For 14 years now, BusinessWest has been recognizing the work of individuals, groups, businesses, and institutions through its Difference Makers program, with one goal in mind: to show the many ways one can, in fact, make a difference within their community. Their stories are sure to enlighten and also inspire others to find their own ways to make a difference.
Tickets cost $75 and can be ordered at businesswest.com. The sponsors for this year’s program are Burkhart Pizzanelli, the New England Farm Workers’ Council, the Royal Law Firm, TommyCar Auto Group, and Westfield Bank
This Unique Nonprofit Helps At-risk Youths Find a Way Out of Darkness
Leah Martin Photography
Stefan Davis has a scar on his leg.
The mark was left by his stepfather, who lashed at him with a hook of some sort, as he recalls, tearing at the skin. While Davis remembers that physical attack, one of many he endured, he also never forgot what his stepfather then said — and the emotional trauma it created: “if you ever tell anyone about this … you’ll never say anything to anyone again.”
Actually, Davis has several scars. There’s also one above his right eye from when he was beaten out of the gang he joined — the Bloods. And there’s another one on his right wrist from when things became so dark in his life, he attempted suicide.
“I was done … I was ready to give up,” said Davis, now an educator, football coach, and behavioral interventionist for at-risk students and families at Springfield High School of Science and Technology. “And I show this scar to people who are in darkness and think there is no other way out.”
Davis made it out of his dark place — through the help of others, but mostly his own strong will — and into the light. And today, he helps others bearing different types of scars — everything from homelessness to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, to seemingly insurmountable life challenges — do the same through a nonprofit agency he created called, appropriately enough, I Found Light Against All Odds.
“He always gave me that push that no other teacher would. And he’s been there for hundreds of students. There’s a lot of kids that were in his program who looked at him not as a teacher or as a coach, but as a father figure.”
Its stated mission is to “provide high-risk youth and families with the tools and opportunities to break the cycle of poverty, desperation, and dependence that dominates their lives, enabling them to become contributing members of our society.”
These tools vary, but the most important one is the sheer will and determination it takes to overcome the often very long odds against finding the light. And when you talk to people who have been helped and guided by Davis, or ‘Coach,’ as they all call him, they say he essentially coaxes it out of them, compelling them to find strength and determination they didn’t know they had.
That was certainly the case with Destiny Cortez, who, as she was entering her senior year at Sci-Tech, found out that she was six weeks pregnant. Graduation now became a much steeper climb, she said, but ‘Coach’ helped her find the will to press on and handle all that life was throwing at her.
Stefan Davis is seen here with a group of Sci-Tech students at a recent visit to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.
“He always gave me that push that no other teacher would,” she recalled. “And he’s been there for hundreds of students. There’s a lot of kids that were in his program who looked at him not as a teacher or as a coach, but as a father figure.”
Ethan Deleon, a current student at Sci-Tech, tells a similar story.
“Coach gives you that little sense of hope,” he said, adding that hope is often a missing ingredient in the lives of many young people having trouble seeing the light.
Before he launched the nonprofit agency, Davis created a the aptly named Fresh Start program, which would eventually draw praise from President Obama for its work to help students on the verge of dropping out of school. And he also hosted a show on Focus Springfield Community TV called Against All Odds. The show allowed young people and families to share encounters they had during a time in their lives when they overcame and conquered serious issues. The goal was to inspire others, and Davis and his guests accomplished that with shows on topics ranging from teen fathers to incarceration to bullying.
Desiring to reach, inspire, and help a larger audience, Davis launched I Found Light in 2016. The agency has succeeded in gaining the support — both financially and from a volunteer perspective — from a number of area businesses, including Monson Savings Bank.
MSB President Dan Moriarty said the agency’s mission, to help young people with social, emotional, and economic issues in their lives, resonates with the institution, and fits into its broader strategy for giving back to the community.
“That mission really hits home for us,” he told BusinessWest. “Helping out young people, in general, is important, but also, giving the youths who have a difficult situation an opportunity to overcome that and achieve a capacity to do the best they can — that’s very important to us, and this the difficult and important work that I Found Light Against All Odds is doing.”
Such sentiments certainly help explain why this inspiring, life-changing nonprofit has become a true Difference Maker — for young people, families, and this region.
Before telling the story of I Found Light Against All Odds, one must first tell Davis’s story — and for many reasons,
He is the founder of the nonprofit and its heart and soul. But beyond that, his story echoes that of so many others he has helped over the years, from the perspective of how one can move from the darkness and into the light.
“I’m them,” Davis said, adding that he was the victim of physical and emotional abuse in his youth, and was in the foster-care system for two months before being sent to live with his grandparents in Beacon, N.Y. He developed a passion for football — “I hid the trauma through sports,” he said — and eventually won a full scholarship to play at American International College.
The problem was … he didn’t know exactly where the school was located.
“I was leaning toward Syracuse, and my coach called and said, ‘come on up to Springfield,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘Springfield, Illinois?’ and he said, ‘no, Springfield, Massachusetts.’”
Davis eventually found his way to the campus on State Street, but found his way into trouble as well.
“I lost that structure — for whatever reason, my past caught up to me.”
“I lost that structure — for whatever reason, my past caught up to me,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while he eventually lost his scholarship, he stayed all four years, with his grandmother paying for his education. He left with 69 credits and, later, an associate degree, but in the meantime, the ‘street,’ as he called it, started taking over his life.
“It was really dark,” he explained. “I didn’t want to go back home to live because I felt that my grandmother raised me — she did her job — and it is was up to me to deal with my life on my own. Which wasn’t good.”
He joined the Bloods, and gang life led to many problems, but he eventually moved on from the gang (with the scar over his eye to prove it) and landed a position with the Westover Job Corps working with young people to help them find employment opportunities, and then with Brightside for Families and Children.
“And that’s where I found myself,” he went on, “because those young kids I saw every day, and the abuse, the trauma … reminded me of myself, and there was a connection. When people couldn’t connect with a child who was highly at-risk, I went in, and there was like something from God — the child just felt safe and started talking about their issues with me.”
Fast-forwarding a little, Davis would eventually land at the Center School, an alternative school for at-risk youths. He became a liaison to public schools, going to a number of different districts to work with students who were losing their way. Later, he coached at Cathedral High School and Western New England University (WNE), while still battling depression and eventually attempting suicide.
He fought his way through those dark times and landed more coaching opportunities, first during a two-year internship with the NFL’s Houston Texans, and then at WNE, before taking a job at Springfield’s Sci-Tech as a paraprofessional and coaching the football team.
He was encouraged to go back to school to get the degree he needed to teach — and he did. And while teaching, he continued his work with at-risk young people, launching Fresh Start, a credit-recovery program that successfully turned around dozens of students who were close to dropping out of school.
“The program was based around at-risk youths who were about to get kicked out of high school. I was their last alternative; if they couldn’t make it with me, they were going to be kicked out of mainstream and put into the alternative school,” said Davis, adding that these were young people involved with gangs who were skipping school, getting into fights, and landing in trouble.
School of Thought
Fresh Start would eventually evolve and expand into I Found Light Against All Odds, which helps today’s young people address social, emotional, and economic issues. The agency acts as a multi-faceted resource, providing information; referrals to partnering agencies such as Mental Health Associates, the Center for Human Development, Unify Against Bullying, and many others; and assistance that comes in many forms, including:
• Individualized trauma-informed care;
• Education counseling and coaching;
• Assistance with employment opportunities;
• Reinforcement of effective daily-living skills;
• Skill development for financial literacy; and
• Creation of a robust ‘transition plan’ for each individual as they move on with the next steps in life.
The agency steps in to help young people and families in all kinds of ways, from scholarships and help finding employment to providing families with turkeys at Thanksgiving and gifts for children — and even Christmas trees — during the holidays.
As she talked about Davis, I Found Light, and how the agency helps those in need, Jenny Lebron, Ethan’s mother, said the agency has helped both her sons find the motivation to move beyond depression and other issues and get to a better place. For her older son, this place was a high-school degree and, now, a solid job as a corrections officer. For Ethan, it was a place where he simply wanted to go to school to do the work needed to graduate.
“He had no motivation left — I couldn’t get him motivated for school, or anything else,” she recalled. “Every time he went to school, his teachers would call; he felt no one understood him, and in his mind, everyone was against him and didn’t understand what he was going through.”
In part because he did know what Ethan was going through, Davis was able to get him motivated.
“He understands my son, and he’s such a big motivation for him,” Lebron said. “Since Coach has been in his life, he talks differently, he acts differently, and he brings everything that Coach tells him and teaches to others.”
Stefan Davis is seen with recent Sci-Tech graduates Cassandra Rivera, left, and Destiny Cortez.
An emerging next chapter for the agency is the I Found Light Against All Odds Lighthouse project, which will support homeless girls in the region. The goal is to create a transitional home for such girls, while also providing a variety of resources to the residents and assisting in the development of self-sufficiency and independent living, said Davis, adding that there is a story behind Lighthouse — or a story that inspired it, to be more precise.
It’s about a girl he identified only as ‘Faith.’
“She was homeless … a beautiful young girl,” said Davis, pointing her out in a photograph of several young girls on display in his office. “She was living in the port-a-potties at Blunt Park — she was homeless for a year and a half. There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts near Sci-Tech … Faith would crawl in the dumpster there to eat.”
Unfortunately, there are more people like Faith in Springfield and other are communities than most people can imagine, he said, adding that there is a real need for a facility where they can not only live, but get the many other types of support they need.
“There’s another type of pandemic that’s going on right now, and that involves homeless teen girls,” Davis said. “And I wanted to be a beacon, or a voice, for those girls, and give them an opportunity to find their potential in themselves, and not worry about whether they’re going to be able to eat tomorrow. I want to be able to give them a home where they’ll have the proper tools to become successful young women. And that’s what the Lighthouse will do for these young women.”
Plans for the Lighthouse are in the formative stage, he said, adding that I Found Light is looking to partner with other agencies to identify potential participants in the program and with area businesses to secure a site and finance the initiative.
Overall, he said his goal is to continually grow I Found Light and expand both its mission and impact across the region — because there are many now in the dark and looking for a way to bring some light into their lives.
Shedding Some Light
Davis, both while while speaking to large audiences during motivational talks or conversing with students one-on-one, will talk about the scar on his leg. All of his scars, actually.
He does so to drive home the point that most young people, and especially those who are at risk, have scars themselves, whether they are visible or not.
Such scars are permanent, he stressed, but they can be overcome. He’s living proof of that, and through I Found Light Against All Odds, he has created considerably more proof.
Overcoming challenge, especially in the form of physical and emotional trauma, is never easy, Davis said in conclusion, and no one can really do it alone. A strong, reliable support system is needed, and I Found Light has become one.
He’s Always Made a Difference, but Not a Very Big Splash
By Mark Morris
Leah Martin Photography
When discussing his favorite movies, Ted Hebert includes the Frank Capra classic and holiday tradition It’s a Wonderful Life.
He says he’s always been inspired the movie’s message about how one person’s life can impact so many others — and he sees a little (or maybe more than a little) of himself in the film’s main character, George Bailey. Indeed, their lives took some similar paths, as we’ll see.
Like Bailey, Hebert — the founder and president of Teddy Bear Pools — has spent his life serving his community and being a Difference Maker for thousands of his neighbors.
Hebert’s office is located above the Teddy Bear Pools and Spas store in Chicopee. Recognition plaques, thank-you notes, and photos cover nearly every inch of every wall in the area leading to his office, where those walls are covered, too.
It’s not unusual for community leaders to devote all or most of their philanthropic efforts to one specific cause or organization. Hebert does not have one favorite, saying “I love all the causes we’ve supported.” Indeed, the walls are lined with dozens of plaques recognizing years of support for the Children’s Miracle Network, the Jimmy Fund, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and several animal-welfare groups.
“As human beings, I feel we have a responsibility and an obligation to take care of our furry friends,” Hebert said, noting that his efforts on behalf of animals have included support of and involvement with agencies ranging from the MSPCA to the Thomas J. O’Connor Animal Control and Adoption Center to the Zoo in Forest Park, which he serves as a board member, an invitation he accepted as a tribute to his mother.
“My mom grew up in the Great Depression, and to earn money for the family, she would babysit neighborhood kids and bring them to Forest Park,” he recalled. “When I was young, she brought me to the zoo, so I have those special memories as well.”
Hebert’s position on the Forest Park Zoo board goes well beyond sitting around a conference table. On the day he spoke with BusinessWest, the zoo had enlisted his help to repair the metal bucket on its Bobcat tractor. Just before this interview commenced, Hebert was making calls to enlist Tom O’Sullivan, a welder friend, to take on the job. When the repair to the bucket was successful, Hebert contacted Bernie Croteau, another friend, and arranged to put four new tires on the tractor.
“I’m blessed to be part of a circle of friends who are good people and whom I respect,” Hebert said. “It’s not about me; they simply helped solve a problem for the zoo. It’s all about helping people.”
For all the high-profile and public contributions that Hebert makes in the community, there are just as many that are, like that fixing of the tractor at the zoo, efforts that are out of the spotlight but critically important to those involved.
“I always share with the audience that I used to stutter and that I still battle insecurity and low self-esteem. All of a sudden, people connect with you because many of them are facing similar struggles.”
When Hebert takes part in community activities, he is often accompanied by his wife, Barbara, who also does a great deal of work in the community. For many years, the couple volunteered to deliver Thanksgiving meals at a senior center in West Springfield.
Rather than just dropping off the food and moving on to the next apartment, the Heberts would introduce themselves, start up a conversation, and spend time with each resident. That extra attention became something the residents looked forward to every year, and they would remark on how the couple made Thanksgiving special for them. Hebert said he and Barbara enjoyed the visits as much as, if not more than, the seniors.
“What does it cost to give your time?” he asked, adding that he’s spent a lifetime finding ways to give back that go above and beyond writing checks — although he’s done a lot of that, too.
For all these efforts, and for the way he has inspired others to follow his lead, Hebert has certainly earned his place in BusinessWest’s Difference Makers class of 2022.
Diving Right In
While many residents know that Hebert started Teddy Bear Pools from his parents’ carport and built it into a hugely successful business, fewer know the insecure kid with the stutter.
Hebert described himself as someone with low self-esteem who felt good only when he was working.
“Whether it was mowing lawns, washing cars, or doing my paper route, having a job made me feel better about myself,” he said. “I liked the feeling, so I kept trying hard to challenge myself. I still do that to this day.”
Hebert’s “first real job” came at age 14 as a busboy at the Hu Ke Lau restaurant after he told the owners he was 16. “They didn’t question my age because my friend worked there.”
In his early 20s, Hebert signed up for karate lessons, which provided another big boost to his self-esteem and self-confidence. All these experiences contributed to gradually overcoming his stutter.
A lifelong car aficionado, Hebert joined a local Corvette club and found himself voted in as the youngest president of the group. One time, at a gathering of Corvette clubs in Vermont, he found his voice.
Clubs from around the Northeast had come to Thunder Mountain racetrack for the event. When announcements were taking place, Hebert wasn’t pleased with the way they were handled and decided that, since he was a good ad-libber, he would take on the emcee role.
“Sure, we’ve had our challenges, but it’s like being in a boxing ring. You take your punches, you get knocked down, and then you get back up.”
“I felt comfortable because these were all racing people just like me,” he recalled. “When I finished, it suddenly hit me — ‘oh my God, I was speaking in front of all these people.’”
Now a confident speaker in demand at settings ranging from swimming-pool industry conferences to local schools, Hebert said his goal in speaking is not to motivate, necessarily, but to inspire others to succeed in their lives.
“I always share with the audience that I used to stutter and that I still battle insecurity and low self-esteem,” he told BusinessWest. “All of a sudden, people connect with you because many of them are facing similar struggles.”
During his college years, Hebert spent his summers as a subcontractor working day and night on installing swimming pools — he literally worked at night with spotlights to finish some installations. It’s hard to believe now, but Hebert’s career in swimming pools almost didn’t happen.
After attending Holyoke Community College (where he is currently a trustee), then Springfield Technical Community College, Hebert completed his degree at Worcester State College, and then committed himself (sort of) to continuing a family legacy; 11 generations of Heberts, before his father, were doctors.
Ted had studied pre-med and had above-average scores on his medical boards. He applied to 15 medical schools and received 14 rejections. The University of Southern California extended an invitation only after another candidate dropped out. But Hebert had conflicted emotions about leaving for Los Angeles.
“I had started a little business, I had a girlfriend, and I had planned to travel the country,” he said. The decision became clearer one day, while working at a friend’s house, when he received a call that his mother had been taken to the hospital with an aneurysm.
“I never left, and I have no regrets,” he said.
Like George Bailey, Hebert put off his dreams of traveling to take care of family matters. As his business outgrew the carport, Hebert rented space in a former car wash on Memorial Avenue in Chicopee. When the owner was foreclosed upon, Hebert then bought a vacant building on East Street that once housed a Studebaker dealership back in the 1940s. Today, customers from all over Western Mass., as well as parts of Connecticut and Vermont, know the East Street location as Teddy Bear Pools and Spas.
Since the pandemic hit, homeowners have invested much more in their backyards, which often means adding a swimming pool or hot tub. Business at Teddy Bear has skyrocketed with Hebert’s main challenges, which involve a lack of products due to supply issues and finding installers for all the orders when they arrive.
Though his business is booming, Hebert is quick to empathize with the many businesses that have struggled to survive in the COVID era. “We’ve been blessed to be buried with business,” he said.
It’s easy to look at Hebert’s success today without appreciating the many challenges he faced along the way. Most notably, back in the 1980s, several employees embezzled more than $1 million dollars from the business in two separate incidents. Experiences like this can leave a person cold and cynical, but not Hebert.
“Sure, we’ve had our challenges, but it’s like being in a boxing ring. You take your punches, you get knocked down, and then you get back up.”
For Hebert, it all starts with a belief that, if you have faith, then you can find hope. “I don’t necessarily mean religious faith, but a belief that there is something bigger than us.”
He called being chosen as a Difference Maker one of the more important honors he has received.
“In some ways, Difference Makers brings together all the community efforts Barbara and I have been involved in,” he said. “As much as we appreciate it, we don’t do this for recognition, but because we feel it’s our responsibility as people in our community.”
The Deep End
Among the inspirational sayings posted in Hebert’s office is one that reads: “Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”
From the busboy who battled his stutter to the successful businessperson and community leader, Ted Hebert exemplifies the ability to make a new ending and reflects the spirit of a Difference Maker.
“I know it’s a cliché,” he said, “but I believe, as long as you are a good person and treat others like you want to be treated, how can you go wrong?”
Yes, he does sound a whole lot like George Bailey. And he has had a wonderful life.
This Unique Program Proves That Meaningful, Lasting Change is Possible
When BusinessWest first caught up with Trevor Gayle in the winter of 2015, he was a relatively new employee of Chase Management in Springfield.
A recent ‘graduate’ of the Roca program, which helps high-risk individuals — those who have been incarcerated, are in gangs, have substance-abuse issues, or have dropped out of school — Gayle was handling a wide range of duties for Chase, a property-management firm, from painting to snow removal to apartment-turnover work.
He was also learning what it took to be a good employee and putting to work lessons learned while in Roca that would help him keep his past — he spent six months in jail for sitting in the seat next to a friend who shot and wounded an individual as he approached their vehicle — from becoming his future.
Today, he is superintendent of a huge — as in 447-unit — apartment complex in Groton, Conn., and has several people working under his supervision.
As he reflects on his Roca experience and how it helped him get from where he was — behind bars — to where he is today, he said simply, “I learned how to be my own leader.”
Not all Roca stories have such positive trend lines, but many of them do. And it is transformations like this that Molly Baldwin had in mind when she started Roca in Chelsea in 1988 to help transform the lives of young, at-risk men. The concept, as summed up in the marketing slogan “less jail time, more future,” is simple — use street outreach, data-driven case management, stage-based education, and employment training to reduce individuals’ involvement in crime, keep them out of jail, and help them get jobs — and perhaps a career.
In recent years, the program has been expanded to include young mothers facing challenges ranging from a lack of education and work experience to gang involvement, drug and alcohol use, violence, abuse, trauma, and more. And the goals for this constituency are the same — to help participants heal from their hurt and anger and gain the tools needed to achieve success later on.
“Our mothers’ program is really about parenting,” said Christine Judd, the indefatigable director of Roca’s programs in Springfield and Holyoke. “It’s helping them be better parents. It’s helping them overcome substance abuse. Many of them are victims of domestic violence, and some are victims of sexual violence. These are trauma-based services aimed at making them better parents.”
Roca’s official mission is to “disrupt the cycle of incarceration and poverty by helping people transform their lives,” Judd said. And it does this through an intense, three- or four-year intervention model (more on it later) that, at its core, recognizes that meaningful, lasting change does not happen overnight.
Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni says Roca works to help people “disentangle” themselves from the trauma in their lives.
And it also does it through partnerships — with constituencies ranging from law-enforcement officials to private business owners and managers who employ participants — that essentially involve the entire community in the work to keep young people on a path to success.
Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni is one of those partners. Over the years, and especially through a new program he created, the Emerging Adult Court of Hope (EACH), he has helped many at-risk young people find the Roca program.
And what they find, he said, is a support system like none other in this region, one committed to helping them traverse the whitewater in their lives and get on a course that enables them to be productive members of society.
“Our young people, and the young people in EACH in particular, have had so many disadvantages and so many hurdles put in front of them, from day one — lack of parenting, lack of mentorship, lack of positive role models, lack of opportunity — just tough environments,” Gulluni explained. “They’ve suffered so much trauma, and that’s stuff that lives with people. And Roca works to disentangle that and works to support these young people and help them see better things and do better things.”
As noted, a number of area employers have also become partners with Roca, providing employment opportunities to participants. Several area companies, large and small, have hired graduates or have plans to do so. They include manufacturers such as Meredith Springfield in Ludlow, maker of plastic products, and McKenzie Vault in East Longmeadow, which produces cremation urns; distributors such as J. Polep in Chicopee; landscaping firms; municipal public-works departments; and Baystate Health, which expects to soon have some graduates of the program for young mothers working in its Hospitality Department.
AnnaMarie Golden, director of Community Relations at Baystate Health, said the system was already a partner with Roca, with members of its trauma and social-work teams meeting with participants, including those in the young mothers’ program. Through that involvement, the system became aware of another need — for employment opportunities for these women.
“One of the entry doors at Baystate is our Hospitality department — food services and guest services,” she explained. “Our goal is to have them get their foot in the door at Baystate, but the ultimate goal is to have them think about what the next steps might be and consider career steps within the organization if there is interest to stay in the healthcare field.”
Trevor Gayle says Roca has helped him put his past — and the streets — behind him.
It is sentiments like these that certainly help explain why Roca is worthy of that designation Difference Maker. It is making a huge difference in the lives of participants in its programs, and a huge difference in this region as well.
Judd told BusinessWest that, while words can be used to sum up Roca’s mission and its importance to the region, numbers tell the story effectively as well. And she has plenty of them at the ready. Here are some, courtesy of a recent study involving participants:
• While more than 85% of Roca’s young men come to the agency with a violent record, four out of five stop engaging in violent crime;
• Only 33% of Roca’s young men who served from 2012 to 2019 recidivated within three years, compared to the state’s recidivism rate of 47% to 56%;
• 54% who practiced cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) made measurable emotional-regulation gains;
• 74% who completed the first two years were placed in jobs, and 71% held their job for six months or longer; and
• 95% who completed the first two years were not reincarcerated.
As for the programming involving young mothers:
• 52% of open child-welfare (MA-DCF) cases closed;
• 85% demonstrated workforce-readiness gains;
• 74% who completed the first two years placed in outside jobs; and
• In Springfield, between 2010 and 2020, the program served 761 participants and boasts a 78% employment-placement rate; 82 of participants retained employment for three months or longer, 74% had no new arrests, and 88% had no new incarcerations.
Together, these numbers back up what Gulluni, Golden, Judd, and others said about Roca’s ability to make all-important change possible for its participants.
It does this, Judd said, through an intervention model that is rooted in evidence-based practices of community corrections, deep studies of behavior-change models (stages of change and CBT, among others), brain development, and three decades of critical data collection and on-the-ground work with young people.
“They’ve suffered so much trauma, and that’s stuff that lives with people. And Roca works to disentangle that and works to support these young people and help them see better things and do better things.”
The model, she explained, has five core components: relentless outreach, transformational relationships, tailored programming designed to withstand relapse and the comings and goings of young people in traditional learning or work environments, an engaged-institutions strategy to support young people and help them move out of the criminal-justice system, and performance-based management.
One of the keys to the program, Judd said, is that cognitive behavioral theory, which she described as a way to understand how situations affect what people think and say in their heads, what they feel in their bodies, and what they do in response. Practicing CBT helps individuals identify a cycle, stop, use a skill, and make a choice instead of reacting.
Gayle credited CBT with helping him put street reflexes to situations — those that often lead to violence and incarceration — behind him, to be replaced by more measured, reasoned responses. And he continues to practice CBT in his current position in Connecticut.
Perhaps the best way to fully appreciate how Roca is changing lives is to talk with current participants in the program.
People like Tyreice Harper, 25, from Springfield.
He’s actually in his second stint with Roca. The first came when he was 17, and he admits that he just wasn’t ready for the regimen and the “environment” at the time, and wound up reverting back to a life that landed him in several different Department of Youth Services (DYS) facilities across the region.
“I was locked up … for armed robbery,” he said, adding that, after a three-and-a-half-year stint at the state’s maximum-security prison in Shirley, he was ready to give Roca another try, especially after conversations with ‘lifers’ at the ‘max’ — those who would never be going home — left him yearning for another chance.
“My whole mindset is that I’m not a child anymore, so I want to do better, not just for myself, but for the community and for my child,” he told BusinessWest. He’s now part of a work crew at Roca, handling snow removal and other odd jobs, while also working toward his high-school equivalency.
When asked where he can see himself in a few years, he paused and eventually said, “maybe buying a home and working a real good job,” in a voice that revealed that he knows there’s plenty of hard work ahead to achieve those goals.
And he believes the intervention model at Roca can help him get where he wants to go.
“Roca helps us young men after incarceration to not only get back on our feet, but to keep out of trouble by having work programs and having work crews for us to go on,” he said, adding that there are layers of accountability he has never encountered before, and they are helping him to remain focused.
Mabbie Paplardo agreed. She’s a young mother, age 17, from Holyoke, who found out about Roca from some friends already in the program. She said her advisor helps her with everything from getting her to driving lessons to studying for her HiSET test, or simply to get to the store for formula or diapers.
“There really isn’t a program like this,” she said. “I’ve been in a lot of programs that say they’re going to help, but they really don’t; Roca is different — it’s a support network that is helping me be a much better parent.”
One of the keys to creating real, lasting change for people like Paplardo and Harper is securing employment opportunities, said Judd, adding that the Roca offices in Springfield and Holyoke work with a number of area employers to create such opportunities, and anticipate working with more as the workforce crisis in the region continues.
Many of them, like J. Polep in Chicopee and Meredith Springfield, have hired several Roca participants over the years and have had good success, in part because the program strives to prepare these people for the world of work, stressing the importance of both hard and soft skills, starting with showing up on time, ready to work.
Evelyn Arroyo, a recruitment and retention specialist at Meredith Springfield, agreed. She said the company currently has two Roca graduates currently working as inspector/packers.
“What I like about Roca is that it’s there to not only advocate for these men, but to support them and prepare them for the workforce,” she explained. “They prepare them for what to expect in an interview and what do expect on the job. And, for the most part, those they refer to us are better-prepared than other individuals.”
Golden agreed. “Roca has an approach like no other,” she told BusinessWest. “It works to set up the participants for success long-term.”
Taking the Lead
Summing up Roca and its impact within the region, Gulluni said it is meeting a critical need at a critical time.
“We have a young population, young adults and juveniles in this region that need a lot of help,” he noted. “And we are not going to incarcerate our way out of the problems we have in cities like Springfield, Holyoke, and elsewhere. We need organizations and leaders to think creatively and put forth the effort and work to help young people find themselves through so many challenges.”
Roca is an organization that has become a leader in these ongoing efforts to provide that needed help. The numbers listed above regarding everything from recidivism to job placement show that Roca is clearly making a difference.
But it’s stories like Trevor Gayle’s that rise above the statistics. As he said, the program has gone beyond keeping him out of trouble and in a good job. It has shown him how to be his own leader, and as a result, he has been able to change his life in profound ways.
By Reviving a Beloved Event, She’s Creating a More Vibrant Downtown
Leah Martin Photography
Ruth Griggs was having coffee with Amy Cahillane one day in 2017, when Cahillane, who had recently taken charge of the Downtown Northampton Assoc., posed a question.
“She said, ‘what do you think about the Jazz Festival?” Griggs recalled. “I said, ‘what do you mean?’”
Cahillane told Griggs that, in her interactions with people downtown, she kept getting asked questions like, “can we have the Jazz Festival back? We miss live music downtown. What happened to the festival? Can you get it back?”
Griggs had been involved in the first incarnation of the Northampton Jazz Festival, from 2011 to 2015, after returning to her hometown following a three-decade marketing career in New York City. “I went to the shows, and once they got to know I was a marketing professional, I kind of was an advisor to them. I was never on the board, but I was definitely an advisor and helped them out quite a bit, the last two years in particular.”
Then the festival went away for two years, and Cahillane was angling to get Griggs and others who had supported it in the past to bring it back to life, promising to help build stronger relationships between the festival and city leaders and boost marketing and fundraising efforts.
“Having a strong presence downtown and good relationships downtown was really important to me, and I also know all the jazz people who knew how to put on that festival, some of whom had been involved in previous festivals,” Griggs said. “So I set to work to rally some support.”
The biggest challenge at the time, she said, was not losing the event’s 501(c)(3) status, which had been achieved right before the final festival in 2015. “If you let a 501(c)(3) go without any kind of documentation to the feds or the state for three years, it’s gone. And I could not let that happen.”
So Griggs and others formed a board, pulled the festival back from the brink, and started planning for the return of the event in 2018. Oh, and that board put Griggs in charge.
“I really care about the vitality and the economy of Northampton. I’m hoping the Northampton Jazz Festival will continue to reaffirm and reinforce the unique entertainment value that Northampton offers.”
It made sense — since returning from New York in 2011, she had built a marketing firm, RC Communications, that focused on small to mid-sized businesses and especially nonprofits, which are, in many ways, the lifeblood of the region. She has also been a board member with the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce for the past six years and is currently its immediate past vice president.
“I am a marketing strategist by trade, and, as such, I am good at seeing the big picture, keeping my eye on the vision and mission of an organization,” Griggs told BusinessWest. “When you combine that with my work in nonprofits over the last 15 years, that adds up to the type of experience that enables me to lead a nonprofit, which, of course, is what the Jazz Fest is at the end of the day.”
Her leadership in the chamber and her role as an entrepreneur with RC Communications have helped her build a wide network in the business community, she added.
Ruth Griggs announces from the stage of the Academy of Music in Northampton during the headline Jazz Festival concert last October. Photo by Julian Parker-Burns
“I also just have a knack for getting things done; I am a doer,” she went on. “Fundraising for the Jazz Fest, which is a big part of what I do, benefits from these relationships. As president of the board, I oversee all operations of the festival and keep everyone’s eye on the ball, but I have a particular focus on marketing and fundraising and community relations, with the help of Amy Cahillane.”
Within that model, she leaves the choosing and booking of the musicians and the running of the performances to five producers who serve on the board. And the model works, with the two-day October festival roaring back to life in 2018 and following that with successful outings in 2019 and 2021 as well; pandemic-disrupted 2020 saw a series of virtual performances instead.
But that success isn’t contained to the festival, or even to jazz lovers. As a two-day event held in locations scattered throughout the downtown (more on that in a bit), the event promotes the downtown corridor and boosts its businesses, making the festival’s success a true economic-development story, and Griggs a Difference Maker.
“I really care about the vitality and the economy of Northampton,” she said. “I’m hoping the Northampton Jazz Festival will continue to reaffirm and reinforce the unique entertainment value that Northampton offers.”
Taking It to the Streets
One key factor in the festival’s growing impact on downtown Northampton is a change in how it’s staged. From 2011 to 2015, it was presented in the Armory Street Parking Lot behind Thornes Marketplace. Along with the music stage was a beer tent, food vendors, a chef competition, and an art fair. It was a fun, multi-activity event, and attendees enjoyed it, Griggs said.
“What I felt was lacking was, if you were on Main Street, you had no idea anything was going on,” she explained. “It was tucked behind Thornes. It was efficient in that everything took place in one place, but there wasn’t a lot of space for an audience.”
Then, Cahillane and board member Paul Arslanian both came up with the same idea independently for the 2018 festival.
“In order to keep the cost down, which had gotten very high, and to be more all around town, they said, ‘let’s stage it in different places,’” Griggs said of the decision to schedule music acts inside downtown businesses, requiring attendees to move around to see them all.
The Art Blakey Centennial Celebration last October featured five original Jazz Messengers, including Robin Eubanks on trombone, Brian Lynch on trumpet, and Bobby Watson on saxophone. Photo by Julian Parker-Burns
“The idea was to get people to walk from place to place and stop in at a gallery or stop in at a restaurant or stop in at a café, and we would leave time in between shows so people could do that,” she explained. “Half the mission is supporting the economy of Northampton and bringing vibrancy back, which is what people said they wanted.”
Saturday’s slate of performances ends with the only ticketed show of the festival, a nationally known headliner at the Academy of Music. In recent years, that show has featured the Paquito D’Rivera Quintet in 2018, the Kurt Elling Quintet in 2019, and the Art Blakey Centennial Celebration in 2021, featuring five original members of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
The model has worked well, Griggs said, although the board has talked about streamlining it by bringing the venues closer together. One thing that won’t change, however, is the Friday Jazz Strut, which features local and regional bands, including student bands, and overlapping performance schedules.
“We stage the music a half-hour apart, and every band plays for two hours,” she noted. “That definitely gets people all over town, patronizing the restaurants and breweries and cafés. And that’s important.”
Speaking of students, the festival board also supports jazz education through a program called Jazz Artists in the Schools, in which Arslanian secures jazz artists from big cities across the Northeast to workshop with local high-school jazz bands.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for students to learn from musicians who make music, who have successfully made music their life — active, performing musicians,” Griggs said.
While “the board is the Jazz Festival,” she said, noting that it’s certainly a working board with year-round responsibilities, the festival itself also pulls in dozens of young volunteers each year, and she’s been moved by the sentiments they’ve expressed.
Cocomama performs at Pulaski Park in Northampton in October, one of many female-fronted acts who played last year’s Jazz Festival.
“One said, ‘I’ll do whatever you need me to do. I’ll be a runner, whatever you need for this to run smoothly; this is important,’” she recalled. A woman who had recently moved from Brooklyn said, “when I found out that Northampton has a jazz festival, I thought, ‘wow, this is a cool down, I want to live here, this is really cool.’
“That’s important for me to hear,” Griggs noted, adding that one vocalist who took part in the Jazz Strut clamored for more involvement and is now serving on the board.
“That’s critically important to me,” she went on. “I want this to last. I’ve been at this now since 2017, and I’ll be darned if, when I step down, it dies. That cannot happen. I would feel I failed if that happened. It’s critically important. So we need to keep bringing in the younger players and the younger musicians and the younger people who really care about keeping it alive. I think the Jazz Festival is now, and will be, an important feather in Northampton’s cap.”
Another volunteer and musician noted the 2021 festival’s increased slate of women performers, telling Griggs that was a definite plus for such an event in Northampton. She was impressed by young jazz enthusiasts pointing that fact out. “The goal is to continue to showcase women in jazz.”
Griggs has certainly shone over the years as a woman in marketing. As noted, she worked in New York City for 30 years, marketing for dot-com firms, mutual funds, and large corporations like American Express and Coca-Cola. She and her husband actually owned a firm for eight of those years, doing mostly financial-services marketing.
“That was lucrative, but totally intangible,” she said. “I got so tired of marketing credit cards and things like that.”
Then, while taking her teenage sons on college tours, she fell in love with higher education and the idea of “marketing people.” So she segued into higher-ed marketing for Queensboro Community College in the city.
“It totally changed my life. I felt like I got a crash course in nonprofit marketing and fundraising, because I reported to Development.”
When she returned to Northampton in 2011, she carried that experience with her into her new firm, RC Communications, working with a host of nonprofits in the Valley. She was also part of the Creative, a marketing enterprise she formed with Janice Beetle and Maureen Scanlon.
“But I was getting so involved in the chamber and the Jazz Festival, I felt like I needed to pull back and be semi-retired,” she told BusinessWest. While she still works with a few long-time clients, the rest of her time is split between the Jazz Festival, the chamber, her role chairing the investment committee at Edwards Church, and also Valley Jazz Voices, a group, formed in 2015, of 30 vocalists who sing exclusively jazz throughout region. “I just have so many initiatives I’m doing in the community, I just feel fortunate that I can spend more time doing them.”
She sees a symbiosis in these roles, just as she does between the Jazz Festival and the downtown environment it lifts up, and gets a lift from in return.
“The relationships I’ve made in the chamber are helpful to my business, and also helpful to the Jazz Festival, which is, in turn, helpful to the town. It’s a complete full circle.”
And a full life, one with the controlled, yet exciting, rhythm of a jazz performance — a life of true impact, note by note.
“I feel like I’m making a difference that people see most visibly — in the Jazz Fest — because of all the other things I do,” Griggs said. “It’s all of those things that I think make a difference together.”
She’s Put Her ‘Superpowers’ to Use to Help Those in Need
Leah Martin Photography
Tara Brewster says she’s probably bought more than 100 copies of the children’s book — and given them all away. She joked that she’s waiting for the author to call and thank her for her consistent support.
It’s called The Three Questions, and it’s based on a story by Leo Tolstoy. It’s about a young boy named Nikolai who sometimes feels uncertain about the right way to act. So he devises three questions to help him know what to do:
• When is the best time to do things?
• Who is the most important one?
• What is the right thing to do?
He then commences asking several different animal characters for the answers, and by book’s end he’s still asking, although one of those characters, a turtle, points out that, through the course of some recent actions — and especially his efforts to save an injured panda and its child — Nikolai had answered the questions himself.
Those answers are: ‘there is only one important time, and that time is now,’ ‘the most important one is always the one you are with,’ and ‘the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.’
And these, the turtle notes, are the answers to “what is most important in this world — why we are here.”
Brewster says the book and its message are more than a fun, informational, and inspirational story. The Three Questions sums up quickly and effectively how she has lived her life to this point — and what drives her, if you will, to lend her time and talents to several area nonprofits as a board member, cheerleader, and relentless fundraiser.
“These are questions that I really fall back on a lot in a day,” she explained. “They’re really simple, and they just help me think about what am I doing, who am I impacting, and when am I supposed to be doing the thing that matters most. When I get really stressed out and start thinking, I should do doing this, and I should be doing this, I realize that I can only focus on one thing at a time, and it’s the thing that you’re doing that you should be putting your heart and soul into.”
Brewster, who seems to possess enough energy to power all of Northampton by herself, is involved as a board member with several nonprofits in that area, ranging from the Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA) to the Hampshire Regional YMCA; from Double Edge Theatre to Cutchins Programs for Children and Familes.
“I can honestly say that I have never met anyone so dedicated to helping those that are less fortunate in our community than Tara. I’ve seen so many people join local not-for-profit boards for networking opportunities or to strengthen one’s résumé. Unlike anyone I’ve ever met, Tara works tirelessly to gain support and funding for the organizations that she serves.”
But she also volunteers for, and helps fundraise for, the Food Bank of Wester Massachusetts and Monte’s March, Tapestry Development Committee, Safe Passage and its Hot Chocolate Run, and the Cancer Connection and its Mother’s Day Half Marathon.
But it’s not what she does that makes her a Difference Maker, although that’s part of it, but how she does it. Bill Grinnell, president of Webber & Grinnell Insurance, who nominated her for this honor, explained it this way:
“I can honestly say that I have never met anyone so dedicated to helping those that are less fortunate in our community than Tara. I’ve seen so many people join local not-for-profit boards for networking opportunities or to strengthen one’s résumé. Unlike anyone I’ve ever met, Tara works tirelessly to gain support and funding for the organizations that she serves.”
To get some perspective on those comments, one needs only to listen to Brewster as she talks about how she set out to become the top fundraiser for the Hot Chocolate Run, and then made the goal reality.
Tara Brewster, right, poses for a promotional photo for the Treehouse Foundation’s ‘Stir Up Some Love’ fundraiser with A.J. Bresciano, first vice president and commercial lender at Greenfield Savings Bank, and Julie Kumble, director of Strategic Partnerships & Development for the foundation.
“Safe Passage has a leaderboard every year, and since I started doing the Hot Chocolate Run in 2009, it’s been my goal to be number one on the leaderboard,” she said. “And two years ago, I finally got there. How did I do that? I asked, and I asked, and I asked people that I knew — friends, family, those in the community — to donate to Safe Passage to help deal with domestic violence.
“That’s what it comes down to: doing what you can, and using your superpowers to help others,” she went on. “And everyone has the power to do something, some good, every day.”
Because she uses her power every single day, it seems, Brewster has earned her place in the Difference Makers class of 2020.
Buy the Book
Brewster grew up Florence, not far from where she lives now, which was certainly “not the plan,” she said.
She told BusinessWest that many of those she grew up with were firm of the belief that one had to leave this area to achieve whatever dreams they had made for themselves. And she came to that belief herself.
But her desired next destination was certainly different than most others had in mind.
“I wanted to go to Montana — I think Wyoming and Montana are my two favorites,” she recalled, adding that she had already been to several states by the time she was in high school, and had determined that the Rocky Mountain region was where she wanted to go to college. “I thought I would like Big Sky country and being out in the wilderness; I wanted to be a pediatrician, and I wanted to go the University of Montana Bozeman.”
But fate would keep her closer to home.
Indeed, her mother was diagnosed with stage-4 ovarian cancer when Tara was just 15, a turn of events that would not only alter her plans for college, but inspire her to continuously review how she was living her life, with the goal of reaching higher — professionally, but also in the way she was using her considerable talents to help others who were less fortunate.
“That completely changed the course of my entire life; I have no idea where I would be had that not happened. She fought like hell, and ultimately lost the fight,” she said, adding that, long before her mother died, she gave up the dream of going to Montana, knowing she could not leave her father and brother at that critical time.
Tara Brewster works a United Way annual campaign event with Markus Jones, senior Major Gifts officer at Northfield Mount Hermon School.
Brewster would eventually graduate from Smith College, majoring in government and anthropology, and found her way into the men’s clothing business. She started at Taylor Men, which had a store in Thornes Market, while she was at Smith, and would later be regional sales manager for seven stores in the Northeast before moving to Manhattan and working for a men’s wholesale apparel company and becoming what she called a “road warrior.”
Eventually, the road took her back to Northampton and where she started — sort of. Taylor Men in Thornes Marketplace had closed, and she began contemplating owning her own store on that site.
Later, she and partner Candice Connors would open Jackson & Connor, an entrepreneurial venture that would — with her already-significant involvement in the Greater Northampton community — earn Brewster her first honor from BusinessWest: a 40 Under Forty plaque. It would also help set the tone when it comes to how she would be “all in,” as she put it, with both her career and her involvement in the community.
“I call that business my ‘first child,’ because I gave it my all,” she said. “And Jackson & Connor really helped me understand purpose and place of myself as a human, as a community member, and as a business owner; it gave me a clear direction of how I wanted to be in my community and in my region, and how I wanted to use my resources, my influence, and my power to lead and have an impact. And from the epicenter, I’ve grown as a human, as a person, as an employee, as a member of a team.”
The Plot Thickens
Eight years after launching Jackson & Connor, the two partners sold the enterprise, which is still operating today, and commenced writing their own next chapters. Brewster segued into consulting before Mark Grumoli, senior vice president and commercial loan officer at Greenfield Savings Bank, who years earlier had helped the partners secure funding to launch Jackson & Connor when he was with Florence Bank, convinced her to become the new vice president of Business Development.
She recalls friends and family members saying she wouldn’t last long in that role, but five years later, she’s still in it. That’s because it gives her what she desires most in a job — a situation where each day is different, a role where she can flex her entrepreneurial muscles, and a position that gives her the time and opportunity to be ‘out in the community,’ in every aspect of that phrase. And it has allowed her to take both her career and her civic endeavors to a bigger stage.
When asked what a typical day is like for her, she said there is no such thing. Each day is different. But each one is filled with conversations — phone calls, e-mails, texts, and some old-fashioned, face-to-face meetings. And only some of them have to do with banking.
“They pertain to connection, encouragement, engagement, assistance, and more,” she explained. “I serve on five boards, and there are probably five boards that I do other things for. So a lot of my conversations are with community members, and nonprofits in particular.
“These nonprofits have a real piece of my heart because I believe that, if you focus on and encourage and support the nonprofits, then more of the people who need help in this world and this region will get the help they need, because they are the helpers,” she went on,” she went on. “The nonprofits, first and foremost, are the ones that are doing the professional helping in a day, so if you want to do something and you don’t feel you have the time or whatever, support a nonprofit — that’s the easiest way to ensure that you’re creating some impact for the people who need it most.”
Brewster has certainly lived by these words, assisting nonprofits in many ways, especially through leadership as board member and with the all-important task of fundraising, which is always critical, but particularly during COVID, when the need is greater and many nonprofits have been hurt financially.
As she does so, she said she draws inspiration from others who, like her, balance work, family, and giving back, and somehow find the time and energy for all three. She mentioned Monte Belmonte, the host and program director at WHMP radio, the creator of Monte’s March, and a Difference Maker himself in 2020.
“He has a job at the radio station that he gets paid for, but then he has this other thing that he doesn’t get paid for — it’s his heart desire, it’s his calling, it’s how he uses his day job to be more and do more, to make a larger stage, to make a greater impact for a call to action,” Brewster said. “I have some people in my life who I’ve looked to for guidance on how to live and how to make a greater social impact with the talents that we have, because we all have these spheres of influence, whether it’s connections, or an employer, or social awareness.
“We all have these superpowers that we have to tap into in order to do greater good, in order to make a difference,” she went on. “And people think, ‘oh, I don’t have anything, I don’t have the time, I don’t have the resources.’ But we do. We all do. We all have connections, we have have these superpowers. We just have to use them.”
The Last Word
When asked to list her superpowers, she mentioned ‘connectivity,’ ‘engagement,’ ‘compassion,’ ‘awareness,’ and even ‘caretaking,’ and she traces them to when her mother got sick and after she died.
“For me, I’m acutely aware of sorrow and pain and hardship and loss, and what that means to being a whole self and a whole person — how you show up and how other people show up,” she explained. “It’s impacted the way I serve the community and serve on boards.”
Brewster serves in a way that enables those fundraisers to carry on that work they do and provide the many kinds of help that are needed.
“There’s an old saying … “you only get one life to live, and if you do it right, one is enough,’” she said in conclusion.
She has certainly done it right, and because of that, she has earned her place as a Difference Maker.
This Organization Has Harnessed the Exponential Power of Working Together
Leah Martin Photography
Convene and connect.
Those are the two words you hear most often when it comes to the mission of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, and how the agency carries it out.
Together, those words explain how and why this organization — one of hundreds of community foundations across the country — does much more than write checks to nonprofits and provide scholarships and interest-free loans to students — although those are certainly parts of what it does.
More crucially, by convening groups, individuals, and institutions from across the 413, and connecting those constituencies as well as donors with resources and opportunities, the Community Foundation is working to identify the issues and challenges confronting the region, and acting as a leader in ongoing work on matters ranging from helping students complete college to helping children get a solid start to their education; from assisting the creative-arts community to helping agencies addressing issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Katie Allan Zobel
“Our whole mission is to improve quality of life for everyone in the Valley and create opportunity and equity for all members of our community.”
Add another word — partner — and one can understand the full impact of the foundation. It doesn’t merely support nonprofits and students, it partners with them to improve outcomes — and quality of life — on myriad levels to become what its president and CEO, Katie Allan Zobel has called a “catalyst for change.”
“Our whole mission is to improve quality of life for everyone in the Valley and create opportunity and equity for all members of our community,” Zobel said, noting that most of the foundation’s funding comes from individuals, not large entities. They contribute both while they’re alive and in their wills and estate plans because they recognize how this organization’s model of convening and connecting multiplies the impact of their dollars.
“If they want to support an arts organization that’s much beloved by them, they can do that themselves; they don’t need the Community Foundation,” she explained. “But if they want to support reducing poverty in a particular area, well, that’s hard for one person to do on their own; you have to pool resources. And that kind of effort isn’t going to take a year or two; it’s going to take a sustained effort. We provide an option to individuals to do something they can’t do on their own.”
“We were able to distribute funds without a formal grant-application process because we had to constantly get the money out the door so we could meet those needs.”
Paul Murphy, chair of the Community Foundation’s board of trustees, noted that the pandemic has not changed the agency’s mission, necessarily, but merely spurred it to pivot, as all businesses and nonprofits have, and look at ways to meet new and emerging needs within the community, including food insecurity, eviction prevention, and mental healthcare.
“The foundation had just completed development of a new strategic plan, and it was all set for adoption by the board of trustees in March of 2020, which was just as the pandemic was hitting,” he recalled. “And part of that strategic plan that we wanted to implement was around leadership, flexibility, and community engagement, and suddenly, even before the plan was officially adopted, we had to put all those things into play because of the pandemic.”
Elaborating, he said the Community Foundation was able to secure what he called “an outpouring of funds” from a variety of sources, and it went about calling nonprofits and elected leaders in the region to identify areas in need. Simultaneously, it streamlined its grant-funding process so it was able to manage applications more quickly — and effectively.
“The foundation brings together philanthropists and helps them understand what the needs are in our community.”
The result was a quadrupling of grant funding over a typical, pre-pandemic year, Zobel said, adding that the team called on partners at organizations like the Women’s Fund and the Davis Foundation and borrowed their program officers to help make decisions, while recruiting volunteers to pitch in as well. “This was a huge collaborative effort. But I’ve always felt the work of the Community Foundation is a total team effort, not just with the staff, but volunteers.”
Once the foundation had the information it needed, Murphy explained, “we were able to distribute funds without a formal grant-application process because we had to constantly get the money out the door so we could meet those needs. That was an example of how the pandemic forced us to pivot, act more quickly, listen more closely to the community, and make sure the needs were met.”
Listening has always been one of the more important qualities at the foundation, said all those we spoke with, and it is just one quality that helps it explain why it has been named a Difference Maker for 2022.
“We’re moving away from being transactional and just handing someone a check.”
Beyond listening, it has acted on what has heard, and in many areas, but especially education and the needs of area students, said Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College, a trustee of the foundation, and chair of its education committee. But perhaps its greatest quality, she and others noted, is as a connector.
“That’s a huge piece because there are a lot of organizations and a lot of great work happening in our region, and the foundation acts a connector between donors, students, and nonprofit agencies,” she explained. “The foundation brings together philanthropists and helps them understand what the needs are in our community.”
Denise Hurst, the foundation’s vice president for Community Impact and Partnerships, agreed, saying it’s her job, and the foundation’s mission, to not only write checks, but work to make sure such grants are used in ways that are, in a word, “transformational.”
“We’re engaging with nonprofits and having deep conversations about how the work can be more transformative and impactful,” she explained. “We’re moving away from being transactional and just handing someone a check for money but not necessarily ensuring that they have all the tools and the resources they need to make that money transformational for the region.”
“We came to understand that the majority of arts organizations in our region are quite small, they have really small budgets, a fair amount of turnover … and there was, and is, a real need for capacity support.”
Connecting the Dots
The headlines placed atop recent press releases issued by the agency go a long way toward helping to quantify and qualify its impact within Western Mass. and explain why it is a Difference Maker:
• “Community Foundation Awards $1.3 Million in New Grants for Eviction Prevention, Mental Health, Food Insecurity Programs” (Feb. 11, 2021)
• “Community Foundation Awards $860,000 in New Grants for Immigrant Populations Impacted by COVID-19” (March 5, 2021);
• “Over $818,000 in Grants Distributed by Community Foundation in Latest COVID-19 Response Rounds” (June 22, 2021);
• “Community Foundation Deepens Partnership to Support BIPOC Arts and Creativity Across Massachusetts” (Oct. 20, 2021); and
• “Community Foundation Announces $150,000 Grant to Healing Racism Institute” (June 10, 2021).
Funding for these projects and so many others have increased significantly during the pandemic, Zobel said. “It’s an anomaly, but people have really been incredibly generous. We’ve even received a lot of contributions from outside the community.”
The foundation reported that its FY21 contributions to the community, across all endeavors, totaled $24.6 million and involved 1,668 total donors. That number includes $16.7 million in grants and $1.6 million in scholarships and interest-free loans to 848 students.
“We’re not just looking at scholarships, but also looking at what kinds of mentoring and supports can help people cross the finish line.”
Beyond these numbers, and those press-release headlines, are copious amounts of convening, connecting, and partnering, said Zobel, adding that, to properly serve the region and responsibly distribute the funds it raises, with an eye on both today and tomorrow, the Community Foundation must do a lot of listening and then acting on what it hears.
This applies to many of the traditional areas of focus for the foundation, especially education, but also some new ones, such as the arts, through creation of the ValleyCreates program, which serves to connect (there’s that word again) the arts and creative communities across Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire counties.
“We started with a seed, a planning grant from the Barr Foundation, and we did a number of focus groups and surveys and interviews with key stakeholders in the arts sector in our three counties to understand what kind of support they needed, and also how best we can utilize our dollars to support that sector,” said Nicole Bourdon, program officer for ValleyCreates.
Elaborating, she said those research efforts revealed the need for not only grant writing — and the foundation has awarded hundreds of $1,000 grants that are combined with coaching and business-resiliency webinars — but also collaboration, across counties and across disciplines, to build capacity and enable this important sector to speak with a louder, more effective voice.
“We came to understand that the majority of arts organizations in our region are quite small, they have really small budgets, a fair amount of turnover … and there was, and is, a real need for capacity support,” said Bourdon, adding that the foundation continues to monitor and survey the sector to learn what tools it can offer so it can be what she called a “repository for artists and arts organization where they can gather resources and connect and collaborate.”
Zobel said Western Mass. doesn’t have as many large foundations or private philanthropy as the eastern part of the state, so corraling more support from outside Western Mass., such as the Boston-based Barr Foundation, is critical.
“There isn’t a large source of funding for the arts here,” she added. “That was a place the foundation felt we could be useful. We’ve been building that out and supporting not just the arts, but artists, especially artists of color.”
Degrees of Success
In many ways, ValleyCreates illustrates just how the Community Foundation works, said Zobel, adding that it first arms itself with information, then works with various constituencies to develop strategies for addressing region-wide issues and challenges.
Perhaps the best example of this process is the Western Mass Completes program, created with the understanding that it’s not enough to help students enter college — the bigger priority, for them and the region, is to see them to the finish line.
Faced with statistics that the average graduation rate at four-year institutions is 60% — and a staggering 25% at two-year institutions — the foundation commissioned a study and recruited Becky Packard, a trustee and professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Holyoke College, and a leading expert in research on factors that contribute to higher-education persistence, to lead it.
Ten local colleges and universities joined the endeavor, delving into the last eight years of student data on Community Foundation scholarship awardees, gathering information on the resources and systems in place at these schools, and collecting findings from national research and articles.
What became clear is that students often need more time and more resources to complete degrees; many are working full-time while in school and taking a reduced course load, while others are balancing school, work, and family responsibilities. Financial roadblocks create barriers that result in ‘stopping out,’ especially for high-need, first-generation students.
One example, Packard told BusinessWest, is a proliferation of “almost nurses” — nursing students who are close to a degree, “but have to sit out because they can’t afford licensing exams or can’t take the last set of courses because someone in their family lost their job. We’re not just looking at scholarships, but also looking at what kinds of mentoring and supports can help people cross the finish line.”
Royal agreed, noting that the foundation’s work to research the issues related to college completion has been critical in ongoing efforts regarding the direction of scholarships and who would benefit most from the scholarships that are awarded.
“You connect people, they apply, they get a scholarship … but then, what happens to them after?” she asked. “Did it contribute to increased retention or persistence within their educational pursuit? Did they go on to graduate? Being able to look at the impact beyond the scholarship is also really critical. That research contribution is also an important piece.”
Packard said data is still being gathered, and strategies formulated, to boost those graduation rates. She characterized Western Mass Completes as an economic-development issue at a time when companies of all kinds are in dire need of workers with specialized training.
“Usually foundations are charitable organizations and don’t always try to be catalyzers in the region like this, and that’s what I’m excited about.”
In every case — including its annual Valley Gives initiative, which focuses the region’s attention on nonprofits that need support — the foundation is doing this necessary work of convening and catalyzing, in so many critical areas.
“My role is to help convene the nonprofits in the three counties that we serve to help ensure that we are able to help provide them with funding to strengthen organizations that are doing the important work of helping to mitigate food insecurity, to stabilize housing, to provide our residents with opportunities for education, as well as workforce development training,” Hurst explained. “In addition to that, we are really committed to making sure we’re helping these nonprofits thrive and sustain themselves so they can do that important work.”
No Time to Rest
Zobel spends a lot of time thinking about inequity — not only in society, but in the philanthropic landscape of Western Mass.
“This is my life’s work: service to community. So I often see what’s missing and where the gaps are, what we’re not doing,” she told BusinessWest. “I guess it’s my job to keep my eye on who’s not part of this and who needs to be, and how to include others. I’m often thinking that way.”
That’s not to say she’s not gratified by this work. But she’s not satisfied, either, and there’s a difference.
“I’m proud of being a part of something that’s a movement for good, and for improvement and change and equity. I’m really proud of that,” she said. “Yet, I know there’s so much more work to do, so I stay focused on that.”
Thirteen years ago, BusinessWest launched a new recognition program, Difference Makers, as a way to celebrate the many different ways individuals and organizations can make a difference in their community, and Western Mass. as a whole.
And this year’s additions to that list provide still more evidence that there are countless ways to make a difference, and they all need to be celebrated. They include:
• Tara Brewster, vice president of Business Development at Greenfield Savings Bank, who has made community service more than a mantra, immersing herself in the work of area nonprofits and causes — not in a slapdash fashion, but putting her heart and soul into whomever she happens to be helping each day;
• The Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, which for 30 years has convened and connected myriad resources in the region to benefit a host of groups, from students trying to pay for college to the arts community to organizations focused on helping people through the pandemic and economic disruption;
• Heriberto Flores, president of the New England Farm Workers’ Council, who has spent the last half-century operating programs — centered on energy, education, child welfare, workforce development, and more — that help people in need, while at the same time investing in the economic well-being of Springfield;
• John Greaney, retired State Supreme Court justice and senior counsel at Bulkley Richardson, a judicial trailblazer who, as one peer put it, “has demonstrated compassion and understanding as an advocate to so many in need of a voice, influenced our societal values and ways of thinking, and continues to be a valuable mentor”;
• Ruth Griggs, president of the Northampton Jazz Festival and principal at RC Communications, whose business has helped nonprofits reach new levels of marketing and success, and who brought those skills to bear on reviving a beloved music festival that continues to raise the profile of Northampton’s downtown;
• Ted Hebert, owner of Teddy Bear Pools and Spas, who has used his decades of success in the pool business as a springboard to support dozens of causes and organizations throughout the region, through both philanthropy and giving of his time — often in ways few people see;
• I Found Light Against All Odds and Its Founder and CEO, Stefan Davis, who emerged from a very difficult youth to found an organization that brings many resources together to, as its name implies, help young people journey from some dark, difficult times to a promising future; and
• Roca Holyoke and Springfield, an innovative program that helps young people in the criminal-justice system find a better path than recidivism and more time behind bars, by using case management, education, and employment training to get them into jobs and a stable, crime-free life.
As we said, there are no limits on the ways an individual or group can make a difference here in Western Mass. That’s what we’ve been celebrating since 2009, and the celebration continues with the class of 2022.