children, the elderly, military veterans, and individuals with special needs. That service punctuates a résumé that has made Desmarais a finalist for the 2021 Alumni Achievement Award.

A member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2015 (three of this year’s finalists are from that class), Desmarais captures the essence of this award, which was created that same year to recognize those who have built upon their track records in both business and service to the community.

He has steadily risen in the ranks at TD Bank, moving from an assistant store manager in Agawam to vice president and manager of the store in his hometown of Westfield, then to manager of the flagship office in downtown Springfield, the post he was in when he took his walk down the 40 Under Forty red carpet at the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House.

Today, he serves as vice president and senior private client relationship manager for TD Private Client Group, a business of TD Wealth.

In that role, he serves as a liaison to whom those in the area branches refer high-net-worth customers. “I’m their point person for anything to do with their finances, be it deposits, lending, financial planning, investment-management services, trust and estate work, and more,” he said, adding that he works with others to see that all these various needs are met.

His work covers essentially all of Western Mass., and he works with TD employees in, and customers of, more than 20 branches stretching from Longmeadow to Great Barrington. It’s rewarding work, he said, noting that many of the aspects of work with high-net-worth individuals is complex and involves solving problems.

“I’ve been in customer service my whole career, so this is essentially the culmination of everything I’ve done,” he told BusinessWest. “Not many people can say, ‘I love what I do,’ but I can.”

Like all those in financial services, Desmarais said the pandemic has created a number of challenges when it comes to customer service, which have forced adjustments when it comes to how work is carried out and where. Indeed, he’s been to his office at the bank’s local headquarters at 1441 Main St. only a few times over the past 16 months.

“We’re just reinventing ourselves and figuring out new ways of doing business, like videoconferencing, and it’s been working out just fine,” he said.

While working to serve high-net-worth individuals, Desmarais continues a long track record of service to the community, especially with Revitalize CDC. When named to the 40 Under Forty class of 2015, he told BusinessWest, “I take advantage of any opportunity to get out of my suit and tie, get my hands dirty, and give back to the community; I want to make Springfield as healthy, safe, and beautiful as it can be.”

He meant that quite literally. While he has given back in a number of ways, including as chairperson for three years during the Community Foundation’s annual Valley Gives fundraiser, as a former member of the United Way of Pioneer Valley’s grant approval board, and service on the fundraising committee for the American Cancer Society, he is best known for his work for Revitalize CDC, where he has also risen in the ranks, if you will.

Indeed, he moved from volunteer that Saturday a decade ago all the way to chairman of the board (a role he recently relinquished), although he remains quite active with this nonprofit group, in fundraising and also as a house captain for its rebuilding events.

During his tenure with Revitalize CDC, and especially as chairman of the board, Desmarais worked to improve fundraising efforts and create more community events for the nonprofit, enabling it to grow and serve more families each year. Under his leadership, Revitalize CDC officially became a community-development corporation in 2015.

During COVID, Desmarais helped orchestrate a needed shift in services, with volunteers mostly unable to go into individuals’ homes. Indeed, the nonprofit found new ways to give back.

“We had a few projects to rehab here and there, but mostly we were bringing sanitary products, household cleaners, masks, and food to people,” he explained. “We found more ways to help people in those difficult times.”

Colleen Loveless, president and CEO of Revitalize CDC, who nominated Desmarais for the Alumni Achievement Award, summed up not only his work with her group, but his ability to inspire others to give back.

“Gregg exemplifies the characteristics of a strong, community-based leader — vision, mentorship, hands-on service, and a positive understanding of the strength of the local community,” she wrote in her nomination. “He quickly saw the underserved population of Springfield residents who could directly benefit from the services of Revitalize CDC, and he understood that it would take a more robust fundraising structure.”

In these and other ways, Desmarais truly exemplifies the characteristics of an Alumni Achievement Award finalist — an individual who continues to build on an already strong record, both in business and within the community.

 

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

Vice President of Business Development, Greenfield Savings Bank

Tara Brewster

Tara Brewster

Tara Brewster likes to refer to herself as a “recovering entrepreneur.”

She uses that phrase to describe everything from how she can’t fully unplug while on vacation (which she was when talking with BusinessWest) to life in general after she and partner Candace Connors sold the clothing store they created, Jackson & Connor, in 2013.

She has spent the years since … well, recovering from a thoroughly enjoyable time running her own business and essentially deciding what comes next for someone with entrepreneurial energy still to be tapped and a deep commitment to serving the community.

Actually, many things have ‘come next,’ from some work in consulting to her current assignment as vice president of Business Development for Greenfield Savings Bank (GSB); from a wide range of work within the community, especially in Hampshire County, to something new and completely different — her own radio show.

Indeed, Brewster recently succeeded Ira Bryck as the host of the weekly Western Mass. Business Show on WHMP. She started only a few months ago and admits to still being in the process of learning the ropes and becoming comfortable behind the mic.

“I’m still kind of shaking off the jitters and the ‘how am I going to craft my voice,’” she told BusinessWest. “And I’m still figuring out what I can ask and how deep I can go, all those things. I’m still learning, and it’s been a lot of fun.”

Meanwhile, she was already quite comfortable with getting involved in the community, but has only become more so in recent years, donating her time and talents to agencies and causes ranging from the Hampshire Regional YMCA to the Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA) to the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce. But more on that, and how the sum of her work has made her a finalist for the Alumni Achievement Award, later.

First, we flash back to when Brewster sold Jackson & Connor — a difficult time, as she described it, because she really didn’t know what to do with herself and fill the void created by selling the business that had been her passion — or one of them, anyway.

“I was like, ‘this was my whole identity; what am I going to do now?’” she said, adding that she worked as a consultant for the Vann Group (which helped her sell the business), and later did some work for the Springfield Business Improvement District and CityStage. Through those assignments, she reconnected with her former loan officer from Greenfield Savings Bank, who took her to lunch, at which Brewster did a lot of ‘complaining’ (her word) about being a consultant and how different it was from the retail world she was in.

She remembers saying, “‘after a decade of being entrepreneurial and making my own economy, I think I’m ready to go back to being an employee — but no two days can be the same; it has to be entrepreneurial, I’ve got to have freedom, and I have to be out and about in the community and making an impact.’”

All of which is serendipity, because that loan officer was essentially there to encourage her to apply for a position in business development at GSB, a job that offered essentially everything she just said she needed.

Overall, her job at the bank, which began in late 2016, has allowed her to take her work within the community to an even higher plane, one that recently earned her the Kay Sheehan Spirit of the Community Award, presented by the Community United Way of Hampshire County.

That involvement, which includes work with the YMCA, DNA, MassHire, Double Edge Theatre, Pathlight, Safe Passage, the chamber, and many other groups, was put into its proper perspective by Bryck, who not only gave Brewster the keys to the radio show he handled for more than a decade, but nominated her for the Alumni Achievement Award.

“Tara exemplifies for many what commitment and giving back looks like,” he wrote. “Western Mass. is fortunate to have Tara continuing to improve our backyard. She is a person for whom each day is a blessing, and she shows her appreciation, and uses her position, in ways that help fellow humans.

“I know a lot of people who see Tara as an inspiring leader,” he went on. “They are lit by her fire, and they become better people by seeing her compassion and action. She embodies sincerity and is brilliant at luring others into the river that she flows with.”

Brewster, a member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2009, summed it up this way: “To work for a community bank in Western Massachusetts is just a gift, especially for someone who is a true philanthropist at heart, someone who really sees the jeweled web of a region and understands that everything happens because of connections, everything happens because you make asks, everything happens because you see others before you see yourself.”

As for the radio show, she sees it as an extension of her work in business — and in the community — and she has committed herself to using the show to give a platform to those who need to tell their story.

“I try to focus on people in the community who need to be highlighted and aren’t necessarily highlighted,” she explained. “I have a real bent in my heart toward nonprofits, so I try to bring them on so they can talk about themselves. Also, people of color. COVID really took off my rose-colored glasses and put on some pretty intense eyeglasses from which I now view a lot of the work that I do, how we are in the community, how we treat each other, and who has the mic.”

Her work sharing the airwaves is just the latest installment of ‘what comes next’ for this recovering entrepreneur, a list that now also includes being a finalist for the 40 Under Forty Alumni Achievement Award.

 

—George O’Brien

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