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A Year of Challenge and Progress

By Joseph Bednar and George O’Brien

Way Finder CEO Keith Fairey

Way Finder CEO Keith Fairey says the housing crisis has been years in the making and results from several factors, including a lack of investment in new housing.

One one hand, every year removed from the pandemic of 2020 is a step toward normalcy, and, for the most part, business rolled on in 2023 — but the effects of that pivotal year still linger, through persistent challenges like inflation, workforce shortages, the deepening roots of remote work, and behavioral-health crises.

But other trends have emerged as well, from a harsher landscape for cannabis businesses to actual movement on east-west rail, to positive developments in downtown Springfield.

As 2024 dawns, undoubtedly bringing a new host of challenges and opportunities, BusinessWest presents its year in review: a look back at some of the stories and issues that shaped our lives, and will, in many cases, continue to do so.

 

The Housing Crisis Deepens

One of the more poignant stories of 2023 was a deepening housing crisis that is touching virtually every community in this region, the state, and many parts of the country.

“We got here over decades of underinvesting in housing production nationally, and not tuning that production to the needs and demographic changes of communities,” Keith Fairey, president and CEO of Springfield-based Way Finders, told BusinessWest in an interview this fall, adding that a resolution to this crisis won’t come quickly or easily, either.

“One of the things we have to do is make sure Massachusetts remains a competitive state for years to come. And one of the main indicators of whether you are competitive is ‘can people afford to live in this state?”

The major challenges involve not only creating more housing, because not much was built over the past few decades, but housing that fals into the ‘affordable’ category.

Indeed, state Rep. John Velis, a member of the Senate’s Housing Committee, said there are many side effects from the housing crisis, especially when it comes to the state’s ability to retain residents. “One of the things we have to do is make sure Massachusetts remains a competitive state for years to come. And one of the main indicators of whether you are competitive is ‘can people afford to live in this state?’”

 

Inflation and Interest Rates

The Fed was on a mission in 2023 — to tame inflation but without putting the country into recession, as it famously did in the ’80s. By and large, it was mission accomplished.

Indeed, the latest data on inflation showed a 3% increase over last year in November, a significant improvement on the numbers from late last year and early this year. Meanwhile, the country seems to have avoided a recession, with the economy expanding at a seasonally adjusted, annualized rate of 5.2% in the third quarter, after generating 2.2% annualized growth in the first quarter and 2.2% in the second quarter. In short, the economy actually accelerated, rather than slowing down, due to persistently strong consumer spending.

Efforts to stem inflation by raising interest rates were not without consequences, though, as the housing market cooled tremendously, if not historically. And commercial lending cooled as well, as many business owners took a wait-and-see approach with regard to where interest rates were headed.

 

New Challenges for Cannabis

Is the ‘green rush’ over for the cannabis industry in Massachusetts? If so, the Bay State is simply following the pattern of every other state that legalizes the drug.

According to that well-told story, the first dispensaries on the scene are bouyed by a favorable supply-and-demand equation — and long lines of customers. But as the market is flooded with competitors — not only locally, but from across state lines — not everyone survives, as a series of business closings this year demonstrates. In fact, according to the Cannabis Control Commission, 16 licenses in Massachusetts have been surrendered, not been renewed, or been revoked by the agency.

The heightened competition has caused retail prices to plummet for an industry already beset by profit-margin challenges. Unfavorable federal tax laws surrounding the growth, production, and sale of cannabis, coupled with local and state tax obligations and continued federal roadblocks to financing, transport, and other aspects of business have made it increasingly difficult to turn a profit. On the latter issue, federal decriminalization would ease the challenges somewhat, but progress there has been frustratingly slow.

Steven Weiss, shareholder at Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin

Steven Weiss, shareholder at Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, says he’s surprised lawmakers haven’t moved more quickly toward decriminalizing cannabis on the federal level.

Workforce Challenges Continue

While many businesses and institutions, including the region’s hospitals, reported some progress in 2023 when it comes to attracting and retaining talent, workforce issues persisted in many sectors, especially hospitality.

Indeed, across the region, many restaurants have been forced to reduce the number of days they are open, and some banquet facilities have been limiting capacity due to challenges with securing adequate levels of staff.

Those are some of the visible manifestations of a workforce crisis that started during the pandemic and has lingered for a variety of reasons, from the retirement of Baby Boomers to an apparent lack of willingness to accept lower-wage positions in service businesses.

The ongoing crisis has led to stiff battles for help in certain sectors, including manufacturing, the building trades, engineering, and healthcare, among others, resulting in higher wages, more benefits, and greater flexibility when it comes to where and when people work, which brings us to another of the big stories in 2023…

 

Remote Work, Hybrid Schedules Gain More Traction

While some larger employers succeeded in bringing everyone back to the office in 2023, most have decided not to even try. Indeed, there was more evidence in 2023 that remote work and hybrid schedules have become a permanent part of the workplace landscape.

In interviews with employers large and small, a persistent theme on this topic has been the need to be flexible when it comes to schedules, and especially where people work. Many businesses, from banks to architecture firms to financial-services companies, have found that employees can be effective and productive working remotely, with many favoring a hybrid schedule that brings people to the office a few days a week. Such flexibility makes employees happier, they said, making it easier to attract and retain talent.

This pattern is causing some anxiety in the commercial office market amid speculation that companies will be seeking smaller spaces moving forward, but the full impact of the shift to remote work and hybrid schedules may not be known for years.

 

Movement on East-west Rail

This story might continue to inch down the tracks, so to speak, for years before the engine really starts moving, but after many years of debate, planning, and crunching the numbers, actual progress is emerging in the effort to connect Pittsfield with Boston by rail, with stops in Springfield, Palmer, and Worcester, among others.

“We can also make progress in breaking cycles of intergenerational poverty by helping residents complete their higher-education credentials so they can attain good jobs and build a career path.”

The big news this past fall was a federal grant of $108 million to Massachusetts for rail infrastructure upgrades, and Gov. Maura Healey also signed off on $12.5 million in DOT funding in the state’s FY 2024 budget toward the effort.

The additional east-west service would complement passenger trains now running north-south through Springfield’s Union Station, offering access to points from Greenfield to New Haven.

“The facts are simple: improving and expanding passenger rail service will have a tremendous impact on regional economies throughout Massachusetts,” U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said. “That is why we will continue to invest in a project whose framework has the potential to serve as a model for expanding passenger rail service across the country.”

 

Free Community College

Almost 2 million Massachusetts residents are over age 25 without a college degree. MassReconnect aims to change that, by offering free tuition and fees — as well as an allowance for books and supplies — at any of Massachusetts’ community colleges for residents over age 25.

Gov. Maura Healey pitched it as a strategy to generate more young, skilled talent in the workplace at a time when businesses are struggling to recruit and retain employees (more on that later). “We can also make progress in breaking cycles of intergenerational poverty by helping residents complete their higher-education credentials so they can attain good jobs and build a career path,” she added.

New HCC President George Timmons

New HCC President George Timmons says “community colleges are, to me, a great pathway to a better life.”

Holyoke Community College President George Timmons called the initiative “an exciting moment for HCC and all Massachusetts community colleges,” adding that “MassReconnect will enable our community colleges to do more of what we do best, which is serve students from all ages and all backgrounds and provide them with an exceptional education that leads to employment and, ultimately, a stronger economy and thriving region.”

 

New Higher-education Leadership

Speaking of Timmons, he was among the new presidents at the region’s colleges and universities, taking the the reins from Christina Royal, who had been at HCC since January 2017. Timmons was previously provost and senior vice president of Academic and Student Affairs at Columbia Greene Community College in Hudson, N.Y.

Meanwhile, Danielle Ren Holley, a noted legal educator and social-justice scholar, became the first Black woman in the 186-year history of Mount Holyoke College to serve as permanent president. Since 2014, Holley had served as dean and professor of Law at Howard University School of Law.

And at UMass Amherst, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy stepped down after 11 years leading the university, to be succeeded by Javier Reyes, who had been serving as interim chancellor at the University of Illinois Chicago.

“You’re not coming in to repair something, but to build on the shoulders of giants — and that is a very attractive opportunity,” Reyes said. “You’re not trying to catch up; you’re really trying to move and set the direction and be a forward leader. It comes with more pressure, but it’s more exciting.”

 

Thunderous Impact for the T-Birds

The Springfield Thunderbirds released the results of an economic-impact study conducted by the UMass Donahue Institute that shows the team’s operations have generated $126 million for the local economy since 2017.

The study included an analysis of team operations data, MassMutual Center concessions figures, a survey of more than 2,000 T-Birds patrons, and interviews with local business owners and other local stakeholders. Among its findings, the study shows that the T-Birds created $76 million in cumulative personal income throughout the region and contributed $10 million to state and local taxes.

The impact on downtown Springfield businesses is especially profound. Seventy-eight percent of T-Birds fans spend money on something other than hockey when they go to a game, including 68% who are patronizing a bar, restaurant, or MGM Springfield. The study also found that median spending by fans outside the arena is $40 per person on game nights and that every dollar of T-Birds’ revenue is estimated to yield $4.09 of additional economic activity in the Pioneer Valley. Meanwhile, since the team’s inaugural season, it has doubled the number of jobs created from 112 in 2017 to 236 in 2023.

 

Big Y Opens Downtown

In fact, despite the speed bump posed by the pandemic, downtown Springfield seems to have some momentum again. One of the more intriguing stories of 2023 was the opening during the summer of a scaled-down Big Y supermarket on the ground floor of Tower Square.

The new Big Y Express

The new Big Y Express represents an imaginative use of ARPA funds, addresses a food desert, and contributes to momentum in downtown Springfield.

The development was noteworthy for several reasons. First, it continued the reimagination of Tower Square, which now boasts the Greater Springfield YMCA, White Lion Brewing, two colleges, and other institutions. It also brings a supermarket to what had been a food desert. And it represents an imaginative, community-building use of ARPA funds.

The store opened its doors in June to considerable fanfare, and early results have been solid, with the store becoming a welcome addition to the downtown landscape. Combined with the Thunderbirds’ success, some of MGM Springfield’s strongest revenue months, and the ongoing residential development at the former Court Square Hotel, there’s a lot to be excited about.

 

New Home Sought for ‘Sick Courthouse’

Not all downtown news emerged from a positive place. Another developing story in 2023 was the ongoing work to secure a replacement for the Roderick Ireland Courthouse on State Street in Springfield, whose dilapidated conditions have been under scrutiny for years and have earned it the nickname the ‘sick courthouse,’ because many who have worked there have contracted various illnesses.

Gov. Maura Healey has called for investing $106 million over a five-year period to construct a new justice center in Springfield, and in November, the Healey administration issued an official request for proposals involving a least two developable acres on which to build a new courthouse. Proposals are due Jan. 31.

While redevelopment of the current site remains an option, Springfield officials are intrigued by the possibility of building not only a new courthouse, but also redeveloping the current site, which is right off I-91 in the heart of downtown.

 

Weather Challenges for Farmers

It’s called the Natural Disaster Recovery Program for Agriculture, and it exists because Mother Nature hit Massachusetts — in particular, its farmers — hard in 2023.

The state program provides financial assistance to farmers who suffered crop losses as a result of any of three natural disasters: the Feb. 3-5 deep freeze that impacted a large amount of peach and stone-fruit production, the May 17-18 frost that impacted a large amount of apple production and vineyards, and the July 9-16 rainfall and flooding that impacted a large amount of vegetable crops, field crops, and hay and forage crops.

But the government wasn’t alone in the effort to help farmers sustain this triple body blow. Area banks and other oranizations created funds, as did philanthropist Harold Grinspoon — a long-time and notable advocate for farmers through his foundation’s Local Farmer Awards — swiftly pledged $50,000 toward flood-relief efforts following the July rains, distributing checks to 50 farmers impacted by the floods.

 

Behavioral Health at the Forefront

In August, Baystate Health and Lifepoint Health celebrated the opening of Valley Springs Behavioral Health Hospital, a 122,000-square-foot, four-story facility in Holyoke featuring 150 private and semi-private rooms for inpatient behavioral healthcare for adults and adolescents.

It’s yet another development — the opening of MiraVista Behavioral Health Center in Holyoke in 2021 was another one — that aims to fill an access gap in behavioral health, at a time when the mental-health and addiction needs remain high. The pandemic caused a spike in both, the effects of which are still being felt today.

Dr. Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health, said Valley Springs increases the inpatient behavioral-health capacity in the region by 50%. “Until now, about 30% of behavioral-health patients needing care would have to go outside the region. Valley Springs Behavioral Health Hospital will allow us to provide top-quality care for more patients right here in Western Massachusetts.”

 

Holyoke Celebrates Its 150th

One of the more fun stories of 2023 was Holyoke’s year-long 150th-anniversary celebration. BusinessWest printed a special edition in March to coincide with the St. Patrick’s Day parade, which included stories and photos that celebrated the past and present, while speculating on the future. The many interviews captured the unique essence and character of Holyoke, a close-knit community with a proud history and many traditions.

“There’s been a lot of change over the years, but what hasn’t changed is the spirit of the people,” Jim Sullivan, president of the O’Connell Companies and a Holyoke native, said. “There is a very proud heritage in Holyoke, and it still exists today.”

Said Gary Rome, another native of the Paper City and owner of Gary Rome Auto Group, “there’s a saying … as Holyokers, we can talk bad about Holyoke, but you can’t talk bad about Holyoke.”

Special Coverage Women of Impact 2023

BusinessWest has long recognized the contributions of women within the business community, and created the Women of Impact program in 2018 to further honor women who have the drive and ability to move the needle in their own business, are respected for accomplishments within their industries, give back to the community, and are sought as respected advisors and mentors within their field of influence.

The nine stories below demonstrate that idea many times over. They detail not only what these women do for a living, but what they’ve done with their lives — specifically, how they’ve become innovators in their fields, leaders within the community, advocates for people in need, and, most importantly, inspirations to all those around them. The class of 2023 features:

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Health Care Healthcare News

An Unsustainable Path

 

The Massachusetts Health Policy Commission (HPC) recently voted to issue the 2023 Health Care Cost Trends Report and comprehensive policy recommendations.

Notably, the HPC reports that the average expense of employer-based private health insurance in 2021 climbed to $22,163, outpacing growth in wages and salaries. Including co-payments, deductibles, and out-of-pocket spending, healthcare costs for Massachusetts families neared $25,000 annually. The HPC found that 72% of small-business health-insurance plans featured deductibles exceeding $2,800 for families (or $1,400 for individuals) in 2021, with annual family premiums simultaneously surging from $16,000 to $23,000 since 2012.

The report highlights the unequal burden of these trends, finding persistent disparities across income and racial/ethnic groups, with nearly one in five lower-income residents having high out-of-pocket spending, for example, and significantly higher infant-mortality rates and rates of premature deaths from treatable causes among Black and Hispanic residents compared to other residents. To address these complex and interrelated challenges, the HPC calls for urgent action to update the state’s policy framework to more effectively contain cost growth, alleviate the financial burden of healthcare costs on Massachusetts families, and promote equity in access to care and outcomes for all residents.

“Policymakers do not have to choose between high-quality care and affordability. We have tremendous opportunities for transformative action to support patients and employers.”

“The 2023 Health Care Cost Trends report makes clear how we must do more in Massachusetts to provide more affordable and equitable access,” said Deb Devaux, HPC board chair. “Policymakers do not have to choose between high-quality care and affordability. We have tremendous opportunities for transformative action to support patients and employers.”

Among the report’s findings were that, on average from 2019 to 2021, total healthcare spending increased 3.2% per year, higher than the 3.1% healthcare cost growth benchmark. Commercial spending grew by 5.8% per year, far outpacing the national average in a reversal of prior years of relatively slower growth.

Commercial expenditures for prescription drugs and hospital outpatient care grew the fastest; the average price per prescription for branded drugs exceeded $1,000 in 2021, up from $684 in 2017, while the average commercial price for hospital outpatient services grew by 8.4% from 2019 to 2021.

The average price for many common hospital stays also increased, with most growing by 10% or more over the same period. The HPC estimates that, by eliminating excessive spending due to unreasonably high prices, overuse of high-cost sites of care, and overprovision of care, the Commonwealth could see systemwide savings of nearly $3.5 billion annually.

 

Policy Recommendations

With the report, the HPC announced nine policy recommendations.

“The residents of the Commonwealth deserve a policy framework equal to the novel challenges facing our healthcare system today,” said David Seltz, HPC executive director. “The recommendations in this report provide a roadmap for policymakers to equip the state with the tools it needs to constrain healthcare cost growth equitably and sustainably in a manner that meaningfully addresses existing disparities in access and outcomes.”

The HPC recommends the following reforms to reduce healthcare cost growth, promote affordability, and advance equity, with an emphasis on modernizing the state’s nation-leading benchmark framework.

• Modernize the Commonwealth’s benchmark framework to prioritize healthcare affordability and equity for all. As recommended in past years, the Commonwealth should strengthen the accountability mechanisms of the benchmark, such as by updating the metrics and referral standards used in the performance improvement plan (PIP) process and enhancing transparency and PIP enforcement tools. The state should also modernize its healthcare policy framework to promote affordability and equity, including through the establishment of affordability and equity benchmarks.

David Setz

David Setz

“The residents of the Commonwealth deserve a policy framework equal to the novel challenges facing our healthcare system today.”

• Constrain excessive provider prices. As found in previous cost-trends reports, prices continue to be the primary driver of healthcare spending growth in Massachusetts. To address the substantial impact of high and variable provider prices, the HPC recommends the Legislature enact limitations on excessively high commercial provider prices, require site-neutral payments for routine ambulatory services, and adopt a default, out-of-network payment rate for ‘surprise billing’ situations.

• Enhance oversight of pharmaceutical spending. The HPC continues to recommend that policymakers take steps to address the rapid increase in retail drug spending in Massachusetts with policy action to enhance oversight and transparency. Specific policy actions include adding pharmaceutical manufacturers and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) under the HPC’s oversight, enabling the Center for Health Information and Analysis to collect comprehensive drug-pricing data, requiring licensure of PBMs, expanding the HPC’s drug-pricing review authority, and establishing caps on monthly out-of-pocket costs for high-value prescription drugs.

• Make health plans accountable for affordability. The Division of Insurance (DOI) should closely monitor premium growth factors and utilize affordability targets for evaluating health-plan rate filings. Policymakers should promote enrollment through the Massachusetts Connector and the expansion of alternative payment methods (APMs). Lower-income employees should be supported by reducing premium contributions through tax credits or wage-adjusted contributions.

• Advance health equity for all. To address enduring health inequities in Massachusetts, the state must invest in affordable housing, improved food and transportation systems, and solutions to mitigate the impact of climate change. Payer-provider contracts should promote health equity via performance-data stratification and link payments to meeting equity targets. Payers should commit to the adoption of the data standards recommended by the Health Equity Data Standards Technical Advisory Group, and efforts should be made to ensure that the healthcare workforce reflects the diversity of the state’s population.

• Reduce administrative complexity. The Legislature should require standardization in payer claims administration and processing, build upon the momentum from recent federal initiatives to require automation of prior authorization processes, and mandate the adoption of a standardized measure set to reduce reporting burdens and ensure consistency.

• Strengthen tools to monitor the provider market and align the supply and distribution of services with community need. The HPC recommends enhanced regulatory measures including focused, data-driven assessments of service supply and distribution based on identified needs and updates to the state’s existing regulatory tools, such as the Essential Services Closures process, the Determination of Need (DoN) program, and the HPC’s material change notice oversight authority.

• Support and invest in the Commonwealth’s healthcare workforce. The state and healthcare organizations should build on recent state investments to stabilize and strengthen the healthcare workforce. The Commonwealth should offer initial financial assistance to ease the costs of education and training, minimize entry barriers, explore policy adjustments for improved wages in underserved areas, and adopt the Nurse Licensure Compact to simplify hiring from other states. Healthcare delivery organizations should invest in their workforces, improve working conditions, provide opportunities for advancement, improve compensation for non-clinical staff (e.g., community health workers, community navigators, and peer recovery coaches), and take collaborative steps to enhance workforce diversity.

• Strengthen primary and behavioral healthcare. Payers and providers should increase investment in primary care and behavioral health while adhering to cost growth benchmarks. Addressing the need for behavioral-health services involves measures such as enhancing access to appropriate care, expanding inpatient beds, investing in community-based alternatives, aligning the behavioral-health workforce to current needs, employing telehealth, and improving access to treatment for opioid-use disorder, particularly in places where existing inequities present barriers.

 

Key Findings

Prices continue to be the primary driver of healthcare spending growth in Massachusetts. In the report, the HPC identifies price, rather than utilization, as the primary driver of the increase in spending. Commercial prices grew substantially from 2018 to 2021, with an 8.8% increase for office-based services, a 12.1% rise for hospital outpatient services, and a 10.2% uptick for inpatient care. Total payment per hospital discharge for commercially insured patients grew by 23% between 2017 and 2021, primarily driven by a 34% price increase for non-labor-and-delivery discharges.

HPC’s analyses of excess spending found that private insurers paid providers more than twice what Medicare would have paid for nearly 40% of all lab tests and imaging procedures in 2021. Taken together, commercial spending on lab tests, imaging procedures, inpatient hospital stays, clinician-administered drugs, endoscopies, prescription drugs, and certain specialty services accounted for 45% of commercial spending. Among this spending, 27% was in excess of double what Medicare would have paid (or 120% of international drug prices), equivalent to approximately $3,000 annually for a family with private insurance.

Other findings include:

• Unnecessary utilization of care, such as procedures that could be performed in more cost-effective ambulatory surgery centers, care that provides no clinical benefit to patients, and low-risk births in academic medical centers that are reimbursed at higher rates than those in community hospitals, contribute to excessive spending.

• Administrative spending of both hospitals and insurers has increased substantially, with hospital administrative costs nearly doubling from 2011 to 2021 and insurers experiencing growth in administrative spending for both small- and large-group coverage.

• Escalating price trends are evident from 2018 to 2021, with commercial prices increasing for various services, including office services, hospital outpatient care, and inpatient services. Payments for inpatient hospital care grew by 23%, driven primarily by non-labor-and-delivery discharges.

• Variation in provider organization performance continues, with medical spending differing widely between major provider groups and the rate of avoidable visits and imaging utilization varying significantly.

• Massachusetts maintains the highest hospital-utilization rate for Medicare beneficiaries among all states, as well as higher statewide rates of inpatient stays, outpatient visits, and emergency-department visits. The Commonwealth also ranks among the highest in the nation in preventable hospitalizations and readmission rates.

• Between 2017 and 2021, primary-care spending grew more slowly than other medical spending, leading to a decrease in primary care’s share of total commercial spending. Meanwhile, significant disparities in access to primary care between low- and high-income communities persist.

• Behavioral-health trends show a substantial increase in psychotherapy visits and mental-health prescriptions among young adults, alongside a rise in the proportion of patients admitted to acute-care hospitals for mental-health conditions. While opioid-related hospitalizations declined overall, Black non-Hispanic residents experienced persistent increases until 2020.

Giving Guide Special Coverage Special Publications

Regional Philanthropic Opportunities

When importance of giving to those in need — and to the organizations who help others secure their basic needs — doesn’t take a holiday, and there’s no season of the year when their work is not critical, especially at a time when the pandemic is barely in the rear-view mirror and an uncertain economy continues to pose challenges to so many individuals and nonprofits.

Still, there’s no doubt that people think about giving more around the year-end holidays, and that’s why BusinessWest and the Healthcare News publishes its annual Giving Guide around this time: to shine a spotlight on specific community needs and show you not only how to support them, but exactly what your money and time can accomplish.

The 18 profiles below of area nonprofit organizations, are just a sampling of the region’s thousands of nonprofits. These profiles are intended to educate readers about what these groups are doing to improve quality of life for the people living and working in the 413, but also to inspire them to provide the critical support (which comes in many different forms) that these organizations and so many others so desperately need.

These profiles within the Giving Guide list not only giving opportunities — everything from online donations to corporate sponsorships — but also volunteer opportunities. And it is through volunteering, as much as with a cash donation, that individuals can help a nonprofit carry out its important mission within our community.

BusinessWest and HCN launched the Giving Guide to 2011 to harness this region’s incredibly strong track record of philanthropy and support of the organizations dedicated to helping those in need. The publication is designed to inform, but also to encourage individuals and organizations to find new and imaginative ways to give back. We are confident it will succeed with both of those assignments.

Joseph Bednar, Editor
John Gormally, Publisher
Kate Campiti, Sales Manager and Associate Publisher

Cover Story Healthcare Heroes

Images from the Thursday, October 26 Celebration

Thank you to our presenting sponsors:

 Elms College and Baystate Health/Health New England,

and partner sponsors:

Holyoke Medical Center, Mercy Medical Center/Trinity Health, and the Elaine Marieb Center for Nursing and Engineering Innovation and the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst

Overall, everyone who was nominated this year is a hero, but in the minds of our judges — the editors and management at BusinessWest — eight of these stories stood out among the others. The Healthcare Heroes for 2023 are

(click on each name to read their story):

Lifetime Achievement:

Jody O’Brien,
Urology Group of
Western New England

Health Education:

Kristina Hallett,
Bay Path University

Emerging Leader:

Ashley LeBlanc,
Mercy Medical Center

Emerging Leader:

Ellen Ingraham-Shaw,
Baystate Medical Center

Patient Care Provider:

Julie Lefer Quick,
VA of Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System

Innovation in
Health/Wellness:

Gabriel Mokwuah
and Joel Brito,
Holyoke Medical Center

Community Health:

Cindy Senk,

Movement for All

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Women of Impact 2023

President, Aero Design Aircraft Services and Fly Lugu Flight Training

She Inspires Her Students and Others Around Her to Soar Higher

 

“It’s like being in a time machine.”

That’s how Fredrika (Rika) Ballard described flying, a passion she has enjoyed pretty much her whole life and one she now inspires others to pursue.

While you can’t really go back or forward in time with an airplane, you can get somewhere fast — somewhere like Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket, she said, offering up just two examples.

She can get to the Vineyard in 30 minutes in her twin-engined Beechcraft Baron, while others, using standard means of transportation — a car and then the ferry — would probably need five, maybe six hours, depending on the traffic and which ferry they took.

“For me, flying means freedom — I’m as comfortable in the air as I am on the ground,” said Ballard, president and lead flight instructor at Aero Design Aircraft Services and Fly Lugu Flight Training in Westfield, who has flown everything from tiny ‘beginner’ planes to a corporate jet.

Lugu, by the way, is an industry term. Well, sort of. It’s what Ballard’s father used to say about the yoke, or control column, of the airplane.

“She is not an instructor who just teaches. She is a coach, a friend, a trusting companion that inspires and helps you flourish.”

“The plane goes where you look,” she said. “If you’re looking down or you’re looking at the ground, you’re subconsciously putting the yoke forward, and the plane starts going down. But when you look up, you subconsciously pull the yoke toward you, and the plane goes up. Look up, go up — that’s what Lugu means; you’re only going up from here.”

Those letters are part of a design for the company she was thinking and dreaming about, starting quite literally with a drawing on a napkin in early 2019 (more on that later), while not really believing that the dream was going to come true.

It has, and the reality has gone well beyond a flight school. Indeed, Ballard now owns a maintenance shop at Barnes Municipal Airport, where she employs four mechanics, and is involved with initiatives to build new hangars at the airport.

As for the flight school, it continues a strong pattern of growth and now boasts nine planes (with more on the way), 10 instructors, 130 students on average, and roughly 24 flights per day — if the weather is cooperating.

As a flier, flight instructor, and serial entrepreneur, Ballard has become much more to those around her. She’s an inspiration as well as a facilitator of sorts, helping others find the freedom of flying, especially women, who are still firmly in the minority when it comes to this pastime, but are, well, gaining ground.

Saba Shahid, one of Ballard’s students, explained things nicely as she nominated her to be a Woman of Impact.

“She is not an instructor who just teaches,” Shahid wrote. “She is a coach, a friend, a trusting companion that inspires and helps you flourish. Rika is someone I consider to be a role model that is standing up for women every day and inspiring us to know that the sky is not our limit.

“Being a female pilot is about shattering stereotypes and showing the world what women are all about,” she went on. “Rika does this each day for the women and men that go to her school.”

Such sentiments explain why Ballard is among the Women of Impact for 2023.

 

Plane Speaking

The walls of Ballard’s office at the terminal building at Barnes are ringed with photographs of her students beside or in the aircraft in which they stretched their wings — literally and figuratively. Each one tells a story, but collectively they tell a broader story about flying and those who are pursuing that sense of freedom she spoke of.

It’s mostly men in the pictures, but there are many women as well. Some are young, others a little older. A few are retired and looking for a new adventure. And then, there’s the 91-year-old man intent on earning his license.

“It was a bucket-list thing for him, and he’s taken six or seven lessons,” she said, adding that there is, overall, greater interest in pursuing a license these days. A shortage of airline pilots has something to do with it, but there are other reasons as well, including pursuit of that freedom and the ability to get to places like the Vineyard in 30 minutes, as well as pandemic-inspired efforts to draw lines on individuals’ to-do lists, including the dream of learning to fly.

The photos also help tell Ballard’s story, at least the chapter that started with the napkin she drew Lugu on. We’ll get back to that, but first we need to go back much further.

Ballard said she was introduced to flying by her father, a general aviation pilot and engineer by trade.

“I’ve been flying as long as I can remember,” she said, adding that she cut her teeth on an Aerona Champion, known as the ‘Champ,’ and then a Beechcraft Bonanza, both small, single-engine planes.

She soloed on her 16th birthday, at Barnes, and got her license at the earliest age she could — 17. Since then, flying has been a lifelong pursuit: a passion, and then a business. But always a passion.

She and her husband are avid hikers, and they will regularly fly to Mount Washington for an afternoon. She flies to Martha’s Vineyard once a week, on average, to visit family or friends. Sometimes, it will just be for lunch or dinner.

“I like to fly for food,” she said with a laugh, adding that most general-aviation airports like Barnes will have ‘courtesy cars’ to borrow and take into town for a meal or shopping. “It’s always fun to meet new people and see different parts of the country; flying gives you the freedom to do all that.”

It wasn’t until she retired in 2018 from her role as administrator at Facial Cosmetic & Maxillofacial Surgery and then earned her advanced licenses that she started to think about shaping her time machine into a business. With those credentials, she could become an instructor, and a friend offered her an opportunity, and a plane, to do so.

But the plane was poorly maintained, and the opportunity just wasn’t right.

“I just wasn’t feeling it,” she said, adding that, soon thereafter, she was at a bar with a friend, took the napkin in front of her, and doodled out a script ‘Fly Lugu,’ with planes (actually arrows on the first take) on some of the letters for effect.

“I had enough money to buy a starter plane, and my friend, a business person in the area, said, ‘why don’t you just buy a plane and start a school?’” she recalled. “And I said, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it.’”

 

The Wild Blu

So she started thinking about it, and with no flying school at Barnes at the time and, on her end, the requisite time, capital, enthusiasm, and drive, she decided to take the plunge — or, in this case, the climb, another industry term.

She started in August 2019 with a few students and one plane, a Cessna 172 named Blu — all her planes have names. She didn’t sign the lease for space in the terminal building until February 2020 — yes, a few weeks before the pandemic largely shut down Western Mass.

She persevered, as other businesses did, by getting creative and finding ways to carry on — with Zoom calls, remote lessons, meeting students who could solo on the runway ramp before their flights, and, later, resuming training flights with masks and other PPE.

And when the skies cleared (pandemic-wise), many of those who were home and thinking about items on their bucket list — and things they may have started but never finished — turned their attention to flying.

“When we could start to fly again, I was flying sunrise to sunset every day,” she recalled. “I had another instructor come on because I couldn’t handle it all alone; there was a lot of demand.

And while things have cooled off somewhat, business has remained brisk, with Ballard adding planes and instructors regularly over the past three years.

“When we could start to fly again, I was flying sunrise to sunset every day.”

Aas noted earlier, she has become a serial entrepreneur, acquiring the maintenance shop at Barnes, called AeroDesign, based in a hangar that dates in 1926 and the early days of the airport; becoming a partner in the construction of new hangars at the airport; and also partnering with the New England Air Museum to be its official flight school.

Beyond all these accomplishments and ambitious future plans, Ballard has made it a mission to encourage, and inspire, more women to take to the skies. And she is succeeding in that mission with Shahid and many others, including a former student who is now an instructor at Lugu.

“Rika has been an extraordinary leader empowering women to enter the field of aviation and be confident in their abilities,” Shahid wrote in her nomination. “She is breaking barriers and stereotypes each day to make it easier for women to succeed in this field.”

Blu and the other aircraft in what can now be called a fleet have become the vehicles with which others are experiencing the freedom of flying. For most, this will be at least a yearlong journey — longer if the weather is like it has been this year.

 

Soar Subject

As a flyer, flight instructor, and owner of a flight school, Ballard is certainly plugged into the weather. She has several weather apps on her phone and is always watching the sky for clues about what’s on the horizon.

“You almost become like an amateur meteorologist, because you’re always looking at the sky, and you get to know the patterns of the weather and what works and what doesn’t,” she said, adding that those who want a reliable forecast will turn to her.

At the moment, the forecast for her business is clear with a strong chance of continued growth. She’s an optimist who prefers to put her faith in what her father said about pulling the yoke — “you’re only going up from here.”

Her ability to breed confidence in others and set their sights higher, whether they’re flying in Blu and coping with the many other challenges of life, explains why Ballard is a Woman of Impact.

Women of Impact 2023

President, TommyCar Auto Group

She’s a Driving Force in Business and Efforts to Promote Gender Equity

Carla Cosenzi

 

By now, Carla Cosenzi says, the automobile-sales industry should be … well, more welcoming to women, more accepting of women, more … inviting to women.

But, in most respects, and she would certainly know about this, it isn’t.

Overall, this is still a man’s world, said Cosenzi, who notes that, when attending regional or national conferences or dealer meetings, she is the among the few women in the room, and the expectation is for her not to be the owner. Indeed, many of those who don’t know her believe she is the spokesperson for TommyCar Auto Group, or that she works for her father or her husband.

“I get that all the time … people think my husband is involved,” she told BusinessWest, adding that he isn’t, and never has been. (Her husband, Nick Zayac, owns a construction company.)

“It’s still really a difficult industry for a female, especially in this type of position or role,” she went on, adding that this extends to her own company — although certainly not for long after someone joins the team. “Many still don’t fully understand how involved I am in the business and how much I know and how much I have worked through all the different departments here, and how hands-on I am. And there’s always a different dynamic between a male and female in business, versus a male and a male.”

Cosenzi not only perseveres in this man’s world, she works hard to bring women into the business, mentor them, and inspire and empower them to advance. TommyCar Auto boasts many women in roles traditionally held by men — everything from mechanic to parts manager. Overall, roughly one-third of the company’s 150 employees are women, far exceeding what Cosenzi believes is the industry average.

“It’s still really a difficult industry for a female, especially in this type of position or role.”

“I’m obviously proud to have so many women working under the TommyCar umbrella,” she said, “but what I’m most proud of is that so many of those women are working in non-traditional roles, such as service advisor, service manager, technician, body-shop technician, or general sales manager; we have at least one woman in a manager or leadership role at every one of our dealerships.”

This strong desire to inspire, mentor, and empower women to succeed, in their lives and careers — a recurring theme among this year’s Women of Impact honorees — is just one of the reasons why Cosenzi is a member of the class of 2023.

Carla Cosenzi and her bother, Tom, present a check for more than $150,000

Carla Cosenzi and her bother, Tom, present a check for more than $150,000 — proceeds from the 2022 Tom Cosenzi Driving for the Cure Golf Tournament — to Dr. Patrick Wen of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Her success in business is another. She has greatly expanded the family enterprise started by her grandfather to now include Nissan, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Genesis, Volvo, a collision center, and a towing business. And she is constantly looking for opportunities to expand the portfolio.

She is also credited with creating and nurturing a culture of giving back, a continuation of a strong family tradition. Indeed, with Cosenzi taking the lead, the company is now involved with organizations and philanthropic programs ranging from Cooley Dickinson Hospital and Junior Achievement to Christina’s House and Safe Passage’s annual Hot Chocolate Run.

Then there’s the Tom Cosenzi Drive for the Cure Charity Golf Tournament. Named for Cosenzi’s father, and mentor, who lost his battle to brain cancer in 2009, the tournament has raised more than $1.4 million for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

This impressive résumé of business success, community involvement, philanthropy, and efforts to promote gender equity in the workplace — in the auto industry and well beyond — has earned Cosenzi many awards and accolades over the years, including a handful from BusinessWest. Judges have chosen her to be a 40 Under Forty honoree, an Alumni Achievement Award winner (given to the 40 Under Forty winner who has most impressively built upon their record of accomplishment), and a Difference Maker.

And now, she needs to make room for one more plaque — one that reads ‘Woman of Impact.’

 

To a Higher Gear

As she talked with BusinessWest at the Nissan store on Route 9 in Hadley, Cosenzi referenced upcoming renovations to the dealership, a project that has been several years in the making, with considerable back-and-forth between the company, the town, and the manufacturer, with firm plans now in place.

They call for redoing the façade, the service lounge, the showroom setup, and more, she said, adding that “we’re way overdue — for our employees, our customers, and the brand.”

Orchestrating this renovation project, as well as the building of a new home for Volvo Cars Pioneer Valley in Northampton, an endeavor still in the planning stage, are among the myriad matters Cosenzi is contending with at any given time.

At this particular moment, she was also attending to specific details of the 2023 edition of the golf tournament, HR matters, hiring (she said she’s “constantly interviewing” for high-level positions), the still-challenging used-car market … and making it home in time for dinner with the family.

“I’m obviously proud to have so many women working under the TommyCar umbrella, but what I’m most proud of is that so many of those women are working in non-traditional roles.”

Most of this was not in Cosenzi’s long-term plans when she was focusing on clinical psychology while earning degrees at Northeastern University and Columbia; while she took odd jobs at her father’s dealership growing up, she had no intention of making it her life’s work.

But her career path took what would have to be called some unexpected turns. Indeed, Cosenzi, as most know by now, started working at the family business after college, not thinking this would be anything but temporary. But she fell in love with the business and everything about it. She attended Dealer Academy (where, again, she was one of the few women enrolled), and immersed herself in every aspect of the business.

Christina’s House is one of many area nonprofits supported by Carla Cosenzi

Christina’s House is one of many area nonprofits
supported by Carla Cosenzi and the growing team at TommyCar Auto Group.

With her father’s illness and subsequent passing, in 2009, leadership of the company transitioned to Cosenzi and her brother, Tom.

In her role as president of the dealer group, Cosenzi is involved with all aspects of the business, as well its philanthropic initiatives and work within the community. And with each, the approach is decidedly hands-on, with a hard focus on “one-on-ones,” as she called them, and giving managers and employees at all levels the tools they need to succeed.

Meanwhile, she’s also focused on long-term strategic planning. The immediate goals are to complete plans to renovate the Nissan store and build a new Volvo dealership — and by that time, the Hyundai store will need renovating, and a separate home will be needed for Genesis — and then focus on adding to the portfolio.

“We’re not desperate to acquire more brands,” she said. “But if the right opportunity came up, we would take it; we’re not just looking to buy to grow our portfolio.”

 

A Road Less-traveled

Cosenzi joked that, unlike many dealership owners, general managers, and even salespeople, she doesn’t take many of the newer models for weeks or months at a time, as much as she would like to — especially some of the new Genesis offerings.

“I’d love to switch cars, but the problem is … I spend a lot of time in my car, between the dealerships and picking up my kids,” she explained, noting that she’s been driving a Volvo XC90 hybrid SUV for some time now. “If I get in a car that’s a new model, and someone wants to buy it, they have to track me down, get me out of it, and get it ready for the customer. So I try to make sure that if I’m taking a new model, I take it for the short term and don’t move into it.”

What she has moved into are leadership roles — in her own business, within the community, and in the broad fight for gender equality in the workplace. Focusing mostly on her own sector, Cosenzi, as noted earlier, has made it her mission to be a role model and mentor, and also bring more women into the auto sales and service industry and capitalize on opportunities they may have thought were restricted to men.

“If you’re good in business, if you’re a good leader, you’re always trying to better yourself, and you’re always trying to learn, and I’m always trying to learn from other people,” she explained. “So I try to be that same sort of resource that I look for, especially to the women who come into this business.

“I want to be a good mentor to anyone who comes into our company, but especially to women who want to be successful in our industry and just need someone to guide them and give them a path on how to do that,” she went on. “That’s really important to me.”

Equally important is that many of the women now employed at TommyCar are focused on careers in this industry, not jobs, she said, adding that her dealer group is ahead of the curve, if you will, in this realm.

“If you’re good in business, if you’re a good leader, you’re always trying to better yourself, and you’re always trying to learn, and I’m always trying to learn from other people.”

“I believe that, overall, you’re seeing more women getting into the industry, but not to the extent that you see here,” she continued. “We work really hard to attract women here and to support women’s success here; we make it a great place for women to work, and we’re a great support system for all the women working together.”

When asked what makes this or any other business a great place for women to work, Cosenzi said it comes to supporting them, mentoring them, providing opportunities to learn and grow (such as group attendance at Bay Path University’s Women’s Leadership Conference and similar programs), and, perhaps most importantly, recognizing them and their accomplishments.

“We do a lot to support women and to make them feel empowered here,” she said in conclusion. “And I think it’s immediately empowering when you work for a company that has a woman leader; I think it makes a huge difference because immediately, the perception of the company is different.”

 

The Ride Stuff

Getting back to her thoughts on the auto-sales business and how and why it’s still a man’s world, despite her best efforts, Cosenzi said there has been some progress — just not as much as she would have expected to see in 2023.

“It takes time, it takes conditioning, and it takes more women being involved,” she told BusinessWest. “The more women that we put in powerful roles in an industry, the more conditioned people get to seeing women in those roles.”

Suffice it to say she doing all she can — as an employer, as a role model, as a mentor, and as a leader within the community.

And that’s just one of the reasons why she’s added Woman of Impact to her list of awards and achievements. It’s a designation that drives home all she has done and continues to do — literally and figuratively.

Women of Impact 2023

CEO, Moms in Power

She Helps Women Break the Stigma of Postpartum Depression and Find Peace

Arlyana Dalce-Bowie

Arlyana Dalce-Bowie

Like many new moms, Arlyana Dalce-Bowie’s struggle with postpartum depression was twofold.

First, she fought to get to a place where she could be a caring, loving, and present mother. Then she had to rediscover herself.

The latter was, frankly, a lengthy process, but also a powerful one. And by not only working through the dark times, but sharing that experience with the world through an online community called Moms in Power, she’s making a real impact for women who might otherwise suffer in silence, or think something is wrong with them.

“This is something a lot of women go through, which is why I created Moms in Power,” she told BusinessWest. “Although we’re moms, people need to understand that we’re still women too. Not that motherhood is easy, but it was easier to nurture my baby and to love her and to make sure she’s protected — I just couldn’t do all that for myself. And Moms in Power literally speaks to the woman you’re becoming in motherhood.”

She was able to take six months away from her job at the Department of Children and Families, which allowed her to focus on her mental health — and navigate parenthood — while waiting a frustratingly long time during the pandemic to access therapy for her own healing (more on that later).

“That’s really where Moms in Power was birthed. It was me trying to do the work until I was able to get counseling. And then, of course, with the counselor, finding different ways that I can still navigate my postpartum.”

A licensed social worker and nutritional coach who now works for Springfield Public Schools as a City Connects coordinator, she’s in a much better place — largely because she’s grown through her own difficult experience while helping other women manage theirs.

“It is because of her resiliency, drive, and unselfish commitment to community that I strongly believe that Arlyana Dalce-Bowie is a Woman of Impact,” wrote Arlela Bethel, owner of the Movement LAB, who nominated her for the award. “When a woman is able to share her story with others in a meaningful way to begin to impart change, that is recognizable and commendable.”

Bethel added that “Arlyana’s passion for supporting the healing and recovery process of mothers who have or are dealing with postpartum depression diagnosis is a true testament to her ability to show vulnerability within her own personal struggle and, out of that struggle, create resourceful ways to help others. Moms In Power was born out of hardship and pain, but this amazing resource was designed to give other women the opportunity to feel empowered, to heal, restore, and to find purpose and strength within themselves not only as mothers, but as women.”

Rough Year

Dalce-Bowie’s pregnancy began at a difficult time for everyone, near the start of COVID-19; she gave birth in February 2021, when the pandemic was still raging.

“That was hard to navigate in and of itself. We didn’t know what was going on. And because I was a single parent, I couldn’t have my support system go to my prenatal appointments and things like that. Life was still very uncertain,” she recalled. “So I was kind of separated from my support system, and I was coming to terms with the fact that I was a single parent. And, of course, that just took a toll on my mental and emotional health.”

Even during her pregnancy, Dalce-Bowie was experiencing some depression and anxiety, so it was no surprise when she was diagnosed with postpartum depression six weeks after her daughter was born.

“When a woman is able to share her story with others in a meaningful way to begin to impart change, that is recognizable and commendable.”

“I didn’t see a therapist until she was almost 1; that’s how long the waitlist was. It took a really, really long time to get into counseling, to get the support that I actually needed.”

So, during that year, she started journaling because she felt she needed an outlet to process her emotions and experience some kind of release “so I wasn’t just in my head,” she explained, adding that “journaling has been something I’ve been doing since I was a kid, so I kind of reverted back to it.”

The prompts she has used in her own journaling and then with others, through Moms in Power, include “dismantling me,” which deals with the words women place on ourselves.

“When you have PPD or any other diagnosis, you kind of label yourself that way, saying that ‘I have this diagnosis, and that defines me,’” she said. “‘Dismantling me’ is an activity where we literally dismantle things that we feel about ourselves or that society has put on us or that our support systems have put on us.”

Another writing prompt is “a letter to myself,” she added. “I want you to write a letter, knowing what you know now, to your past self, encouraging yourself for the journey ahead. That’s probably my favorite one.

“Those two are probably our biggest prompts,” Dalce-Bowie noted. “They provoke a lot of tears. But it opens us up and gives us a place to come out of ourselves. I think a lot of us have our own guilt and our own shame, and we don’t like to talk about it openly.”

The writing prompts and the words and emotions that flow from them are intended to bring women to a place of understanding themselves — and realizing that what they’re going through isn’t shameful at all.

Arlyana Dalce-Bowie says the Mommy Moment workshops bring healing

Arlyana Dalce-Bowie says the Mommy Moment workshops bring healing because women are connecting over a shared struggle they may not have talked about.

“So many people have this idea that, when you have a mental-health diagnosis, it kind of disqualifies you from some things, or you’re not as great of a parent,” Dalce-Bowie said. “And I know, being a Black and Brown woman, we don’t seek therapy and counseling enough. It’s still kind of taboo in our culture.”

Before she started reaching out to others online, she found herself having to explain her needs to her family and others in her support system — in itself a necessary step in breaking the stigma of mental health.

“I said, ‘this is how I need support. I have a serious diagnosis.’ Because postpartum depression looks very different for many women, and for me, it was very severe. So I had to kind of coach them: ‘this is what I need, and how I need it, in order to get me into a better mental space.’”

The journal was a major part of getting to that better place, and so was aromatherapy, which she came upon while looking for other mental-health resources. “There are so many healing properties with candles; it creates a safe space, a calming space, and it just helps me cope in different ways.”

From there, Dalce-Bowie started sharing her story on her personal website — and found a like-minded community.

“There were so many women who were like, ‘we’re going through the same thing’ — especially those of us with pandemic babies, who didn’t have direct access to services right away,” she noted. “A lot of people were on the waitlist, so we just started reaching out to each other and having these group text messages and Facebook groups.”

On her social-media pages, she shared elements of her journey — “the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between” — and developed a business page for Moms in Power, on which she shares journaling prompts, sells aromatherapy products, and directs women to other resources.

“Journaling has been something I’ve been doing since I was a kid, so I kind of reverted back to it.”

Like the virtual Mommy Moment workshops, which came about because Dalce-Bowie and the moms she was connecting with needed a deeper, more personal outlet.

“We literally come together and have moments as moms. We talk about our postpartum depression; we talk about other diagnoses — because there are a few women that have been here with other diagnoses. We talk about married life and parenting, for those who are married. We talk about the single life and parenting and what that looks like for us.

“And there’s so much healing that comes from it because you’re relating to other women that may not have talked about it out loud, but we’re still going through the same struggle,” she continued. “The outreach part literally came from me sharing my personal journey and women saying, ‘we need more of this.’”

Strong Bonds

Dalce-Bowie said the moms she connects with tend to keep in touch even beyond the workshops, to check in with each other and see how they’re doing; she’ll often help members access therapists when needed.

The connections — and impact — she’s made have been heartening, she said.

“I can’t even put it into words. At the end of every workshop, we’re all so emotionally charged. I know my specific journey, but hearing other women reminds us all we’re not in this alone. So many times in this journey, you feel like you’re alone. So knowing that I’m helping to motivate them — in a way that I felt like I needed to be pushed and motivated at a certain point — is extremely gratifying.

“The fact that we get to come together and we don’t ever have to feel so isolated again is the best part for me,” she went on. “The stories that I hear literally bring me to tears because sometimes the journey feels extremely hopeless, so when you’re in a place where you realize, ‘I helped another woman realize their worth, and I helped another woman understand there is purpose after pain, and I see other women regaining their confidence and finding themselves again and starting their dreams again’ … there really are no words to describe that.”

Tears are not uncommon, she added. “We cry a lot because we’re reaching milestones together. It’s more than fulfilling. It’s really a blessing. It’s awesome to see.”

In a society that seems to demand that women must be great at everything, all the time — at being a mother, but a great woman too — Moms in Power helps redefine who they are as women in motherhood, Dalce-Bowie explained.

“I had to get over my trauma. I had to heal from a lot of things. I had to be present for my daughter. But once I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got the mom thing under control,’ it became, ‘let me start working on myself. Let me start working on my self-esteem again. Let me start working on my own dreams and goals.’ Because they were kind of pushed to the side to take care of my baby girl. So it was important to get back to a place where I’m confident in who I am as a woman.”

For not only succeeding in that journey, but helping other mothers achieve confidence and self-worth during what can be a crushingly lonely time, Dalce-Bowie is truly a Woman of Impact.

Women of Impact 2023

President, Bay Path University

She Helps Empower Women for the ‘Long and Winding Road’

Sandra Doran

Sandra Doran

As she talked about the transition in her professional life — from being a lawyer to serving as an administrator in higher education — Sandra Doran summed it up simply and quite effectively by saying, “careers are not a straight line.”

“You don’t enter a profession or a job now and just do it for 50 years; it’s a long and winding road,” she went on, using her own story as just one example, before quickly noting that, for today’s college graduates, the road will be even more winding, and probably longer as well.

“I think that’s what our students are experiencing now — and our alums, frankly,” she went on. “Many of the people who are graduating from college today will have seven careers. So how are we, as educators, preparing them for this, giving them the skill sets, giving them the growth mindset that says, ‘I can do this, I can learn this, I’m prepared for this — I have the skill set to learn?’”

Preparing and empowering individuals, and especially women, to navigate this winding road and have the confidence and competence to take on, and succeed in, seven or more careers might be an effective job description for Doran, the sixth president of Bay Path University.

Or at least part of that job description. There are many elements to that document, obviously, and she has embodied all of them with a lengthy list of accomplishments during her career, and especially since coming to Bay Path.

At the Longmeadow campus, where she arrived just a few months after the pandemic did, she has brought about change and progress on several fronts, from health education, where she spearheaded a transformation of the school’s master’s in public health program, to cybersecurity — the school’s program is now ranked third nationally by Forbes magazine; from the creation of new programs, such as a master of science in nursing degree, to investments in infrastructure, including new science laboratories; from the establishment of a food pantry to combat food insecurity to a firm commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Meanwhile, she has been a strong supporter of, and advocate for, mentorship, forging a collaborative at Bay Path with the Mentor Collective, a platform that structures mentorships and connects students — those in traditional, on-campus programs as well as online students enrolled in the American Women’s College — with a vast network of alums who can serve as mentors.

She has also, over those three years, become heavily involved in the community, serving on the board of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, as chair of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council’s education subcommittee, and as a corporate ambassador at Glenmeadow, where she engages with and supports a life-plan community designed for older adults.

“Dr. Doran’s journey to the helm of Bay Path University is marked by a profound dedication to women’s education,” wrote Crystal Neuhauser, vice president of Institutional Advancement at Bay Path, as she nominated Doran for the Woman of Impact honor. “She is a tireless advocate for empowering women to emerge as catalysts for change.”

This advocacy, and this work to empower women, are among the many reasons why Doran can add another accomplishment to her long track record of success — being named a Woman of Impact for 2023.

Course of Action

When BusinessWest first talked with Doran, it was at a small table with a few chairs arranged around it (six feet apart) on the lawn behind Deepwood Hall, the main administration building on the Bay Path campus.

“Many of the people who are graduating from college today will have seven careers. So how are we, as educators, preparing them for this, giving them the skill sets, giving them the growth mindset that says, ‘I can do this, I can learn this, I’m prepared for this — I have the skill set to learn?’”

This was the only way to do an in-person interview in June 2020, the very height of COVID, and the scene was symbolic of the extreme challenge and duress that marked the start of her tenure at the university. It was symbolic of something else as well — her strong leadership during that time of turmoil.

Indeed, Doran was one of very few people on campus those days, with Zoom being the preferred method to meet and collaborate. And she made sure those she met with online saw her in her office, specifically in front of a painting on loan from the Springfield Museums, created by Rosa Ibarra, chosen to reflect her commitment to diversity.

Sandy Doran, center, seen here with Bay Path students

Sandy Doran, center, seen here with Bay Path students, faculty, and staff, has become a mentor to many young women.

“It was important for me to be in my office so people could see me,” she recalled, adding that she started staging, via Zoom, what she called “Conversations with the President,” so people — in the college community and beyond — would get the opportunity to know her and she could get to know them.

These are conversations she continues to this day, she went on, because they provide invaluable information and input on what those in the community are thinking about, what opportunities exist for the university and all those it serves, and much more — feedback that has directly shaped some of the leadership initiatives undertaken at the school.

It was, indeed, a long and winding road that Doran took to Bay Path, that interview at the table under the tree outside Deepwood Hall, and those online community conversations. It began, as noted earlier, in roles where Doran put to work the juris doctorate she earned at Syracuse University College of Law.

Going back further, she said she was perhaps destined for a career in both the law and education — what she called the “intersection of things I love.” Her great-grandfather founded a one-room schoolhouse in Colorado, her grandfather was the superintendent of a school system, and her mother was a music teacher.

She can find many common threads among the two professions.

“It was a very natural transition from being a lawyer to being an educator because being a lawyer, if you’re a good one, is a lot about educating clients.”

“Being a lawyer is a lot like being an educator,” she told BusinessWest. “Law is about helping clients understand what their options are and educating them about the law. So for me, it was a very natural transition from being a lawyer to being an educator because being a lawyer, if you’re a good one, is a lot about educating clients.”

After serving as vice president, general counsel, and secretary at Shaw’s Supermarkets Inc. and then as senior counsel at Holland & Knight LLP in Boston, then the fifth-largest law firm in the country, Doran’s transition to higher education began at Lesley University in Cambridge, where she served as chief of staff, vice president, and general counsel from 2004 to 2011.

It continued at the American College of Education in Indianapolis and then Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. and, most recently, Salem Academy and College in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she served as president before arriving at Bay Path to step into the rather large shoes of longtime president — and now fellow Woman of Impact — Carol Leary.

Leading by Example

Getting back to her thoughts on how a career is most definitely not a straight line, Doran said the primary focus of higher education, and one of the “foundational aspects” at Bay Path, is preparing students to learn — in every way possible.

“Whether it’s online, on the ground, from each other, from faculty and staff, from mentors, from alums — that is one of our core aspirations here,” she said, adding that this has been the primary thrust of her leadership efforts at the school.

Sandy Doran, left, with student speaker Diane Almonte Arias

Sandy Doran, left, with student speaker Diane Almonte Arias at Bay Path’s 2023 commencement ceremonies.

Put another way, she said the school works to “build confidence through competence,” and that both are attained in the classroom, as well as outside it, in all the ways students can learn.

And this brings her back to the broad subject of mentorship, which is a key component of a program at Bay Path called WELL (We Empower Learners and Leaders), as well as the school’s curriculum as a whole, and the heart of Doran’s philosophy about how people (and especially women) learn, lead, and prepare for that long, winding road.

“I have benefited from a tremendous number of mentors — not just family members, who are great mentors, but in every position and every role I’ve been in,” she went on. “I’ve had the benefit of working with great mentors, not just on how to be successful in terms of the work, but in how you build relationships and how you think about that network that’s going to be so important to being successful, because, as we all know, it’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it.

“And the data bears this out,” she continued. “Students who have mentors are more likely to be successful in the workplace, so students who have mentors in college are more likely to be successful in the workforce, particularly first-generation students who might not have that social capital and understand, the way more experienced people do, the real value of that network.”

Elaborating, she said mentorships have become a huge part of the landscape and the operating philosophy at Bay Path, with students enjoying mentoring relationships with alums, employers, faculty, and staff.

Many of these mentoring relationships, not to mention potential career opportunities, take root during internships, Doran noted, adding that these have become another huge point of emphasis at Bay Path.

“A great internship also includes a great mentoring experience,” she said. “And one of the things we know about internships is that, if a student has at least one internship during their undergraduate experience, they are more likely to secure a position, and a higher-paying position, than if they had not had that internship experience. So for us, it’s really fundamental to the education that we offer here.”

And while she still relies on others to mentor her — “there’s always someone who sees things through a different lens or different perspective” — she also mentors many of those around her, whether they are students, staff members, or other members of the community.

And when asked what her best piece of advice is to those who seek her counsel, she said simply, “to ask for advice.”

“That’s because we cannot know all the answers ourselves,” she told BusinessWest. “So getting multiple perpectives, whether it’s on life goals or even weekly goals … that’s important.”

 

Bottom Line

It’s also important to remember, as her own story makes clear, that careers are not a straight line. There are curves, and many of them.

Handling these curves requires not simply college degrees, although they’re essential in most cases, but the ability to learn, not just in the classroom, but from experiences and from fellow travelers along the journey.

This couldn’t be clearer to both Doran the lawyer and Doran the college president. Helping others understand, and then empowering them to make it happen, is what makes her a Woman of Impact.

Women of Impact 2023

Founder, Faces of Medicine and Intentional Health, LLC

She’s Determined to Boost Diversity in Healthcare — and Improve Outcomes

Dr. Khama Ennis

Dr. Khama Ennis loves the ER. She should, having been chief of Emergency Medicine at Cooley Dickinson Hospital for several years.

“I love the puzzle of it, and I love the immediacy of it,” she said. “The typical thing that comes to mind when people think about emergency medicine is adrenaline and chaos, but it’s never been that for me.”

Instead, “what I loved was the immediate connection, creating a safe space for somebody. You have to forge this immediate bond and ask really invasive, personal questions on what’s probably the worst day of their year, if not their life, and get them to share the things that are relevant so you get the information you need to get them the care they need. I really like that.”

But for most of her time there, Ennis was one of only two Black doctors in the hospital.

“There’s plenty of data that reflects the negative impact of inadequate diversity in teams,” she told BusinessWest. And in the latest chapter of her intriguing career, Ennis is doing something about that.

These days, she practices integrative medicine at a private office in Amherst called Intentional Health. But she also co-founded a nonprofit organization called Diversify Medicine in order to provide support for people from underrepresented backgrounds to gain access to careers in medicine.

She also founded Faces of Medicine, a narrative health-equity project centered on the journeys of Black female physicians — centered around a documentary series and a collection of mini-memoirs — with the goal of inspiring more women of color to enter the field of medicine and diversify the healthcare industry, with the idea that diversity in healthcare teams leads to a measurable and meaningful improvement in outcomes.

“Right now, black women are 2.8% of the physicians in the U.S., which is a little more than a third of what we represent in the population as a whole, so it’s clearly inadequate,” she said, noting that Black men, Latinx people, and Indigenous Americans face similar disparities. “Some groups are just underrepresented in these spaces, and outcomes suffer as a result.”

For her ongoing efforts, Ennis was honored this year by the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) with its Woman Physician Leadership Award, recognizing outstanding leadership and contributions to patients and the medical profession by a woman physician.

Ennis, the society noted, is viewed by her colleagues and the community as a leader in addressing structural racism in healthcare and social determinants of health. In addition to her work with Faces of Medicine, she penned several opinion pieces addressing race in medicine for the Washington Post and created a presentation for the Hampshire and Franklin County districts of the MMS that was selected by the Board of Registration in Medicine as one of three that meets the new licensure requirement for implicit bias education.

“I have continued to be impressed not just by how compassionate and professional a physician she is, but she’s also a tremendous role model for women physicians and for women of color,” said Dr. Kate Atkinson, a primary-care physician in Northampton and Amherst, when the award was presented. “Dr. Khama Ennis has been speaking out constructively and gently to educate and empower us all to do better.”

For that work, Ennis is not only a Woman of Impact, but someone whose impact on healthcare promises to bear fruit for decades to come.

 

Shifting Gears

Ennis was born in Jamaica; her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was a toddler, and she grew up in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

She graduated from Brown University with a focus in medical anthropology and earned her medical degree at NYU School of Medicine and her master of public health degree at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She practiced at Cooley Dickinson Hospital for a decade and a half, starting in 2006, and eventually rose to chief of Emergency Medicine from 2015 to 2020 and medical staff president from 2022 to 2022.

But as early as 2018, she was looking for a change, for a number of reasons.

“Right now, black women are 2.8% of the physicians in the U.S., which is a little more than a third of what we represent in the population as a whole, so it’s clearly inadequate.”

“What I had come to do was done: the department was stabilized, the wait times were down, and we’d had some real achievements,” she recalled. She had also gotten divorced and found the 24/7 on-call nature of an ER schedule to be incompatible with effective co-parenting.

So Ennis switched gears and went into integrative medicine, opening Intentional Health in downtown Amherst earlier in 2023.

“My training is more allopathic, traditional, conventional Western medicine. But I provide and have received acupuncture, therapeutic massage is incredibly important, physical therapy is important, chiropractic is important. There are different ways to bring all of these different players in to optimize people’s health.”

Even elements like nutrition education is critical to her work. “I like being able to suggest … ‘if you eat that instead of that, you’ll still be full, but your blood sugar will come down.’ If people have a bit more understanding, they can have more control over their own health,” she explained.

Dr. Lynnette Watkins

Dr. Lynnette Watkins, president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Health Care, is one of the four physicians profiled in the first episode of the Faces of Medicine documentary series.

“I’m not a primary-care doctor, and I think what’s terrible about our overall healthcare system is that it doesn’t allow primary-care doctors to get to a lot of this,” she added. “It’s structural; they’re given 15 minutes to see a person, and it’s really hard to get into depth in 15 minutes with anybody.”

So, in addition to her acupuncture certification, “I have studied lifestyle medicine, which looks at nutrition and activity, sleep, restorative practices, community, all those things that play huge roles in individual and community health.”

At the same time, Ennis has been hard at work over the past two years on Faces of Medicine, a memoir and documentary project that will have its first public screening on Monday, Oct. 16 at Amherst Cinema, with the first episode telling the stories of four Black women who are making an impact on healthcare locally: Dr. Lynnette Watkins, president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Health Care; Dr. Thea James, associate Chief Medical Officer and executive director of the Health Equity Accelerator at Boston Medical Center; Dr. Valerie Stone, director of Health Equity Initiatives in the Department of Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; and Dr. Rose Cesar, a gastroenterologist at Baystate Franklin Medical Center.

“We’re also going to be telling the story of Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first Black woman to ever earn an MD in the U.S.; that happened in 1864,” Ennis noted.

She plans on interviewing at least 30 physicians for the series, and has conducted 16 interviews so far.

“I reached out to different Black female physicians across the country. Some of them I knew; a lot of them were a friend of a friend or some other connection,” she explained. “But the first episode is all Massachusetts stories. They will be telling their own stories, pulled together from the interviews they’ve done over the last year and a half.”

Faces of Medicine will also arrange virtual screenings for two days after the Oct. 16 event for anyone who can’t make the premiere.

Crafting a documentary, for someone whose training is in a much different realm, was a challenge, she said, but a gratifying one. Her team includes Seth Lepore, who handles day-to-day operations; and Executive Producer Jenahye Johnson of Brooklyn-based Homebase Studios, a production studio and crew-sourcing agency that touts “storytelling through community.”

“I needed a company, so I incorporated a company. And then you need fiscal sponsorships, so I got fiscal sponsorships,” Ennis said. “And then I started fundraising at the very end of 2021. Thus far, we’ve raised about $250,000, which is what’s funded all of the work so far.

Dr. Khama Ennis

Dr. Khama Ennis was also honored this year with the Massachusetts Medical Society’s Woman Physician Leadership Award.

“Ideally, this can go in a couple different directions from here. I either continue grassroots fundraising to get the rest of the episodes funded and completed, or an executive producer with means says, ‘I love this project, and I want to help steward it across the finish line.’ That would be amazing. Or PBS or a streaming service says, ‘this is something that we’d really love to engage with.’”

The initial plan is to complete four episodes that span the breadth of the country, numerous specialties in medicine, and myriad stories and paths. The series could be a template for other underrepresented groups, too, from Latinx and Indigenous Americans to LGBTQ individuals, she said. “The whole goal is to have young people see themselves reflected in these stories and see possibilities they can grab onto.”

 

Worth the Effort

Faces of Medicine dovetails nicely with Ennis’s work on Diversify Medicine.

“The goal that I have there is to create a short-term database. There are lots of organizations doing great work to try to bring people into this space, but if you don’t know exactly what to search for, you’re not going to find a program that could support you.”

The database is intended to help underrepresented populations find resources to help them access medical careers, and she also plans to create a virtual mentorship network to amplify the voices of professionals of color already working in the space.

“We have concrete data that support the importance of diversity on teams for improving health outcomes,” Ennis noted. For example, one study came out that looked at the infant mortality rate in Florida, which was two to three times higher for black infants than for white infants — and that disparity was cut in half when the pediatrician was black.

“The data that I’ve found most specifically speaks to physicians, but I think it’s true of every player in the healthcare team. Doctors are useless without nurses, and nurses are useless without techs. We all need each other in order to do this work, so I truly believe that every level needs to reflect the population we’re serving.”

Meanwhile, Faces of Medicine holds the promise of inspiring young women of color to pursue the dream of a medical career from an early age.

“There are experiences in elementary, middle, and high school where people can either be encouraged or discouraged,” she said. “Somebody can express an interest in medicine, and somebody else can say, ‘oh, that’s really hard, are you sure?’ Or somebody can say, ‘that’s great; let’s figure out what the next step would be.’”

The women being profiled in Faces of Medicine all figured out that next step, and are able to clearly communicate how and why.

“Say you’re a smart kid, but you just don’t think it’s possible because you’ve experienced homelessness. We can show them somebody who had some real struggles in their family growing up, but they got here,” Ennis said. “I’m not Pollyanna; I don’t want to tell anybody that it’s easy. But I do want people to get that it’s worth it.”

Women of Impact 2023

President and CEO, Square One

Inspired by Others, She Displays the Awesome Power of One Woman

Dawn Forbes DiStefano

Dawn Forbes DiStefano never had to be told about how a single woman could be a life-changing force for someone and an influential role model.

She could see for herself starting at a very young age, with her maternal grandmother, Phyllis Arnold Pilbin, who saw her role change in profound ways when her daughter, Forbes DiStefano’s mother, was killed by a drunk driver when she was just 26 years old and Dawn, her first child, was only 3.

“My grandmother somehow had the resiliency and spirit to lend a hand to a very grieving father; she left her day job to care for my sister and me so that my father could work during the day — while she was still raising four other children,” said Forbes DiStefano, adding that she started working nights selling Stanley Home Products. “She changed her life to care for the two of us. As a woman growing up with a woman who persevered through losing her daughter and had the strength to then change her career so she could raise her two young granddaughters to get through this — that had a profound impact on me.”

But there have been plenty of other examples of the power and influence of a single woman, she said, citing the remarkable individual her father would marry several years after that tragedy, Patty, who would adopt Forbes DiStefano and her sister Heather, who is also on this list of life changers, as well as two sisters who would come later, Kelly and Megan. And her aunts as well.

There would be impactful women at the YWCA, where she first went to work as a receptionist and would stay for nearly three decades.

“I’ve always been sort of an impatient, unsettled learner — I’m always looking for something else to learn, something else to do, a problem to solve. And I’ve always had women who responded with ‘go ahead and try it … we’ve got your back; we’ll pick you up if you fall.’”

Then there’s Joan Kagan-Levine, her predecessor as president and CEO of the Springfield-based early-education provider Square One. Like others, Kagan-Levine encouraged her to reach higher, take on risks, and maybe try to do something she might not have thought she could do.

“I’ve been surrounded by women who encouraged me to try things,” Forbes DiStefano said. “I’ve always been sort of an impatient, unsettled learner — I’m always looking for something else to learn, something else to do, a problem to solve. And I’ve always had women who responded with ‘go ahead and try it … we’ve got your back; we’ll pick you up if you fall.’”

With all those powerful leads to follow, she has, in essence, devoted her life to having the backs of others, especially women — being there to pick them up if they fall and being that single woman who becomes a force in someone’s life.

That’s been the case whether it’s the many women in her own family; the 130 or so women, by her count, now working for Square One; or others in the community.

Indeed, she keeps with her what she calls a “secret notebook,” one in which she jots down notes, mostly on women she’s helping through issues and problems in their lives, be it with buying a house or how to move forward in their career.

Dawn Forbes DiStefano says her grandmother, Phyllis Arnold Pilbin

Dawn Forbes DiStefano says her grandmother, Phyllis Arnold Pilbin, is one of many who have shown her the “power of a single woman.”

But being a mentor and influence in the lives of others only partially explains why she is part of this Women of Impact class of 2023. She is also a dynamic leader, guiding Square One through an important and challenging time in its history — and, yes, there have been many of those.

Today, she is leading a project to build the agency a new headquarters in Springfield’s South End, its home since 1883, while playing a key role in efforts to secure adequate funding for the agency and erase the discrepancy between what the state pays to childcare facilities in the 617 (and other area codes in and around Boston) and what it pays to those in the 413.

As a manager, Forbes DiStefano said she tries to lead by example and do whatever needs to be done, a philosophy captured in comments by Kris Allard, Square One’s vice president of Development & Communication, who first met Forbes DiStefano while they were serving on the Dress for Success board of directors and nominated her to be a Woman of Impact.

“Dawn does not lead from behind her desk,” Allard wrote. “She can often be found sitting on the floor reading stories with a group of preschoolers, chatting with a young mother enrolling in a family-service program, delivering diapers and groceries to families in need of assistance, and even preparing lunch for hundreds of children when the kitchen staff needs an extra pair of hands.”

All that, and much more, explains why she is certainly a Woman of Impact.

 

It’s All Relative

Forbes DiStefano said her mother, Patty, who is only 13 years older than she is, has often been able to inspire and motivate her words and actions.

She has many examples, but one that stands out is from the days not long after she graduated from UMass Amherst with a teaching degree and landed in a terrible job market for teachers. She was spending a lot of time at the family’s pool and enjoying her summer until Patty pulled her aside one day on the deck.

“She said, ‘Dawn, you’re the oldest of four girls, you’re a college graduate, and I need your sisters to see a college graduate working — let’s go work,’” she recalled, adding that the YWCA was hiring for an office it was opening in Northampton; she knew people at the agency, so she went to work there as a receptionist.

So began an intriguing, and very much ongoing, story of involvement with nonprofit agencies, service to the community, and being a woman and a leader who would certainly make all the women who have ever had her back quite proud.

As a receptionist at the YWCA, she was soon inspired by one of those women to start writing grants, become the agency’s grants manager, and make this work more than a job.

“I immediately fell head over heels in love with the notion that I could make a career out of helping people, and most especially helping women,” she said.

In 2007, she became the YWCA’s director of Resource Development, and would stay in that role until 2015, when she decided it was time for a change. She had lunch with Kagan-Levine, who convinced her to become Square One’s chief Finance and Grants officer. Forbes DiStefano would become executive vice president in 2019, and would prevail in the nationwide search for a successor to the retiring Kagan-Levine in January 2021.

As she talked about her current work and the challenges facing her and the agency, she was quick to note they are far less in scope than those Square One faced in the preceding decade — the tornado that destroyed its old headquarters building on Main Street, the natural-gas explosion that rendered one of its facilities unusable, and the tortuous first nine months of the pandemic, which … well, no explanation needed.

Dawn Forbes DiStefano

Dawn Forbes DiStefano is leading Square One through a time of challenge and opportunity, including the building of a new headquarters in Springfield’s South End.

Still, there is plenty on her plate, including the work to build a new facility downtown, a $12 million project now moving through the design and fundraising stages, and ongoing efforts to close the discrepancy between what the state is paying for childcare to facilities on either end of the state.

Indeed, she was a definitive voice in a Boston Globe article earlier this year that drew attention not only to the discrepancy between the reimbursement rates, but the need at agencies like Square One to raise money to cover the difference between what is received for a subsidy and the cost of providing care.

 

The Compounding Effect

At Square One, more than 90% of employees are women, and Forbes DiStefano has committed herself to having their backs and providing the encouragement and inspiration that others have provided to her — all while also being a mother; a strong supporter of agencies that support adult women, such as Dress for Success; and the CEO of a nonprofit.

While doing so, she drives home not just the power of a single woman, but the even more powerful force that emerges when women work together toward common goals and solving problems.

“Someone smarter than me — I think it was in a Forbes article — talked about the power of women and the compounding effect,” she told BusinessWest. “Women, on an individual basis, have power, but the collective impact that women have when they make the conscious effort to support each other in the most inclusive way — it is an exponential change to the world around us.

“When you invest in an individual woman, because the tentacles from the single woman are so vast, whether she’s serving as a sister, a mother, a grandmother, an aunt … if you support her, the exponential improvement and the compounding value of that investment can’t be compared to anything else,” she went on, adding that she is committed to making such investments, whether it’s with her daughters or with her employees. “Invest in a woman; it’s one of the best investments you can make.”

That’s because, she continued, when women struggle and they can’t access what they need, that same compounding effect occurs, but in a negative way. “Her children suffer, and the people around her suffer.”

Which brings us back to that aforementioned secret notebook.

“It’s filled with all the women in my life, so that I can remember who’s buying a home, who’s struggling to care for their aging parents … I can’t remember it all by heart, so I have to write it all down,” she said. “I try to touch one a day; that is always my goal. I either do a handwritten note or a text or a phone call to another woman to let her know I’m thinking about her. I try to connect with women once a day, and in a personal way.”

Getting back to her grandmother, Forbes DiStefano said simply, “she taught me the power of one woman.”

There have been many others who have provided similarly impactful lessons along the way. Together, these individuals inspired her to make providing similar support and inspiration what she calls the “cornerstone of her life.”

So today, as a mother, daughter, employer, mentor, fellow board member, and nonprofit leader, she is the one displaying the awesome power of one woman.

Not just a woman, but a Woman of Impact.

Women of Impact 2023

CEO, The Jamrog Group

She Impacts Her Community, Her Industry, and the Lives of Her Clients

Amy Jamrog

Amy Jamrog likes to say that she wasn’t raised in Holyoke — she was raised by Holyoke.

By that, she meant the community’s people, businesses, business owners, institutions, traditions, and more certainly influenced her and shaped who she is today — much like a family would.

As an example, she noted her first job, which she took at age 14, at a business called the Party Store, a part of the former Quirk Paper Co., located in the city’s Flats section and owned by Jon and Helene Florio. This was a learning experience on more levels than she could count.

“I worked there all through high school,” Jamrog said. “And I met so many Holyoke residents who wanted to shop locally and support local businesses, and I really came to understand the DNA of Holyoke. I also learned customer service, what it meant to be a part of a community, and the importance of giving back, which they [the Florios] did so much of.

“So many of the things I learned growing up were about community, giving back, volunteering … and all of it happened here,” she went on. “It stayed with me.”

Suffice it to say that Jamrog — who has long had a Holyoke address for the Jamrog Group, the financial-advisory firm she founded and now serves as CEO — has spent a lifetime applying the lessons she learned while at the Party Store, as a candystriper at Providence Hospital, later while working at the Holyoke Mall, and while compiling a record that would earn her the rank of valedictorian at Holyoke Catholic High School.

“So many of the things I learned growing up were about community, giving back, volunteering … and all of it happened here. It stayed with me.”

Indeed, when she started as a financial advisor, she was focused on making a difference for her clients and their families. And while that focus remains, she has broadened and deepened her impact, committing herself to making a difference within her community, meaning the 413, and within her industry, especially with women in the profession or thinking about getting in.

She does this in many ways — through service as a board member to organizations like the Girl Scouts and the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts; as a mentor to countless young people in the industry, especially women, who face the same challenges as men and others that are unique to them; as an author, through two bestselling books, Life Savings Conversations and Confetti Moments: 52 Moments to Spark Conversation, Connect Deeply & Celebrate the Ordinary; and, most recently, though her election in June to the board of Finseca (Financial Security for All), a nonprofit organization advocating for the financial-security profession.

Amy Jamrog, seen here with her team at the Jamrog Group

Amy Jamrog, seen here with her team at the Jamrog Group, has helped many women enter the field and persevere through the difficult early years.

In 2020, she created a resource for financial advisors called Four Wings Consulting, with a dragonfly as its symbol. Four Wings was formed to help advisors cope with the many challenges they have been facing in recent years, from the pandemic and its many side effects to the wild swings in the stock market; from soaring interest rates to general uncertainty about the economy and what will happen next.

It’s just one of the ways in which Jamrog has become a true Woman of Impact.

 

Dollars and Sense

As she was cleaning out her office recently while preparing to relocate the Jamrog Group from its former home on Northampton Street in Holyoke, not far from where she grew up, to a small suite in the office tower at 330 Whitney Ave. in that same city, Jamrog came across a note she wrote to herself years ago, when the firm was in Northampton.

It took the form of a 10-year vision statement, something she updates every year, which included the goal to buy a building in Holyoke.

“I wanted to build an office that felt like an extension of home for people,” she recalled. “And I wrote in my 10-year vision that I wanted to own a building on Northampton Street, come back to my roots, be a taxpayer in the community that raised me, and build something permanent — which was the building I ultimately bought. And 10 years later, that actually happened.”

That note, and everything that has happened after she wrote it, speaks volumes about Jamrog and why she is a Woman of Impact — everything from her commitment to long-term planning and her ability to make plans reality to that strong attachment to the Holyoke community, to her understanding that ‘permanent’ is a relative term.

“For people who come into this business specifically wanting to make money, it can be very disappointing because it takes a long time, and you need grit and perseverance and a great work ethic to make it through the first five years. Most people don’t.”

Indeed, 10 years after she moved into the property on Northampton Street, the landscape had changed profoundly. Her team works remotely most days of the week now (everyone is in on Mondays), and clients see their advisors far more on Zoom than they do in the office. These are changes that negate the need for an office that feels like an extension of home.

The moral of this story, if it can be called that, is that planning is important, but revising the plan to meet a changing world is more important.

This is the basic advice Jamrog gives to her clients as a financial advisor, a profession she assumed after taking a somewhat winding career route.

After she graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont, she entered the healthcare field, working first for Baystate Health and then for Hospice of Pioneer Valley, as a community liaison between hospice and the physicians in our community.

“My job was to meet with physicians and explain to them what hospice was really about so they could refer their patients earlier in their terminal diagnoses so families could take full advantage of hospice services,” she explained. “It was interesting work; I was 22, 23 years old … I was young, but I learned how to communicate effectively with physicians. Then I was recruited to being a financial advisor; it was a very natural transition.”

As for that recruitment effort, it was undertaken by Andy Skroback, then 62, who became her first mentor in this difficult business. And it was during her first few years under Skroback’s tutelage that she realized the profound impact she could have, as a female advisor, on families.

But over the course of her career, she has broadened her scope when it comes to impact, a pattern that continues today.

Amy Jamrog’s book, Confetti Moments

Amy Jamrog’s book, Confetti Moments, has made its way onto several bestseller lists.

“That word ‘impact’ has always been important to me,” Jamrog said. “I began my financial-services career really wanting to impact families and my clients, many of whom were physicians. Today, our clients are corporate executives, small-business owners, and nonprofit endowments, where we manage their portfolios. That’s where the shift to having a bigger impact on my community really started to matter. The work we did with nonprofits helping nonprofits manage their endowments really got us grounded in how important philanthropy and our nonprofits really are.”

 

Risk and Reward

After successfully building her business — there are now nine team members — and becoming actively involved in the community on a number of levels, especially with nonprofits devoted to “women and children as leaders,” such as Girls Inc., Girls on the Run, and the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts — Jamrog added an additional point of emphasis: impacting her profession.

She does this in many ways and through many vehicles, including Four Wings Consulting. Her specific focus is women in the industry, she said, adding that she coaches more than 100 of them across the country.

“Making an impact on women in our business is very important to me,” she said. “The business itself is difficult, but to be female is really challenging. So if I can help shorten their trajectory and become successful sooner, and realize just how much impact and satisfaction this career can have — that’s some of my favorite work.”

Elaborating, she started by saying that financial-security work is much harder than it might look to those receiving such services. The hours are long, the work difficult, and the failure rate is quite high: close to 90%.

“For people who come into this business specifically wanting to make money, it can be very disappointing because it takes a long time, and you need grit and perseverance and a great work ethic to make it through the first five years. Most people don’t,” Jamrog said, adding that, while it’s certainly challenging for everyone, the attrition rate for women is even higher, for reasons she explained in detail.

“Without stereotyping too much, most of my male counterparts — their one job is to be a financial advisor,” she explained. “Most of my female counterparts … one of their jobs is to be a financial advisor; they also have spouse, mom, the prepper of the meals, the taker of kids to school, and all the other things that women tend to have on their plates.

“So I try to really help women figure out the integration of all of the responsibilities and goals that they have and how we manage all of them and be successful in each of them; that’s the ultimate challenge,” she went on. “I often hear women say, ‘if I’m successful as a financial advisor, I’m not being successful as a mom, and if I’m focused on being successful as a mom, I’m less successful as a financial advisor,’ and that, to me, is such a sad statement because it doesn’t have to be the case.”

Jamrog knows because she’s lived that life for 27 years. She says it’s a constant challenge to be successful in the multiple roles women accept, but it is “absolutely doable.” She has shown that one can successfully balance work at home, in the office, and in the community, and succeed in each realm.

And in another realm as well: as an author. Her second book, Confetti Moments: 52 Moments to Spark Conversation, Connect Deeply & Celebrate the Ordinary, a collection of Jamrog’s uplifting blog posts from the deepest months of the pandemic, sits on a number of bestseller lists, including the Wall Street Journal, Amazon, and USA Today. It has become popular with CEOs, team managers, and even families as a way to motivate, accent the positive, and even build teamwork.

 

The Next Chapter

Jamrog is essentially done with her third book, which she described as her college thesis. “The paper copy has been sitting on a shelf for 30 years, and I’m in the process of editing it.”

This is a coming-of-age novel about 12-year-old girls, she told BusinessWest, adding that readers from this area will find that it sounds quite familiar; it’s about growing up in a small town in Western Mass., as she did.

Then again, she didn’t just grow up in Holyoke, she was raised by that remarkable city, and everything she learned growing up there has helped shape her into a Woman of Impact.

Women of Impact 2023

CEO, Berkshire Hills Music Academy

She Helps Young Adults with Disabilities Build a Lifetime of Ability

Michelle Theroux

Growing up in South Hadley, Michelle Theroux would ride by the old Skinner family residence on Route 116, just north of Mount Holyoke College, and have no clue what it was.

Or what it would become.

“Wistariahurst in Holyoke was the family’s winter home, and this was their summer home,” she told BusinessWest. “And when the last living Skinner passed away, this property went to Mount Holyoke. But it never had an identity within the campus, so around 1998, they were looking to divest several of their properties.”

Among the interested buyers were the founders of Berkshire Hills Music Academy, which will celebrate a quarter-century next year as a unique, college-like program for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are looking to expand their social, vocational, and music skills in a decidedly music-infused environment.

Theroux came on board in 2013, providing some needed stability. As in much-needed.

“I was the eighth executive director in our 13-year history when I was hired,” she said. “When I spoke with the recruiter, I said, ‘you have to give me the backstory. Am I walking onto the Titanic? What’s going on here?’”

The answer, she decided, was ‘founder syndrome’; the institution had some strong founding families who had competing visions, so there wasn’t one consistent direction, which burned out each director quickly. In fact, when Theroux reached just 20 months on the job, she became the school’s longest-tenured leader ever.

“I was able to get some traction with staff and make changes, as well as with the board. I said, ‘if we’re going to do what we need to do, here’s how we’re going to do it. And you’ve got to let me do my job. I can’t be second-guessed at every turn. We’re going to have to change.’”

 

It helped that her music background — she began studying tap, jazz, and ballet dance at age 5; added dance instruction when she was just 16; and later toured nationally in a jazz-based children’s show — gave her some “street cred” with the staff.

“I knew what it’s like to be on a gig; things like that allowed me to be a bit more successful than some of the predecessors.”

That success, a decade into Theroux’s tenure, is measurable. The student body was 32 when she arrived, and is past 75 now. “That’s capacity,” she said. “So for us to grow, we would be taking on a new building, most likely off-site and in the community somewhere.”

Which may happen at some point, because the school’s success extends far beyond numbers. It’s all about the total impact on these young adults’ lives.

Berkshire Hills boasts a day program and a residential program. “If they’re residential, they’re most likely living for the first two years in our dorm, and then they can live in the community after that,” she explained. “Our two-year program really focuses on shoring up their life skills — everything from cooking to money management, which includes going to the bank and then going shopping and making sure you have a list of what you need versus what you want.”

The entire program, in fact, is built around preparing students to live independently and successfully in the community.

“We have a whole course on social skills with friends, social skills in the workplace. We teach what language to use and what’s an appropriate hand gesture when you meet somebody: you shake their hand; you don’t give them a hug. Because a lot of times, it’s the soft skills that individuals who have intellectual and developmental disabilities may struggle with and could lead to potential conflict, say, in the workplace.”

“When I spoke with the recruiter, I said, ‘you have to give me the backstory. Am I walking onto the Titanic? What’s going on here?’”

Speaking of which, students also explore vocational skills and strengths. “We do a lot of volunteer opportunities in the community: at the local food pantries, the Dakin animal shelter, and a few other places, like Share Coffee, to see what their skill sets are, what their interests are. And then, as they go through our program, they match those skills with potential employment later on.”

But what really sets Berkshire Hills Music Academy aside is right there in the name.

“We are known for individuals who have an intellectual or developmental disability, who are highly musical,” Theroux explained. “We’re one of the very few places in the country where they can get lessons and programming, but we also act as their agent, their manager, their accompaniment, their arranger.”

Michelle Theroux

Michelle Theroux says Berkshire Hills Music Academy is at capacity and may need to grow into another building in the community.

In fact, students are provided with opportunities to perform locally, both individually and in a number of different ensembles in different musical genres, and in settings ranging from local schools to Fenway Park, where students have sung the national anthem.

In short, these young adults are living full lives, enjoying and perfecting their music skills, and preparing to live independently after their enrollment at Berkshire Hills. And Theroux’s steady leadership has plenty to do with their success.

 

The Power of Music

Some gigs can be especially impactful for audiences.

“We have about 15 nursing homes or assisted-living facilities in a rotation that our bands will cycle through each year, and those facilities love having them,” Theroux said. “One reason is our students are super warm and embracing and fun. They’re also very talented.

“And there’s a connection between the aging brain and music,” she added. “For example, somebody with dementia or Alzheimer’s will have lapses in their memory, but they’ll hear a song, and it will bring them right back, and they’ll remember all the words to it. If it’s their wedding song or their prom song, whatever it is, they have a memory that gets triggered by the music. So we are a fan favorite in the local nursing homes.”

The school even has a dance ensemble that’s starting to pick up gigs as well, sometimes accompanied by a Berkshire Hills musician or ensemble, sometimes on their own.

Speaking of gigs, the young musicians earn money for appearances, with just a small percentage deducted to cover the school’s staffing costs, Theroux said. “They know there’s value to their work. Like you and I value our paychecks, so do they. So, yes, these are paid gigs.”

“We’ve really looked at the individual, and instead of just focusing on areas where they need support, because there’s a deficit there, we’ve looked at where their strengths are, where their passions are, where their gifts are, and really build on that.”

And when audiences hear them play, sing, and dance, they understand the value, too.

“When they hear our music, people are like, ‘wait, what? They have a disability?’ Because when you hear the music, you hear good music. You don’t hear a disability.”

That’s why these students have performed at other schools, too, funded by anti-bullying grants, to drive home the message of ability, not disability, Theroux said. “The message is, ‘if I have autism and can sing like this, you might have autism, so guess what? You, too, have skills; you, too, have talent; you, too, have strength.’ Our bands go into some schools, and they’re like rock stars.”

Berkshire Hills students don’t have to be highly musical to enroll, she added. “But if you are, there is a music track for folks where that can be their vocation. We have a secondary tier; we have several bands that gig in the community at a high level.”

These successes — in music and in life — are reflected in words of gratitude from families over the years, Theroux said.

“It’s everything from a parent telling us, ‘I never thought my child would shave his own face’ to becoming highly musical and standing up and performing in front of 200 people, to getting their own apartment,” she noted. “Our goal is to figure out how to make somebody as autonomous and independent as possible. Whatever level of staff support is needed, we will provide, but the goal is really to push the areas where they don’t need support.”

Michelle Theroux says the school’s culture of inclusivity

Michelle Theroux says the school’s culture of inclusivity extends to the way the staff treats students, families, and each other.

And when the result is someone who can live on their own, do their own laundry, cook their own meals, hold down a job, handle their banking … and also have outlets to express their musical talent, well, that’s the heart of the Berkshire Hills mission.

“We’ve really looked at the individual, and instead of just focusing on areas where they need support, because there’s a deficit there, we’ve looked at where their strengths are, where their passions are, where their gifts are, and really build on that,” she added. After all, “we all have deficits; we all have things we’re working on and trying to improve.”

 

Sign Her Up

Away from her day job, Theroux is an example of the mantra that, if you need something done, ask a busy person.

Among the boards she’s sat on and organizations she’s served are Mercy Medical Center and Trinity Health Of New England, the South Hadley/Granby Chamber of Commerce, the town of South Hadley, the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, the Human Service Forum, and MicroTek, a Chicopee-based manufacturer that employs people with disabilities.

And she brought a wealth of nonprofit-management experience to Berkshire Hills when she came on board as executive director in 2013 (she took on the CEO role in 2021); those roles include executive director of Child & Family Service of Pioneer Valley, director of Special Projects at Clinical and Support Options, vice president of Clinical Services at the Center for Human Development, and director of Family Networks at the Key Program.

Even right out of graduate school, she found herself working in human services at the Gándara Center, running a behavioral-treatment residence for adolescent boys who had sexual reactive behaviors or fire-setting behaviors. “That’s an interesting population to cut your teeth on,” she said.

All this prepared her to lead Berkshire Hills, and lead she has; soon after arriving, she stabilized all facets of operations, created an operational budget surplus, doubled the operating budget over a two-year period, expanded contracts with the Department of Developmental Services, and exceeded the $3.3 million goal on a capital campaign. She also oversaw the construction of a new music building fully funded by that campaign.

“I’ve worked in several other human-service organizations, and this place has a very different flavor and feel when I walk in — not only the physical campus that we have, but the culture we try to promote around inclusivity, that’s strength-based and person-centered,” she said. “That extends to how we treat our colleagues and how we treat each other as staff. It’s one thing to be client-forward, but how do we make sure that’s all-encompassing in terms of who we are and what we do?”

For answering that question every day, and changing young lives for the better, Theroux is certainly a Woman of Impact.

Women of Impact 2023

Author, Speaker, and Child and Mental-health Advocate

By Sharing Her Story, She’s Turned Her Tragic Youth into an Impactful Life

 

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Lisa Zarcone brought a book to her interview with BusinessWest, called The Unspoken Truth. It’s a memoir she wrote several years ago.

More importantly — and tragically — she also lived it. And it’s a rough read.

“The Unspoken Truth is my story, of the abuse I went through,” she said. “I was silent for years about it and never spoke of it, and it was so damaging to me. But as an adult, I was finally able to break free and share my story.”

“I tell anybody who reads my book, ‘be prepared.’ It’s a very raw, real look at what abuse is like through the eyes of a child,” she added. “When you read stories of other abuse survivors, they take the point of view of the adult looking back. But I took the child’s perspective, right in the moment. I wanted people to understand what the child really goes through.”

But Zarcone’s story since that childhood — in which she was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused for the better part of a decade — has been truly inspiring. It’s a story of coming to terms with a horrific past, of learning to trust others with that story, of surprising depths of empathy.

It’s a story of bravery and vulnerability. It’s the story of a Woman of Impact.

And it starts with her mother. In fact, Zarcone’s current advocacy work around mental health is rooted in her complicated relationship with her mother, who has struggled with mental illness her entire life.

“My mom never got the proper help and support that she needed,” said Zarcone. “And because of that, we both fell through the cracks. Again, the abuse was horrific. And it went on for years. It wasn’t like it just happened in a short period of time, and we were able to move forward from it. This went on for years.”

“I buried my past. I took it all and said, ‘I’m not going to speak of it, I’m not going to think of it.’ And I fought every single day of my life not to bring it up, not to focus on that pain. I was driven by that.”

When Zarcone was 6, her brother died of leukemia, and that’s when her mother’s world — and her own life — fell apart. “My mom never recovered. My dad said the day my brother died was the day she died, and on many levels, that’s the truth, because she couldn’t recover from it. And back then, in the ’70s, mental health was not talked about; it was frowned upon.”

As her mother deteriorated, “the stigma was horrendous. People treated my mother very poorly because she was sick. And nobody wanted to deal with her,” Zarcone recalled. “And because of that, I was left home alone with my mom. My dad buried himself in work and activities, and he was barely around.”

Her father eventually left, and her mother’s abuse, which started verbally, eventually became physical. Meanwhile, she started bringing unsafe people into their home.

“She loved to pick people up off the street, homeless people, hitchhikers — she’d bring them home and wanted it to be like a party at all times; she rode that roller coaster of the highs and lows and the mania.”

When she was only 12, a troubled older boy from the neighborhood claimed Zarcone as his girlfriend, and her mother encouraged the coercive, sexually abusive ‘relationship,’ which lasted a year and a half.

Lisa Zarcone

Lisa Zarcone says her book is raw, real, difficult … and a story she needed to tell. Photo by Leah Martin Photography

“Neighbors saw, family saw, the school saw, and nobody stepped in,” she said. “My mother did not hide her mental illness. We never knew what was going to happen next.”

At age 14 — after eight years of this hell — she was able to free herself from the abuse when her grandparents took her in. But there was alcoholism and general chaos in that home, and her mother remained a part of her life. Finally, she rebelled, in a purposeful, even positive sort of way.

“At age 15 or 16, I started thinking a little differently, and I wanted to figure out how to get out. So I engrossed myself in school, and I went from an F student to an A student because I decided I needed to do something to help myself. I worked three jobs while I was in high school. I did anything I could not to be home. And I did whatever I could to get out.”

Eventually, she did. “And I buried my past. I took it all and said, ‘I’m not going to speak of it, I’m not going to think of it.’ And I fought every single day of my life not to bring it up, not to focus on that pain. I was driven by that. I was driven to succeed. And I did.”

Since then, Zarcone has lived a life of purpose. She’s worked with disabled children and adults teaching life skills and writing, and served as a mentor to young women in a locked-down facility teaching journaling, poetry, and art therapy.

She has also done plenty of work advocating for suicide prevention and PTSD awareness, and she’s currently Massachusetts’ national ambassador for the National Assoc. of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse, traveling all over to raise awareness and promote change in a system where too many children still fall through the cracks.

 

Moment of Truth

But she wouldn’t find full healing from her past, and the ability to help others overcome their own trauma, until she began talking about it — to the surprise of her loving, and completely blindsided, husband.

“Lisa has worked hard to overcome her past abuse and turned her pain into purpose,” John Zarcone said in nominating Lisa as a Woman of Impact. “I admire her immensely for stepping up and saving herself, our marriage, and family. We have raised three children together, and she is an incredible mother. It comes naturally for her, caring for others and making sure everyone is safe, loved, and thriving.”

That’s a remarkable quality, considering her youthful trauma — which she kept hidden away from John for more than a decade of marriage.

“After I had my third child, things changed,” she said. “I started having flashbacks and nightmares, and they were horrific. I was living in two worlds at once every single day, and I couldn’t do it anymore. So I went to therapy, and I finally shared what happened to me. At that point, I didn’t share absolutely everything. I couldn’t. But I was able to break the silence by saying I was sexually abused, and I started to work through those things.”

Then came the harder part — when she finally told her husband, too.

“He knew my mom had mental illness. He knew I went through a lot of things, but he didn’t know the depth of what happened to me, especially the sexual-abuse piece. And I blew his mind,” she said.

“I was able to find healing and forgiveness because I put myself in their shoes to understand the best I could.”

“He always knew that I was scarred. And he knew my mom was severely mentally ill; even as an adult, my mother was very damaging toward me. But when I shared my truth with him, he was blown away. Basically, he looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know who you are.’ That was so hurtful to me … but I got it. I knew why he was saying that.”

But they overcame it — Lisa’s unearthed trauma and John’s shock — and eventually grew stronger as a family.

“John is my biggest fan, and he’s been my biggest supporter through this whole process and writing this book,” she said, noting that it took six years to write, and no publisher wanted to touch a memoir by a first-time author telling this extremely raw story in an unusual way. So Zarcone self-published and learned how to market it on her own.

The transition from writer to speaker came naturally, she said, after an author talk in her hometown of West Haven, Conn. after the book was released. About 60 people showed up, and she was nervous, but afterward, it felt … right.

Lisa Zarcone has “turned her pain into purpose.”

Through much hard work, her husband says, Lisa Zarcone has “turned her pain into purpose.”
Photo by Leah Martin Photography

“My husband and my daughter were like, ‘well, I guess a public speaker is born.’ And from that point forward, that’s what I decided,” she said. “I really wanted to get the word out there, to talk about these subjects that nobody wants to talk about.”

As part of her work in the mental-health realm, she became an advocate for her mother, who passed away in 2014. This month, she is releasing her second book, which tells her mother’s life story.

“I started looking through my parents’ eyes, looking at their journey, why they acted the way they did, why things happened the way they did,” she said. “I was able to find healing and forgiveness because I put myself in their shoes to understand the best I could.”

Zarcone understands this level of empathy surprises people.

“It took a long time to get there. For years, I hated my mother. And I feel bad when I say that now, because I didn’t truly hate her, but in that timeframe, I hated what she did to me, allowing these bad people to come into my world and hurt me the way they did.

“But as I grew older, I learned what mental illness really was, and I did a lot of studying and talking to people and understanding what mental illness does to somebody. Every time she would get locked up or every time something else would happen, it was painful to watch, because I did have love and empathy for my mother.”

And as she healed, she was able to separate her abuser from the once-loving mother crushed by mental illness.

“I always feel like a sense of loss because I lost my mother to mental illness,” she went on. “And she lost out, too. She lost out on being a wonderful mother, a wonderful wife, a wonderful grandmother. Those are the things she aspired to be. Family was everything to her. But when she was sick, you wouldn’t even know who she was. It was just mind-blowing to watch.”

 

The Story Continues

“Embrace the journey.”

That’s one of Zarcone’s personal mantras, and it’s a moving one, considering where that journey has taken her.

But across 37 years of marriage, and especially since she finally opened up to her husband — and the world — about her past, she has found healing by finding her voice: as a writer, a speaker, a blogger, a talk-radio host, and a national spokesperson for survivors of child abuse. In 2021, she received an award from the Mass. Commission on the Status of Women, and The Unspoken Truth won the Hope Pyx Global International Book Award in the category of child abuse.

The road has been long, and healing didn’t come all at once. But it began by telling a very difficult story.

“The healing process comes in stages,” Zarcone said. “People will say, ‘once you share your story, it’s better.’ No, no … that’s when the work really begins. You have to take it piece by piece, and when it gets too heavy, you put it down.

“And then you pick it back up.”

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Rolling with the Changes

By Daniel Eger and Cindy Gonzalez

Tax laws are like a constantly shifting landscape, subject to periodic changes that can significantly impact your financial bottom line. Whether you’re an individual taxpayer striving to maximize deductions or a business owner who wants to optimize your financial strategies, staying informed about the latest tax-law changes is paramount.

Daniel Eger

Daniel Eger

Cindy Gonzalez

Cindy Gonzalez

In this ever-evolving tax environment, we’ll explore the essential updates that individuals and businesses need to be aware of to navigate the new tax frontier effectively. We’ll dive into the critical modifications that may influence your financial planning and tax strategies in the coming year.

 

TAX-LAW CHANGES IMPACTING INDIVIDUALS

In 2023, several significant adjustments have been made to tax laws that individuals should be aware of. These changes encompass a wide range of topics, from energy credits to retirement contributions, interest rates, and tax brackets. Let’s delve into some of the key changes that may impact your financial planning.

 

Residential Energy Credits

For individuals looking to reduce their environmental footprint and lower their tax liabilities, residential energy credits are worth exploring. These credits aim to incentivize the adoption of clean and energy-efficient technologies in homes. A notable change for 2023 is the Clean Vehicle credits, which are now effective after April 18. These credits apply to new, used, or commercial vehicles, with qualifying requirements for sellers, dealers, and manufacturers.

 

Interest-rate Changes for Q4 Payments

Starting on Oct. 1, 2023, significant adjustments will be made to interest rates for tax payments. In cases of overpayments, where individuals have paid more than the amount owed, the interest rate will be set at 8%. In instances of underpayments, where taxes owed have not been fully paid, individuals will be subject to an 8% interest rate.

 

Contributions to Retirement Savings

In an effort to help individuals save for their retirement, the IRS has raised the contribution limits for 401(k) and IRA plans in 2023. If you contribute to a 401(k) or 403(b), you can now put in up to $22,500 a year, an increase from $20,500. Those age 50 or older can make an additional catch-up contribution of $7,500. Similarly, traditional and Roth IRA contributors can now contribute up to $6,500 (up from $6,000), with an extra $1,000 catch-up contribution available for those age 50 and older.

“Whether you’re an individual taxpayer striving to maximize deductions or a business owner who wants to optimize your financial strategies, staying informed about the latest tax-law changes is paramount.”

Enhanced IRA Contribution Limits

Traditionally, there have always been strict constraints on contributions to both traditional and Roth IRAs. For the majority of individuals, the contribution ceiling stood at $6,000. However, for those age 50 and above, there was the opportunity to contribute an additional $1,000 as catch-up contributions, bringing the total to $7,000.

The exciting news for 2023 is a boost in these limits by $500, allowing Americans to now contribute up to $6,500 to their IRA. For individuals age 50 and older, this figure escalates to $7,500.

Increased Contributions to Employer-sponsored Retirement Plans

Following a similar upward trajectory, the contribution limits for employer-sponsored retirement plans have also experienced a positive adjustment. In 2022, the threshold for employee contributions stood at $20,500. However, in 2023, this limit has risen by $2,000, providing a new maximum of $22,500. For those eligible for catch-up contributions, the prospects for bolstering retirement savings have become even more enticing, with an elevated contribution limit of $30,000.

It’s important to note that, if you participate in multiple workplace retirement plans, the limitations encompass all salary deferrals and total contributions across these plans. Contributions made to other types of accounts, such as an IRA, remain separate and do not impact these thresholds. These enhanced contribution limits offer individuals and employees greater flexibility and opportunities to secure their financial future.

Health Savings Account Contribution Limits

Health savings accounts (HSAs) have become increasingly popular for managing medical expenses and as an investment vehicle. In 2023, individuals will be allowed to contribute an additional $200 per year to their HSAs, raising the maximum contribution limit to $3,850. For families, the threshold for coverage will also increase by $450, reaching a maximum of $7,750 for the fiscal year. Keep in mind that you must meet the minimum deductibles to qualify for an HSA plan, which are $1,500 for individuals and $3,000 for families.

Tax Brackets for 2023

Lastly, it’s essential to be aware of the changes in tax brackets for 2023. While there are still seven tax rates ranging from 10% to 37%, the income thresholds for these brackets have been adjusted upward by about 7% from 2022. This adjustment reflects the impact of record-high inflation, potentially placing some individuals in a lower tax bracket than in previous years.

These changes underscore the importance of staying informed about tax-law updates to make informed financial decisions and optimize your tax-planning strategy. Be sure to consult with a tax professional or financial advisor to understand how these changes may affect your unique financial situation.

 

TAX-LAW CHANGES IMPACTING BUSINESSES AND INDIVIDUALS REPORTING ON SCHEDULE C

In the dynamic landscape of tax laws, staying informed about changes that affect both businesses and individuals reporting their income and expenses on Schedule C is of paramount importance. In recent years, several noteworthy adjustments have been made, significantly impacting the way deductions are calculated, particularly for expenses like Section 179 deductions, bonus depreciation, and meals and entertainment. Here, we delve into these pivotal changes.

Section 179 Deduction Limits

One of the cornerstones of tax planning for businesses has been the Section 179 deduction. This deduction enables businesses to write off the cost of qualifying property and equipment in the year they are placed in service, rather than depreciating them over time.

In 2023, the Section 179 deduction limit has been raised to a generous $1,160,100 for property used 50% or more for business purposes. This marks an increase of $80,000 from the previous year. This change empowers businesses to invest in capital assets and equipment while enjoying substantial tax savings.

“While there are still seven tax rates ranging from 10% to 37%, the income thresholds for these brackets have been adjusted upward by about 7% from 2022. This adjustment reflects the impact of record-high inflation, potentially placing some individuals in a lower tax bracket than in previous years.”

Meals Deductions

The tax treatment of meals expenses has witnessed a notable transformation, with implications for businesses and individuals alike. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021 and 2022, the IRS allowed a temporary 100% deduction for such expenses to provide economic relief and support the struggling hospitality industry.

However, starting in 2023, there has been a shift in the deductibility of meal expenses. Any deductible meal is now subject to a 50% deduction under the guidelines outlined in Publication 463. This change underscores the need for businesses and individuals to carefully document and categorize their expenses and adhere to the new rules governing these deductions.

 

Interest-rate Changes

Starting on Oct. 1, 2023, significant adjustments will be made to interest rates for tax payments. Corporations will experience a slightly different rate structure than individuals. For overpayments exceeding $10,000, the interest rate on the excess amount will be reduced to 5.5%. In contrast, large corporate underpayments, representing taxes owed but not fully paid, will incur a higher 10% interest rate. These adjustments in interest rates aim to ensure fairness and compliance within the tax-payment system for both individuals and corporations.

 

Changes to Bonus Depreciation

The window of opportunity for fully benefiting from one of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act’s (TCJA) most significant provisions is closing rapidly. This provision allows for a 100% bonus depreciation on a broad range of assets categorized as ‘qualified property.’ Initially set to expire at the close of 2019, the TCJA extended these bonus depreciation rules for assets placed in service after Sept. 27, 2017, and before Jan. 1, 2023, increasing the deductible amount to 100%.

However, unless there are changes in the law, this bonus percentage is set to gradually decrease over the next few years, ultimately phasing out entirely (100% in 2022, 80% in 2023, 60% in 2024, 40% in 2025, 20% in 2026, and 0% in 2027).

 

Stay Informed

The evolving landscape of tax laws necessitates vigilant awareness and proactive tax planning for businesses and individuals who report on Schedule C. The changes to Section 179 deductions, the phasing out of bonus depreciation, and the modifications to meals and entertainment deductions can have a significant impact on tax liabilities. As such, seeking guidance from tax professionals and staying informed about these changes is crucial for optimizing tax strategies and ensuring compliance with the latest IRS regulations.

This material is generic in nature. Before relying on the material in any important matter, users should note date of publication and carefully evaluate its accuracy, currency, completeness, and relevance for their purposes, and should obtain any appropriate professional advice relevant to their particular circumstances.

 

Daniel Eger is a tax supervisor, and Cindy Gonzalez is an associate, at Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

Healthcare Heroes

Nurse Manager, VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System

Her Work Caring for Veterans Is Grounded in a Sense of Mission

 

Julie Lefer Quick

After a decade and a half in the nursing profession, Julie Lefer Quick was looking for a change, and found one at the Veterans Administration’s (VA) outpatient clinic in Springfield.

She also found a level of passion and mission-driven commitment she hadn’t experienced before.

“I can honestly say that I’ve never seen nurses more dedicated to their population; I feel the dedication,” she said. And so do the patients. “Last week, a nurse forwarded me an email that she received from one of her veterans’ caregivers about what great care she took of that veteran, just going above and beyond. And she said, ‘I love my job.’

“Every one of the nurses who works with the VA goes above and beyond every single day,” Lefer Quick added. “And it’s really wonderful to be a part of that, serving such a deserving population.”

She started at the VA in July 2018 as a primary-care nurse. Before that, she worked for a pediatrician in solo practice, including as practice manager, for two and a half years, followed by more than 11 years in the Springfield Public Schools.

“When my son went off to college, I thought, ‘now is a great time to try something new, get back into primary care.’ So that’s when I got the job at the VA.”

When they hear mention of the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System, most people think of the hospital in Leeds, which houses services ranging from inpatient psychiatric mental-health and substance-misuse treatment to primary care; from rehabilitation to specialties like orthopedics, radiology, cardiology, and many others.

“Every one of the nurses who works with the VA goes above and beyond every single day. And it’s really wonderful to be a part of that, serving such a deserving population.”

“And we also have five community-based outpatient clinics, where we primarily do primary care and then, depending on the clinic, some specialties to support the veterans,” she explained, noting that these are located in Springfield, Fitchburg, Greenfield, Pittsfield, and Worcester. “In Springfield, we have a very large mental-health department, and we also have a small lab, physical therapy, a registered dietitian, a clinical pharmacy, and what’s called home-based primary care.”

As it happens, Lefer Quick loves primary care, and missed that during her years working in the schools. “I had missed the ongoing, deep relationships with patients and their families.”

So, with her son graduating from the school system, she craved a return to care in a medical-office setting, and happened to meet some VA nurses at a Learn to Row event through the Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club in Springfield, where her husband, Ben Quick, is executive director.

“They were like, ‘oh you should come work at the VA,’” she recalled. So she did — and, not surprisingly, she loved the work. Which is why she was hesitant to take the position of nurse manager when it became available last October.

“I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be a nurse manager. I love taking care of my patients. I love working with my team in the VA,” she said. “Nationwide, we practice a primary-care delivery system called the PACT model, which stands for patient-aligned care team. So there’s one provider, one RN, one LPN, and one admin; it’s sort of like a mini-practice within a group practice.

“We always see the same patients, and I had a great team that I worked with,” she went on. “It’s a good model for the patients; they really love it. So I didn’t want to leave my team or my patients.”

But a mentor encouraged her to try something new, and she accepted the detail.

“As a PACT RN, I was providing direct patient care and education, working with my team to meet population health-management goals, such as certain levels of control for diabetes or hypertension. And now I work for the other PACT nurses, supporting them in their practice.”

The busy community-based outpatient clinic in Springfield

The busy community-based outpatient clinic in Springfield is one of five operated by the VA in Western and Central Mass.

As nurse manager for two clinics — Springfield and Greenfield — she currently supervises 23 LPNs and RNs, with about three more to be hired soon. And she quickly found she could apply her passion for care in this overseeing role.

“In the VA, we have a unique understanding of the military culture that other providers in the community don’t necessarily have,” she said. “It’s a very sad truth that a lot of our veterans have emotional issues when they come back, but we are on the cutting edge of all types of mental-health treatment modalities and therapeutic options, and we also have the support of Congress — it’s a single-payer system, and we don’t have to be bogged down by some of the stuff that community providers have to deal with. So we, as nurses and providers, can really focus on our veterans and come up with innovative ways to care for them.”

 

A Passion for Patients

A quick look at the typically full parking lot at the VA’s Springfield CBOC, which stands for community-based outpatient clinic, testifies to the need for the services it provides, from laboratory and pharmacy to primary care and behavioral health.

“From what I have learned as the spouse of a VA nurse manager, it seems that, while most of these workers could get paid more elsewhere, they stay with the VA because they are passionate about caring for our veterans, and they are energetic about supporting each other in this difficult, important work,” Ben Quick wrote in nominating his wife for the Healthcare Hero recognition.

Yet, nursing wasn’t her first career. After graduating from college, she worked briefly in human resources, found she didn’t like that career, and went back to school for a nursing degree.

“Coming out of nursing school a little bit older than the typical students, I kind of took the first job that I could get,” she recalled. “I had a small child, so I didn’t want to work hospital hours, even though I loved the idea of being in the hospital, so I went to work for a pediatrician.”

Which surprised her, considering that her nursing-school rotations caring for youngsters tended to make her cry because she didn’t want to see them hurt or sick.

“I think there’s more of an awareness of mental-health needs in general in healthcare right now. And certainly, veterans who have seen combat are going to need support afterward. So that’s part of our mission.”

But as a pediatric nurse, “I loved seeing the kids grow over the years, seeing new babies born into families, working with parents on all kinds of different diagnoses to help their kids,” she recalled, and her next move was born of wanting to keep caring for children. “Working in the public schools was a way to be available for my son while also reaching a big population of kids. And I loved it.”

So Lefer Quick felt torn about leaving pediatric care for the VA.

“I remember leaving the public-school job for this, and I was very, very excited, but I had this moment of, ‘oh my gosh, am I doing the right thing?’ I said to one of my friends, ‘but I love my kids so much here.’ And she said, ‘you’ll find new patients in a while.’ And I did.”

In doing so, she’s taken to heart Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote that the VA — established 65 years after he uttered it — has adopted as a sort of mission: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”

“One of the things that almost kept me from accepting the detail to nurse manager was all my patients,” she said, but she understands that all her roles have been supportive in some way: “supporting kids and their families, supporting students at school to be optimally healthy and ready to learn, supporting our veterans, and now supporting the nurses who provide that care to veterans.”

Some of that care is behavioral and substance-related. “We recognize the need for that integrated care for our veterans. I think there’s more of an awareness of mental-health needs in general in healthcare right now,” she noted. “And certainly, veterans who have seen combat are going to need support afterward. So that’s part of our mission.”

She said the VA has felt the strain of a nationwide nursing shortage as much as any other facility, but added that the nurses who take jobs there value the mission President Lincoln put forward — and many are veterans themselves, or come from a strong military family, or are drawn for some other reason to caring for a veteran population.

“That was how I talked myself into the manager position. I thought, ‘well, if I can be a manager with my background, already doing this job, I can support these nurses, which ultimately provides better care for the veterans.’ So I’m not just doing it for my team; I’m helping every single team.”

The COVID pandemic posed challenges across the spectrum of healthcare, but Lefer Quick said the VA was uncommonly prepared for it, as it had already implemented a remote monitoring platform called VA Video Connect, so VA facilities were able to pivot to virtual appointments more quickly than other organizations.

For instance, before the pandemic, “I had a patient who needed monthly monitoring for medication he was on, and he liked to travel. So we would do video visits, and we would have a set appointment to do the follow-up for his medication, wherever he was. So we already all knew how to use this,” she recalled.

And when COVID struck, “we very quickly pivoted to using video for several months, almost exclusively. A lot of our patients did not want to come to the clinic. Nobody wanted to go anywhere. And we already had this in place.”

Their concerns were warranted, as the pandemic hit the elderly population hard in the earliest days of the pandemic. “As you can imagine, a large percentage of the VA population is elderly. I had a father-son set of patients — and the son was 74. So a lot of them, being elderly and therefore immunocompromised, were scared, but the VA already had this amazing video platform, and we had already trained everybody how to use it.”

Meanwhile, “the nurses that I worked with were coming up with great ways to rotate the staff through the clinic so that we could spread out more to allow for that social distancing and masking in a more comfortable way,” Lefer Quick explained. “And we took on new providers and new nurses, even during the pandemic. We didn’t slow down much.”

 

Cutting-edge Care

In his nomination, Ben Quick boiled his pitch down to three thoughts: the VA’s quality of care is second to none, downtown Springfield has a busy medical practice devoted to healing America’s heroes, and the workers there are humble, passionate, professional patriots. “That’s a Healthcare Hero story that everyone needs to hear,” he wrote.

And now they will.

“The VA is the best employer I’ve ever had in my entire life,” Lefer Quick said. “They value creativity and innovation, and they support us to explore that.

“We really are on the cutting edge,” she added. “The people I work with are doing amazing things and love to be there. No matter where they are, in Springfield or any other part of this country, if someone is eligible for VA care, they really ought to look into it.” n

Healthcare Heroes

Clinical Psychologist; Assistant Professor of Graduate Psychology, Bay Path University

She Impacts Lives — and the Next Generation of Mental-health Professionals — for the Better

Kristina Hallett

It’s not easy to cover everything Kristina Hallett has done in her wide-ranging career in one story. At least, not cover it in a way that fully conveys her impact.

Her past titles convey some of it. Director of Brightside Counseling Associates and then director of Children’s Services at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, both in Holyoke. Supervising psychologist at Osborn Correctional Institute in Somers, Conn. Director of Psychology Internship Training at River Valley Services in Middletown, Conn. And currently, associate professor in Graduate Psycholology and director of Clinical Training at Bay Path University.

Oh, and she’s maintained a private psychotherapy practice in Suffield, Conn. for the past quarter-century.

There are some common threads.

“Dr. Hallett’s career spans over 25 years, during which she provided invaluable psychotherapy, consultation, and supervision to medical and mental-health professionals, addressing myriad relationship and major life issues. Her expertise in complex trauma and dissociative disorders is instrumental in supporting and empowering those facing significant psychological challenges,” wrote Crystal Neuhauser, vice president of Institutional Advancement at Bay Path, one of three people who nominated Hallett as a Healthcare Hero.

Just as importantly, “she is a guiding influence in shaping the next generation of mental-health practitioners. Her commitment to education and mentorship showcases her passion for instilling excellence, compassion, and cultural competence in students. She is especially passionate about guiding under-represented caregivers into the profession to help underserved communities see themselves in their mental-health professionals.”

That’s a mouthful, but it’s important to understand the generational impact of Hallett’s work — not only helping people move through often-severe challenges and trauma toward a happier, healthier, more fulfilling life (which she accomplishes as a teacher, therapist, executive coach, author, speaker, podcaster, and more), but she’s helping to raise up the next wave of mental-health professionals to do the same, at a time when the needs are great.

“When we’re talking about mental health, it’s about connection, and there are different ways to make a connection. And having a role model who look like you and who understands you is really important.”

“I’m just ecstatic about our program,” she said of her role at Bay Path, where she started teaching in 2015. “When I came, we had maybe 50 students. Right now, in our program, we have 280-plus students. This summer, they did a 100-hour practicum with us before their 600-hour internship out in the community. We had 62 students in practicum this summer, which is a logistical challenge, but we’re really able to help shape them, educate them, and give tools and resources to the next generation.”

Kristina Hallett’s books

Kristina Hallett’s books have delved into topics ranging from relationships to banishing burnout.
Staff Photo

Meanwhile, Hallett’s bestselling books, Own Best Friend: Eight Steps to a Life of Purpose, Passion, and Ease and Be Awesome! Banish Burnout: Create Motivation from the Inside Out, inspire personal growth and empowerment, while a co-authored workbook titled Trauma Treatment Toolbox for Teens is a resource for young people facing trauma-related challenges, and her contribution as a co-author to Millennials’ Guide to Relationships: Happy and Healthy Relationships are Not a Myth! reflects her commitment to enhancing the lives of diverse populations.

As an executive coach, she helps participants find lasting change in the areas of burnout, stress, motivation, and self-confidence. And her podcast, “Be Awesome: Celebrating Mental Health and Wellness,” provides hope and guidance to listeners, fostering an environment where seeking help and prioritizing mental health is normalized.

As noted, it’s a lot to take in, but Hallett is energized by the opportunity to impact so many lives in so many different ways. The opportunity, in fact, to be a Healthcare Hero.

 

Connected to Kids

Hallett’s private practice offers individual and family treatment, with some intriguing specialty areas, including psychotherapy for medical and mental-health professionals, military personnel, and first responders; substance abuse; mood disorders; LGBTQ clients; trauma recovery; and treatment of complex trauma and dissociative disorders.

It’s a far cry from her earliest goal in life, which was to be a pediatrician.

At Wellesley College, where she was a biology major in a pre-med program, she took a psychology course “for fun” — and found the topic interesting, so she added a double major in psychology. “My professors were like, ‘oh, you should go into psychology.’ And I said, ‘no, no, no, I’m going to be a pediatrician … right?’”

During her senior year, as she took her medical college admissions tests, Hallett found herself in an interview, being asked, ‘why do you want to go to medical school?’ And something clicked.

“I had this experience where my mouth kept talking, but a part of my brain said, ‘yeah, why do you want to go to medical school?’”

Her answer was to enroll at UMass Amherst — in a graduate psychology program.

That’s not to say she wouldn’t work with children, adolescents, and families, though. At her earliest career stops, she had plenty of opportunities for that, from her stint as regional program supervisor for the Key Program in Springfield from 1991 to 1995 to her roles with Brightside Counseling Associates from 1996 to 1998 and Providence Behavioral Health Hospital from 1998 to 2003.

“I loved the idea of working with adolescents because, while I was young, still in my 20s, I felt like they’re ripe for change; you can be honest with them … it’s a very real interaction, while adults are just stuck in their ways,” she said, adding quickly, “I don’t think that way anymore.”

That’s because she’s had plenty of experience working with clients of all ages. In fact, her next stops — at Osborn Correctional Institution from 2003 to 2005 and River Valley Services from 2005 to 2015 — broadened her experience dramatically.

Kristina Hallett’s office

Kristina Hallett’s office in Suffield, Conn. is filled with photos, artwork, and mementos from her interactions with patients.
Staff Photo

“So the first half of my career was children and adolescents, but really centered on adolescents,” she said. “And it’s unusual for someone to be running an outpatient mental-health clinic and running inpatient children’s services, and then working in a prison.” At the time, she added, Osborn housed 2,000 male inmates and also arranged schedules for mental-health workers for some other local prisons.

Years later, while working at River Valley, Hallett had a yen to get into teaching, so she joined Bay Path as an adjunct professor in 2015, which quickly led to part-time work and then a full-time opportunity. It sure beat the commute from Suffield to Middletown, but there were other, more important reasons to make the jump.

“Bay Path had just started its clinical mental-health counseling program, and they were going to expand. And I thought, ‘yeah, I’m ready to do this full-time.’”

Her first title was coordinator of clinical training, which became director of clinical training. And this past spring, when the program director left, she took over that role.

“I’ve been responsible for bringing in a lot of faculty over the last few years, and this summer alone, I brought in four faculty who are former graduates of our program, all coming from different perspectives,” she told BusinessWest. “I like to bring back our graduates because they know the program, and we want to support them in their career. I’m trying to create a pathway for our students, post-graduation, to continue their own growth and learning.”

A couple years ago, Hallett’s department procured a behavioral-health workforce and education training grant through the Health Resources and Services Administration, to support and build up the young mental-health workforce, but also to better integrate these professionals into medical settings.

“So, you have a medical office with physicians, and then you have an embedded clinician,” she explained. “You come in for your annual physical, maybe you’ve been feeling a little down, and your physician says, ‘oh, you know what, I’ve got Stacy here who can maybe talk to you about that.’ And Stacy talks to you and sees if there are resources available to help you — therapy or whatever. So that’s a newer model that’s beginning to happen, which is great.

“It’s always about increasing access, because there’s a huge mental-health crisis, a huge need, a huge waiting list,” Hallett went on. “So anything to increase the workforce is great.”

In 2023, the third year of the four-year grant, Bay Path was able to fund 36 students to the tune of $10,000 each. “So 36 students are working full-time, many have families, and they’re still trying to get a master’s degree and go into the field. As you can imagine, it’s really hard to do all that and then work 600 hours as a clinician. So the $10,000 is phenomenal.”

She recently applied for another grant, with a bigger stipend, for students going through their internships and want to work in community-based clinics, either with services from the Department of Mental Health or a majority MassHealth clientele. “So the people who need the services are going to get good services,” she said, while, again, cultivating the next generation of professionals. “I am so excited about it.”

 

Heart of a Teacher

It was Hallett’s love for educating people, in fact, that led her to finding other ways to communicate.

“I love what I do one-to-one, and I love teaching. So what other ways do I have to make an impact with things that people really need to know?” she said. “The podcast and the books and the speaking are just ways to share messages and really say, ‘there are things that we can do to help ourselves, to feel a sense of agency, even when the world is sort of going crazy around us, and when there are really difficult challenges that we don’t necessarily have any control over.”

So much of her work, she said, has been with community-based organizations because she cares about access to mental health, especially for the underprivileged and underserviced. “I want to support and encourage an increase in a truly diverse workforce because that’s who we are. People need to see people like themselves. It’s not that they can never talk to people with differences; of course they can. But when we’re talking about mental health, it’s about connection, and there are different ways to make a connection. And having a role model who look like you and who understands you is really important.”

As for her decades of work with stress and trauma, in particular her work with clients from the military and first-responder communities, it started early on, working with adolescents in difficult situations.

“There are horrific things that humans do to each other that are certainly hard to live through,” she said. “They’re hard to hear about, and they’re hard to know. So I try to counteract that darkness with some kind of support. People who have gone through really horrible things deserve someone to stand in the witness of that.”

For a while, in the pre-COVID years, Hallett said, she was primarily working with medical and mental-health professionals in her practice. “These are small communities; it’s hard to find providers who work with providers. So that just sort of evolved. I had already started working with veterans and first responders, and then COVID hit, and that was a time when there was so much need.”

She no longer works with teens, and the goal for her adult clients is to get them back out living their lives and doing the work that’s meaningful to them. “But if something comes up at another point in time where something new has happened, you can come back. We create a relationship that allows you to come and go. I’m always working to create these longer-term relationships.”

And, not surprisingly, she has applied that passion to her other career at Bay Path, helping to create an advanced trauma certificate in her department.

“As practitioners in the field, we’re always asking, ‘what’s the latest? What’s backed by science? What do people need to know? What do we wish we knew when we were in school? And how do we continuously support the growth of the next generation?’” she said. “Because we need them.” n

Healthcare Heroes

Chief of Emergency Medicine, Mercy Medical Center

He Considers Listening His Strongest, Most Important Talent

Dr. Mark Kenton

 

As a general rule, physicians working in the emergency room don’t get to know their patients as well as those in primary care or other specialties, who see their patients regularly and over the course of years and, sometimes, decades.

But Dr. Mark Kenton makes it a point to get to know those who come to his ER, the one at Mercy Medical Center. Indeed, he said he always looks to make a connection by listening to each patient and learning about what they are interested in and passionate about.

In addition to making these connections, he tries to get involved and make a difference, in ways that go beyond providing medical care.

“Sometimes, the best medicine you give someone is not actually medication,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s just listening. Everyone has a story.”

He was listening as one patient, a veteran named Homer who was going into hospice care, expressed regrets about never making it to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. So Kenton researched the Honor Flights program and worked with the patient’s family to help make arrangements for him to visit the stirring memorial. Later, he received a letter from that family.

“They said he died two weeks before he was scheduled to go, but he died knowing that he was going, and it meant a lot to him,” Kenton recalled. “That stuck with me.”

He was also listening to another patient who was near the end of his battle with cancer and came to understand that the two shared a love of baseball and the Red Sox. Kenton arranged a phone call to the patient from former catcher Rich Gedman, whom Kenton had come to know well from his participation in Red Sox fantasy camps.

“Sometimes, the best medicine you give someone is not actually medication. It’s just listening. Everyone has a story.”

“He said, ‘I can’t believe Rich Gedman actually called me,’” Kenton recalled, adding that the conversation had a lasting impact.

This ability to listen, and act on what he hears, is one of many traits that has made Kenton a Healthcare Hero for 2023 in the Healthcare Administration category — annually one of the most competitive categories within the program.

He stood out amid a number of others nominated for the award for his ability to act upon what’s heard — in a variety of different settings — and generate needed dialogue, which has sometimes led to real change.

This includes the ER at Mercy, where he has worked with others to improve flow, shorten wait times, and reduce the number of patients who leave the ER without being seen, battles that have become even more difficult amid critical shortages of trained professionals, especially nurses.

One of Dr. Mark Kenton’s passions is baseball

One of Dr. Mark Kenton’s passions is baseball and Red Sox fantasy camps, something that has become a family affair, as in this scene at Jet Blue Park in Florida with his sons (from left) Mark, Davin, and Jacob.

But it also includes the national medical stage, as we’ll see. Indeed, a letter posted on Facebook from Kenton to the CEO of Mylan juxtaposed the CEO’s salary against the sky-high cost of EpiPens and thrust the debate about the rising cost of pharmaceuticals into the national spotlight.

In Massachusetts, Kenton played a strong role in the passage of a bill that would allow EpiPens to be purchased in the same manner as Narcan for municipalities, whereby the state would purchase them at something approaching cost.

Kenton has also advocated for increased protection from workplace violence in hospitals, testifying at the State House after a colleague at Harrington Hospital suffered a near-fatal stabbing. Those efforts have been less successful in generating change — a result he blames on the high cost of measures such as metal detectors — but he continues to push for legislation that might prevent such incidents.

For his ability to listen and effect change — in his ER and many other settings as well — Kenton is certainly worthy to be called a Healthcare Hero.

 

A Great Run

The art hanging on the walls of Kenton’s office certainly helps tell his story.

Most of the pictures are baseball-themed — he played in college, has attended the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown since 1981, and has more than 7,000 baseball autographs, by his estimate — including photos from the fantasy camps he’s attended, with his children prominent in many of them.

“I’ve been going for 13 years now, and it’s been a pretty amazing experience,” he said, noting that he’s been on the same field as many Red Sox legends. “Now, it’s more about going back and playing with friends than seeing the Red Sox — but they’ve become friends, too.”

But there’s also a framed photo of the cast members of The Office, a gift from his children. He is a huge fan of the show, and notes with a large dose of pride that he’s met several of the cast members and possesses a suit jacket that Steve Carell wore on the show.

While Kenton spends a good amount of time in this space, his true office, if you will, has always been the ER, and especially the one at Mercy. He arrived there in 2003 and became chief of Emergency Medicine in late 2019, three months before COVID hit and turned the healthcare system, and especially the ER, on its ear.

The trajectory for this career course was set over time, and Kenton believes his passion for helping others began when he watched medical dramas on television with his mother and became captivated with what he saw.

“My mother had cancer as a child; she spent a lot of time in hospitals and always had a fascination with healthcare,” he recalled. “She was always reading medical books, and we watched every show you can think of — Quincy; Trapper John, M.D.; St. Elsewhere; you name it.”

Because of his love for baseball, Kenton initially considered a career as an athletic trainer, since he could combine both his passions, baseball and healthcare, and he attended Springfield College with that goal in mind.

He quickly realized that the life of an athletic trainer did not have a lot of stability. And after working as an EMT, a rewarding but also harrowing experience — “I remember going to shootings and the shooter was still on the loose” — he decided the emergency room was where he wanted to spend his career. He earned his medical degree at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, with the goal of completing his residency in Baystate Medical Center’s ER, a path that became reality.

“I hand out my business card to patients, talk to them, and ask, ‘why are you here today?’ I do that as one more check to make we’re not missing something.”

As he talked about working in the ER, Kenton related what he told his students when he served as medical director of the Physician Assistant Program at Springfield College. “I would always say, ‘be a little scared every day when you walk in — never lose that. Have a little fear when you walk in, because you don’t know everything, nor should you know everything. You need to know what your resources are and how to utilize those resources. You also need to know that you’re going to be tested — every day.’”

 

Safe at Home

These days, most of Kenton’s work is administrative in nature — he does one clinical shift per week — and, summing it up, he said it’s about making this ER as safe, welcoming, efficient, and effective as he can.

It needs to be all of the above because the ER is the “front door to the hospital,” as he put it, and a safety net for many within the community.

“There are so many patients that don’t have primary-care doctors now or don’t have insurance,” he said. “The ER is what they turn to.”

As he works with his team to improve flow, reduce wait times, and improve the ‘leave without being seen’ numbers, Kenton relies on what might be the strongest of his many skills — listening. In fact, he’s in the waiting room every ‘admin’ day talking with not only patients, but their families as well.

“I hand out my business card to patients, talk to them, and ask, ‘why are you here today?’” he said. “I do that as one more check to make we’re not missing something. I tell them that we’re working hard to get people through the system, and we’ll work on getting you through as soon as we can. And then, I listen.”

This brings him back to his comments about how everyone has a story, and it’s important to know and understand that story.

Dr. Mark Kenton holds up a card with the name ‘Homer’ on it at the World War II memorial

Dr. Mark Kenton holds up a card with the name ‘Homer’ on it at the World War II memorial in Washington, fulfilling, in a way, a dying patient’s desire to visit the memorial.

“You can look at the medical problem, but if you look at them as just a patient, you kind of forget that behind that patient is a person who’s scared, a family that’s scared,” he said. “Some people have lived incredible lives and been very fortunate, and some people have not had very good luck, or they’ve made bad choices, or they haven’t had the opportunities that others have had.

“I’ve taken care of Tuskegee Airmen; I took care of a gentleman who told me he flew on the Enola Gay,” he went on, referencing the famed African-American fighter and bomber pilots who fought in World War II and the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. “You learn from those stories.”

While listening, learning, taking care of patients and their families, and improving efficiency in the ER, Kenton has also become an advocate for needed change in healthcare. His open letter to the CEO of Mylan on Facebook was spurred by incidents in his personal and professional life.

Indeed, while on vacation with his family, his son had an allergic reaction to peanuts. He soon learned that a prescription for two EpiPens, the best treatment for anaphylaxis, would cost $600. Fortunately, that prescription was transferred to a pharmacy that would accept his insurance, bringing the cost down to $15.

But he understood that such good fortune would elude others. While working a shift in Mercy’s ED a few months later, he saw two patients suffering from anaphylactic reactions and gave them both EpiPens, knowing they wouldn’t be able to fill the prescriptions going forward because they didn’t have insurance.

His frustration with this matter prompted his letter, which garnered press across the country and a live interview on Fox Business. More importantly, it generated real change, especially in the Bay State. Kenton testified before the state Senate on a bill introduced by former Sen. Eric Lesser to make EpiPens available for purchase by the state, just like Narcan.

 

Stepping Outside the Box

Two years after Kenton received that letter from the family of that veteran who died before he could get to the World War II memorial, his wife was running in a marathon in D.C., and he made the trip with her.

He wrote Homer’s name on a piece of paper, took pictures of it in various spots at the memorial, and sent them to his family.

“I said, ‘your dad finally made it,’” he told BusinessWest. “From what he told me during that relationship we established in a really short period of time, that brought closure to me, that he made it there.

“There are things you can do beyond providing medication to someone — sometimes you just have to step outside the box a little bit,” he went on, using a baseball term to get his point across.

This ability to forge those relationships, listen to each patient’s and each family’s story, and go well beyond simply providing medication helps explain why Kenton stands out — in his field, in his ER, and in his community. And why he is being recognized as a Healthcare Hero. n

Healthcare Heroes

Pediatric Emergency Nurse, Baystate Medical Center

Her Passion for Behavioral Health Has Enhanced Care Across an Entire ER

Ellen Ingraham-Shaw

 

Ellen Ingraham-Shaw just couldn’t get away from children — even when she thought she wanted to.

And thanks to her leadership and innovative thinking, a lot of kids are better for it today.

“I actually started my career as a kindergarten teacher,” she said, before jumping back in time a little to when her interest in working with children really began.

“Growing up, I was a horseback rider, and I got into teaching younger kids how to horseback ride; that’s how I started working with children and adolescents, including working summer camps when I was in college,” she recalled.

Then she studied early childhood education and psychology at Mount Holyoke College before spending the first five years of her career as a kindergarten teacher.

There, Ingraham-Shaw saw needs that can’t always be addressed in the classroom.

“I worked in Chicopee, and in my classroom, I had a lot of homeless students,” she said. “So I started getting really interested in the socioeconomic status of kids and all the barriers that can really get in the way of how kids learn.

“I was happy, but I didn’t see myself doing it forever,” she continued, “so I went back to school for a second bachelor’s in nursing at UMass Amherst. After that program, I started working at Baystate Medical Center on one of the adult floors. And I just thought I didn’t want to work with kids anymore after feeling kind of burnt out.”

“Especially during the pandemic, the behavioral-health population just kind exploded in our ER. And I just got really passionate about it.”

So when friends asked her whether she wanted to enter pediatrics, she said no — but that feeling eventually thawed, and she applied for a position in Baystate’s pediatric ER. And she fell in love with it, calling it a well-run unit that, she realized early on, had an openness to new ideas and a focus on behavioral health that she would eventually expand in a number of ways.

“Especially during the pandemic, the behavioral-health population just kind exploded in our ER. And I just got really passionate about it,” she said. “And I’m lucky that my managers and my educators on my unit really support us working toward the things we’re interested in. If you want to seek out opportunities to do your own education, they give you opportunity to research.”

Thus began a fruitful career in pediatric emergency care with a focus creating more education and resources around behavioral health.

“I’ve been able to do education on de-escalating patients, just helping with the safety of the staff and the patients. And I think our physical restraint numbers have decreased; we have seen a decrease in having to resort to a restrictive environment with the kids.”

Ingraham-Shaw also worked closely with Pediatric ER Manager Jenn Do Carmo on Narcan take-home kits for the Pediatric Emergency Department. They were talking one day about how Baystate’s adult ED provides take-home kits to their substance-misuse population, but the Pediatric ED had no such process. So they decided to change that. Ingraham-Shaw created an education flier for nurses and doctors, made sure the kits were stocked, and educated every nurse on how to educate patients and families in their use.

“I did some education with our staff on how to identify patients that might be at higher risk,” she explained. “These are patients who come in with an overdose or, unfortunately, we’re seeing a lot of adolescents these days with suicide attempts and self-harm; sometimes they could be opioid-related, sometimes not. But if someone has a past overdose attempt, they’re at a higher risk of potentially overdosing on opioids in the future.

Ellen Ingraham-Shaw

Ellen Ingraham-Shaw says pediatric emergency nurses bring not only care, but large doses of compassion and education to parents.

“So we’re making sure we have Narcan out in the community,” she added. “The nursing job is to help identify the patients that could be at risk, then working with the providers to make sure Narcan gets prescribed.”

Do Carmo, who nominated Ingraham-Shaw, said this program has the potential to save the lives of pediatric patients who overdose on opioids in the community. “Ellen is also going into the community and teaching local schools about the process of administering Narcan,” she wrote. “Ellen is a strong advocate for her patients and is a Healthcare Hero.”

 

Knowledge Is Power

As another example of thinking — and leading — outside the box, Do Carmo noted that Ingraham-Shaw noticed a gap in education on the care of LGBTQ and transgender patients, and took it upon herself to create educational materials and a PowerPoint presentation on how to care for and support these individuals.

“The entire Emergency Department now provides her representation on transgender education in nursing orientation,” Do Carmo wrote. “This presentation provides a clear understanding of a population in dire need of support and words and ways that help support the care of this population.”

Ingraham-Shaw told BusinessWest that she developed that education on LGBTQ and transgender health for a staff meeting, and the educators in the ED now utilize it as a required part of onboarding training for all emergency-medicine staff at Baystate, not just in the Pediatric ED. “So all of our staff has some level of training in how to be respectful and understanding of patients in our community.”

That aspect of education can be lacking in the training and college programs medical professionals experience entering their careers, she added. “So I think our people are definitely able to support those patients a lot better.”

Providing care that’s not sensitive to that population typically isn’t a problem of malice, but ignorance, she was quick to add. “It’s just people not knowing. And now my unit especially has at least a little baseline of how to be more respectful and understanding of patients.”

Of course, sensitivity to what patients are experiencing comes naturally in a pediatric ER, where the days can be challenging and the situations dire.

“I did some education with our staff on how to identify patients that might be at higher risk. These are patients who come in with an overdose or, unfortunately, we’re seeing a lot of adolescents these days with suicide attempts and self-harm; sometimes they could be opioid-related, sometimes not.”

“One thing I do like about it is that every day is completely different. I think it’s gotten a little bit harder now that I just had my own baby; I’m still adjusting to that,” she said of the toughest cases. “But the majority of what we see is more urgent care, or things likely to be seen in a primary-care setting. Those usually have a happy ending — you help educate the family, you make sure the child is safe, is eating, drinking, breathing, and then they usually get discharged home.”

At the same time, “unfortunately, we do see some really devastating new cancer diagnoses, we see some car accidents, so it’s definitely emotional. I think my co-workers do a really good job of supporting each other through those difficult times. Healthcare can be sad, and I think it’s especially sad when you know something bad happens to a child. And we do a lot of compassion with the families as well; we take care of the whole family, not just the child.”

Again, she comes back to the education aspect of her work, even for things families don’t specifically bring in their kids for, like properly installing car seats.

“When we’re at the triage desk, we first bring the kid in, we make sure they’re safe, and then that’s another point where we can just educate them and do that community health and make sure everyone’s safe by teaching families simple things like car seats.”

Going beyond the basics is how Ingraham-Shaw has really made a difference, though, implementing new ideas in an organization she says is very interested in hearing them.

“My management team is just really open. We have a lot of freedom to do things,” she said, before giving another example in the behavioral-health realm.

“One of my co-workers and I, a few years ago, started a behavioral-health committee. We try to meet monthly, just to talk about what’s going on with the unit, trying to work on different projects,” she explained. “One thing we did was make an informational pamphlet for the families and the patients that come in for behavioral-health issues because the way we treat them is much different than other patients. And sometimes they’re there for a really long time. So we want to do what we can just to support the families a little bit more.”

Do Carmo praised Ingraham-Shaw for identifying barriers in communication and creating a tool that has improved communication between nurses and patients. “Ellen works very closely with the behavioral-health team to ensure the behavioral-health population receives the needed care plans and treatments.”

 

Long-time Passion

Ingraham-Shaw’s interest in mental health was clear when she first studied psychology in college, but at the time, she couldn’t have predicted how it would become an important aspect of her career.

“When I was looking for jobs, if I didn’t find a teaching job, I was looking for other psychology-related jobs,” she said, adding that she’s in graduate school now, working on her doctor of nursing practice degree (DNP) to be a psychiatric nurse practitioner.

“I always thought that was a possibility, but I didn’t think this was the route I’d take,” she said. “For nurse practitioners, at least, the education track is different. So you’re a nurse first, so you get that compassionate care and bedside manner down first. And then you start learning the more advanced things.”

Once she has her DNP, she said she’d like to stay in the pediatric arena, although she’s hoping to gain a wide range of experience through her clinical rotations.

“Baystate in general is very supportive of education,” she added, noting the system’s tuition-reimbursement and loan-forgiveness programs, in addition to its affiliation with UMass Medical School’s Springfield campus, which is where she’s taking her graduate track.

“One of the reasons why I chose that school is because they have a focus on diversity and behavioral health,” she noted. “So I’ve been working hard, but I have also been lucky to find myself in places, and around people, that are supportive and inspirational, and I’ve been given a lot of opportunities to focus on the things that I want to do.”

As part of her graduate education, Ingraham-Shaw is hoping to focus on opioid and overdose education in her scholarly project. “It’s something I’m passionate about, and I’ve done a lot of my own learning. So I’m hoping to do some more research and actually implement some projects with that.”

For her work creating and cultivating a handful of truly impactful projects at Baystate already, but especially for the promise of what she and her colleagues have yet to come up with, Ingraham-Shaw is certainly an emerging leader in her field, and a Healthcare Hero. n

Healthcare Heroes

Practice Manager of Thoracic Surgery, Nursing Director of the Lung Screening Program, Mercy Medical Center

She Has a Proven Ability to Take the Bull by the Horns

Ashley LeBlanc

 

It’s been seven years now, but Ashley LeBlanc clearly remembers the day Dr. Laki Rousou and Dr. Neal Chuang asked her to consider becoming the nurse navigator for their thoracic surgery practice at Mercy Medical Center.

She also clearly remembers her initial response to their invite: “absolutely not.”

She was working days in critical care at the hospital at the time, and liked both the work and the schedule: three days on, four days off, she told BusinessWest, adding that it takes a while for a new position like this to get approved and posted, for interviews to take place, and more — and the doctors used the following weeks to make additional entreaties, with reminders that she wouldn’t have to work any weekends or holidays.

But the answer was still ‘no’ until roughly six months after that initial invite, when she had one particularly challenging day on the floor with a very sick patient. Challenging enough that, when Rousou tried one more time that afternoon, ‘no’ became “I’ll update my résumé and hear you out.”

“He got me at a weak moment, and it was the best decision I ever made, because they have been amazing mentors, and they’ve opened my mind up to this whole other world,” she said, adding that her career underwent a profound and meaningful course change, one that led her to being named a Healthcare Hero for 2023 in the Emerging Leader category.

Indeed, during those seven years, LeBlanc has emerged as a true leader, both in that thoracic surgery practice, which she now manages, and in efforts to promote awareness and screening for lung cancer — one of the deadliest cancers, and one she can certainly relate to personally. Indeed, she has lost several family members to the disease, many of whom would have qualified for screening had it been available at the time of their diagnosis.

“He got me at a weak moment, and it was the best decision I ever made, because they have been amazing mentors, and they’ve opened my mind up to this whole other world.”

In many respects, and in many ways, she has become a fierce advocate for patients related to lung cancer screening, treatment, and research, and concentrates her efforts on ways to decrease the mortality rate of lung cancer and break down the stigma of that disease by educating the community, connecting them to resources, and, in many respects, guiding them on their journey as they fight lung cancer.

When the screening program was launched, those involved didn’t really know what to expect, LeBlanc said, adding that, in the beginning, maybe a handful of people were being screened each month. Now, that number exceeds 250 a month, and while only a small percentage of those who are screened have lung cancer, she said, each detected case is important because, while this cancer is deadly, early detection often leads to a better outcome.

This is turning out to be a big year for LeBlanc, at least when it comes to awards from BusinessWest. In the spring, she suitably impressed a panel of judges and became part of the 40 Under Forty Class of 2023. And in late October, she’ll accept the Healthcare Heroes award for Emerging Leader.

The plaques on her desk — or soon to be on it — speak to many qualities, but especially an ability to work with others to set, achieve, and, in many cases, exceed goals, not only with lung cancer screening, but other initiatives as well.

Dr. Laki Rousou never stopped trying to recruit Ashely LeBlanc

Dr. Laki Rousou never stopped trying to recruit Ashely LeBlanc to manage the thoracic-surgery practice at Mercy Medical Center, and he — and many others — are glad he didn’t.
Staff Photo

Rousou put LeBlanc’s many talents in their proper perspective.

“Before we even had the formal program, I would say something sort of off the cuff, like, ‘I wish we could do this’ … and the next week, I would have the answer, or it would be done,” he said. “Then it turned into ‘OK, let’s try and do this,’ and in the next week or two weeks, it would be done. And then it turned into a situation where she would have an idea and we would talk periodically, but she would take the bull by the horns and just do things that were best for thoracic surgery, but also the screening program.”

This ability to take the bull by the horns, and many other endearing and enduring qualities, explains why LeBlanc is a true Healthcare Hero.

 

The Big Screen

There’s a small whiteboard to the right of LeBlanc’s desk. Written at the top are the words ‘World Conquering Plans.’

This is an ambitious to-do list, or work-in-progress board, with lines referencing everything from a cancer screening program for firefighters to something called a Center for Healthy Lungs, which would be … well, just what it sounds like. “That’s a bit of a pipe dream,” she said. “We’re going to need our own building.”

While it might seem like a pipe dream, if it’s on LeBlanc’s list of things to get done … it will probably get done. That has been her MO since joining the thoracic surgery practice, and long before that, going back, for example, to the days when she worked the overnight shift as a unit extender at Mercy until 7, then drive to Springfield Technical Community College for nursing classes that began at 8.

“Sometimes, I would snooze in the car for 15 or 20 minutes,” she recalled, adding that she wasn’t getting much sleep at that time in her life. “You just do what you have to do to make it happen.”

Initially, she thought what she wanted to make happen was a career in law enforcement — her father was a police officer in Northampton — but her first stint as a unit extender at Mercy, while she was attending Holyoke Community College, convinced her she was more suited to healthcare.

But plans to enter that field were put on ice (sort of, and pun intended) when her fiancé, a Coast Guardsman, was stationed in Sitka, Alaska.

She spent three years there, taking in winters not as bad as most people would think, and summers not as warm as they are here, but still quite nice. And also working for the Department of Homeland Security as a federal security agent for National Transportation Safety Board at Sitka’s tiny airport.

“The evidence is staggering concerning the number of people who have a scan done, and they have an incidental finding, and there is no follow-up for that incidental finding.”

LeBlanc and her husband eventually returned to Western Mass. after a stint on the Cape, and she essentially picked up where she left off, working as a unit extender at Mercy.

“It was five years later, and it felt like I never left,” she said, adding that she soon enrolled in the Nursing program at STCC and, upon graduation, took a job on the Intermediate Care floor, which brings us back to the point where she kept saying ‘no’ and eventually said ‘yes’ to Rousou and Chuang (who is no longer with the practice).

Rousou told BusinessWest they recruited her heavily because they knew she would be perfect for the role they had carved out — and they were right.

Over the past seven years, LeBlanc has put a number of line items on the ‘World Conquering Plans’ list, and made most of them reality, especially a lung cancer screening program, which wasn’t even on her radar screen when she finally agreed to interview for the job.

Indeed, she was prepared to talk about patient education and how to improve it and make it more comprehensive when Rousou and Chuang changed things up and focused on a screening program.

 

Thinking Big

Once she got the job, she focused on both, with some dramatic and far-reaching results.

As for the screening program, she said such initiatives were new at the time because the Centers for Medicare Services had only recently approved insurance coverage for such screenings. At Mercy, with Rousou, Chuang, and, increasingly, LeBlanc charting a course, extensive research was undertaken with the goal of incorporating best practices from existing programs into Mercy’s initiative.

“We had no idea what our expectations should be or how it would be received in the community — it was a very new thing,” she recalled. “That first month in 2017, we did seven scans; then we did 29, and by the end of the year, it was over 50 scans a month. A year after we started, it was over 100.”

Now, that number is more than 250, she said, adding that such screenings are important because, while lung cancer is the deadliest of cancers, there are usually no visible signs of it — such as unexplained weight loss, coughing up blood, or pneumonia — until its later stages.

“When patients are diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, the treatment is, by and large, palliative, not curative,” she explained, “which makes it extra important to try to diagnose these people with lung cancer at an earlier stage.”

In addition to her work coordinating the screening program, LeBlanc also handles work implied by her initial title — nurse navigator.

This is work to help the patient understand and prepare for the procedure they are facing, such as removal of a portion of their lung, and answer any questions they may have.

“When the surgeon leaves the room … that’s when a patient will take that deep breath and say, ‘I have so many questions,’” she told BusinessWest. “It can be overwhelming, and this gives me an opportunity to answer those questions, which can involve anything from the seriousness of the procedure to where to park or what to bring to the hospital with them.”

Meanwhile, she has taken a lead role in efforts to build a strong culture within the thoracic surgery and cancer screening programs, where 14 people now work, and make it an enjoyable workplace, where birthdays and National Popcorn Day are celebrated, and teamwork is fostered.

“I think it’s important to enjoy where you work, and when we’re happy, I think that carries over to patients, and they feel that,” she said. “At Easter, we have an Easter egg hunt, with grown, professional adults running around the office looking for Easter eggs. It seems silly, but it’s wonderful at the same time.”

Then, there’s that ‘World Conquering Plans’ board next to her desk. LeBlanc said she and the team at the practice have made considerable progress with many of the items on that list, including plans to expand the office into vacated space next door with an interventional pulmonary department and an ‘incidental nodule’ program.

The interventional pulmonary program is a relatively new specialty that focuses on diagnosis of lung disease, she said, adding that an interventional pulmonologist has been hired, facilities have been created, and patients have been scheduled starting early this month.

Progress is also being made on the incidental nodule program, which, as that name implies, is a safety-net initiative focused on following up on the small, incidental nodules on the lungs that show up on scans other than lung cancer screenings and are often overlooked.

“The evidence is staggering concerning the number of people who have a scan done, and they have an incidental finding, and there is no follow-up for that incidental finding,” she explained, adding that such findings often get buried or lost in reports. “When patients come to Dr. Rousou, they’ll often say, ‘I’ve had a scan every year for the last so many years; how come no one saw this until now?’”

 

Breathing Easier

As for the Center for Healthy Lungs … that is a very ambitious plan, she said, one that exists mainly in dreams right now.

But, as noted earlier, LeBlanc has become proficient in making dreams reality and in drawing lines through items on her whiteboard.

That’s what Rousou and Chuang saw when they recruited LeBlanc — and kept on recruiting her after she kept saying ‘no.’

They could see that she was an emerging leader — and a Healthcare Hero. n

Healthcare Heroes

Personal Trainer and Owner, Movement for All

She Inspires Others to Improve Their Mobility — and Quality of Life

Cindy Senk

One of Cindy Senk’s first experiences with yoga wasn’t a positive one.

Her back was very painful on the right side. “The yoga teacher came up in my face and said, ‘you can do better, you can do better’” — but not in an encouraging way, she recalled.

“It was almost hostile — this in-my-face attitude,” she went on. “I was really taken aback by that. I felt like, you don’t know me; you don’t know my health history; you don’t know what I’m feeling. I wanted to say, ‘get out of my face,’ but I didn’t — I just stepped back, and I never went back to that yoga studio.”

The experience drove her when she launched her own fitness and training practice, Movement for All, 20 years ago.

“I decided I would never be that teacher. I would never put someone in that particular place,” Senk told BusinessWest. “My philosophy as a teacher is to educate and empower my students, my clients, to make the choices that feel right because they feel it in their body. They know how they feel.”

That philosophy has led her not only to success with Movement for All, but 40 years of successes with specific populations, like people with arthritis, older individuals, and clients with cognitive challenges — because she understands that everyone, no matter their challenges, can thrive when they’re not treated in a cookie-cutter way.

Kelly Gilmore understands this. One of three clients who nominated Senk as a Healthcare Hero, Gilmore, a department chair at West Springfield High School, was hospitalized with a condition that diminished her mobility, stamina, and overall physical and mental state so severely that she couldn’t return to her teaching position.

“None of the numerous medical specialists that I continued to see regularly could offer a path toward improvement, beyond pain relief,” she wrote. “I set out to find a healthcare/fitness professional that was committed to helping me restore my health, strength, and mobility. Cindy offered exactly that. She met me where I was and created a personalized plan to move me to where I needed to be. She empowered me to take charge of my healing, unlocking the power inside of me, one step at a time.”

Starting a yoga regimen sitting in a chair, rather than on a mat on the floor, Gilmore began, within the next few months, to move freely, climb stairs, and go on walks. “Most importantly, I was in charge of my classroom again, offering my students the energy and vitality they deserve from their teacher.”

That’s real impact on clients with real problems. Multiplied over four decades, it’s a collective impact on the community, especially populations not always served well, and it certainly makes Senk deserving of being called a Healthcare Hero.

 

Brotherly Inspiration

Senk traces her passion for helping people to her childhood — in particular, her experiences with her younger brother, Bobby, who was born with cerebral palsy in 1955, long before the Americans with Disabilities Act codified many accessibility measures.

But Bobby had his family.

“My mother was a real advocate for him,” Senk recalled. “And we grew up in this environment in Forest Park where Bobby was one of the gang. We would accommodate him if he had trouble keeping up because of his crutches; we would just get him in a wagon and drag him around the neighborhood. He was always just part of the group. There was no, ‘well, Bobby can’t do that, so we can’t do it.’ It was never like that. It was always, ‘how can we creatively include him?’ And I think that’s really where this passion of mine comes from.”

Senk has had her own share of physical challenges as well; she was diagnosed with spinal issues at age 18 — issues that led to a lifetime of arthritis and have given her unique insight into people with similar problems, and led her into decades of advocacy in the broader arthritis community.

She’s never been free from arthritis; in fact, the day she spoke with BusinessWest at her home, Senk said she woke up with a lot of pain.

“My philosophy as a teacher is to educate and empower my students, my clients, to make the choices that feel right because they feel it in their body. They know how they feel.”

“It was just one of those days, you know?” she said. “So I started my gentle yoga I do every morning, I got in the shower, I was moving around my house, I had a class online that I teach, and then I had a client. And now I feel 1,000% better from when I woke up at 5:30 because I’ve been moving for six hours.

“It comes down to wanting to help people be functional, be fit, and have tools they can use to help themselves with whatever challenges they’re facing. And I think my passion for that came from a young age. Everything kind of flowed from all that: discovering how movement helps me and sharing that with others. Because I know how much movement helps me.”

Senk started her career with group exercise like step aerobics and regular low-impact aerobics, and later started practicing yoga to help her back — her main arthritic trouble spot. That was 35 years ago, and yoga has been an important part of her practice ever since.

the heart of my in-person classes on Tuesday nights

Cindy Senk calls these women “the heart of my in-person classes on Tuesday nights.”

“I have my basic certification, but then I have specialties in yoga for arthritis, accessible yoga, subtle yoga, and I use all of those to put together whatever program I need for this particular client in this particular class. I feel lucky to have a lot of tools in my toolbox.”

It’s been gratifying, she said, to help clients discover those tools, especially those who didn’t think they could achieve pain relief and mobility.

“A lot of times, in the beginning, people that are in chronic pain are very tentative about movement because they think they’re going to hurt worse,” she said, adding that she draws on her experience as a volunteer and teacher trainer with the Arthritis Foundation — and her own experience with arthritis, of course — to help them understand the potential of yoga and other forms of exercise.

“It’s the idea of the pain cycle, where we think, ‘oh I can’t; it hurts,’ so we move less, and then we hurt more,” she explained. “The idea of movement breaks that pain cycle. You’re giving the power to the client through movement. It’s a journey that I’m on with them.”

It’s a good idea, Senk said, for people in pain to first see their primary-care doctor or a specialist to find out exactly what’s wrong and what their options are, whether that’s yoga, an aquatic program, a walking program, or another activity that can keep them mobile.

“She met me where I was and created a personalized plan to move me to where I needed to be. She empowered me to take charge of my healing, unlocking the power inside of me, one step at a time.”

“There are more than 60 million of us in this country who have arthritis — and that’s doctor-diagnosed, so a lot of people probably have arthritis and are not doctor-diagnosed. And it’s not just older people; it’s kids as well. It’s very pervasive, unfortunately. So you need to get the knowledge first, and then, if you want to move and exercise or whatever it may be, you need to find a professional who knows what they’re doing.”

 

Living Her Passion

Senk’s four-decade career as a fitness professional has brought her to commercial fitness settings, hospitals, senior-living communities, corporate environments, and the studio she runs out of her own home. She has also taught as an adjunct professor at Holyoke Community College, Springfield College, and Manchester Community College, in addition to 25 years of volunteerism with the Arthritis Foundation and her role chairing of the Western Massachusetts Walk to Cure Arthritis for the past three years.

That’s a lot of passion poured into what essentially boils down to helping people enjoy life again.

“The bottom line for me is to just encourage people to find things that are helping them stay functional, whether it’s a gym they love to go to or a more private type of setting like I offer here,” she said, noting that her home studio also includes outdoor activities and virtual classes.

“I think it’s important for people to find where they fit, where they’re comfortable. And if they go to a gym or they go to a yoga studio and it’s not their fit, just keep looking. Find your people. Find the people that really speak to you and that will support you and not judge you and not put you down because maybe you can’t bend as much.”

She said she loves hearing clients say they were able to take a vacation and hike without falling down, ride a paddleboard, even reach up into the cabinets at their cabin.

Cindy Senk

Cindy Senk demonstrates some of the simple tools of her trade.

“I live for stuff like that. As somebody who has arthritis and chronic pain, I know it can be very easy to get in the bubble of your own head and say, ‘I can’t move today … right?’ But when I’m having my class here and I’m focusing on them, that takes a whole other attitude. It takes me out of my own pain space, if you will, and helping other people uplifts me. It just brings me joy and helps me feel better. It really does.”

It certainly has helped Lisa Borlen, a teacher at Valley View School in North Brookfield, one of Senk’s nominators, who shared how working with her has given both her and her mother a new outlook on life. Looking back to her recovery from surgery in 2021, she emphasized how Senk makes everyone feel welcome.

“I was still in a sling when I returned to yoga, and Cindy offered suggestions for poses from seated in a chair to standing against a wall,” she recalled. “My safety was her utmost concern. As I grew stronger, she made adjustments to the practice. I could continue to practice yoga with my class and I always felt supported. My physical therapist and surgeon were pleased with my progress and thought that the yoga classes were instrumental in my recovery.”

Susan Restivo, a retired Springfield teacher who also nominated Senk, joined Gilmore and Borlen in stressing that Senk is not only a teacher, but a lifelong learner, and that informs her work in the community.

“She is doing what she wants — what she started doing as a big sister, never knowing that helping her brother would be the start of her journey of serving others,” Restivo wrote. “Way back then, there was no equipment or an understanding of services for those that needed a Cindy Senk.”

That equipment and understanding are available now, though. So is Senk, and a lot of people are living more active, more pain-free, and happier lives because of the way she lives her passion.

“People say, ‘oh, you’re 70, you should retire, you should slow down,’” she said. “But I still feel like I have things to offer. I really do. I feel like I have people to help, ways to be of service, and I still have a lot of energy to do it. So that’s what I do.”

Healthcare Heroes

Nurse, Urology Group of Western New England

During Her Long Career, She Has Made a World of Difference

Jody O’Brien

Now 87, almost 88, Joanne (Jody) O’Brien is two decades and change past what the Social Security Administration considers ‘full retirement age.’

But she is still working — two days a week as a triage nurse for the Urology Group of Western New England (UGWNE), in its Northampton office. She’s doing plenty of other things to keep busy, which we’ll get to, but for now, let’s focus on her day job — and the fact that she still has one.

When asked why, her face curves into a huge smile — it seems to be almost permanently like that — and she offers a simple and direct explanation.

“I love nursing,” she told BusinessWest with a voice that would imply this would be obvious if she’s been doing it for more than 67 years. But she wanted to elaborate, and did.

“I lucked out picking nursing as a profession coming out of high school because it’s just been the most rewarding career I could possibly imagine,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed it so much that I don’t want it to end. As long as someone keeps me employed, I’ll keep coming to work.

“I absolutely love what I do — I can’t say enough about how great nursing has been for me,” she went on. “It’s a wonderful career to have. I’ve tried so many different aspects of it, and I’ve loved them all. So I figured there’s no sense packing it in if you love what you’re doing.”

Her career has placed her in many settings — from a hospital ship that was part of Project Hope in the early ’60s to Western New England College, where she was director of Health Services; from an eye-surgery office in Hawaii to the Hampden County Jail and House of Correction, where she was a per-diem nurse and, later, director of nurses, with many other stops as well.

“I lucked out picking nursing as a profession coming out of high school because it’s just been the most rewarding career I could possibly imagine. I’ve enjoyed it so much that I don’t want it to end. As long as someone keeps me employed, I’ll keep coming to work.”

But longevity and this variety of professional settings only begins to explain why O’Brien has been chosen as a Healthcare Hero for 2023 in the Lifetime Achievement category. Beyond her various day (and night) jobs, she has undertaken a number of service and volunteer assignments — from reading at Valley Eye Radio to taking care of orphans in Romania; from teaching English to nursing students in China to tagging sharks in Belize; from restoring and protecting turtle habitats in Costa Rica to working at Whispering Horse Therapeutic Riding, supporting riders with disabilities.

All this suggests she could easily have been nominated in several, if not all, the categories of Healthcare Heroes. Because of the length, variety, and broad impact of her work, she is being honored in the Lifetime Achievement category, one that has traditionally been dominated by administrators. In this case, though, it is going to a provider. A provider of care. A provider of hope. A provider of inspiration.

Jody O’Brien with staff members

Jody O’Brien with staff members at the Urology Group of Western New England’s Springfield office.
Staff Photo

Through her 87 years, 67 of them as a nurse, she has seen just about everything, including a global pandemic. Summing it all up, she said her passion for helping others hasn’t dimmed — and has probably only grown stronger — nearly 70 years after she entered nursing school.

This enthusiasm and energy was conveyed by Dr. Donald Sonn, a physician with UGWNE, who was among those who hired her 18 years ago.

“When we first interviewed her, we were struck by how positive and effervescent she was, and how energetic she was,” he recalled. “I’m constantly amazed by her energy and her positive attitude.”

Calling her an “ombudsman” for the practice’s patients, Sonn said O’Brien consistently draws praise for her calm, steady hand (and voice on the phone) and her desire to assist others.

All of this — and much more — explains why she is a true Healthcare Hero.

 

Riding the Wave

‘Cuba si, Yanquis no.’ That translates to ‘Cuba yes, Yankees no,’ and it’s a phrase, and a song, that O’Brien heard repeatedly as she served aboard the USS Hope, the former Navy hospital ship that was chartered to the People to People Health Foundation in 1960, when it was docked in Trujillo, Peru two years later.

“The people who met us at the dock were Communists, and they did not want us there,” she recalled, adding that the exploits of the USS Hope in Peru later became the subject of the book Yanqui Come Back!

O’Brien spent a year on the Hope, earning a $25 monthly stipend. But as those credit card commercials used to say, it was a learning experience that was priceless.

She worked beside a constantly changing team of doctors that performed surgery on the ship and in hospitals on the mainland, with procedures ranging from plastic surgery for burns to work to address cleft palate and hairlip, to removal of tumors, some of which had grown to enormous sizes because the patients hadn’t seen a healthcare provider in years, if not decades.

Urologist Dr. Donald Sonn

Urologist Dr. Donald Sonn calls Healthcare Hero Jody O’Brien an “ombudsman” for the practice’s patients.
Staff Photo

“People would walk for miles to get to the ship to be treated, and we treated everyone who needed it,” she recalled. “It was such a learning experience for me working with all these doctors.
“I was still young and adventurous,” she went on as she talked about how she paused her career, sort of, to serve on the ship, adding that she has remained young at heart and has always, in her recollection, been adventurous.

Indeed, the book on her life and career has many intriguing chapters, some of which are still being written. In literary circles, they would call this a ‘page turner.’

Our story starts in Iowa, where O’Brien was born and raised, and where she decided she wanted to be a nurse. She attended nursing school in Davenport — a three-year diploma program that cost $500.

Upon graduation, she took a job in Davenport, but soon thereafter, she went to Hawaii to stay with a friend who had recently had a baby and wanted her company while her husband was deployed.

It was in Hawaii that O’Brien became acquainted with Project Hope. She visited the ship when it was docked and became intrigued with its mission. After returning to Iowa, she filled out an application to serve in Project Hope as an operating room nurse, and in 1962, she was approved for service.

During her year on the USS Hope, she met a volunteer named Ed O’Brien, from Holyoke. Upon returning to Iowa, she would drive to the Paper City to renew acquaintances. They would marry in 1963 and eventually settle in East Longmeadow.

Thus would commence a series of assignments in the 413, but also well beyond it.

 

Care Package

These included a lengthy stint at what was then Wesson Women’s Hospital, working in labor and delivery, and another as a nurse practitioner in an ob/gyn office.

From 1983 to 1988, she served as director of Health Services at Western New England College, handling the needs of 6,000 students, and also as a per diem nurse at the Hampden County Jail and House of Correction.

She then accepted a travel nurse assignment at Castle Hospital in Kailua, Hawaii. She stayed in Hawaii for a dozen years, also serving as nurse manager of an eye-surgery center and as branch director of Nursefinders of Hawaii. And while in the Aloha State, she earned a master’s degree from Central Michigan University.

“She would go on a trip every three or four months, and it was always something really fascinating — volunteering in some third-world country or teaching children or reading to the blind. She has a tremendous record of service.”

She returned to Western Mass. in 2000 and took a job as area director of Nursefinders of Eastern Massachusetts, and soon thereafter became a flex team manager at Baystate Medical Center, managing 60 RNs, 25 technical assistants, 45 constant companions, and the ‘lift team.’

At the Urology Group of New England, which she joined 18 years ago, she works two days a week — Monday and Wednesday. The former is generally the busiest and perhaps the most difficult of the days of the week, but that’s when the group needs the help, so that’s when she works.

O’Brien’s whole career has been like that, in many respects — showing up when and where the help is most needed.

That’s true professionally, but also in her work as a volunteer, with work that is wide-ranging, to say the least.

Indeed, during the three days she’s not working at the Urology Group — and all through her life, for that matter — she has found no shortage of ways to give back and be there, for both people and animals.

Among them is her work with Valley Eye Radio, where she reads the local newspaper for the benefit of those who can’t read it themselves.

“It makes you feel good to know that, for people who cannot read or have difficulty reading, we can share what’s going on today in Springfield or the United States or the world,” she said. “We can share that information with them.”

Meanwhile, she also volunteers with Greater Springfield Senior Services, helping individuals who can no longer handle their own finances with bill paying and other responsibilities, and with Whispering Horse Therapeutic Riding, a nonprofit that, among other things, brings horses to nursing homes, where residents can feed and pet the animals.

“The way they light up when they see these horses … it’s so gratifying,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she and a colleague will visit facilities regularly — sometimes weekly, other times monthly.

Animals have always been a big part of her life — and her strong track record of giving back. In addition to tagging sharks and restoring turtle habitats, she has also volunteered at animal sanctuaries in Australia to care for koalas, often taking her grandchildren with her on such service trips, introducing them to the many rewards that come with such work.

“At this age, you know you don’t have many more days to fill, so you fill each one of them,” she said, but concedes that she’s always wanted to stay busy.

“She’s done so much in her life … I’ve always looked forward to listening to her talk about trips, her escapades,” said Sonn, choosing that word carefully. “She would go on a trip every three or four months, and it was always something really fascinating — volunteering in some third-world country or teaching children or reading to the blind. She has a tremendous record of service.”

In both aspects of her life — as a nurse and as a volunteer — the common thread has been a desire to help those in need, and this explains why she has been chosen as a Healthcare Hero for 2023.

“I loved working at Western New England; the college kids were a joy to work with,” she said, adding that each stop in her career has been different — and enjoyable. “There’s something about taking care of people and helping them deal with mental and physical problems and seeing what you can do to help them in their lives.”

 

Still Making a Difference

There are many people who have worked well into their 80s in healthcare. And there are many people who have put dozens of lines on a résumé detailing a lengthy list of career stops.

But there are few who have the passion, dedication, and resolve to use their talents and their love for helping others to make a world of difference, in every aspect of that phrase.

Jody O’Brien is such an individual. That commitment has helped her stand out in this field for seven decades. It makes her a Healthcare Hero. n

Senior Planning Special Coverage Special Publications

Inside This Year’s Planner

When BusinessWest and the Healthcare News first started publishing an annual Senior Planning Guide, the idea wasn’t to create a roadmap to the end of life, though it could, in some sense, be described as such.

The goal is to make sure you get your plans in order — from where you or your loved ones will live to how finances will be distributed — so you don’t have to worry so much, and instead enjoy the senior years to the fullest, or to help your aging parents enjoy them.

After all, the retirement years should be an enjoyable time, highlighted by special moments with family and friends, the freedom to engage in a range of activities, maybe even a chance to develop new interests and hobbies.

But to make the most of that time, proper planning — estate planning, financial planning, plans for care — is critically important. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans age 65 and older — which was 35 million in 2000, just 12% of the population — will reach 73 million by 2030, or 21% of U.S. residents. That’s a lot of people. And a lot of planning. And a lot of living left to enjoy.

Achieving your goals — and your desires for your loved ones — requires careful thought, and that’s where our annual Senior Planning Guide, presented by UMassFive Financial & Investment Services, comes in. So let’s sort through some of the confusion and get those conversations — and the rest of your life — started.

View this  year’s digital Senior Planning Guide HERE

Wellness for Life

Sharing a Life

Journaling Is a Therapeutic Exercise — for All Those Involved

Savvy Seniors Freeze It

Nutrition-minded Older Adults Should Heed These Tips

The Emotional Bank Account

How Seniors Can Maintain Mental Wellness

A Whole Year of Fun

Older Adults Have Plenty of Ways to Stay Physically Active

Estate & Financial Planning

Estate Planning: An Introduction

Goals, Strategies Can Vary with Each Stage of Life

Creating an Estate Plan

The Process Begins by Understanding the Key Documents

Decisions, Decisions

How to Choose a Medicare Plan

Preparing a Will

It Can Be a Dreaded Task, but It’s an Important One

A Task Better Left to a Professional

Being in Charge of an Estate Can Be Unsettling for All Involved

Roadblocks to Equality

LGBTQ+ Elders Face Unique Planning Challenges

Let’s Not Fight over This Stuff

Distributing Tangible Personal Property Can Cause Conflict

Caregivers & Adult Children

A Gentle Reminder

Don’t Lose Yourself in Caring for Others

Reading the Signs

Six Indications It Might Be Time for Memory Care

Having the Talk

Ten Tips on How to Approach a Difficult Topic

Four Steps to Emotional Wellness

Caregivers Must Understand the Importance of Self-care

It’s Not About Dying

How Hospice Care Supports the End-of life Journey

Senior Resources

40 Under 40 Event Galleries Special Coverage
Healthcare News

Introducing the Area’s 2023 Nursing Graduates

Hundreds of nursing students recently graduated from the area’s colleges. American International College, the American Women’s College at Bay Path University, Elms College, Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College, and UMass Amherst have announced the names of their 2023 nursing graduates. BusinessWest congratulates all of the graduates on their success.

AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL COLLEGE

Bachelor of Science in Nursing
Banyatie BahTraore
Kendal Bates
Rileigh Berneche
Abigail Carney
Erin Chase
Valery Cortes
Catherine Desrochers
Shannon Dion
Sean Dziuba
Brianna Fontaine
Briahna-Mary Hersom
Sophia Hess
Sara Howard
Yvonne James
Meghan Kalbaugh
Liza Lapko
Mildred Lefebvre
Ariana Martel

 

Phuong Mazza
Debi McEnaney
Morgan Miller
Jade Mitchell
Laura Moya Mejia
Maria Navarro
Sarah Newsome
Madison Paul
Alyx Pollard
Courtney Provencher
Julitza Rivera
Shannon Santos
Michael Shvetsov
Danielle Sica
Jennifer Tousignant
Genesis Vasquez
Luigi Zebrowski

Master of Science in Nursing
Amanda Allegra
Janessa Andrews
Cherise Antoine
Nicole Bagge
Kerilyn Barrios
Katherine Bean
Danielle Brouillette
Tamia Cheeks
Amanda Chen
Annmarie Goulas
Ashley Graveline
Bertram Henry
Christina Latorra
Joel Leconte
Emily Mendez
Christine Murphy
Judy Nham
Claribel Parra
Katherine Pawlowski
Muoi Petruff
Alycia Piedra
Kristen Robertson
Victoria Rondinelli

BAY PATH UNIVERSITY

Bachelor of Science in Nursing
Angela Abbatemarco
Bethanie Deleon
Thea Gallagher
Shenell Gayle
Winnie Lopez Sanchez
Jane Marozzi
Christina Mbabazi
Jaime Richter
Samantha Sardella
Karen Scott
Salifyanji Thomas

 

Doctor of Nursing Practice
Colleen Barker
Monique Brunelle
Sylvia Darko
Hyemi Kim
Jill Kordas
Elizabeth Nantaba
Jason Reyes
Jenna Tymkowiche

ELMS COLLEGE

Bachelor of Science in Nursing
Dianelise Acevedo
Courtney Adams
Rebecca Adjei-Nyame
Emma Agli
Priscilla Akuffo
Stephanie Alden
Gabriel Asare
Jonathan Bailey
Leah Barr
Marie Basil
Reyna Bautista
Yelena Bazukina
Chelsea Bergeron
Maggie Berrier
Jillian Russell Buendia
Anna Burgener
Nicholas Butera
Miranda Cadena
Sara Campbell
Alexandria Carmon
Madison Carra
Gabriela Chavez
Daisy Chege
Kristen Chianese
Emily Christie
Brian Cintron
Kelly Clare
Kathreen Collado
Danielle Collette
Dominic Colucci
Sarah Congden
Mikayla Costello
Rosemary Costello
Ashley Cronkhite
Cynthia Davis
Autumn DeBlois
Nicole DeFeo
Alyssa Dunham
Monica Esten

Adriana Ewig
Krystal Fitzgerald
Hayleigh Gagne
Emily Gay
Jennifer Girard
Ashley Girouard
Samantha Goncalves
Abigail Goodnow
Julia Grando
Tori Grano
Aleesha Grochoweski
Victoria Guay
Sara Guijarro-Sines
Lily Gyasi-Denteh
Maria Hernandez
Sydney Howard
David Ivanov
Taylor Johnson
Katie Jones
Miranda Kamukala
Alfiya Khuzhakhmetova
Caroline Kirk
Matthew Kisiel
Agata Kluk
Emily Krasinkiewicz
Connor LaFlamme
Rachel Lambert
Samantha Landry
Rheanna Lannon
Jayla Latham
Brittany LaVigne
Miranda Lebel
Michael Maggipinto Jr.
Taylor Malinowski
Flavia Marques
Jemma Marsh
Margaret Mathon

Kiana McDonald
Nicholas McElroy
Madison McGinnis
Kelsey Doray McMorrow
Mary Michaud
Lainey Mwangi
Sarah Nguyen
Ruth Njaaga
Caroline Njenga
Dekyong Nyandak
Solomon Tomeka
Parslow Oneka
Peter Otiende
Chynna Pacheco
Kayla Pasquel
Karlie Petlock
Meaghan Petty
Amber Piedra
Amy Pont
Danielle Poppel
Madison Quinn
Gabriela Rasuk
Michelle Redenz
Victoria Ricciardi
Deviyana Rivera
Kiara Rivera
Jocelyn Rodriguez
Mia Rotatori
Amanda Santerre
Shana Spratt
Daisia Stinson
Cassidy Sweeney
Alexander Szarkowski
Hanna Ton
Dawa Tsering
Josephine Yeboah
Yitian Zhang

 

Master of Science in Nursing
Jessica Abisla
Melinda Behrens
Lindsey Bowen
Tracina Brown
Kerrin Conceicao
Ann Covey
Erika Cisneros Cullen
Jessica Douglas
Michelle Ewing
Pamela Garrity
Rena Gilliam
Elaine Kalinowsky
Cassandra Keller
Kirsten Kennedy-Alvarado
Melissa Stewart Laws
Lia Long
Alexandra Marques
Caroline Mechan
Georgeann Natale
Pamela Neleber
Beth Osha
Courtney Peets

Deborah Pipan
Tara Schiller
Fawne St. Pierre
Ashley Stazzone
Nicholas Taylor
Brian Toia
Susan Williams

Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study in Nursing
Samantha Gilpatrick
Lori Gramolini
Carly Masse
Claudia Palframan

Graduate Certificate
Sandra Neubig
Fawne St. Pierre
Nicholas Taylor
Susan Williams

Doctor of Nursing Practice
Anne Albano
Louisa Asianmah
Jaime Caron
David Chastain-Stultz
Lacey Harding
Marina Hoag
Beata Kubacka
Yolanda Marrow
Laura Monette-Currie
Kathleen Pont
Lou Rios
Abigayle Sidur
Jennifer Stebbins
Melecio Tan Jr.
Jennifer Tarczali
Lynda Tenorio
Catherine Thresher
Ashley Williams

HOLYOKE COMMUNITY COLLEGE

Associate of Science in Nursing
Latisha Abraham
Ahmed Aljanabi
Matthew Aube
Paris Beaudette
Ash Berman
Jessica Boulanger
Kathryn Cardin
Enette Claxton-Toliver
Michelle Cosme Serrano
Jacquelyn Crosler
Chelsea Daniels
Leigh Montemagni
Rosemary Dennis
Makail