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The Experiment Begins

Some of the outdoor spaces Academy Hill School

Some of the outdoor spaces Academy Hill School will repurpose for class time this fall — weather permitting.

Brian Easler learned a saying during his time in the Army: “two is one, and one is none.”

It’s a way of stressing the importance of having a backup plan — and he certainly put that concept into action this summer.

“The idea is, anything can fail at any time. You have to have a backup,” said Easler, head of school at Wilbraham & Monson Academy (WMA). “We did everything we could think of to make the campus as safe as possible. We have layers of filters where, even if one preventive measure seems duplicative of something else we’ve done, we did both anyway.”

For instance, all HVAC systems on campus were updated and fitted with ionizers to filter air. But the school also bought 287 Honeywell HEPA air purifiers, similar to what hospitals use, and placed one in every room on campus. And when public-health officials said students at school could stay three feet apart while wearing masks, WMA kept a six-foot standard.

“Again,” he told BusinessWest, “we’re layering precautions on top of precautions.”

The reason is simple: parents want to send their kids to school to learn in person — despite its widespread use, no one believes remote learning is the best option from an academic and social perspective — and they also want to feel their kids will be safe.

Melissa Earls is a believer in in-person learning, which is why, as head of school at Academy Hill School in Springfield, she has spent the last several months making sure the campus is safe.

And not only because younger students — unlike WMA, Academy Hill is a pre-K to grade 8 school — have a tougher time handling remote education without the physical presence of parents, who often simultaneously hold jobs.

“It’s not just the autonomy factor, but what’s developmentally appropriate,” she said. “It’s just not developmentally appropriate for students that young to be in front of a screen for so long. It’s also an abstract concept to engage in virtual learning, seeing their friends on a Brady Bunch Zoom screen. For them, it’s an abstract concept to wrap their heads around. Developmentally, we much prefer having them here with us.”

That’s not to say classes don’t look a little different these days.

“We’re a small private school, and we typically have a lot of collaborative tables, reflective of our instructional model. We’ve replaced them with rows and columns of desks, which was not our style,” Earls explained. “We also purchased tents to create outdoor spaces, sheltered from the sun, and even the rain, to respond to the space challenge.”

John Austin, head of school at Deerfield Academy, in a letter to parents last month, outlined the many precautions and protocols unfolding to make the campus safe (more on that later). But he also stressed that students have to buy in to make it work.

“We know from experience — and science tells us with near-certainty — that wearing masks, physical distancing, and enhanced hygiene can help mitigate the spread of this virus. And that is what, together, we will endeavor to accomplish. We begin the year knowing that our students will arrive ready to express their care for others by following these simple expectations,” he wrote.

Noting that students must sign a ‘community health pledge,’ he called the document “an attempt to clearly and explicitly capture that ethos of care, citizenship, and sacrifice that will allow us to return to school safely and be together as a campus community.”

In other words, if students want to be on campus — and private schools throughout the region are definitely emphasizing that model — they know they’re all in it together. It’s an intriguing experiment in the first fall semester of the COVID-19 era, one that follows a summer that was also unlike any other.

Team Effort

The first question at Academy Hill, Earls said, was whether the campus had the space and ability to pull off on-campus learning.

“Once we knew we could do this, it became a priority to get them back,” she said. “Getting here was a team effort. What impressed us was the selflessness of everyone who worked all summer long. Actually, they didn’t have a summer. The plan was constantly evolving, and everyone was so generous with their time and their thoughts.”

While students are expected to be on campus if they’re not sick, a blended learning option is available for those who have to quarantine because they or a family member have been exposed to coronavirus. At the same time, if a faculty member is exposed, but is able to teach from home, students will attend classes on campus while the teacher instructs from a remote location, with the assistance of technology.

Melissa Earls

Melissa Earls

“It’s just not developmentally appropriate for students that young to be in front of a screen for so long. It’s also an abstract concept to engage in virtual learning, seeing their friends on a Brady Bunch Zoom screen.”

And, of course, in an echo of the spring, when schools and colleges across the U.S. shut down and switched to online learning, Academy Hill will be able to do so if a viral spike forces such a move — but it won’t be so on the fly this time, as teachers engaged in professional development over the summer to prepare for the possibility of remote learning.

“Our plan is a living document,” Earls said. “We looked at CDC and state guidelines, and our goal was to exceed them. When they shortened the physical distance to three feet, we still do six feet apart. We made sure we were meeting or exceeding all the guidelines, and we shared every iteration of the plan with families. I sent notes home weekly over the summer, if not moreso.”

Easler said prepping WMA for an influx of students included renovating a former school meeting space into a second dining hall, installing new bathrooms in a boys’ dorm, and, perhaps most dramatically, instituting an aggressive testing program. The school engaged with a lab at MIT to implement twice-weekly testing for all students, faculty, and staff, with no more than four days between tests.

“The rationale is, the only way to prevent widespread transmission on campus is to know where the virus is, especially with a population that’s often asymptomatic. And the only way to know where the virus is, is to test. The testing program is our first defense.”

Easler spoke with BusinessWest the second day students were on campus, and said students were adapting well to the new protocols, which include mandatory masks, although there are outdoor mask-free zones that offer some relief. Among close to 400 students at WMA, only 64 have opted for remote learning this fall.

“The kids seem pretty happy; it’s encouraging to see how quickly they adapted to everything. Kids are adaptable in general, but we’re still really proud of them.”

He added that WMA isn’t among the wealthiest private schools, but he’s pleased with the investments that have been made, from campus renovations to the testing plan. “Testing is expensive, but it’s worth every penny.”

Testing, Testing

To a similar end, Deerfield Academy has partnered with Concentric by Ginkgo, a program that provides COVID-19 testing in support of schools and businesses. Students were tested before they arrived on campus, as soon as they arrived, and again several days after. Weekly testing will continue for students, faculty, and staff throughout the fall term.

The school will also employ daily reporting and symptom screening and has prepared guidelines for contact tracing in order to quickly isolate any positive cases and quarantine all close contacts. In addition, all boarding students have single rooms, and weekend off-campus travel is being limited, as are family visits.

Meanwhile, a new, modular academic schedule will reduce the number of classes students take over the course of the day and gather them in smaller classes, and all HVAC systems have been fitted with advanced air filters, and are circulating fresh, filtered air at an increased rate.

“In my 35 years in education, never before have I seen such effort, sacrifice, and commitment to mission,” Austin wrote. “Every member of our community has generously given their time and effort over these summer months to prepare the campus and its buildings to safely welcome students.”

Easler agreed. “We did lot of work over the summer, meaning we really didn’t get much of a summer,” he said, adding that part of the process was training faculty on the Canvas learning-management platform, allowing them to teach face-to-face and remotely at the same time.

“The rest of the staff spent the summer planning logistics around campus,” he added. “It was so much work because we literally did everything we could think of.”

While enrollment projections dipped slightly early in the summer, Easler said it picked up again once word got out into the community of what WMA was doing to make the campus a safe environment. “Families want a little more predictability than they get out of the local public systems, which don’t have the kind of flexibility and resources we do.”

With such resources come a responsibility, Earls said, to understand what students are going through during this unprecedented year.

“I told the teachers, ‘always remember that hundreds of kids will pass through here during the course of your career, but to John or Jameel or Suzy, you are their only second-grade teacher, their only math teacher, their only Spanish teacher. You need to respect that.’ This year more than ever, we need to pay attention to their anxiety levels, their social and emotional well-being. We’re going to make sure they feel safe and normalize the situation for them.”

That normalization, she believes, begins with in-person learning, and getting to that point took a lot of work. Now, she and other area heads of school can only hope it’s enough.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Law

A Stern Test

By Marylou Fabbo

With schools reopening, parents and employers will be in a difficult boat together as they attempt to juggle parenting with personal and professional responsibilities.

Parents are understandably anxious about how they will meet their obligations to both their children and their employers. Several school districts have announced hybrid returns with students alternating between attending school and remote learning. Some jobs just can’t be done from home, and some parents who would otherwise be able to work at home will be needed to help their children with remote learning (or breaking up arguments).

To make matters worse, schools that are already back in session have shown us that, despite precautions that are being taken, school-based COVID-19 outbreaks are a real concern.

Employment-law Compliance

There is no question that many parents will be working from home in some capacity once the school year starts. Businesses should keep in mind that laws that are applicable in the workplace don’t go out the door simply because the workplace has moved to an employee’s home.

Marylou Fabbo

Marylou Fabbo

“Does workers’ compensation insurance apply when an employee trips over a toy during the workday and fractures her ankle?”

For instance, Massachusetts employers must continue to make sure their employees take their 30-minute meal break and keep records of all hours worked, which may not look like the normal 9-to-5 workday. State and federal laws that require employers to provide a reasonable accommodation to disabled employees in the workplace apply to remote employees as well.

To meet these requirements, employers may need to do things such as make adjustments to equipment or the manner in which work is completed. Notices that must be posted in the workplace should be electronically distributed or mailed to an employee.

Still, there are many unanswered questions, and businesses are advised to consult with legal counsel before taking any risky actions. For example, employers are required to reimburse employees for required business-related expenses, but what does that mean when employees use their own laptops and internet for at-home work?

Does workers’ compensation insurance apply when an employee trips over a toy during the workday and fractures her ankle? How does an employer prevent and address sexual harassment in the remote workplace? Is it discriminatory to distribute extra or different tasks that can’t be done at home to older employees who no longer have kids at home? All these issues should be discussed with your employment-law advisors.

Job-protected, Paid Time Off

Not all employees will be able to work when their children are taking classes from home. Employers should be prepared to work with a reduced staff for the foreseeable future. Federal laws will provide many parents with job-protected time off when school is closed, which includes situations where some or all instruction is being provided through distance learning.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) generally requires employers to provide paid time off to employees who cannot work (or telework) because their child’s school is closed. However, it’s not enough that a child is attending class remotely. The parent must be needed to care for the child, and the child must be under 14 absent special circumstances.

Still, the FFCRA does not cover all employees or all employers. Employers with 500 or more employees are not covered by the law, while small employers and healthcare providers may be exempt from certain requirements. Also, employees who have been employed for less than a month are only eligible for a maximum of two weeks of ‘emergency sick’ leave, while employees who have been employed for at least 30 days may be able to take up to an additional 12 weeks of expanded family and medical leave (EFML), including on an intermittent basis, assuming that the leave hasn’t already been taken for other permissible purposes.

Eligible employees can earn up to $200 per day when taking childcare EFML, subject to certain maximum dollar amounts. Lawmakers in several states, including Massachusetts, are considering legislation that would fill the gaps in the FFCRA’s paid-leave provisions, and several states have already extended virus-specific paid leave. Employers whose employees aren’t eligible for protected leave will have to decide whether to allow job-protected leave or lay off or otherwise separate with the employee.

School-related Exposure

Unpredictable, illness-related absences can pose another challenge for employers and employees. Children may be exposed at school and bring the virus home.

Employees may be needed to care for their children who are ill and may even test positive themselves. The FFCRA provides up to two weeks paid time off for COVID-related illnesses. The Massachusetts paid-sick-leave statute and the FMLA may also provide employees with paid time off. Employees may also be able to take protected time off (or time at home) as a reasonable accommodation for the employee’s own disability that makes it risky for the employee to go into the office.

Plan Ahead

There’s never been a return to school quite like 2020. The only certainty is that employers could not possibly plan for all potential scenarios. Businesses should make sure they have effective remote-work policies, practices, and procedures in place, be prepared to operate with fewer employees on an intermittent and possibly long-term basis, and designate one or more people within the organization to whom management and employees can direct their questions.

Marylou Fabbo is a partner with Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., a law firm that exclusively practices labor and employment law. She specializes in employment litigation, immigration, wage-and-hour compliance, and leaves of absence. She devotes much of her practice to defending employers in state and federal courts and administrative agencies. She also regularly assists her clients with day-to-day employment issues, including disciplinary matters, leave management, and compliance; (413) 737-4753 ; [email protected]

40 Under 40 Class of 2018

Co-owner and Marketing Director, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield; Age 39; Education: MS, Lehigh University

Michelle Wirth

Michelle Wirth

Wirth has spent the past 18 years working for the Mercedes-Benz brand. She started her career in the Engineering department at Mercedes-Benz USA in 2000. She then held positions in PR and marketing before entering retail. She learned to drive stick on a Dodge Neon during an internship at Chrysler Corp. in 1997. That same summer, she got her first (and only) ticket for drag racing a Viper during the infamous Woodward Cruise in Detroit. She and her husband, Peter, have four children.

What did you want to be when you grew up? I toggled between lawyer, doctor, and Oprah Winfrey.

How do you define success? The ultimate symbol of success is time independence. When you can choose how you spend each and every minute of your time without restriction, you’ve made it.

What three words best describe you? Driven, caring, mom.

What do you like most about Western Massachusetts? The people!

Who has been your best mentor, and why? My mom and dad — the best example setters, cheerleaders, and sage advisors on the planet.

What actress would play you in a movie about your life? Sandra Bullock.

What are you passionate about? I believe in the power of every individual, and I am committed to each and every person realizing their true potential, no matter what circumstances he or she may have been born into. This takes shape in myriad ways.

Whom do you look up to, and why? I believe the only person holding you back from achieving your dreams is … you. To all those going back to school to get a higher degree, especially working parents, I have so much respect for your decision and admire the sacrifices you make to achieve your goals. To all the inventors, tinkerers, advocates, and change agents … thanks for making the world a better place for us all.

What person, past or present, would you like to have lunch with, and why? There are so many people … John and Jackie Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, John Lennon, Oprah Winfrey … but if I had to choose one, I would love to meet Albert Einstein, just to pick his brain.

Photography by Leah Martin Photography

40 Under 40 Class of 2018

Co-owner, Chief Strategy Officer, Universal Plastics Group; Age 37; Education: BA, Northwestern University; MBA, University of Chicago Booth Graduate School of Business

Pia Sareen Kumar

Pia Sareen Kumar

Before her time at Universal Plastics Group, Kumar worked at JPMorgan Chase and American Express. She serves on the boards of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts and the Springfield Technical Community College Foundation, is a member of the Women President’s Organization, and a is reader and school sponsor with Link to Libraries.

What three words best describe you? Committed, optimistic, perceptive.

What do you like most about Western Massachusetts? There is a strong culture of ownership and grass-roots change to improve the local community. We take it upon ourselves to change things.

Who has been your best mentor, and why? As a working mom who is engaged in her community, the mothers I have — my mother and mother-in-law — have shaped my values and priorities tremendously. Both support me unconditionally and encourage me to ignore the constraints and barrel ahead. They also give me the ultimate gift of honest but kind feedback.

What are you passionate about? I am passionate about empowerment, through education, literacy, and leadership training. Also, as a business owner, my greatest moments of actualization and delight come from hearing that, because of working at Universal, someone can do more for themselves or for their family, like buy a house, go back to school, or give their child an opportunity they themselves didn’t have.

Whom do you look up to, and why? I look up to Sue Kaplan, the founder of Link to Libraries, who has brought the community together to provide access and instill in our children a love for the written word, and also Joe Peters, vice chairman of Universal Plastics, for his tremendous contributions to local workforce development and training.

What goal do you set for yourself at the start of each day? To be productive, planful, and effective enough all day so that I am fully present with my three children in the evening.

What will work colleagues say at your funeral? I would like my colleagues to spend only 20% of the time talking about my professional achievements.

What person, past or present, would you like to have lunch with, and why? My father. He lives very far away, and I miss him.

Photography by Leah Martin Photography

Class of 2018 Difference Makers

Bob Bolduc Cooks Up New Ways to Better the Lives of Young People

005_bolducbob-diff2017When Mavis Wanczyk scored the single largest lottery win in U.S. history last August — with a ticket purchased at a Pride station in Chicopee — she wasn’t the only winner. No, the store — meaning its owner, Bob Bolduc — got a $50,000 bonus from the state as well.

A few weeks later, Bolduc distributed $1,000 checks to more than 20 Springfield elementary schools to help teachers make classroom purchases they’d normally have to pay for out of pocket. The rest of the 50 grand was distributed among a variety of youth- and education-centric organizations that Bolduc already supports year-round.

“I decided to give it to the kids,” he told BusinessWest, shrugging off any suggestion that it was a tough call. “It’s a windfall; it’s not my money. So it was an easy decision to make.”

Mary Anne’s Kids was another recipient of a $1,000 bonus. An arm of the Center for Human Development, it’s a fund that provides opportunities for children in foster care that would not typically be paid for by the state, from summer camps to extra-curricular programs.

We didn’t even ask for it; he just gave it to us. He’s the grandfather of Mary Anne’s Kids, and a wonderful man. He’s been a godsend to our program.”

“We didn’t even ask for it; he just gave it to us,” said Jim Williams, the fund’s long-time director, before detailing some of the ways Pride’s support of Mary Anne’s Kids through the years makes the $1,000 gift, really, just a drop in the bucket. “He’s the grandfather of Mary Anne’s Kids, and a wonderful man. He’s been a godsend to our program.”

Indeed, since its inception and for more than a decade since, Bolduc has contributed significant dollars to “children who otherwise would not have funds to go to college, go to prom, all the extraordinary things your children and mine have the opportunity to do,” Williams explained. “Bob has basically been our big-ticket guy. He was there when we started, and he’s been there every year.”

Take, for example, the $20,000 or so worth of gifts that pour in every December from Chistmas trees set up in all Pride stores, adorned with tags listing a child’s age, gender, and gift request. Customers buy most of them, and Bolduc covers the rest. And as the holiday approaches, he closes the diner he owns off Mass Pike exit 6 in Chicopee and hosts 120 foster children for a party with Santa Claus.

Williams said Bolduc has personally funded purchases ranging from a handicap-accessible bicycle to a gravestone for one foster child’s brother, who was killed in a drive-by shooting.

“I can tell you this: throughout my career at CHD, Bob has been such a genuine man,” Williams said. “I can’t tell enough good things about him.”

When he sat down with BusinessWest, Bolduc characterized supporting one’s community as an imperative for local businesses, one he came to understand early in his career building the Pride empire, when he and his wife became involved with a number of nonprofits and he began to recognize the needs they had.

“Every nonprofit needs money,” he said. “So I called the people we buy from — Coke, Frito-Lay, all the big companies — and asked, ‘would you give me some money for this little nonprofit that’s trying to help people?’ They’d say, ‘no, we only do national ones — March of Dimes, Muscular Dystrophy Society, American Cancer Society — so we can’t give to all the local companies.’

“A light went off for me — ‘a-ha! If they can’t give, who’s going to give? It’s got to be the little guy,’” he continued. “That’s when we decided to put all our money locally. And it was a no-brainer. The more nonprofits you get involved with, the more you realize how many needs there are, how many kids are really hurting.”

Indeed, kids — youth welfare and education, to be specific — are the beating heart of Bolduc’s philanthropic bent. To name just a few examples:

• Pride recently raised $10,000 to support Square One’s work with high-risk children and families;

• Bolduc has been a business partner for Lincoln Elementary School in Springfield, where he sends volunteer readers and donates supplies as requested. He and his wife also supply hats, mittens, and socks for all the students. “We realized these kids don’t have hats and gloves for wintertime — some of them don’t even have toothbrushes,” he said. “This is happening right here, in Springfield”;

• Pride participated in a North End Community Task Force dealing with gang violence and related problems;

• In partnership with Brightside for Children and Families, Bolduc provided a van outfitted as a mobile library, as well as a driver and warehouse space. The van travels around the area in the summer, providing kids with summer reading books;

• Pride collaborates with WMAS on its annual Coats for Kids campaign; and

• The company regularly fund-raises for various causes such as Wounded Warriors and Puerto Rico hurricane relief, by supplying donation cans at all Pride stores.

But what makes Bolduc a true Difference Maker, as if his philanthropy weren’t enough, is the way he sees his role as not just a businessman, but someone with the opportunity to impact individual lives — of kids in need, yes, but also his employees, many of whom come from poverty — and watch as they turn around and collectively impact their communities for the better.

Food for Thought

Born in Indian Orchard, Bolduc graduated from Notre Dame University with a degree in mechanical engineering, then earned an MBA at Purdue University, before returning to his home state.

After working as a quality engineer at American Bosch in the 1960s, he enlisted in the Army and served in Vietnam. Back in the States, he briefly went to work at his father’s gas station in Indian Orchard in 1970 before buying him out, thus becoming the third generation of the family to run that business — a business, by the way, that just marked its 100th anniversary.

Bob Bolduc and Pride Stores President Marsha Del Monte (right) present a $10,000 check

Bob Bolduc and Pride Stores President Marsha Del Monte (right) present a $10,000 check to Square One’s Kristine Allard and President and CEO Joan Kagan.

In addition to running the station, Bolduc became a tire and auto-parts wholesaler, specifically a distributor for BF Goodrich and Continental, and became proficient enough at it to be chosen to address a national sales convention of Goodrich retailers at age 30.

But in 1976, he made the shift that would define his career, buying a self-serve gas station in Indian Orchard. Over the years, he would gradually expand his business, creating the chain of stores known today as Pride. But, more importantly, he developed a reputation as an industry innovator by marrying the self-service station with another emerging phenomenon, the convenience store.

Other innovations would follow; Pride would eventually become the first chain in Western Mass. to put a Dunkin’ Donuts in the stores, then the first to incorporate a Subway. But where the company has really made a name, in recent years, is with its own fresh-food production.

“The industry has gone from repair shops to convenience stores, then convenience stores started selling coffee,” Bolduc recalled. “The convenience stores got bigger — lots bigger — and started selling more food items, then they got even bigger, to what we call superstores; we’re talking stores between 5,000 and 7,000 square feet, with at least six pumps, sometimes eight or 10, and selling lots more food items.”

But several factors have hit convenience stores hard in recent years, he noted. Fuel efficiency is up. People are driving less, and public transportation has improved. Cigarette sales are way down, and online lottery purchases are cutting into in-store sales.

“All these things that drive our business are disappearing, and we’re looking at a business where the future expectation is for decreased sales, not increased sales,” he noted.

On the other hand, “people still have to eat three times a day, and they’re looking for convenience all the time, and families aren’t sitting down for breakfast and lunch anymore, and sometimes not even dinner; they’re buying food at restaurants or convenience stores.”

The goal, then, he said, has been to improve food quality at Pride to the point where people will see the chain not as a gas station that sells food, but as a food store that sells gas.

To support that shift, the Pride Kitchen, located at the company’s headquarters on Cottage Street in Springfield, runs two shifts of staff making fresh sandwiches, salads, fruit and yogurt parfaits, and — in a bakery that opened in 2017 — fresh muffins, donuts, cookies, brownies, and pastries. A third shift belongs to the drivers who bring all this fresh fare to stores across the region, making food service at Pride a truly 24-hour operation.

Newer stores feature a Pride Grill, where morning visitors can down fresh-cooked eggs before picking up a made-to-order sandwich for lunch at the deli, as well as drive-thru windows and mobile ordering. This isn’t, as Bolduc noted repeatedly, the convenience-store food of the past.

By studying trends and repositioning the company as a place where revenues will grow, not decrease, he’s not only boosting his own bottom line, but also the gaggle of nonprofits, schools, and individuals that benefit from his philanthropy.

See the Need, Meet the Need

It’s a passion, he said, that was sparked during his time at Notre Dame, when he volunteered in a disadvantaged area of Chicago during spring break.

“That was an eye-opener,” he said. “We stayed with an African-American family with a 14-year-old boy. We brought him to see a Blackhawks game because he liked hockey. That was the first time he’d ever been downtown.”

Having grown up in a family with a successful business, he saw up close for the first time how not everyone had the resources he took for granted. Once he and his wife, who also had a heart for volunteerism, resettled in Springfield and found success with Pride, they got involved in a number of nonprofit boards, and — thanks to his failed pitches to the likes of Coke and Frito-Lay — quickly came to understand the importance of local philanthropy.

The Pride stores themselves often function as vehicles for this work, such as his partnership with Square One. He and the early-education provider came up with the idea of selling ‘Square One squares’ at Pride locations for a dollar, where donors could write their names on squares to be posted at the cashier’s counter.

“Bob took the donations and matched a portion of them, rounding them up to a $10,000 gift to Square One, which was awesome,” said Kristine Allard, chief development and communication officer at Square One.

After Mavis Wanczyk scored her record-breaking jackpot at this Chicopee Pride station, Bob Bolduc distributed the store’s $50,000 bonus “windfall” to dozens of schools and nonprofits.

After Mavis Wanczyk scored her record-breaking jackpot at this Chicopee Pride station, Bob Bolduc distributed the store’s $50,000 bonus “windfall” to dozens of schools and nonprofits.

“That’s the kind of thing we rely on the business community for, to provide us funding to offset where our greatest expenses are,” she added. “When we’re able to approach someone like Bob, who understands that and sees the value in that, it helps us get the word out to other businesses, and we can leverage those dollars and leverage those opportunities to show other businesses what Pride is doing for our community. So it’s good for his business and good for Square One.”

Bolduc wishes more businesses could understand that synergy — or at least acknowledge the needs that exist.

“There are more than 200 homeless kids in the city school system, who go back to shelters at night,” he said. “People don’t know that they don’t go home; they go to shelters. Or, they don’t know that Square One gives kids a better meal on Friday, because they’re not going to get another good meal until they go back to school Monday morning. This is in Springfield. It becomes pretty obvious when you dig deeper and you see it — then you say, sure, the American Heart Association is wonderful, but the big people are taking care of them. The more you see locally, the more involved you get.”

Allard, for one, appreciates that attitude.

“From a development standpoint, from a fund-raising standpoint, it’s really refreshing to see someone who thinks the way he does,” she told BusinessWest. “By supporting the work of nonprofits, it’s good for his business, which is good for his employees. By investing in the work being done to help the community, it works out for everybody.”

On the Way Up

Bolduc was quick to note that his company has long supported arts, hospitals, and religious institutions — the types of entities that create quality of life in a community. But perhaps the most critical component is education, particularly in a city — Springfield — where around half of high-schoolers drop out. He says efforts to change that have to start early, which explains his support of Square One.

“If you don’t get a good education, you can’t get a decent job, and the cycle continues. So what’s the one solution to break the cycle? Education.”

He noted that the first person in a family to attend college is usually not the last, which is why he and his wife provide scholarships to area students. “That’s my message — we need to support education and help kids break out of the cycle.”

But he’s helping them break out in more ways than one. Since transforming one of Springfield’s most visible eyesores, at the foot of the North End Bridge, into a thriving Pride superstore almost a decade ago, he has drawn a steady stream of young employees from a neighborhood with high levels of poverty, and helped them embark on careers. And soon, he plans to do the same with new store in the McKnight area of Mason Square.

“At Pride, we’re happy with the fact that we provide jobs and careers,” he said. “We don’t have a human resources department; it’s called Career Development. We are very happy to take a young person who wants to grow and teach them the business and watch them grow up into management, provide for their families, bring in relatives and, in some cases, their kids as they get older. We’re very proud of that.”

The McKnight Neighborhood Council unanimously endorsed the development, he added. “They asked, ‘will you employ local people?’ We said, ‘100%.’”

He noted that the North End Pride station has seen crime drop significantly in the area over the past five years, thanks to the community policing program he has supported, but also, perhaps, due to growing employment opportunities like the ones Pride provides.

“These are good people. I tell them, ‘come to work every day, and we’ll teach you and give you good pay,’ and there’s an amazing turnaround. Some don’t take to it, but a lot of them do. We see the success stories. My goal is to someday see them do the same things for someone else. It’s that simple.”

That legacy and culture Bolduc aims to create is why, seven years after being named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for his innovative business growth, he is now being recognized as a Difference Maker, recognizing far more impactful successes.

“These are his future employees and his future customers,” Allard said. “We need to invest in our youth. If we’re not looking at our youth as the future of our community, we’re doing ourselves a great disservice.”

That’s a message Bolduc wants every local business to hear, and to respond to in any way they can afford, because the needs never go away.

“For anyone who wants to get involved, give me a call,” he said, “because I guarantee you’ll get more out of it then you put it.”

That investment doesn’t have to be a $50,000 lottery windfall, but such good fortune certainly doesn’t hurt.

“He’s a great person,” Allard said. “When that [lottery] news came out, no one would have minded had he kept it. But he said, ‘why not give it away?’ It was really refreshing to hear that.”

For a career spent saying ‘why not?’ — in both his business and the community — Bob Bolduc has plenty to take pride in, as he continues to make a difference.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2018 Difference Makers

Author, Educator Enlightens and Empowers Those She Touches

009_crystalsenterbrownledeinside-diff2017The book is titled Gabby Gives Back, and that certainly doesn’t leave much room for imagination when it comes to the plotline.

Yes, Gabby is a young girl who discovers the many benefits of philanthropy. In case you haven’t read it — and since this is a business publication and the tome in question is a children’s book, that’s probably the case — ‘Gabby’ visits a nonprofit called Maggie’s Place with her father and greets people (she’s too young to help directly) as he serves up hot meals. As they’re walking home, Gabby says she wants to find to her own way to give back, and does, bringing some old coats to Maggie’s Place for distribution to those less fortunate. She actually gets to meet a young girl in need and hand her a coat to try on. The coat fits, the book ends, and a series of activities like a giving-back-themed ‘trace a word’ begin on the next page.

There. That’s the whole story in one paragraph.

Well … not really. That’s a book report on Gabby Gives Back. The story is what happens when some area young people read it.

Indeed, author Crystal Senter-Brown expected the book to move and motivate young audiences, but she didn’t expect several children to try to donate the only coat they owned as a result.

“But that’s what happened,” said Senter-Brown as she talked with BusinessWest in a small room in the Hatch Library at Bay Path University, where she’s an adjunct professor. “Children are coming home without their coats, and their parents are asking what happened. Kids are reading the story, they’re seeing that she’s giving a coat to this little girl … they’re just hearing, ‘if you see someone who doesn’t have a warm coat, give them your coat.’”

That’s one example of how Senter-Brown has motivated individuals to step forward and step up, but there are many others.

And Gabby Gives Back is just one part of a growing portfolio of children’s books and novels penned by Senter-Brown. Others include another chapter in Gabby’s life; another children’s book called AJ & the Magic Kite; a coloring/activity book about African-American inventions; a collection of poems she titled But You Have Such a Pretty Face, a reference to the line she said she heard so often in her youth and came to loathe; a novel called The Rhythm in Blue, which is being made into a movie, and its sequel, But Now I See.

Each work is different in plot and tone, but there are similar underlying currents and motivations on the author’s part, and they are also prevalent in her teaching, work within the community, and motivational speeches — primarily to single mothers and those who have children at a young age, about not letting go of their dreams.

Overall, Senter-Brown says she wants to enlighten and empower others, especially girls and women, and give them … well, more of whatever it is they need to stare down life’s challenges.

And ‘whatever’ takes a number of forms, from history lessons that help a young African-American become proud of his heritage (as we’ll see in a minute) to determined efforts to take students far out of their comfort zones in a class she teaches at Bay Path University called “Leadership in Practice.”

This is a six-week course — part of the university’s Women as Empowered Leaders and Learners (WELL) program — during which students, both traditional and non-traditional, identify both a need a community and a method for meeting that need.

“It’s just six weeks, so they don’t have much time,” Senter-Brown explained. “Many people will do a food drive or a clothing drive, or they’ll volunteer at a local nursing home, but it pushes a lot of people out of their comfort zone, because they think they don’t have time for this because they’re raising families, or they just don’t have an interest in it.”

One of the motivations for creating the class is to generate that interest, she went on, adding that, while some students enter the class unconvinced of their need to become involved in the community, few if any of them leave it feeling that same way.

Through her children’s books, teaching, work within the community, and ability to inspire young people to give up the coats on their backs, she has shown that one person can truly make a difference in the lives of others.

Getting the Word out

Getting back to AJ and that magic kite, the title character is a young boy of color who is teased at school and told by those who don’t look like him that African-Americans are “useless,” the type of discourse that makes going to school far less fun than it should be.


Later, at home, he falls asleep, to be awakened by a boy with a kite that takes the two aloft and to places like an intersection where an accident has just taken place — because there is no traffic light.

And there’s no traffic light because the three-light traffic signal was invented in 1920 by African-American Garret Morgan, and the point of this exercise — in It’s a Wonderful Life fashion — is to use the kite to show what the world would be like without such people of color.

There are other stops at a tall building — James Cooper invented an elevator-safety device — and back at AJ’s home, where he learned that O. Dorsey invented the doorknob, among others.

At the end, AJ goes back to school. Those who don’t look like him offer the same taunts, only this time they bounce off; AJ is proud of who he is and comfortable, if you will, in his own skin.

Such empowerment is, as mentioned earlier, at the heart of all of Senter-Brown’s work, which in many ways has been inspired by personal experiences and what she saw and felt while growing up in Morristown, Tenn. and later, after relocating to Western Mass. with her mother to be near family. (Her mother later moved back to Tennessee).

She said she started writing poetry when she was only 5, but didn’t really share anything she would write with others — including a host of love poems and short stories — until she was in her 20s. She took a creative-writing class at Springfield Technical Community College, and developed a passion for poetry and other forms of writing, all of which fall in the category of storytelling.

Her first published work was a collection of her poems she titled Double Dutch, with her favorite being one she called “Peanut Butter & Jelly,” a message to her mother, who helped her raise the son she had when she was 18 years old.

Years later, she penned another collection of poems called But You Have Such a Pretty Face, a phrase which, as noted, she came to hear — and resent — as a child growing up.

“I’ve been told that my whole life — that I had a pretty face and if I lost weight I’d be even prettier,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she fully understands that she’s far from alone when it comes to women who have heard that phrase or words to that effect.

“I never took it as a complement,” she went on, adding that it was the word ‘but’ that always grated her — and obviously others who have heard it. “They’re saying, in essence, all these other things are wrong, but you have a pretty face.”

Her poems, and all her work, for that matter, are intended to empower people, but especially women and girls and African-Americans, to move beyond what others say or think about them and not let phrases like ‘But you have such a pretty face’ affect their psyche, their goals, or their lives.

One selection, “A poem for black girls” (a tribute to Nikki Giovanni’s “Poem for Black Boys”, is an effective example. It reads, in part:

You carry fire with you wherever you go,

Hands on hips, head tilted to the side

Big brown eyes full of wonder

No one can be like you!

You will never have to pay for

Full lips, wide hips, curly hair

You already have it naturally, because can’t you see

No one can be like you!

Your skin shades — from sunlight to Bermuda brown

No sunbathing is needed, you wake up naturally tanned,

No one can be like you!

Story Lines

Until very recently, writing was something that Senter-Brown did in what amounted to her spare time, and in many ways, those efforts dovetailed nicely with what she did for a living, which was actually volunteer work that morphed into a job and a career.

One of her family members was diagnosed with leukemia at a young age, and thus she became familiar with many of the services provided by the American Cancer Society, such as providing rides to treatment sessions for those who needed them.

Inspired, she became a volunteer herself, and this work eventually led to her working for the nonprofit at its Holyoke office as a community market manager. In that role, she ran a host of non-medical patient programs, such as those rides to appointments.

Following a restructuring, her job was eliminated last summer, leaving her to explore a number of career options moving forward — but also with more time to write, speak, and continue a program that puts backpacks laden with school supplies in the hands of needy children and single mothers going back to school. And, in general, to continue her efforts to empower women and girls, aspects of her life’s work that have developed and evolved over the past several years.


Such as her children’s book-writing exploits.

Working in conjunction with her mother — also her illustrator and collaborator on everything from the clothes worn by her characters to specific storylines — she started with Gabby Saturday. As with the subsequent book chronicling the life and times of her chief protagonist, for lack of a better phrase, the chosen name does a good job giving the plot away.

While explaining what Gabby does with the Saturday in question, Senter-Brown drops in messages about the environment — she and her mother take the bus instead of their car to reduce smog in their city — as well as the importance of culture and learning (they visit a museum, and it’s noted that her mother takes her to poetry recitals regularly), spending time as a family, and helping out at home (Gabby earns a dollar by sweeping the floors).

The author joked that, while she hopes all those messages are received, what she hears most often from young people is that the title character gets only a dollar for performing her chores, and that doesn’t go very far.

Kidding aside, she believes her messages are coming across, especially the ones about self-worth.

“With everything I write, I want people to walk away feeling better than they did before they started reading, and I want them to be inspired, especially children, because they’re our key to having a better future.

“If you can plant little seeds in children when they’re young,” she went on, “they can pass that on to their families and their own children.”

Like her favorite author, Stephen King, Senter-Brown said she doesn’t outline her books before she starts typing. “He [King] said, ‘I just write and let the characters talk to me,’” she recalled. “It works for him, and it works for me.”

The Next Chapter

As for her own story, career-wise and otherwise, Senter-Brown hasn’t outlined that, either.

“I’m excited … I feel like my values are finally aligned with what I want to do,” she explained when asked about what comes next. “I’ve always worked helping people; working at the cancer society was great, because I was able to come in every day and know I was going to help someone. So I know I’m going to continue to do that.”

Whatever the eventual path is, she said she will continue to seek out ways to enlighten and empower others.

That includes more books (Gabby appears destined to return) and school appearances, where she visits classrooms, reads one of her books, and imparts practical lessons on giving back and other topics. Often, she’ll bring a large box full of items that could be donated to individuals in need and ask students to identify those that are appropriate and those that are not, such as perishable foods and a shirt with holes in it.

She’ll also continue teaching, although she said empowerment and a desire to give back to the community are not really things you can teach. It’s something students must gain themselves, she went on, adding that she is as much as mentor and motivator as she is an actual teacher.

And she has helped motivate her charges to find some intriguing ways to give back.


There was the student who developed care packs for the mothers who deliver premature babies and must spend long hours and days at the neonatal intensive care unit. Another put together a DVD collection for those being treated at Baystate Children’s Hospital, and others have developed new initiatives for animals and young people.

In addition to her teaching, she also does a lot of what could be called motivational speaking. Many of her talks are in front of small audiences of single mothers or women who, like Senter-Brown herself, had children at a very young age and, as a result, had to confront feelings that they had to abandon some of the hopes and goals for their own lives.

“A lot of women who have children young think, ‘that’s it,’” she said. “And sometimes it is harder with a baby if you’re single. But you don’t have to let that stop you from doing what you want you want to do, stop you from fulfilling your dreams.’

“You can’t let that happen, because your children are watching you,” she went on, with a discernable sense of conviction, even urgency, in her voice. “Children watch what we do, and we have to keep moving forward.”

Senter-Bown says she gives several of these talks a year, often at shelters for teen mothers, the homeless, or those who have been abused. She said her basic mission is to help such individuals with the immensely difficult task of seeing past today.

“Many of them can’t see past right now because they don’t have a place to live, they don’t have any money in the bank, and maybe their relationship has ended,” she told BusinessWest. “I’m able to help them see a year out and envision what they want their life to look like. We can create the life that we want; we have to see it first, though.”

Reading Between the Lines

Flipping back to The Rhythm in Blue, that novel being made into a movie … it’s about a groom who gets cold feet. He needs some time away and winds up driving south to the home of a female ‘friend.’ The wedding doesn’t happen, but something bad does happen to his fiancé; the groom blames himself … as the author puts it candidly, “there’s a lot going on.”

If you want more, you’ll need to buy the book; it’s on Amazon ($15), which describes it as “story about failure, redemption, forgiveness, and, above all, love”). Or wait for the movie.

As for Senter-Brown, her story is still being written. As she noted, she’s not sure what the next chapter will be. She does know, and by now this isn’t exactly a spoiler alert, that she will continue to find ways to give back, empower others, and inspire those who read or hear her words to do the same.

In other words (and those are the tools of her trade), she will go on being a Difference Maker.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging

Fresh Ideas

Pat Roach

Pat Roach says the plan to improve culinary service in Springfield’s schools could eventually be a model replicated nationwide.

Pat Roach likes to share an anecdote that speaks to the occasional absurdity of school lunch. It involves the community gardens that dozens of Springfield schools have planted and maintain.

“Take Kennedy Middle School, which has a beautiful garden, where kids grow their own vegetables,” said Roach, chief financial officer of Springfield Public Schools. “If they want to serve them in the cafeteria, we have to ship the vegetables to Rhode Island, where they’re washed, cut, processed, and shipped back to Kennedy.”

But what if the city didn’t have to rely on an out-of-state partner to prepare its meals? What if everything served in the schools was cooked fresh, from scratch, on site?

That’s the goal of the Culinary and Nutrition Center, a 62,000-square-foot facility to be built on Cadwell Drive in Springfield, just two addresses from the school system’s current, 18,000-square-foot, food-storage warehouse.

The new facility will be much more than a warehouse, however. It will include all the resources necessary to prepare fresh ingredients for breakfast and lunch at every public, parochial, and charter school in Springfield, and to train staff to prepare meals from scratch right in the school kitchens.

“We’re renting space in Chicopee for cold storage. Our bakery is based in Rhode Island,” Roach said. “Here, we’ll cook all the food fresh on site — egg sandwiches, fresh muffins, local blueberries, as opposed to getting stuff packaged out in California and shipped to us. And it will bring down the cost of using local produce.”

The city broke ground on the center on Dec. 13, and the facility should be fully operational before the start of the 2019-20 school year, Roach said, and will include several components:

• A production and catering kitchen aimed at increasing product quality and consistency and reducing the use of processed foods;

• A produce cutting and processing room where fresh fruit and vegetables sourced from local farms will be washed, cut, and packaged for use by the schools, and waste will be composted;

• A bakery to prepare fresh muffins and breads, which will also incorporate local produce;

• Cold and dry food storage, which will centralize product purchasing and receiving and inventory control; and

• A training and test kitchen, where culinary staff from the city’s schools, and their ‘chef managers,’ will be trained in preparing from-scratch meals in their own cafeterias. The potential also exists to use the facility to train students interested in the culinary arts as a career.

“They want to serve much higher-quality food to students, with more locally sourced products and fresh-baked goods,” said Jessica Collins, executive director of Partners for a Healthier Community, one of the school system’s foundation partners on the project. “For the schools, it means quality food, and for some students, it’s a career path.”

Speaking of careers, the district plans to add 50 to 60 jobs for cooks, bakers, vegetable cutters, warehouse personnel, and other roles. It will take that many, Roach said, to bring food production and preparation in house for the second-largest school food program in New England, one that serves 43,000 meals served daily.

Considering the nutrition needs of those students, many of whom live in poverty, the stakes could hardly be higher.

Dawn of a New Day

The Culinary and Nutrition Center is hardly a standalone project. Instead, its the culmination of several years of efforts to improve food quality in the schools. Among those programs was an initiative, now in its third year, to move breakfast service — a requirement for districts that serve high numbers of children from poor families — from a strictly before-school program to one that creeps into actual class time.

As a result, Roach said, the schools are serving more than 2 million more breakfasts per year than they were several years ago.

“By law, because of the poverty level, breakfast in school is mandated, but logistically it causes all sorts of problems. If the kids don’t get to school early enough, they don’t get breakfast, or they get to class late.”

It has been an adjustment for teachers in that first period, who have fine-tuned how they craft the first few minutes of class while students are eating. But the impact of fewer kids taking on the day hungry more than makes up for that challenge, he argued. Much fewer, actually, as participation in breakfast has risen from 20%, district-wide, to almost 80%, with much of the remainder likely students who ate something at home.

“It’s been a huge success. Nurse visits for hunger pains are down 30%, and more students are getting to class on time and having breakfast.”

But putting breakfast — and lunch, for that matter — in front of students is one thing; serving healthy food is another. And that concern was the germ of an idea that will soon become the Culinary and Nutrition Center.

“One of the biggest challenges is getting healthy produce, real egg sandwiches, freesh muffins,” Roach said, noting that pre-packaged egg sandwiches, the kind that convenience stores sell, and heavily processed muffins aren’t ideal.


“We want to be feeding the kids — this is better than nothing — but we want to give them something fresh,” he said. “Instead of buying crappy egg sandwiches that cost a lot of money, we know we can do things in-house cheaper and better. They want real eggs, better muffins — not fake, microwaved stuff.”

Instead of a central kitchen that prepares all the meals and sends them to schools for reheating, the vision is for the school kitchens to actually prepare the meals from scratch using fresh ingredients sent from Cadwell Drive. For instance, “they’ll be making their own sauces using fresh tomatoes and fresh basil,” he noted. “We want to have the best food around. We want kids to want to eat breakfast and lunch at school.”

He also wants students to learn about nutrition and food delivery through their own experiences. “Kids are starting to get it. There’s a whole educational component, and kids understand this stuff is being sourced locally from local farms.”

That gives them a sense of ownership of the nutritional changes. For instance, when Michelle Obama led a change in school lunches, emphasizing whole grains, lower sodium, lower sugar, and other improvements, Roach noted, many schools made the shift all at once, and students rejected what suddenly started appearing on their plates.

“But we had already started increasing whole grains in food, reducing sodium levels — it was a huge success with us,” he said. “We think we’re training kids in lifelong dietary habits. If they get accustomed to eating this way, three meals a day, they’ll continue to do so for the rest of their lives.”

Back to School

Roach said the $21 million project, funded through government and private sources, is being supported by several partners with an interest in food policy, such as Trinity Health, Partners for a Healthier Community, EOS Foundation, and Kendall Foundation.

“Everyone knows how big and important this is, and a lot of people see this as potentially a model for Boston or Worcester, even across the whole country,” he told BusinessWest. “They do see us as pioneers on this project, and a lot of people are excited for us to get this project off the ground. Whether it’s improving student nutrition, decreasing obesity, or reducing hunger, all these organizations share our mission in this center.”

Collins said the city’s support — the project was part of a recent $14.3 million bond approval — is encouraging to those, like her, with a keen interest in community health.

“That’s really exciting, because here you have policymakers investing in what we have been pushing for years, which is higher-quality food for kids,” she said. “When you think about nutrition and higher-quality food and food insecurity, the schools are critical, because that’s where they are every day.”

Roach said the potential exists to broaden the center’s reach to serve other districts, but that’s not in the plans right now. “We don’t want to expand it beyond Springfield until we’re sure we’re serving 100% of our kids.”

That begins with a better egg sandwich, a better muffin — and a better school day.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education Sections

Connecting to a Better Future

online-medi-517935648useIt’s no secret that hospitals and other healthcare settings are pushing for nurses with higher education levels, but it can be difficult for a working RN, often with plenty of family responsibilities, to go back to school. The RN to BSN Completer Program at the American Women’s College of Bay Path University solves that issue with a fully online format and plenty of support to help students succeed — and open doors that had previously been closed.

The 22 registered nurses who graduated in May from the American Women’s College of Bay Path University with their bachelor’s degrees — the first class to complete the new, innovative program — weren’t just improving their own career options, although they certainly did that.

On a broader level, they were responding to a call from the National Institute of Medicine for 80% of nurses to eventually achieve a baccalaureate level of education, one that encompasses the big-picture issues faced in settings ranging from hospitals to skilled-nursing facilities to public-health organizations.

“The national challenge for 80% of nurses to be BSN-prepared by 2020 indicated to us a great need for a flexible, affordable solution for registered nurses whose lives are already so full, between caring for others at work and, on top of that, having families, hobbies, and other personal responsibilities,” said Amanda Gould, chief administrative officer for the American Women’s College (TAWC).

Bay Path’s solution, she said, is an accelerated, 100% online program that lets students — many of whom are already juggling an RN position with family responsibilities — an opportunity to broaden their education on their terms, around their rigorous schedules.

The RN to BSN Completer Program, as it’s officially known, allows for licensed, registered nurses with an associate or diploma degree to return to college to complete a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Bay Path’s program is fully online, allowing students to enroll and participate from across the country, and the accelerated format means that, for most students, the degree can be achieved in 18 months.

Post-graduation surveys of the inaugural graduating class revealed that two quickly found promotions, one as a hospital ER manager and another as a manager of care coordination, said Maura Devlin, deputy chief learning officer at TAWC. A new survey underway is expected to reveal more such career moves, as well as a number of graduates preparing to continue on toward master’s degrees at other schools.

Amanda Gould

Amanda Gould says the online RN to BSN program is a tangible response to the national call for 80% of nurses to eventually have bachelor’s degrees.

Programs like this one will continue to bring the Bay State’s number of BSN-level nurses closer to 80% — the state had already set a goal of 65%, with the number currently around 50% — but it will also open doors that may be starting to close for RNs. Although there are no official numbers, Gould and Devlin said, RNs see hospitals and other organizations pushing for higher levels of education, and favoring BSN-level nurses in hiring and promotions.

Bay Path’s new nursing program, now educating its second class of enrollees, is doing what it can to meet that demand, and early returns have been positive.

Expanding Access

Backing up a little, the American Women’s College was founded in 2013 with a mission to expand access to higher education to the 76 million American women who do not have a college degree. Its 28 programs run the gamut from accounting to criminal justice; from child psychology to early childhood education; from entrepreneurship to food science and safety.

Many students enrolled in various RN-to-BSN programs in this region haven’t necessarily had to leave a job to do so, but they have been challenged to fit classes in between work and family life. The online option at TAWC allows students to engage in classroom activity — much of which takes place on forums and discussion boards — on their own schedule.

The RN-to-BSN track technically requires 120 credits, but 30 are awarded up front for the students’ RN training and experience, and other credits (up to 84, in fact) can be transferred in as well, depending on the student’s prior education, training, and experience.

Devlin said the courses are patient-focused and reflect the ‘nine essentials’ of baccalaureate nursing education established by the American Assoc. of Colleges of Nursing. These include a liberal education base; evidence-based practice; quality care and patient safety; information management; policy, finance, and the regulatory environment; communication and collaboration; population health management; professionalism and values; and general nursing practice.

“These are our program outcomes,” Gould said, adding that administrators have explicitly defined some fields students may see as options for professional growth upon attaining their degree, such as case manager, infection control, home care, hospice care, occupational nurse, managerial positions, public health, risk management, and specialty care.

There’s a self-reflective element to the program as well, Devlin said, and students are encouraged to consider their unique attributes and leadership skills. “The program has the BSN candidates thinking about themselves as leaders in the field of nursing, and positions them to go on to those types of roles.”

Classes are run in a cohort model, meaning the students navigate through the courses together, although they don’t have to be online at the same time. The classes are conducted in six-week sessions — six of them per year — and taught by master’s level nursing educators.

“When we surveyed the first cohort of 22 students in May, every one of them said they would recommend the program,” Gould said. “That was really validating.”

The American Women’s College was developed to improve performance, retention, and graduation rates for nontraditional learners, and does so partly through the development of Social Online Universal Learning (SOUL), a data-driven approach to online education at TAWC, Gould said. Among its features, SOUL features customized instruction, dedicated educator coaches to help students who start to struggle, and virtual learning communities to engage other students who share their goals and professional interests.

And there are definitely some common challenges. Seventy percent of TAWC students are first-generation college attendees, one-third are single mothers, and more than half are Pell-eligible, which speaks to economic need. “We really do feel it’s kind of mission-driven, in that we’re creating a new entry point to college for this population,” she said.

She cited one student, a 38-year-old who had dropped out of high school when she became pregnant, who now works as an administrative assistant. “Her daughter is now college age, and she wanted to be a role model for her daughter,” Gould explained, so she enrolled in the American Women’s College and is now one of its top students.

Maura Devlin

Maura Devlin says the first cohort of graduates is already seeing broadened career opportunities and even promotions.

“She’s kind of representative of a lot of students we serve who are trying to make a better life for themselves and their families,” she told BusinessWest. “Their motto has become ‘it’s my time.’ For a long time, they’ve put their families first, and they’ve finally come to a place where they give themselves permission to get their education.”

First Steps

The American Women’s College received some good news in October when the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) voted to grant full accreditation through 2022 to the RN to BSN Completer Program.

“The collective commitment to quality education demonstrated each day by our faculty, staff, and community partners to provide our students with the knowledge and skills they need to be outstanding nurses is at the heart of our work, and our program status reflects that,” said Marjorie Bessette, director of the Nursing program.

Meanwhile, TAWC maintains partnerships with Baystate Health and Mercy Medical Center to work together to increase the number of nurse practitioners with BSN degrees.

“As a nurse, I want to give the best possible care that I can to patients. It’s my job to save lives. Completing my BSN has ensured that I can do just that,” said Laura Mazur, a nurse at Baystate Medical Center who graduated from Bay Path’s program in May. “I used to think of myself as an in-class learner, but as a floor nurse working the midnight shift, I simply didn’t have the time to spend in a classroom. The online program through the American Women’s College fit well into my life.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Agenda Departments

Mini-Medical School

Sept. 21 to Nov. 16: Going back to school has never been so much fun when it comes to your health. Baystate Medical Center’s Mini-Medical School, which begins its fall session on Sept. 21, will give area residents an inside look at the expanding field of medicine – minus the tests, homework, interviews, and admission formalities. The course runs weekly through Nov. 16. Mini-Medical School is an eight-week health-education series featuring a different aspect of medicine each week. Classes this fall will include sessions on various medical topics such as surgery, emergency medicine, anesthesiology, midwifery, pathology, and several others, including the current opioid crisis. Many of the ‘students,’ who often range in age from 20 to 70, participate due to a general interest in medicine and later find that many of the things they learned over the semester are relevant to their own lives. The goal of the program — offered in the hospital’s Chestnut Conference Center — is to help the public make more informed decisions about their healthcare while receiving insight on what it is like to be a medical student. Baystate Medical Center is the region’s only teaching hospital, and each course is taught by medical center faculty who explain the science of medicine without resorting to complex terms. All classes are held Thursday nights starting at 6 p.m. and run until 8 or 9 p.m., depending on the night’s topic. No basic science knowledge is needed to participate. Each participant is required to attend a minimum of six out of eight classes in order to receive a certificate of completion. Tuition is $95 per person and $80 for Senior Class and Spirit of Women members. To register, call (413) 794-7630 or visiting www.baystatehealth.org/minimed. To see a schedule of topics and speakers slated for the fall semester, visit www.baystatehealth.org/about-us/community-programs/education-training/mini-medical-school.

Free Legal Help Hotline

Sept. 21: The Hampden County Bar Assoc. will offer a free Legal Help Hotline in conjunction with Western New England University School of Law from 4 to 7 p.m. at the law school, 1215 Wilbraham Road, Springfield. Individuals needing advice should call (413) 796-2057 to speak to a volunteer. Volunteers will provide legal advice on a variety of topics, including divorce and family law, bankruptcy, business, landlord/tenant matters, and real estate. Additionally, in light of recent immigration developments, attorneys with immigration-law experience will also be available to answer questions. Spanish-speaking attorneys will be available.

Labor & Employment Law Symposium

Oct. 5: Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C. will hold a Labor & Employment Law Symposium from 8:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. at the Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel. “The past year has brought significant changes in labor and employment law, and employers need to be aware of these changes; not knowing the law is no excuse for not following it,” said attorney Timothy Murphy, a partner at Skoler Abbott. “We are offering this symposium to provide local and regional HR professionals and employers with the latest developments, and to help them prepare for what’s coming next.” The symposium is geared toward human-resources professionals and business owners. Topics will include “Labor Law Update: Change Is Coming,” “Massachusetts’ New Pay Equity Law and the Effects of Implicit Bias in the Workplace,” “Top Ten Wage & Hour Mistakes Made by Employers,” “Insurance Coverage in Employment Litigation: Limiting Your Risk & Knowing Your Rights,” “After Barbuto: Strategies for Addressing Drugs in the Workplace,” and “How You Should (and Shouldn’t) Conduct a Workplace Investigation.” Attendees will be able to select three of six breakout sessions, and the symposium will close with an overall question-and-answer session. The symposium has been pre-approved by the HR Certification Institute for five hours of general recertification credit toward PHR and SPHR recertification. The cost to attend is $99 per person and includes continental breakfast and lunch. Registration is available at skoler-abbott.com/trainingprograms.

Square One Tea Party

Oct. 5: This year, Square One will draw inspiration from the early days of its Tea Party. “Our annual tea party began 11 years ago in a classroom with tiny tables and a big dream,” said Joan Kagan, Square One president and CEO. “This year’s theme brings us back to the event’s roots. We’ll be celebrating all the success that this event has helped us achieve over the years.” The 12th annual Square One Tea is expected to draw 400 supporters who will celebrate the work the provider of early-learning and family services is providing to thousands of families throughout the Greater Springfield region. “Year after year, we look forward to this wonderful opportunity to highlight the work we are doing and the impact that our programs and services have had on the thousands of children and parents who have been served by Square One,” Kagan said. “It is so gratifying to hear from our guests how much they enjoy being a part of this special day, and it’s always fun to see who is going to have the best hat.” The wearing of hats for women and men has become a tradition, with a Top Hat Award bestowed upon the wearer of the most elaborate or unusual hat. Early event supporters include Health New England, Smith & Wesson, USI Insurance, Columbia Gas, the Gaudreau Group, MGM, United Personnel, Mercedes-Benz, Bay Path University, Springfield Thunderbirds, and Fathers & Sons. Tickets are $60 each. Tables of eight and 10 are available. To register, visit startatsquareone.org. For sponsorship or vendor information, call Andrea Bartlett at (413) 858-3111.

Healthcare Heroes

Oct. 19: BusinessWest and the Healthcare News will present the inaugural Healthcare Heroes Awards at the Starting Gate at GreatHorse in Hampden. This new recognition program was created by the twin publications to recognize outstanding achievement across the region’s broad and diverse healthcare sector. From a pool of 70 nominations, panel of judges chose eight winners in seven categories, who were profiled in the Sept. 4 issue of BusinessWest, the September issue of HCN, and at businesswest.com. American International College and Trinity Health are the presenting sponsors of Healthcare Heroes. Partner Sponsors are Achieve TMS East, Health New England, and HUB International New England. Additional sponsors are Bay Path University, Baystate Health, Cooley Dickinson Healthcare, Elms College, and Renew.Calm. Tickets to the event are $85 each, with tables available for purchase. For more information or to order tickets, call (413) 781-8600.

Out of the Darkness Walk

Oct. 21: Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S., yet suicide is preventable. The Western Mass. Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) announced that its flagship event, the Greater Springfield Out of the Darkness Walk to Fight Suicide, has a new home, School Street Park in Agawam. Roughly 1,000 people from throughout the Greater Springfield Area are expected to participate in this annual event at its new location starting at 10 a.m. This fund-raising walk supports the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s local and national education and advocacy programs and its bold goal to reduce the annual rate of suicide by 20% by 2025. “We walk to raise awareness about this important health issue. Suicide touches one in five American families. We hope that by walking, we save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide,” said Heather White, area director for AFSP in Western Mass. The event is one of more than 375 Out of the Darkness community walks being held nationwide this year. The walks are expected to unite more than 250,000 walkers and raise millions of dollars for suicide-prevention efforts. With this walk last year, the Greater Springfield community raised almost $60,0000 for suicide awareness and prevention initiatives, and had nearly 800 participants. Planning committees for the 2017 Greater Springfield Out of the Darkness Walk are meeting now. If you would like to help organize this inspiring charitable event, sponsor the walk, or have a booth on site, contact Heather White at [email protected] for more information. To join the fight against suicide, register to walk at School Street Park in Agawam on Oct. 21 by visiting www.afsp.org/greaterspringfieldma.

Lowcountry Celebration

Oct. 27: Blue Heron Restaurant will celebrate its 20th anniversary by hosting “Lowcountry Living: An Evening of Gullah Culture and Cuisine,” a one-night event designed to take diners on a culinary trip to the South Carolina Lowcountry, the region which originally inspired owners Deborah Snow and Barbara White to open a restaurant focused on local, seasonal ingredients and unpretentious hospitality. The dinner, which will feature a Gullah-themed menu, as well as music and pieces from critically acclaimed South Carolina artist Sonja Griffin Evans’ “American Gullah Collection,” will start at 6:30 p.m., with reservations open to the public. Menu and pricing for the event will be announced at a later date. Reservations can be made by calling (413) 665-2102 or e-mailing [email protected].

Business & Innovation Expo of Western Mass.

Nov. 2: Comcast Business will present the Business & Innovation Expo of Western Mass. at the MassMutual Center in downtown Springfield, produced by BusinessWest and the Healthcare News. The seventh annual business-to-business show will feature more than 150 exhibitor booths, educational seminars, breakfast and lunch programs, and a day-capping Expo Social. Current sponsors include Comcast Business (presenting sponsor), Johnson & Hill Staffing Services and Wild Apple Design Group (executive sponsors), Inspired Marketing (show partner), MGM Springfield (corporate sponsor), Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst (education sponsor), Xfinity (social sponsor), Elms College (information booth sponsor), Smith & Wesson (Workforce Development sponsor), Savage Arms (JoinedForces and Workforce Development parking sponsor), and the Better Business Bureau (contributing sponsor). Additional sponsorship opportunities are available. Exhibitor spaces are also available; booth prices start at $725. For more information on sponsorships or booth purchase, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100.

Daily News

Starting early this morning, the United Way of Pioneer Valley and Peter Pan Bus Lines will deliver more than 2,000 backpacks filled with donated school supplies to six separate school districts. These backpacks are given to students who are homeless.

School supplies were collected all summer at various locations throughout the Pioneer Valley. The school supplies were stuffing into backpacks purchased using a generous donation from Health New England. Students from the Westover Job Corps in Chicopee will be riding on the Peter Pan Bus and delivering all 2,000 backpacks.

“We’re incredibly energized by our work with the Stuff the Bus initiative. Now its eighth year, we are proud to partner once again with Peter Pan Bus Lines, Western Mass News, Six Flags New England and Health New England,” said United Way of Pioneer Valley CEO Jim Ayres. “We’ve been touched by the community’s outpouring of donations and volunteer hours as we have collected, organized and distributed more than 20,000 back to school items. Moreover, we know that, together, we have touched the lives of 2,000 students who are homeless in our local community and have sent them the message that we are here for them and invested in their future learning and success.”

Back to School Sections

If at First You Don’t Succeed ….

By Kathleen Mellen

gradgroupcapsThose managing the University Without Walls program at UMass Amherst are big believers in the phrase ‘giving credit where it’s due.’ Indeed, UWW awards college credits for experience garnered in the workplace, enabling non-traditional students to gain the degrees needed to advance their careers.

By his own account, Matthew Malo wasn’t much of a high-school student. But when he graduated in 1992 from Hampshire Regional High School, he set off for college anyway.

Big mistake.

Malo, 43, who is now a sergeant in the police department at UMass Amherst, said he matriculated at the Stockbridge School at UMass back then, thinking he would study landscaping. But, once there, he floundered.

“It wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was a lot of designing and art, and I’m not an artist or a designer,” said the Southampton resident in a recent interview at the UMass police station. “I wanted to be the guy who was out there doing it — not in a classroom.”

He left the program after just one semester.

The next year, at the urging of his parents, he tried college again — this time enrolling at Holyoke Community College. That didn’t go any better.

“It was like high school, one year later,” he said. “A lot of my friends were there, and if I had a class I didn’t like, and a bunch of my friends were hanging out in the cafeteria, guess where I was?”

Strike two. But, as the saying goes, third time’s the charm.

Matthew Malo

Matthew Malo says he’s “kicking butt” in UWW after two unsuccessful attempts at a more traditional college experience.

In 2006, Malo’s father suggested his son look into UMass Amherst’s University Without Walls, a bachelor’s-degree-completion program for non-traditional students, many of whom, like Malo, have abandoned earlier efforts at college. By that time, Malo had been working for some time as a UMass police officer, had gone through the Western Massachusetts Regional Municipal Police Academy, and had even successfully completed a few courses in criminal justice at Greenfield Community College.

“I finally found something I liked,” Malo said.

So, he decided to give it the old college try — one more time. Today, Malo is a student at UWW, where’s he’s studying criminal justice — and, as he puts it, “kicking butt.” He expects to graduate in spring 2019.

UWW, established in 1971, is one of the oldest adult bachelor’s-degree-completion programs in the country. Its specialized services include flexibility in scheduling, options to accelerate the degree process, and the opportunity to receive college credit for work or life experience, including service in the military.

“We believe learning doesn’t have to take place in the classroom, so we take into account the experience they have — the training and learning they’ve had through a variety of experiences,” said UWW’s director, Ingrid Bracey. “We meet students where they are, and the students are amazed at the amount of learning they actually have. The best part of being at UWW is seeing that light go on.”

Degrees of Progress

In winter 2016, Malo met with an advisor at UWW, who explained that the program would allow him to design a major based on his personal interests, and could offer up to 75 transfer credits from previous college courses, no matter how long ago they were taken.

He also discovered that, upon the completion of an in-depth, written portfolio that explored his experiential learning, he would be eligible to receive up to 30 college credits for the work, and living, he’d already done.

Perhaps most important, he said, was that course delivery through UWW is available fully online. (Traditional classes are also available, as are classes that blend online and classroom learning.) That, he said, has been crucial to his success in the program.

“My biggest concern about going back to college was scheduling,” said Malo, who has two school-aged children and works part-time for a small-town police department, in addition to his full-time duties as a UMass cop. “When the adviser said I could do all my classwork online, on my own time, I thought, ‘they really get it. They understand what’s going on with people like me.’”

He’s not alone: online classes are a rising trend across the country. According to a 2014 report from the Babson Survey Research Group, 33% of college students in the U.S. are enrolled in at least one online course, and the rate of online course enrollment continues to far exceed the overall rate of college enrollment.

Judith Odindo’s path to UWW could not have been more different from Malo’s.

A native of Kenya, Odindo, 38, had come to the U.S. in 2001 to study as an international student at Montclair State University in New Jersey. She already had some college under her belt in Kenya, and was looking forward to her year of study abroad.

But then her mother, who was paying her tuition, fell ill back home, and Odindo’s financial support evaporated. So, after a single semester, she was forced to drop out. And because her family was struggling to make ends meet, she knew it would be a burden to them if she returned home.

That left Odindo stranded in a foreign country, on a student’s visa, but with no way to continue her schooling. She was heartbroken.

Nevertheless, she decided to stick it out in the U.S., which required changing her visa status to allow her to work — not an easy process, she said. Through a series of circumstances, and a move from New Jersey to Springfield, Odindo was able to find work with the Mass. Department of Developmental Services, but it was always her intention to return to college — someday, somehow.

Eventually, she began to take classes as a part-time student at Springfield Technical Community College, but, because of her schedule as a supervisor in a residential home in Springfield, it was a slow process, with no discernable end in sight.

Then, one day, she came across a flyer about UWW. She sent an e-mail inquiry to the program and described her predicament. The response was quick, and hopeful.

Judith Odindo

Judith Odindo says UWW fit her life and work responsibilities in a way other programs did not, allowing her to earn an elusive degree.

“They told me I would be a perfect fit for the program,” Odindo said in an interview at the UMass Center in Tower Square in Springfield. She learned she could transfer her credits from Montclair and STCC, and would likely receive additional credits for her work and life experience. “I said, ‘wow. It fits my life and my work schedule. This could be a way for me to finish my degree.’”

So she signed on, and two years later, in May, she received a bachelor’s degree, with a focus in business studies. Fortunately, her mother has since recovered, and now lives in Springfield as well.

“From a tough time, great things happened,” Odindo said.

Courses of Action

UWW is an academic major at UMass, with 12 full-time faculty and nine full-time administrative staff members, all with expertise in teaching and advising adult students. Students take core UWW departmental courses and then build their degree concentrations by taking courses throughout the university.

More than 4,000 adults have received bachelor’s degrees from the program since it’s inception more than 45 years ago, including NBA legend Julius Erving (Dr. J) and Monster.com founder Jeff Taylor. It enrolls about 1,000 to 1,200 students per semester and enjoys a 65% to 75% graduation rate, significantly higher than the rate of 35% to 40% seen in most degree-completion programs, Bracey said. And a significant number go on to receive higher degrees.

“The number-one thing they want is for you to succeed,” Odindo said.

Elizabeth Brinkerhoff knows from experience just how life-altering a degree from UWW can be. Brinkerhoff, 66, who lives in Shutesbury, is a 1981 graduate of the program, and also worked for many years as a faculty member and advisor in the program, retiring two years ago. She credits her time as a student there with providing the boost she needed to build a career.

Brinkerhoff says she followed four years as “half-assed high-school student” with a “lackadaisical stint” at GCC. “I was floundering,” she said. “I really had no idea what I wanted to do.”

So she dropped out, joined the workforce, moved around a bit, and finally landed back in Western Mass., where she found a job working with alternative-education programs for grades K-12. Then, in 1978, a friend encouraged her to look into the UWW.

Brinkerhoff’s employer at the time supported the idea and allowed her to adjust her work schedule to accommodate classes. (Unlike today’s students, who overwhelmingly choose to take online classes, students in Brinkerhoff’s day had to report to brick-and-mortar classrooms.) She enrolled in spring 1978, and went on to receive a master’s degree from Suffolk University in Boston and, later, a doctorate from the UMass School of Education.

She had planned to become a high-school guidance counselor, but once she started classes at UWW, it didn’t take long for her to adjust her career goals.

“I realized there were a whole lot of people, like me, who were coming back to school, so I stayed in higher education, and with adult learners,” she said.

It’s a trend that has continued: with the demand for college-educated employees steadily increasing, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development has projected that 60% of workers in Massachusetts, and 40% nationally, will need to have an associate’s degree or higher to be competitive in the job market. And that’s sending older Americans back to college.

Today, three-quarters of U.S. undergraduate students are now considered ‘non-traditional,’ according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which has estimated that enrollment of 25- to 34-year-olds in undergraduate degree programs will increase 28% by 2019, while enrollment of students over 35 will go up 22%. That means that adult-learning, post-secondary models, like UWW, are likely to play an increasingly important role in preparing students for today’s workforce.

Indeed, thanks to her UWW education, Odindo says, she’s now eligible to apply for certain advancements in her workplace, and also plans to attend law school. And the UWW experience certainly set Brinkerhoff on her way to a long and successful career.

“The faculty and the students at University Without Walls are part of a learning culture — that thing that happens when people’s minds are at work. It taught me how to learn and how to think, and it helped define my career,” she said. “Then, knowing the program as well as I did, I could help students understand just what was possible there.”

Grade Expectations

As for Malo, he says he hopes his bachelor’s degree will make him “a little more marketable” for advancement on the police force, but that’s not why he’s attending UWW.

“It’s always bugged me that I never finished — there’s always been that weight on my shoulders,” he said. Plus, he added, he’s doing it for his children — Jonathan, 14, and Savanna, 10. “I want my kids to see me finish my degree. They’ll know if I can do it, they can do it, too.”

Thanks to UWW, a lot more people have been able to ‘do it.’



By Eric Lesser

It’s no secret that Boston is booming. On my drive to the State House every week, I see new buildings, new apartments, new restaurants. I can’t throw a baseball there without hitting a construction crane. The city’s reputation for leading advances in biomedicine and investing in tech startups has made it the envy of the world.

But outside Boston’s 617 area code, the story of our state is much different.

Long before I reach my exit for downtown, I pass the long-abandoned factories of Westinghouse, American Bosch, and Chapman Valve. While Boston’s unemployment rate is about 2%, Springfield’s is nearly 7%. Our Commonwealth’s lopsided growth is leaving Western Mass. behind — and it’s hurting the entire state.

As new companies draw more and more young professionals to Boston, the high cost of housing squeezes their finances, and they struggle to pay back student loans. Meanwhile, those young people leave behind gaping holes in the communities they move away from: fewer families, an aging population, a growing housing glut, and a declining tax base.

Reliable, high-speed commuter rail service between Springfield and Boston would help solve this two-sided problem by creating an exchange between regions.

East-west rail would give employees in Western Mass. access to higher-paying jobs in Eastern Mass. And it would give those who are struggling to afford housing in Eastern Mass. more affordable options in Central and Western Mass.

The current economy of Massachusetts is not properly using our different regions’ comparative advantages to their full potential. Western Mass. is a beautiful place to live and raise a family, with plenty of open land to accommodate even more residents. Eastern Mass. has the opposite problem, but offers more job opportunities and more paths to career advancement.

East-west rail is not just a Springfield project or a Western Mass. project. This is a project that would benefit the entire Commonwealth — and business leaders are starting to take note.

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce has endorsed east-west rail as a way to open up expansion opportunities and consumer markets to businesses in Boston. Realtors and housing advocates have told me that east-west rail would not only ease Boston’s critical housing shortage, but would also be a boon to housing markets outside the city.

But the most important voices in this discussion are those of the workers and families themselves. On June 19, I took a whistlestop tour across the state to raise awareness of my proposal to study the feasibility of a high-speed rail line between Springfield and Boston. When I stopped in Palmer, I met an older woman who told me about the many times she had been laid off because a company had closed or downsized or moved to a different region.

Each time, she said, she would have to go back to school or retrain for a new skill. And each time, when she looked for a new job, the openings were farther and farther away from Palmer — from her hometown, her friends, and her family.

When Western Mass. gets left behind, this is what it looks like: a laid-off worker with very few options.

This is the story being told outside of Boston’s 617 area code. And it would have a happier ending with an east-west rail link that would bring this woman — and other workers like her — to job opportunities closer to home.

State Sen. Eric Lesser represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District.



 By Eric Lesser

It’s no secret that Boston is booming. On my drive to the Statehouse every week, I see new buildings, new apartments, new restaurants. I can’t throw a baseball there without hitting a construction crane.

The city’s reputation for leading advances in biomedicine and investing in tech startups has made it the envy of the world.

But outside Boston’s 617 area code, the story of our state is much different.

Long before I reach my exit for downtown, I pass the long-abandoned factories of Westinghouse, American Bosch and Chapman Valve. While Boston’s unemployment rate is about 2%, Springfield’s is nearly 7%.

Our Commonwealth’s lopsided growth is leaving Western Mass. behind — and it’s hurting the entire state.

As new companies draw more and more young professionals to Boston, the high cost of housing squeezes their finances and they struggle to pay back student loans.

East-west rail would give employees in Western Mass access to higher-paying jobs in Eastern Mass. And it would give those who are struggling to afford housing in Eastern Mass. more affordable options in Central and Western Mass.”

Meanwhile, those young people leave behind gaping holes in the communities they move away from: Fewer families, an aging population, a growing housing glut, and a declining tax base.

Reliable, high-speed commuter rail service between Springfield and Boston would help solve this two-sided problem by creating an exchange between regions.

East-west rail would give employees in Western Mass access to higher-paying jobs in Eastern Mass. And it would give those who are struggling to afford housing in Eastern Mass. more affordable options in Central and Western Mass.

The current economy of Massachusetts is not properly using our different regions’ comparative advantages to their full potential.

Western Mass. is a beautiful place to live and raise a family, with plenty of open land to accommodate even more residents.

Eastern Mass. has the opposite problem, but offers more job opportunities and more paths to career advancement.

East-west rail is not just a Springfield project or a Western Mass project. This is a project that would benefit the entire Commonwealth — and business leaders are starting to take note.

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce has endorsed east-west rail as a way to open up expansion opportunities and consumer markets to businesses in Boston.

Realtors and housing advocates have told me that east-west rail would not only ease Boston’s critical housing shortage, but would also be a boon to housing markets outside the city.

But the most important voices in this discussion are those of the workers and families themselves.

On June 19, I took a whistle-stop tour across the state to raise awareness of my proposal to study the feasibility of a high-speed rail line between Springfield and Boston. When I stopped in Palmer, I met an older woman who told me about the many times she had been laid off because a company had closed or downsized or moved to a different region.

Each time, she said, she would have to go back to school or retrain for a new skill. And each time, when she looked for a new job, the openings were farther and farther away from Palmer — from her hometown, her friends and her family.

When Western Mass gets left behind, this is what it looks like: A laid-off worker with very few options.

It is unacceptable that a woman in Western Mass. who has worked her whole life should have to worry about finding another job not because she is untrained for it, but because there are no jobs available within an hour’s drive.

This is the story being told outside of Boston’s 617 area code. And it would have a happier ending with an east-west rail link that would bring this woman — and other workers like her — to job opportunities closer to home.


Senator Eric P. Lesser is chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies, vice chair of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, and leads ‘Millennial Outreach’ for the State Senate. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Mass.



Health Care Sections

Small Steps Toward Wellness

Jill LeGates

Jill LeGates says Weldon’s outpatient services have become both more personalized and more regionalized as the healthcare industry continues to change.

Almost 600,000 Americans died of cancer last year. But almost 15 million were living with — and often well beyond — a cancer diagnosis, a figure expected to rise to 19 million by 2024, as cancer treatments continue to improve and Americans live longer than ever.

That trend poses opportunities in the world of outpatient rehab — opportunities Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital in Springfield has embraced.

“We went through a cancer rehab certification program to offer additional services to cancer patients. It’s a large area of growth,” said Jill LeGates, director of Rehabilitation Services at the facility. “More patients are surviving cancer treatments, but now they have fatigue, pain, dysfunction. We can help return them to the activities of daily living, so that’s been a huge focus for us.”

Specifically, Weldon is certified by the STAR Program (Survivorship Training and Rehabilitation) program, a nationally recognized certification that focuses on improving the lives of cancer survivors who experience side effects caused by treatment.

A team of therapists, physicians, and nurses has undergone training to provide patients with individualized cancer rehabilitation treatment to improve the symptoms that affect their daily functioning and quality of life. It’s similar to rehabilitation that people undergo after a serious illness or injury, but tailored to the unique issues they face as a cancer survivor.

“Our rehabilitation professionals can help you with a wide variety of treatment-related conditions and the symptoms they cause, targeting not just pain and fatigue, but balance and gait problems, memory and concentration issues, swallowing and speech problems, and lymphedema.

“You might expect your oncologist to say to you, ‘I did my job; you’re wonderful. This is your new normal,” LeGates said. “But some patients are saying, ‘I still have this pain.’ So, is there a way we can manage their pain and fatigue, increase their endurance, get them back to working, back to caring for their children, back to living? Rehab can be a huge part of that.”

It’s just one example, actually, of how Weldon — founded in 1974 and part of the Sisters of Providence Health System (SPHS), which includes Mercy Medical Center — continues to change with the times to meet rehabilitation needs.

The most obvious change is the new location of its outpatient services, a block away from the main Weldon facility, in the medical office building the health system opened in 2015 on the corner of Carew and Chestnut streets.

“When we were at the old building, we had multiple outpatient services in different places, scattered throughout the building,” LeGates said. “Here, all the outpatient services are together in one suite — physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and some specialized programs.”

Those programs include occupational, physical, and speech therapy; hand therapy for a variety of conditions; specialized programs for lymphedema, swallowing disorders, vestibular therapy, and voice disorders; a wheelchair clinic; a driver-advisement program to help people determine whether it’s safe for them to drive; a broad pediatric program; and the STAR program for cancer patients.

“As a mission-driven hospital organization, our focus is on patient-centered care,” LeGates said. “We strive to provide patients with the individualized care and treatment plans they require. If someone needs more specialized care, we have therapists with those specialties to consult and help patients increase their function.”

Meeting Needs

Patients arrive in Weldon’s outpatient programs in a number of ways, but post-hospital care remains a key focus, especially at a time when the accountable-care model in healthcare is putting a premium on discharging patients sooner than before and emphasizing preventive and rehabilitative care outside the hospital setting.

“They’re coming out of the hospital faster, and health systems are looking at cost containment,” LeGates said. “So the environment where patients receive therapy services is a huge component — how is that patient functioning, and what are their needs?”

While many patients are referred from hospitals, others may be referred directly from physician practices. “They go to the doctor, who identifies an illness, something that requires the services of a therapist. We also see patients that have an injury on the job, and they may need therapy services in order to return to work.”

The pediatric wing of Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital

The pediatric wing of Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital features therapeutic and sensory tools that are both effective and fun.

Since SPHS absorbed the former Hampden County Physician Associates practices and is affiliated with Riverbend Medical Group’s network, these referrals are an especially critical pipeline. “As a huge health system, we want to maintain the integrity of where our patients receive services,” she noted. “Keeping all those services within the health system has been a huge opportunity.”

In short, she went on, “we always knew if we were in strong alignment with referral resources, we would see growth. And we do have a very positive referral base, and we are continuing to grow. Our physical-therapy services are extremely busy, and we’ve added additional therapists to absorb that growth, which is great.”

The growing need for services is also being driven by an aging population, as the Baby Boomers surge into their senior years but are often living with a host of conditions that require therapy. But at the other side of the age spectrum, Weldon has broadened its pediatric services, working with children dealing with autism, sensory-processing disorders, Down syndrome, developmental delays, handwriting difficulty, speech apraxia, language delays and speech issues such as stuttering, neuromuscular disorders, ADHD, and a host of other conditions.

Weldon’s pediatric therapists evaluate each child’s needs and develop an individualized treatment plan that may include one-on-one occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy, all provided in a colorful, child-centered environment, LeGates said.

“We may work in collaboration with schools or with home services — there’s a lot of collaborating with the pediatric world,” she added. “We’re treating the whole person and all the child’s needs, whether educational, medical, or social. We also have a well-established animal-assisted therapy program with the Zoo at Forest Park; animals seem to bring out a lot in people. That’s a huge piece of what we do as well.”

Regional Focus

Since SPHS became part of a much larger, regional health system, Trinity Health New England, Weldon has begun to assess the regional big picture for rehab services, and perhaps find ways to collaborate on population-health initiatives with facilities like Mount Sinai Rehabilitation Hospital in Hartford and St. Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury, which boasts several outpatient rehab centers.

“How can we expand to grow and regionalize some of this?” LeGates said. “As we look to the future, as we move from fee for service into all kinds of payment changes, we may be able to collaborate on this from a regional perspective.”

Despite that big-picture outlook, however, rehabilitation remains, at its core, a one-on-one connection between therapist and patient.

“It’s a wonderful profession,” she told BusinessWest. “You’re helping people and truly seeing people gain back their independence, gain back function, and return to the activities they had stopped doing.”

In the end, success stories are based on more than hard work in the gym; they rest on strong relationships — which don’t necessarily end when the care does.

“We’ve had patients come back and show us how they’re doing, tell us how they went back to school or went back to work,” LeGates said. “It’s a rewarding career, and the people who work here are a people-driven team.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

40 Under 40 The Class of 2017

Owner, Murray Tax Services/Murray Financial Group; Age 38

Kevin Murray

Kevin Murray

Kevin Murray says he’s always been entrepreneurial, starting with a paper route when he was a kid. Today, he’s charting his own route, establishing and running two successful businesses simultaneously, while also finding time for family, fun, and his community.

Murray was working for a Fortune 500 financial corporation during a transitional time for the company. “A lot of my colleagues who had been there for years were being let go, and it made me realize I wanted to work for myself and my own bottom line, and not be at the mercy of someone else’s.”

He went back to school while he was still working, and got a master’s degree in taxation and accounting. He also scored a part-time job for a tax firm to learn the ropes, and got married. With a son on the way, he realized he didn’t want to lose precious time running on a corporate treadmill, and he launched Murray Tax Services, starting with about 35 clients.

By the time he cut the corporate cord for good and went out on his own, he had about 230 clients, but was just getting started.

“The financial-planning side is what I always really wanted to do,” said Murray. “The tax business is an asset that pays year-round, and that set the base for the financial-planning piece.”

Murray says being a business owner is a completely family-driven proposition. “I put my kids on the bus every day and get them off every day,” he explained, adding that he enjoys the flexibility that comes with being the owner. “I go to every hockey practice, and I try not to miss things; I work around their schedules.”

Of course, tax season takes a toll. “Right now [late March], I’m working 20-hour days, but my wife, Christa, and I work it out. I couldn’t do any of this without her. To us, it’s all about family, and we always make time for them.”

Murray also makes time for his community, serving on  Wilbraham’s Finance Committee and as treasurer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hampden County. He also coaches hockey for his daughter, Adalyn, and his son, Jameson.

Murray also likes to brew craft beer as a hobby. “I’m really passionate about it,” he noted.

But home brews don’t compare to the home life he cherishes with his wife and kids, he said. “They’re what it’s all about.”

—Alta Stark

40 Under 40 The Class of 2017

Assistant Vice President, Commercial Portfolio Loan Officer, Farmington Bank; Age 37

Candace Pereira

Candace Pereira

Candace Pereira maintains a true work-life balance while continually setting new goals. The single mother of Hailey, 8, has always enjoyed being busy, and worked her way up the stepping stones of the banking world.

She began work as a teller almost two decades ago and earned an associate’s degree from Springfield Technical Community College in 2001. But at age 25, her love for learning and desire to advance in her career led Pereira back to school, and she graduated from the UMass Isenberg School of Management in 2007.

Two and a half years ago, when mentor Mike Moriarty at United Bank moved to Farmington Bank, she moved with him. But a month after she started her new job, her brother, Bob Driscoll, was involved in a serious motorcycle accident.

He spent a month in intensive care, and when he was released, she moved him into her home. It required ongoing remodeling and adjustments, but they have always been close and share the same friends.

Pereira said Farmington Bank’s attitude of “family first” helped her to achieve a realistic work-life balance. She took over her brother’s finances and learned to structure her day so she can fit everything in that is meaningful.

That includes her role as board member and treasurer of the Gray House in Springfield. “They serve the working poor who don’t qualify for services,” she said of the organization, adding that she brings her daughter to help out at its food pantry so she learns the value of community service.

“It only takes a few people to make something happen,” she told BusinessWest. “Once you begin volunteering, it has a snowball effect because you see how much it does for others.”

Pereira is a member of the grant committee at the Farmington Bank Community Foundation and board member of the East Longmeadow Educational Endowment Fund. She is active in several chambers of commerce and young professional societies, where she has assisted with fund-raising.

She also has a number of professional certifications and enjoys helping business owners achieve their goals with the help of bank loans.

But she schedules everything down to the hour on her Outlook calendar to ensure she has time to spend with family.  “You need to be grateful for it,” she said, “because you may not get another chance.”

—Kathleen Mitchell



By Jane Banks

With the temperatures dropping into single digits, you can’t help but talk about how cold it is. It was again the topic of conversation at a recent meeting with a colleague who recalled, when she was a little girl, her dad coming into the house on very cold days, rubbing his hands together, and saying, “thank goodness for a warm house.”

Sadly, not everyone has a warm house to live in. On nights so cold you don’t even want to step onto the street — let alone live there — it’s comforting to know that the Center for Human Development (CDH) is working 24/7 to help the most vulnerable families in our community access a warm place to live while working to transition them to permanent housing and self-sufficiency.

Today, there are about 525 families, about 2,200 people altogether, who are sheltered and/or housed within our housing system. Families referred to CHD by the state Department of Housing and Community Development typically spend from 30 to 90 days in shelter. During that time, they receive financial-literacy training, employment and skills training, clinical and mental-health services, and help identifying and qualifying for appropriate permanent housing. Our primary goal is to get families into housing where they have privacy and safety — a place that feels like home.

CHD’s Housing Stabilization Program receives state funding to address specific goals as defined by state law. We help ensure that our veterans, mothers with small children, people with disabilities, and others who are struggling don’t find themselves huddled on a street corner. It may surprise you that people in shelter include families displaced by fire, fathers whose jobs vanished in a tough economy, and persons whose disabilities make finding work and accessible housing extremely challenging.

With help from CHD, families are in from the cold, learning to budget and save money, getting job training or going back to school, and getting help navigating the range of supports to get them back on their feet. Once families leave shelter, they can access a state grant that helps them move into their own place, continue job training, get help with tenant rights and responsibilities, apply for fuel assistance, and secure child-care vouchers so they can work — just the things a struggling family might need to be successful.

Ongoing support for a 12-month, home-based period is dictated by state regulation, and during that period CHD helps families stay on the path to self-sufficiency. It’s especially rewarding when families we’ve helped come back to us to say they’re doing well — and how thankful they are that CHD was there when they were struggling.

If you someone you know is homeless, contact the Department of Housing and Community Development, 310 State St., Springfield, or call (413) 858-1300. A conversation with a homeless coordinator can determine eligibility for shelter, financial assistance, and services (including from CHD) to help transition to permanent housing.

We are thankful for our many collaborations, partnerships, and contributions from a caring community which make our work possible. During these frigid days, we are grateful for the opportunity to provide a warm home, for which we and our families can all be thankful.

Jane Banks is program director, Homeless Services, at the Center for Human Development.

Health Care Sections

Articulating Progress

A new partnership between Westfield State University and Springfield Technical Community College will allow nursing graduates from STCC to earn a four-year degree from WSU on the Springfield campus. At a time when it’s increasingly important for nurses to have four-year degrees, the goal, as one STCC dean said, is to “remove any barriers to success.”

From left to right, Jessica Tinkham, Marcia Scanlon, and Shelley Holden

From left to right, Jessica Tinkham, Marcia Scanlon, and Shelley Holden show off the new simulation lab in the Science and Innovation Center at Westfield State University that opened this fall.

Emily Swindelles will graduate from Springfield Technical Community College next May with an associate’s degree in Nursing.

The path to matriculation hasn’t been easy for the mother of three children — ages 5, 3, and 2 — who has worked part-time and commuted from her home in Ellington, Conn., but she has had a lot of support from her family and fellow students, who have become like an extended family.

Swindelles’s dream is to work in a hospital maternity ward and eventually become a nurse midwife, so the 30-year-old was happy to hear that officials from STCC and Westfield State University signed an articulation agreement on Oct. 4 that will allow STCC nursing school graduates to earn a four-year degree from Westfield on the Springfield campus.

The new partnership is the first hybrid RN-to-BSN (bachelor of science in nursing) completion program between two public institutions of higher education in Western Mass. ‘Hybrid’ refers to the fact that it includes online classes as well as courses on the STCC campus that will be taught by instructors from Westfield State.

“I was really excited when I heard about the new program. It’s convenient, flexible, and cost-effective,” Swindelles said, adding that she is used to the commute, familiar with STCC, and likes the fact that, although the majority of coursework will be done online, classes on campus will provide students with the support and interaction that she feels enhances learning.

“I would have taken a year off just to make sure that I was financially capable of going back to school, but with the flexibility of this program, I think I’ll be able to manage school, work, and family,” she added.

Jennifer Hoppie is another STCC nursing student who is enthusiastic about the new program. The 39-year-old mother of two children, ages 11 and 9, moved to the U.S. from St. Lucia in 1999, and her goal is to work in the pediatric department of a hospital and earn a bachelor’s degree because it will increase her job options.

Prior to the matriculation agreement, Hoppie planned to work for a year after passing the board exam required to become a registered nurse, then enter a bachelor’s-degree program. But she says if she can continue her education at STCC after she graduates, she will choose that option because it will allow her to stay close to home in case she is needed at her children’s school.

“The price of the new program is also good; there are people like me who can’t afford expensive tuition,” Hoppie said, adding that she took out a loan to earn the degree she will receive in May.

Lisa Fugiel and Christopher Scott

Lisa Fugiel and Christopher Scott say Westfield State University’s hybrid RN-to-BSN completion program will help remove barriers to education faced by many non-traditional students at STCC.

Indeed, the new RN-to-BSN completion program is touted as the most affordable pathway of its kind; Westfield will accept 90 credits from students toward the 120 needed for a four-year degree, and the cost for the additional 30 course credits will be $10,500.

Christopher Scott noted that STCC has collaborations with other schools of nursing that allow graduates to pursue a bachelor’s degree, and it’s important for students to be aware of all of their options.

“Our goal is to remove any barriers to success,” said the interim dean of the School of Health and Patient Simulation, adding that the majority of STCC students are non-traditional, and many face financial or personal challenges that make getting an education difficult.

“We want them to be able to continue their education and flourish after they succeed here,” he told BusinessWest.

Officials from both schools say the new program is also significant because it is in line with state and national goals to increase the number of nurses with bachelor’s degrees in the workforce.

“There’s been a national call to action from the Institute of Medicine to bring our BSN workforce up to 80% by the year 2020,” said Jessica Holden, a nursing instructor at Westfield State and program director of the RN-to-BSN program.

Holden said the goal in Massachusetts is to increase the number of BSN nurses from 55% in 2010 to 66% in 2020, and to reach the national goal of 80% by 2025. The goals were set by the Massachusetts Nursing and Allied Health Workforce Development Plan and implemented by the Massachusetts Action Coalition.

A list of Acute Care Hospitals in Western Mass. HERE

“There is a growing shortage of nurses, and we see our associate degree in nursing as an entryway into a bachelor’s program,” said Lisa Fugiel, director of Nursing for STCC’s School of Health and Patient Simulation. Although graduates can work as an RN after they earn an associate’s degree and pass their boards, she explained, nurses with a BSN are typically given more responsibility and supervisory roles. They also earn higher salaries, and many healthcare institutions are seeking nurses with advanced degrees to meet certain requirements.

Increasing Opportunities

Most colleges limit the number of credits a student can transfer, and the fact that Westfield’s hybrid nursing program will accept 90 is expected to make a real difference to STCC students.

“They might have to take 50 credits at another college to achieve a baccalaureate degree,” Scott noted, explaining that STCC and Westfield State have made the pathway easier by creating a ‘curriculum map’ that outlines prerequisite courses they need to enter the BSN program.

“It allows for seamless education,” said Marcia Scanlon, chair of the Department of Nursing at Westfield State.

Shelley Tinkham agreed, and said it’s important, because if students take the wrong electives, they will have to take additional classes to meet Westfield State’s entrance requirements. “The map was carefully developed as a partnership model,” said WSU’s dean of Graduate and Continuing Education.

Westfield State officials told BusinessWest they began developing their own RN-to-BSN program, which launched this fall, about four years ago. The STCC-Westfield nursing-degree partnership was developed simultaneously, and everyone involved believes it will increase the number of students who pursue a bachelor’s degree.

“Massachusetts issued a call to action to be creative and innovative in creating a seamless pathway so nurses can progress, and the new hybrid program meets that call,” said Holden. “It’s a new model for Westfield State that is very affordable.”

She noted that the push at the state and national levels to increase the number of nurses with bachelor’s degrees was initiated because nursing has become more complex due to the changing face of medicine, which includes advances in technology and a growing number of patients with multiple health issues.

Critical Relationships

Sims Medical Center at STCC is the largest simulation facility of its kind in the Northeast and has received national recognition.

“We recreate the environment of every type of care in a hospital, from the trauma room to acute care, child delivery, and pediatrics,” Scott said. “We have our own operating room and critical-care unit, as well as a home-care environment.”

Students in the college’s 20 healthcare programs work with human patient simulators that breathe, sweat, have pulses, and react to care and procedures that range from arthoscopic surgery to removing a gall bladder.

“Students can take their blood pressure and do every medical technique on them possible,” Scott said, explaining that the goal is to expose students to situations that can occur before they enter the workplace.

And, since nurses don’t work alone, STCC students work alongside their peers, who are studying a multitude of healthcare disciplines, including respiratory therapy, radiology, and surgical technology.

In fact, STCC’s center is so high-tech that the college has worked with hospitals, medical centers, and higher-education institutions to help them build and operate their own simulation centers and avoid perils and pitfalls in the process.

Emily Swindelles

Emily Swindelles says Westfield State University’s hybrid RN-to-BSN completion program will make it easier for her to continue her education.

Westfield State is among them, and Scott said officials sought the school’s help in developing a simulation center for the university’s $48 million Science and Innovation Center that opened this fall.

Westfield officials went to STCC, toured the campus, and met with faculty, administrators, and architects before designing their own space. They say the relationships that were formed played a role in the establishment of the matriculation agreement.

“Creating a transfer program is difficult, and historically, Massachusetts institutions have not done well with it. But the new program shows we can cooperate; it’s an excellent example of what can be accomplished, as it’s designed to be very flexible,” Tinkham said, noting that Westfield needed to pass a policy and ask its governing board to accept 90 transfer credits for the hybrid program because they normally accept only 67 from a community college.

“Dean Scott was very patient with us,” she continued, adding that Westfield State officials recognized that STCC has many non-traditional students and first-generation graduates who need a supportive environment and may not be familiar with WSU.

The nursing programs at STCC and Westfield State are both accredited. The baccalaureate degree in nursing at Westfield State is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. STCC’s associate in science degree in nursing is accredited by Accrediting Commission for Education in Nursing Inc.

Ongoing Partnership

Westfield State University wants students entering STCC’s associate degree in nursing program to know they can earn a bachelor’s degree on the Springfield campus and plan to make them aware of the curriculum map at the beginning of each new school year.

“They will feel our presence on their campus from day one,” Holden said, adding that Westfield representatives will pass out brochures and be available to nursing students from the time they begin the nursing program at STCC.

She was hired at Westfield State a year ago, Tinkham has worked at the university for two years, and Scanlon has been there for five, but was named department chair a year ago; they all feel partnerships such as the new one with STCC are critical to the future of nursing.

“We’re already looking at other collaborations,” Tinkham said. “This is just the beginning.”

It’s a good beginning, one that not only addresses the workforce-development shortage, but will benefit the community as many STCC students become involved in charitable causes.

“Helping them to continue their education will allow them to give back even more,” Fugiel said, “and we are really excited to be able to offer them an affordable opportunity to do so.”

Agenda Departments

Kandinsky Exhibit

Through Jan. 15: Earlier this summer, the Springfield Museums unveiled an exhibit of prints by Russian artist Vassily Kandinsky titled “Kleine Welten (Small Worlds),” a portfolio of 12 works created in 1922 using a range of print-making techniques. The Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts is one of only a handful of public museums to own the complete series; other such museums include the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit will be on view in the Collins Print Gallery through Jan. 15, 2017. Known as one of the pioneers of abstract art, Kandinsky (1866-1944) lectured and wrote extensively in support of non-objective art, believing that total abstraction offers the possibility for profound spiritual expression. His paintings of 1913 are considered to be among the first completely abstract compositions in modern art history, as they made no reference to the natural world and were inspired by (and took their titles from) pieces of music. His non-representational paintings paved the way for the development of the abstract expressionist movement that dominated American painting after World War II. Kandinsky’s “Kleine Welten” portfolio exemplifies the artist’s abstract style, while also demonstrating his achievements with various print-making techniques. Though Kandinsky is perhaps best known for his paintings, this series of prints shows his mastery of lithography, woodcut, and etching.

Ad Club Networking on Connecticut River

Aug. 25: The Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts invites guests to network on the Connecticut River on the famous Lady Bea, departing from event sponsor Brunelle’s Marina in South Hadley. Guests are invited to sip on a cocktail from the cash bar, enjoy light appetizers, and take in the scenery while mingling with writers, designers, printers, agency staff, photographers, web designers, marketers, and media from Western Mass. Registration begins at 5:30 p.m., and the Lady Bea will depart at 6 p.m. from Brunelle’s Marina, 1 Alvord St., South Hadley. Guests must purchase tickets in advance by Friday, Aug. 19 by calling (413) 736-2582, visiting www.adclubwm.org/events/calendar, or e-mailing [email protected]. Ticket prices are $20 for Ad Club members, $30 for non-members, and $20 for students with valid ID.

Westfield Food Fest

Aug. 26-28: The Rotary Club of Westfield announced the second annual Westfield Food Fest, a three-day event that will feature vendors from local restaurants and food trucks, as well as entertainment from local musicians. The Rotary Club hopes this free event will draw people to the downtown area. The event will be held on Elm Street between Franklin Street and Main Street on Aug. 26 from 5 to 9 p.m., Aug. 27 from noon to 9 p.m., and Aug. 28 from noon to 6 p.m. The festival will also be broadcast live on location on WSKB 89.5 FM. Participating local restaurants include Pasquale’s, Two River Burritos, and Janik’s Pierogis. Food trucks will include Ed & Angies, Sun Kim Bop Korean, Silver Platter Gourmet, Bistro Bus, Moolicious Ice Cream, Angelo’s Fried Dough, and Ed’s Fries. A variety of local artists and craftspeople will be doing interactive, family-friendly demonstrations. The Rotary Club will sell beer and wine. For information on how to become a vendor, e-mail Jennifer Gruszka at [email protected]. Event sponsors include Westfield Bank, Westfield Gas & Electric, Forish Construction, Elm Electrical, Commercial Distributing, Mestek, Sarat Ford, Roger Butler Insurance Agency, Jerome’s Party Plus, and John S. Lane & Son Inc. This event would not be possible without the support of the city of Westfield, the Westfield Police Department, and all other city departments that help make events safe and enjoyable. For more information, visit facebook.com/westfieldrotaryclub. A complete schedule and listing of vendors, participants, and musicians will be posted soon.

Slide the City

Aug. 27: Celebrate Holyoke welcomes the return of Slide the City to Holyoke on the Saturday of its three-day event, and will once again sell discounted tickets prior to the event. In addition, the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holyoke is partnering with Slide the City to raise money for its organization and help secure volunteers for the day of the slide. Slide the City will return to the same location along Appleton Street. Tickets are currently available at slidethecity.com, and single tickets can be purchased for $20 on the day of the event. Discounted tickets can also be found at celebrateholyokemass.com. For the second year, the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holyoke will partner with Slide the City to recruit volunteers for the day of the event. For every volunteer signed up, Slide the City will make a donation to the Holyoke Boys & Girls Club. “The Holyoke Boys & Girls Club is thrilled to be partnering for the second year with Slide the City and the Celebrate Holyoke committee,” said Eileen Cavanaugh, president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Club. “Last year was a great experience, and we were so pleased with and grateful for the amount of volunteers that came out to support the club. I’m sure this year will be even better! We are looking forward to another fun event that allows our club to be part of Celebrate Holyoke.” Volunteers are still needed for various shifts throughout the day and will be helping with the following tasks: setup, registration tent (check pre-registered customers, take payment for new customers, etc.), slide monitors (check wristbands, help keep people moving along), cleanup, trash pickup, and loading trucks with gear and merchandise. Anyone who is interested in volunteering to raise money for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holyoke should e-mail Cavanaugh at [email protected]. Volunteers must be at least 16 years old. In exchange for their participation, volunteers will receive a Slide the City T-shirt and be provided snacks and refreshments during each shift.

Dress for Success Tag Sale

Sept. 9-11: In keeping with its mission to empower women to be more confident in their personal and professional lives, Dress for Success is hosting a tag sale in Springfield to raise funds and awareness, while also working to meet the needs of women throughout the community. In conjunction with the United Way of Pioneer Valley’s Day of Caring, Dress for Success volunteers will host the event at Eastfield Mall on Sept. 9 and 10 from 1 to 7 p.m., and Sept. 11 from 1 to 6 p.m. Customers may peruse through the racks of new and gently used donated items, including suits, dresses, pants, blouses, skirts, shoes, accessories, and more. Items may be purchased individually or by filling a shopping bag for only $25. All proceeds will benefit Dress for Success. Volunteers are needed to staff the event. If interested, contact [email protected]. This event follows several successful tag sales, each raising thousands of dollars and engaging the help of hundreds of community volunteers.

Mini-Medical School

Sept. 15 to Nov. 3: Thinking of going back to school? Baystate Medical Center’s Mini-Medical School will give area residents an inside look at the expanding field of medicine — minus the tests, homework, interviews, and admission formalities. The Mini-Medical School program is an eight-week health-education series featuring a different aspect of medicine each week. Classes this fall will include sessions on various medical topics such as surgery, emergency medicine, anesthesiology, pathology, and several others. Many of the ‘students,’ who often range in age from 20 to 70, participate due to a general interest in medicine and later find that many of the things they learned over the semester are relevant to their own lives. The goal of the program — offered in the comfortable environment of the hospital’s Chestnut Conference Center, is to help members of the public make more informed decisions about their healthcare while receiving insight on what it is like to be a medical student. Baystate Medical Center is the region’s only teaching hospital, and each course is taught by medical-center faculty who explain the science of medicine without resorting to complex terms. All classes are held Thursday nights starting at 6 p.m. and run until 8 or 9 p.m., depending on the night’s topic. No basic science knowledge is needed to participate. Each participant is required to attend a minimum of six out of eight classes in order to receive a certificate of completion. The classes run from Sept. 15 through Nov. 3, and a full listing of topics and presenters can be found at www.baystatehealth.org/minimed. Tuition is $95 per person and $80 for Senior Class and Spirit of Women members. While it is not difficult to be accepted into the program, slots are limited, and early registration is recommended by calling (800) 377-4325 or visiting www.baystatehealth.org/minimed.

RVCC Golf Tournament

Sept. 16: River Valley Counseling Center (RVCC), an affiliate of Holyoke Medical Center and member of Valley Health Systems, will hold its first annual golf tournament fund-raiser starting at 10:30 a.m., scramble format. The event, hosted by East Mountain Country Club in Westfield, is presented by G. Greene Construction Co. Inc., and funds raised will enable RVCC to improve programming through staff education and technology enhancements. The cost per golfer is $100 and includes a golf cart, lunch, and dinner. There will be contests on the course which include prizes donated by Marcotte Ford and Teddy Bear Pools. There will also be a raffle and silent auction. For more information about the event, including registration, visit www.rvcc-inc.org, or visit River Valley Counseling Center’s Facebook page. With outpatient clinics in Holyoke and Chicopee and a drop-in center in Springfield, RVCC provides comprehensive mental-health and other supportive services to individuals, families, and groups through a dedicated, multi-disciplinary team of social workers, counselors, psychologists, clinical nurse specialists, psychiatrists, and nurse practitioners. Programs include an intensive psychiatric day treatment program; teen clinics and/or school-based health centers in Holyoke, Chicopee, Springfield, and Granby; HIV/AIDS support services; the CONCERN employee-assistance program; medication services; and the Holyoke Safe and Successful Youth Initiative. For additional information, visit www.rvcc-inc.org or contact Angela Callahan at (413) 841-3546 or [email protected].


Sept. 18: The third annual BerkshireSPEAKS will take place at 1:30 p.m. at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington. This year’s event will feature six Berkshire trailblazers and visionaries sharing their inspirational stories. BerkshireSPEAKS was established to create an opportunity for the entire community to hear from local residents who have had a significant impact on the Berkshires and beyond. “BerkshireSPEAKS continues to grow each year, with speakers whose passion reminds us that anything is possible,” said Toby Levine, event co-chair. “We have a fantastic program planned and look forward to an afternoon that brings the community together to share empowering ideas.” This year’s speakers include John Downing, CEO of Soldier On, a national organization fighting veteran homelessness; Nancy Kalodner, Berkshire Realtor, teacher, and arts supporter; Gwendolyn Hampton-VanSant, CEO and Founder of Multicultural BRIDGE; Mary Pope Osborne, award-winning author of the Magic Tree House series (130 million copies sold worldwide); John Hockenberry, author, journalist, and award-winning public radio host; and state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, who represents the 4th Berkshire District. A reception with the speakers will follow the presentations. Registration costs $15 online and $18 at the door. To register online, visit www.hevreh.org/berkshirespeaks.

Northeast Training Institute

Oct. 4-5: The International Business Innovation Assoc. (InBIA), in partnership with the Assoc. of Cleantech Incubators of New England (ACTION), will host a two-day Northeast Training Institute at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke. Four courses will be offered for the professional development of incubator managers or those exploring the development of an incubator or accelerator program in their community. Those who should consider attending include  business incubation and acceleration professionals, university administrators and faculty in entrepreneurship, community influencers and chamber of commerce of leaders, and economic-development leaders. Join other participants from around the region for these world-recognized training programs and hear about development plans for the Holyoke Innovation District. Learn more at www.actionnewengland.org. E-mail Joan Popolo at [email protected] with any questions.

Western Mass. Business Expo

Nov. 3: Comcast Business will present the sixth annual Western Mass. Business Expo at the MassMutual Center in downtown Springfield, produced by BusinessWest and the Healthcare News. The business-to-business show will feature more than 150 exhibitor booths, educational seminars, breakfast hosted by the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce, lunch hosted by BusinessWest, and a day-capping Expo Social. Current sponsors include Comcast Business (presenting sponsor), Express Employment Professionals, Health New England, the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, Johnson & Hill Staffing Services, MGM Springfield, and Wild Apple Design. Additional sponsorship opportunities are available. Exhibitor spaces are also available; booth prices start at $725. For more information on sponsorships or booth purchase, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100. For more Expo details as they emerge, visit www.wmbexpo.com.

Agenda Departments

Clowning Around for Shriners Hospital

Aug. 13: The Melha Shriners announced that supporter Wendy Hart has once again organized the third annual Clowning Around for Shriners Hospital, a family-friendly event set for 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at VFW Post 872, 151 Point Grove Road, Southwick. Entertainment will be provided by the Shrine clowns, a traveling arcade, a photo booth, a dunk tank, and a DJ. The event will also feature a vendor fair featuring more than 40 local enterprises. “I am really excited about the opportunity to raise money for Shriners Hospital, and hope to increase the amount we raised over last year’s total,” Hart said. The event raised $2,000 for the hospital in 2015. Food and beverages will be for sale at the event. The Melha Shrine Clowns will present a skit show and spend the day mingling with children of all ages. Chris Howe, Shriner and president of the Melha Clowns, noted that “our clowns love days like this because we can help raise money for our hospital while just having lots of fun with all of the families in attendance.” Shriners Hospitals for Children – Springfield will receive 100% of the proceeds as it attempts to raise $900,000 for state-of-the-art X-ray technology (called EOS) which exposes children to a mere one-ninth of the radiation of traditional X-ray studies. For more information about the event, contact Hart at (413) 875-5743.

Oscar Hammerstein III Lecture

Aug. 17: Kimball Farms Lifecare in Lenox will host a lecture by Oscar Hammerstein III, grandson of famed lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, at 2 p.m. Those wishing to attend are asked to RSVP to (413) 637-7000 by Wednesday, Aug. 10. Hammerstein’s talk, titled “The Hammersteins: A Musical Theatre Family,” covers the century-long story of one of Broadway’s most creative and productive families beginning with Oscar Hammerstein I, described as a successful cigar and real-estate mogul who funded his theatre-building ambitions. The talk follows the family’s accomplishments through to Oscar Hammerstein II, who co-wrote the stories and words to such Broadway shows as Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Carousel, and The Sound of Music. Oscar Hammerstein III is a painter, writer, lecturer, and family historian who has devoted much of his life to studying and preserving his family’s heritage and contribution to American culture. He lectures frequently at universities, institutes, and theatrical and civic organizations on his family’s role in shaping the development of musical theatre and popular entertainment from the 1860s to the present.

Wistariahurst Summer Play Day

Aug. 20: Wistariahurst, Holyoke’s center for history, art, and culture, will host a free community event from 1 to 3 p.m., featuring lawn games, crafts, family-friendly tours, and more. Wistariahurst, the former estate of the Skinner family, includes three acres of formal gardens and grounds, a Holyoke history exhibit, an archival facility, and a preserved historic mansion. The afternoon’s activities will be inspired by the history and features of the site, including the fossilized dinosaur tracks which pave the entryway, the historically inspired rose garden, and turn-of-the-century garden parties. “As the summer season winds down, we want our gardens and grounds to be filled with families exploring and playing,” said Lisa Nicholson, program coordinator. “Dress up and have a cup of lemonade in the garden. Play a game of croquet or badminton like the Skinner family may have done.” For more information or to view a schedule of other upcoming events at Wistariahurst, visit www.wistariahurst.org.

Ice-cream Social, Open House at Linda Manor

Aug. 21: Linda Manor Assisted Living invites the community to an ice-cream social and open house from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Linda Manor is located at 345 Haydenville Road in Leeds. The open house will include complimentary ice-cream sundaes and tours of one of the Northampton area’s newest assisted-living communities. Linda Manor offers all-inclusive assisted living and memory care as well as the award-winning Linda Manor Extended Care Facility. For more information, or to RSVP for the event, call (413) 588-3316.

Ad Club Networking on Connecticut River

Aug. 25: The Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts invites guests to network on the Connecticut River on the famous Lady Bea, departing from event sponsor Brunelle’s Marina in South Hadley. Guests are invited to sip on a cocktail from the cash bar, enjoy light appetizers, and take in the scenery while mingling with writers, designers, printers, agency staff, photographers, web designers, marketers, and media from Western Mass. Registration begins at 5:30 p.m., and the Lady Bea will depart at 6 p.m. from Brunelle’s Marina, 1 Alvord St., South Hadley. Guests must purchase tickets in advance by Friday, Aug. 19 by calling (413) 736-2582, visiting www.adclubwm.org/events/calendar, or e-mailing [email protected]. Ticket prices are $20 for Ad Club members, $30 for non-members, and $20 for students with valid ID.

Slide the City

Aug. 27: Celebrate Holyoke welcomes the return of Slide the City to Holyoke on the Saturday of its three-day event, and will once again sell discounted tickets prior to the event. In addition, the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holyoke is partnering with Slide the City to raise money for its organization and help secure volunteers for the day of the slide. Slide the City will return to the same location along Appleton Street. Tickets are currently available at slidethecity.com, and single tickets can be purchased for $20 on the day of the event. Those looking to purchase tickets in advance at a discounted rate can do so at Stop & Shop on Lincoln Street in Holyoke on Sat., Aug. 13, and Sun., Aug. 14, from noon to 4 p.m.; at the mayor’s office on weekdays; and at the Holyoke Farmers’ Market every Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Discounted tickets can also be found at celebrateholyokemass.com. For the second year, the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holyoke will partner with Slide the City to recruit volunteers for the day of the event. For every volunteer signed up, Slide the City will make a donation to the Holyoke Boys & Girls Club. “The Holyoke Boys & Girls Club is thrilled to be partnering for the second year with Slide the City and the Celebrate Holyoke committee,” said Eileen Cavanaugh, president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Club. “Last year was a great experience, and we were so pleased with and grateful for the amount of volunteers that came out to support the club. I’m sure this year will be even better. We are looking forward to another fun event that allows our club to be part of Celebrate Holyoke.” Volunteers are still needed for various shifts throughout the day and will be helping with the following tasks: setup, registration tent (check pre-registered customers, take payment for new customers, etc.), slide monitors (check wristbands, help keep people moving along), cleanup, trash pickup, and loading trucks with gear and merchandise. Anyone who is interested in volunteering to raise money for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holyoke should e-mail Cavanaugh at [email protected]. Volunteers must be at least 16 years old. In exchange for their participation, volunteers will receive a Slide the City T-shirt and be provided snacks and refreshments during each shift.

Mini-Medical School

Sept. 15 to Nov. 3: Thinking of going back to school? Baystate Medical Center’s Mini-Medical School will give area residents an inside look at the expanding field of medicine — minus the tests, homework, interviews, and admission formalities. The Mini-Medical School program is an eight-week health-education series featuring a different aspect of medicine each week. Classes this fall will include sessions on various medical topics such as surgery, emergency medicine, anesthesiology, pathology, and several others. Many of the ‘students,’ who often range in age from 20 to 70, participate due to a general interest in medicine and later find that many of the things they learned over the semester are relevant to their own lives. The goal of the program — offered in the comfortable environment of the hospital’s Chestnut Conference Center, is to help members of the public make more informed decisions about their healthcare while receiving insight on what it is like to be a medical student. Baystate Medical Center is the region’s only teaching hospital, and each course is taught by medical-center faculty who explain the science of medicine without resorting to complex terms. All classes are held Thursday nights starting at 6 p.m. and run until 8 or 9 p.m., depending on the night’s topic. No basic science knowledge is needed to participate. Each participant is required to attend a minimum of six out of eight classes in order to receive a certificate of completion. The classes run from Sept. 15 through Nov. 3, and a full listing of topics and presenters can be found at www.baystatehealth.org/minimed. Tuition is $95 per person and $80 for Senior Class and Spirit of Women members. While it is not difficult to be accepted into the program, slots are limited, and early registration is recommended by calling (800) 377-4325 or visiting www.baystatehealth.org/minimed.


Sept. 18: The third annual BerkshireSPEAKS will take place at 1:30 p.m. at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington. This year’s event will feature six Berkshire trailblazers and visionaries sharing their inspirational stories. BerkshireSPEAKS was established to create an opportunity for the entire community to hear from local residents who have had a significant impact on the Berkshires and beyond. “BerkshireSPEAKS continues to grow each year, with speakers whose passion reminds us that anything is possible,” said Toby Levine, event co-chair. “We have a fantastic program planned and look forward to an afternoon that brings the community together to share empowering ideas.” This year’s speakers include John Downing, CEO of Soldier On, a national organization fighting veteran homelessness; Nancy Kalodner, Berkshire Realtor, teacher, and arts supporter; Gwendolyn Hampton-VanSant, CEO and Founder of Multicultural BRIDGE; Mary Pope Osborne, award-winning author of the Magic Tree House series (130 million copies sold worldwide); John Hockenberry, author, journalist, and award-winning public radio host; and state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, who represents the 4th Berkshire District. A reception with the speakers will follow the presentations. Registration costs $15 online and $18 at the door. To register online, visit www.hevreh.org/berkshirespeaks.

Western Mass. Business Expo

Nov. 3: Comcast Business will present the sixth annual Western Mass. Business Expo at the MassMutual Center in downtown Springfield, produced by BusinessWest and the Healthcare News. The business-to-business show will feature more than 150 exhibitor booths, educational seminars, breakfast hosted by the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce, lunch hosted by BusinessWest, and a day-capping Expo Social. Current sponsors include Comcast Business (presenting sponsor), Express Employment Professionals, Health New England, the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, Johnson & Hill Staffing Services, MGM Springfield, and Wild Apple Design. Additional sponsorship opportunities are available. Exhibitor spaces are also available; booth prices start at $725. For more information on sponsorships or booth purchase, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100. For more Expo details as they emerge, visit www.wmbexpo.com.

Agenda Departments

‘Protecting Your Retirement Income for Life’ Workshop

July 27: Monson Savings Bank will host a complimentary SunAmerica workshop titled “Protecting Your Retirement Income for Life.” It will be presented by Mack Mikaelian, divisional vice president, SunAmerica Retirement Markets. The annuity presentation will offer strategies to help provide income for life and also help attendees determine retirement-income options they should explore. It will be held from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Ware Fire Department at 200 West St. in Ware. It is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served. Mikaelian works with financial advisors throughout New England and Eastern New York. He has many years of experience in the financial-services industry and is very familiar with the topic of retirement-income planning. He is a graduate of UMass and Babson College’s MBA program. Seating is limited, and reservations are required. To RSVP, call Anna Calvanese at (413) 267-1221 or e-mail [email protected].

Lean LaunchPad Weekend

July 29-31: In today’s competitive market, startups and small businesses need all the help they can get. The Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Elms College will hold a Lean LaunchPad weekend to help startups identify the specific problems their products or services can solve for customers. The weekend-long workshop, titled “Creating Customers and Value,” will help businesses fail less, save money, and discover target customers and ideal business models. The Lean LaunchPad weekend course combines hands-on experience, customer interaction, and business fundamentals to entrepreneurship. Participants will dive deep into the ‘value-proposition canvas’ to understand product market fit; they will also learn how to turn ideas into statements that convince customers to buy. The events will begin with a 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. session on Friday, July 29, and run from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, July 30 and 31. The workshop will include an “Idea Jam,” a look at business pitch concepts, team formation, networking, in-depth exploration of the value-proposition canvas, hands-on development of customer-value creation, an overview of market size and customer segments, and a business-pitch competition. The facilitators for the Startup Lean Weekend will be Jeremy Casey and Rick Plaut. Casey started Name Net Worth, a software startup company, in Springfield in 2014. His background as a serial networker, commercial lender, and communicator was the springboard to his transition from corporate America to entrepreneurship. He was president of the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield (YPS), which was in its infancy when he joined. Over five years, he grew the board of directors and the membership, and has helped make YPS the top membership organization for young professionals in the region. He has conducted workshops with many high schools and colleges in the Northeast, and has mentored many startup organizations through Valley Venture Mentors, helping them get their businesses started and providing ongoing feedback as they grow. Plaut became an entrepreneur in 2009 after 30 years as a corporate ‘intrapreneur,’ developing new products, customers, markets, and businesses. Currently founding his third enterprise, he is a partner in InCommN and was a partner at Universal Quality Machine. He and his partners at InCommN teach the principles of Lean LaunchPad to entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and businesses with a need for quick growth in new markets. He also shares the tools of Lean LaunchPad and the Business Model Canvas with students at a number of local colleges, including Smith, Elms, and UMass. He is also a mentor and facilitator for early-stage startups at Valley Venture Mentors, and is a board member and mentor for a variety of early-stage enterprises. All events will take place on the Elms College campus. The cost is $250 per person or $150 for Elms alumni.

Holyoke Soup

Aug. 3: SPARK Holyoke, a program of the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce Centennial Foundation, announced its third community-based crowd-funding event, Holyoke Soup, scheduled to take place from 5 to 8:30 p.m. at the Waterfront Tavern, 920 Main Street, Holyoke. Holyoke Soup is a dinner celebrating and supporting creative projects in Holyoke. For $5, attendees receive soup, salad, and bread while listening to presentations ranging from business ideas, art, urban agriculture, social justice, social entrepreneurs, education, technology, and much more. A new element has been added to this Holyoke Soup. Several local entrepreneurs who have completed the SPARK Holyoke entrepreneurship program will be showcasing their businesses beginning at 5 p.m. Each presenter has four minutes to share their idea and answer four questions from the audience. At the end of the night, the ballots are counted, and the winner goes home with all the money raised to help fund their project. Winners come back to a future Holyoke Soup dinner to report on their project’s progress. There is no admission charge to the event, but a minimum $5 donation is requested. All proceeds go to the presenter who receives the most votes. Anyone interested in presenting an idea at Holyoke Soup may apply at www.holyokesoup.com. Call Jona Ruiz at SPARK Holyoke at (413) 534-3376 with any questions.

Celebrate Holyoke 2016

Aug. 26-28: The planning committee for Celebrate Holyoke 2016 announced the musical lineup for this year’s three-day summer festival, highlighting a diverse range of musical favorites from around the region. “We’re really excited about this year’s lineup of musical acts and are looking forward to welcoming an even bigger crowd to downtown Holyoke,” said Jenna Weingarten, Celebrate Holyoke’s executive director. “It was important to us that our lineup reflected Holyoke’s diverse community, and we’ve worked hard to make sure there’s something here for everyone to enjoy.” Music will begin on Friday night at 5 p.m. and last throughout the weekend until Sunday at 7:30 p.m. and includes the following bands and artists: Friday, Aug. 26, 5-11 p.m.: Basement Cats, Sweet Daddy Cool Breeze, Jesus Pagan y Conjunto Barrio, and Joe Velez Creacion Latin Big Band; Saturday, Aug. 27, 12:30-11 p.m.: From the Woods, Skarroñeros, Paper City Exiles, Franny O Show, Trailer Park, Pabon Salsa, Eleven, and Brass Attack; Sunday, Aug. 28., 12:30-7:30 p.m.: Dennis Polisky & the Maestro’s Men, Union Jack, Los Sugar Kings, Dee Reilly, and Ray Mason Band. Celebrate Holyoke is a weekend-long festival featuring live music, entertainment, and vendors. Last year, the festival drew approximately 15,000 people into the heart of downtown Holyoke over the course of three days. Slide the City, an internationally known, 1,000-foot slip and slide, will return to Celebrate Holyoke on Saturday, Aug. 27. Volunteers and sponsors are still needed and are critical in ensuring the success of Celebrate Holyoke. Anyone interested in being a part of this community event should call (413) 570-0389 or e-mail [email protected].

Women’s Way Backpack and School-supply Drive

Aug. 4: The 11th annual “It’s Blooming Backpacks” backpack and school-supply drive is underway by the Women’s Way, a program of United Way of Franklin County. Every August, Women’s Way and community supporters of the popular event come together at Historic Deerfield to socialize, while supporting the needs of local school-age youth. This year’s main event is Thursday, Aug. 4 from 5:30 to 7 p.m., and costs $5 to attend, in addition to bringing one or more backpacks filled with school supplies (the address location will be given at the time of RSVP). To RSVP, call (413) 772-2168 or email [email protected]. Backpacks filled with essential school supplies are distributed to children and youth throughout Franklin County via the United Way of Franklin County’s 27 partner agencies. Backpacks come to the United Way in different ways. Traditionally, an individual donor will take on the task of buying and filling a backpack. Other ways include groups of co-workers or friends collaborating on filling a few bags; companies donating supplies or empty backpacks; businesses and organizations holding school-supply drives in the workplace; asking employees, customers, and clients to donate supplies and/or backpacks (sometimes the company will buy the backpacks) and having a ‘stuffing party’; and collecting monetary donations and letting the United Way purchase backpacks and/or supplies. No matter how you participate, you will make a difference in the life of a young person. Since the first annual “It’s Blooming Backpacks” in 2005, more than 2,500 backpacks with a value of nearly $200,000 have been donated and distributed. In 2015, nearly 500 backpacks were collected. For more information, visit uw-fc.org/its-blooming-backpacks, call (413) 772-2168, or e-mail [email protected].

Mini-Medical School

Sept. 15 to Nov. 3: Thinking of going back to school? Baystate Medical Center’s Mini-Medical School will give area residents an inside look at the expanding field of medicine — minus the tests, homework, interviews, and admission formalities. The Mini-Medical School program is an eight-week health-education series featuring a different aspect of medicine each week. Classes this fall will include sessions on various medical topics such as surgery, emergency medicine, anesthesiology, pathology, and several others. Many of the ‘students,’ who often range in age from 20 to 70, participate due to a general interest in medicine and later find that many of the things they learned over the semester are relevant to their own lives. The goal of the program — offered in the comfortable environment of the hospital’s Chestnut Conference Center, is to help members of the public make more informed decisions about their healthcare while receiving insight on what it is like to be a medical student. All classes are held Thursday nights starting at 6 p.m. and run until 8 or 9 p.m., depending on the night’s topic. Each participant is required to attend a minimum of six out of eight classes in order to receive a certificate of completion. The classes run from Sept. 15 through Nov. 3, and a full listing of topics and presenters can be found at www.baystatehealth.org/minimed. Tuition is $95 per person and $80 for Senior Class and Spirit of Women members. Slots are limited, and early registration is recommended by calling (800) 377-4325 or visiting www.baystatehealth.org/minimed.

Banking and Financial Services Sections

The Feeling’s Mutual

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal takes the helm at PeoplesBank at an intriguing time for the institution — and the industry. Competition is keen, and efforts to achieve growth are challenged by thin margins and stagnant, historically low interest rates. The bank has made a commitment to continue this fight as a mutual institution, a strategy Senecal believes will continue to bring a host of inherent advantages.

Tom Senecal called it “going from the back room to the front lines.”

That’s how he chose to describe his decision in 2001 to leave his position as controller at Holyoke-based PeoplesBank and join the commercial-lending team led at that time by future President and CEO Doug Bowen.

Looking back on that not-so-subtle and fairly unusual career move, Senecal said that, at that juncture, he understood it was a necessary move if he was to achieve what was an already-emerging goal — to move higher up the ladder in banking administration, and perhaps to the top rung.

“I knew, career-wise, that if I wanted to be … well, where I am today, I needed more exposure and experience than just an accounting background,” he explained, noting that Bowen’s career trajectory has become common in the industry today. “So I made a conscious decision to change careers and move to the front line of servicing customers.

“This was outside my comfort zone — I was 41 years old, moving from an accounting environment to a sales environment,” he went on. “But I knew I needed that experience.”

What Senecal — who was named president last August after prevailing in a search for Bowen’s successor a few months after he made his retirement plans known — didn’t know in 2001 but does know now, is that, while leaving the back room improved his chances to advance in this industry, working in both settings will better enable him to handle that position’s varied job description.

“My experiences, both on the financial side and in lending, brought something different to the table, and that’s important given the current banking environment,” he explained. “Both jobs enabled me to see how the bank operates, but from different perspectives.”

Senecal takes the helm at PeoplesBank at an intriguing time for both that institution and the banking industry as a whole. Indeed, he officially takes both the president and CEO titles (Bowen maintained the latter until late June) just as the bank, probably not coincidentally, announced it was taking its commitment to being a mutual bank to a higher level.

Specifically, the institution changed its bylaws in a way that will make any future conversion to a stockholder-owned company exceedingly more difficult. Before, a vote to take such a step would require a simple majority of votes among corporators to move in that direction; now, it will take a super-majority, or 75% (much more on all this later).

As for the industry in general, a trend toward consolidation and gaining all-important size and economies of scale continues unabated, with the recently announced merger of Westfield Bank and Chicopee Savings Bank being the latest in a lengthy string of such moves.

Senecal acknowledged the benefits of size in this era of rising regulatory costs and razor-thin margins, but said PeoplesBank will continue to address those challenges as a mutual institution, and with an operating strategy forged by his immediate predecessors and honed by Bowen during his 10-year tenure.

Tenets include everything from calculated territorial expansion, including a strong push into Springfield, to permanent residency on the cutting edge of new banking technology and an emerging niche in lending to ‘green’ business ventures.

Describing what might come next, Senecal started by implying strongly that there won’t be any attempts to fix anything that isn’t broken (and that’s most things). Getting slightly more specific, he said the bank will continue its efforts to grow the only way a bank can grow in this region and this banking environment — by gaining additional market share.

And this brings him back to mutuality and a commitment to retain that operating structure. As a mutual institution, the bank is not beholden to stockholders, he explained, and in this case, the word ‘local’ doesn’t refer to where commercial lenders live and play golf, but rather to where decisions are made.

“We believe that local decisions really do mean something,” he noted. “There aren’t many mutuals left, and that means people don’t feel comfortable that the decisions are being made in Western Massachusetts. I think that’s a big advantage for us.”

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest talked at length with Senecal about his career in banking, his attainment of that goal he set long ago, and what to expect — or not expect, as the case may be — from PeoplesBank moving forward.

Matters of Note

Summing up the progressive Doug Bowen administration at the 131-year-old institution, Senecal said his predecessor “set the bar very high.”

As he spoke those words, he was referring to awards and honors, specifically to the bank’s regular appearance on a host of regional and statewide ‘best-of’ lists. They include everything from the Boston Globe’s compilation of the best places to work in the Bay State to Boston Business Journal’s list of the top corporate charitable contributors, to MassLive’s Readers Raves.

Meanwhile, Bowen himself was honored in 2009 as one of BusinessWest’s first Difference Makers, and in 2011 as a Globe 100 Innovator for, essentially, creating an environment that fostered and facilitated all of the above.

But that reference to setting the bar high actually referred to much more than placement on lists and plaques for the front lobby. It was also a reference to overall growth (the bank crashed through the $2 billion barrier in total assets during Bowen’s tenure), territorial expansion in the form of six new branches, a ‘green’ philosophy (three of those branches are LEED-certified), innovation (the institution has created a Customer Innovation Lab and hired a so-called ‘data scientist’), and the bank’s strong commitment to mutuality and the many competitive advantages it brings.

Senecal will work to keep the bar where it is and hopefully raise it even higher, and he’ll bring to this task that aforementioned blend of experience in the back room and on the front lines.

A Coast Guard veteran, Senecal eventually decided the military would not become a career, and went back to school, earning a degree in business at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst.

Tom Senecal, seen with other members of the PeoplesBank

Tom Senecal, seen with other members of the PeoplesBank team, says the bank’s commitment to remain a mutual institution makes a strong statement.

He started his career in the financial-services sector with the Big 4 firm KPMG, as a senior manager and CPA. In that capacity, he provided organizational leadership and technical consulting expertise in the areas of auditing, accounting, tax compliance, and financial reporting for small to mid-sized banks in Massachusetts and Connecticut. One of the clients in his portfolio was PeoplesBank, which eventually recruited him to the role of controller.

As mentioned earlier, he drifted far out of his comfort zone a few years later and joined the commercial-lending team, where he remained until 2004, when he accepted an offer to join Florence Savings Bank as CFO and treasurer.

He returned to Holyoke in 2008 when Bowen, who took the helm at PeoplesBank a year earlier, encouraged him to take that same role with his bank.

“I looked upon coming back here as an opportunity,” he explained. “PeoplesBank is a larger, broader-reaching bank geographically that had a lot of opportunities for growth because of its name recognition and the marketability of PeoplesBank. Having had some conversations about the future with people here, I decided to come back.”

The search for Bowen’s successor, which began in the summer of 2015, eventually focused on two internal candidates, and Senecal prevailed.

Making a Statement

Since taking over as president of the bank, Senecal has put himself even closer to the front line — actually, right on it.

Indeed, he’s spent some time behind teller windows at several of the branches, getting an up-close look at what happens there, while also taking the opportunity to speak with some customers directly.

“I don’t think one of those branches is going to invite me back to scan checks, because I wasn’t very good at it — I think I kept the staff an extra hour,” he joked, adding quickly that those experiences were nonetheless fruitful and somewhat eye-opening. “As much as I can laugh about it now, that’s an example of understanding what the front line is really like.”

Beyond this time in the field, Senecal said he’s spent his first several months as president working toward that vote on mutuality and also developing a new four-year strategic plan. Dubbed Vision 2020, it will be presented to the board of directors in September.

When asked what’s in it, Senecal offered only generalities, and said it focuses on every aspect of the banking operation, including retail and commercial products and services, cash management, retail delivery channels, digital delivery channels, and more.

“We’re strategizing and looking at best-in-class products and services to compete with the larger institutions,” he explained. “Remaining as a mutual enables us to do that; we don’t have to worry about the next quarter’s earnings — we can make investments in these technologies and people and not worry about it. We’re in it for the long term.”

Elaborating, he said the bank changed two bylaws that will make converting to a public company far less likely. The first is the new requirement of a super-majority. The second is a so-called ‘protective self-enrichment clause,’ which prevents any director or senior manager from financially benefiting if that 75% vote from the corporators is actually obtained.

“Management and directors cannot participate in any initial public offering,” he explained. “This takes away all the financial incentive to convert; it requires senior management to focus on the long term and growing responsibly.”

Commenting on the decision to change the bylaws regarding mutuality, Senecal said he’s not sure such a step was necessary given that the bank hasn’t shown any interest in moving toward converting to stock ownership. But the vote does make a statement, and an important one, he went on, in terms of its commitment to the community.

“It was an opportunity to commit the institution and send a message to the community about who we are,” he explained. “I think it’s hard to deliver that message because most people don’t understand what mutuality is and how it affects them.

“Having been the CFO of two banks and having talked to other banks, I’ve gotten a real sense for what community banks do for our communities,” he explained. “You can talk to the big banks and the public banks, and they’ll tell you they’re committed and they’re creating foundations, but take a look at what they contribute to the community compared to what the mutual banks contribute, and you’ll see a huge difference.

“The public doesn’t see that,” he went on. “But on the inside, we see that.”

On-the-money Analysis

Still, despite the apparent advantages of mutuality, it does bring some competitive challenges, especially when it comes to size and its benefits, and capital (which ultimately determines how much a bank can lend) and how to attain it.

“Size is not overrated,” Senecal said, adding that it is the best method for coping with costs that continue to rise (compliance costs have nearly tripled for PeoplesBank over the past three years, from $1 million to $2.5 million, for example), while banks cannot recover them by adjusting rates for loans and deposits.

As for raising capital, public banks do so through stock offerings, he noted, while for mutual banks, the only source of capital is earnings, which are elusive in this era of those rising operating costs and in a region generally defined by the compound modifier ‘no-growth.’

But Senecal said there is room for growth in market share, and, as an example, he pointed to the residential mortgage market.

“We were a top-four mortgage lender in Hampden and Hampshire counties last year,” he explained. “There were probably 190 originators in our market, and we had 4% of that market. To me, there’s a lot of market share that can be acquired — and in many ways beyond bricks and mortar.”

This was a reference to emerging technology in the financial world and digital ways of doing business, a realm the bank has been on the leading edge of for years, Senecal noted — a trend he expects to continue.

Meanwhile, there is also room for growth in commercial lending, he said, adding quickly that the market remains highly competitive, despite the fact that the spate of mergers and acquisitions has actually created fewer players.

“There may be fewer banks, but there aren’t fewer lenders — this remains a very competitive environment fueled by historically low rates,” he explained, adding that area institutions are raising the already-high stakes by recruiting not simply individual lenders, but entire teams of lenders.

“I think the public institutions are feeling that they can steal market share by acquiring a group of commercial lenders,” he explained, adding that PeoplesBank has a different strategy, one focused on creating and maintaining relationships through stability.

“We’ve had very little turnover in our commercial lending area,” he explained, “and that has definitely helped us grow that part of our business.”

As for the overall growth strategy, Senecal said PeoplesBank has historically done it organically (it has never acquired another institution), and this trend will continue.

“When I arrived in 1995, this bank had $450 million in assets; today, we’re just about $2.1 billion,” he explained. “We did that through organic growth — putting branches in, increasing our loans, increasing our deposit base. We will continue to focus on that same strategy, although it’s definitely challenging.”

A Strong Bottom Line

When asked to compare and contrast work in the back room and on the front lines, Senecal said there are basic and very important differences.

“Having worked in the finance area, I’d say it’s very easy to make decisions looking at numbers and not understanding the customer impact,” he explained. “When you get to the front lines, you realize those decisions impact your customers, and they become more difficult.”

As he noted earlier, working in both environments will benefit him immensely as he goes about trying to move an already-lofty bar still higher.

He said he’s ready for the many challenges facing the banking industry today, and so is the institution he now leads.

In other words, the feeling is mutual — in all kinds of ways.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Education Sections

A Second Chance

Angela Gonzalez and Eboni Lopez

Angela Gonzalez and Eboni Lopez say Phoenix Academy Charter School in Springfield has helped them become successful.

Kayliana De La Cruz was quite candid as she talked about what her freshman year of school was like at Commerce High School.

“I had put a hard shell around myself and stopped caring,” said the 18-year-old from Springfield. “I kept everything inside; my face was like stone.”

Her attitude was reflected in her academic track record: she missed 100 out of 180 days and received horrible grades. “They kept me putting me in credit recovery, which meant sitting in front of a computer, and I just didn’t care,” she recalled.

Everything changed when a representative from Phoenix Academy Public Charter High School in Springfield gave a presentation at Commerce and her guidance counselor suggested she fill out an application.

She took the advice, albeit reluctantly. And although she initially found the stringent rules at Phoenix “really annoying,” today De La Cruz is — in her opinion and that of those around her — a much different person.

The transformation — very much still in progress — results from a combination of small classes, endless support, and the feeling of family generated within the school, which has has broken through her barriers and motivated her to succeed.

“Phoenix is a place where people rise from the ashes and get the chance to start again,” she told BusinessWest, as she wiped tears from her eyes and spoke about the help and personal attention that have led to her laudatory achievements.

“I’m a little softie now. I am doing really well. I’m running for student president, and I help a lot of other students,” she explained. “Everything is just coming naturally now.

“I passed the MCAS exam, and I really want to go to college,” she went on. “And if I see other students leaving the building, I tell them they better have a good excuse. Phoenix has made a real difference in my life. If I hadn’t come here, I don’t know where I would be right now.”

The teen’s high praise is mirrored in stories from other students who told BusinessWest they felt like failures and were ready to drop out before they found a safety net in the new downtown charter school, located within the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College.

“Our mission is to challenge students with rigorous academics and relentless support so they can recast themselves as resilient, self-sufficient adults in order to succeed in high school and beyond,” said Head of School Mickey Buhl.

He said the key to the school’s success is not just small classes, but the multi-faceted support and encouragement students receive from teachers so dedicated that many are there until 7 p.m. each night helping young people master their assignments.

“Their economic futures would be bleak without a high-school diploma, and our school creates an opportunity for them to move into a middle-class life; it’s our reason for being,” he said, adding that students cannot graduate from Phoenix until they have a letter of acceptance to a college, and groups have been taken to visit Boston University, Salem State University, UConn, Yale, and other institutions of secondary learning.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest goes inside the recently constructed walls of this unique facility to discover the reasons for its success and why it is worthy of the name on the door.

Network of Hope

The charter school, which opened its doors in September 2014 in temporary quarters, is part of the Phoenix network. Its first school was founded a decade ago in Chelsea; the second was an alternative public high school in Lawrence, which Phoenix was asked to run when the town went into receivership; and the third is its Springfield location, which serves students in Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke.

Students wear uniforms and are given a free Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus pass to get to school, where the day runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the exception of Fridays, when the hours are 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“We serve students ages 14 to 22 who need a second chance because they have not been successful in a traditional school,” said Buhl. “I was working today with a student who dropped out six years ago.”

He noted that many of these ‘scholars,’ which is the name given to all students, either left school or planned to due to continued failure and frustration.

Operations Director Angela Gonzalez is a graduate of Phoenix’s flagship school in Chelsea. She did well as a public high-school freshman, but lost interest in her sophomore year. Her mother was extremely strict, and once she discovered she could leave school or skip it entirely and they wouldn’t call her home, she began taking advantage of the newfound freedom.

That changed when a truant officer saw the teen on the streets. When she was taken back to school, she was told she would have to repeat the year because she had been absent 75 times, which meant she wouldn’t graduate with her class.

Gonzalez was referred to, and signed up for, Phoenix Academy, and although she had no plans to attend classes, a school official came to her house if she didn’t show up to change that equation.

“My mother would send him into my bedroom, and he told me I had 20 minutes to get up and get ready. And it worked,” she said, adding that the support she received and the knowledge that people cared so much about her was inspiring.

Mickey Buhl and Corey Yang

Mickey Buhl and Corey Yang say the support and personal attention scholars receive at Phoenix inspire them to achieve more than they thought possible.

“I could sit with the principal at lunch and share how I felt,” Gonzalez said, adding that the school’s leader was instrumental in keeping her on track when she got pregnant during January of her senior year.

“I thought I had ruined my life, but there was never any judgment — it was all about moving forward,” she recalled, adding that she is happy to be working at Phoenix, where she can give other students the same encouragement she enjoyed.

The school has a no-excuses policy, and Buhl said the staff has very high academic expectations. “We need the students to establish a new image and think of themselves as scholars,” he told BusinessWest, adding that society has labeled his students failures, and they feel that way when they arrive.

“But they do become scholars here; they are smart and have abilities and talents,” he noted. “Just because they have hard things knock them off track doesn’t mean they can’t achieve the same academic outcome as other students.”

By the Book

To meet that goal, classes are kept small by design, and many students stay after school for extra help. In addition, there is a voluntary Saturday session established by a teacher who conducts the sessions without pay.

“Our teachers really buy into the mission that we’re here to help students, and they are committed to helping them recast themselves as successful academically and personally,” Buhl said. “Our goal is to break through obstacles and change the scholar’s direction, and our teachers’ patience and extra effort are really remarkable. They invest heavily in their relationships with the kids.”

For example, many conduct home visits, even though it’s not required, and some go to appointments with students that range from court to counseling, while others take students shopping.

“We don’t succeed with every kid, but we do hold them to strict academic, behavioral, and attendance standards because we know they will have to overcome obstacles if they want to go to college and get a job to support themselves and their families,” Buhl explained. “They have to be resilient enough to overcome their pasts.”

He added that some students dropped out last year, but returned in the fall. “We tell them we will never lower our standards, but if they fail they can come back and try again.”

Community support also plays heavily into the equation.

“I have been a principal for 15 years in elementary, middle, and high school, and have never had support like this,” Buhl said. “There are at least 50 community agencies that we have partnered with to serve our scholars.”

They include organizations like the Young Parenting Program, the Department of Youth Services — some students are on probation or involved with the court system — and Springfield Public Schools. The latter works with Phoenix very effectively, and guidance counselors and principals frequently refer parents and their teens to the charter school.

Healthy Families is another nonprofit that connects with teachers and staff to coordinate services such as counseling, home support, and transportation. And the school has received a tremendous amount of help from STCC and the Technology Park.

“They’re a big reason why we are here; they wanted a school in this building, and the Technology Park has been integrally involved in our development,” Buhl said, explaining that, when Phoenix opened last year, classes were housed in a variety of rooms in the park while a building was renovated for it.

The school was completed in time for a September opening and includes its own day-care center, which is important because many students drop out because they get pregnant and have no one to watch their baby or children.

“We call it the Little Scholar Center,” Buhl said, adding that everyone in the school — staff, students, and the little scholars (if their parents choose) eat lunch together at the same time, which allows them to form close relationships.

Americorps volunteers also spend time at the school, tutoring students for the MCAS exams. And although staff members understand that the young people they are working with have a wide range of experiences, which can include being expelled or suspended from other schools, standards are rigid, and no exceptions are made.

Change of Heart

On a recent day, Anaeishly De Jesus sat in the principal’s office and proudly pulled an exam out of her book bag.

“I just got this back; it’s my history midterm, and I got an 89,” she said, wiping joyous tears from her eyes, as she spoke about her newfound academic success. “I’m getting A’s now. I was never like this before, but this school has changed me. I feel at home; the people are my family.”

It’s a far cry from where De Jesus was when she started at Phoenix; she cried bitter tears when she was told she was being sent to the charter school.

“I had been making bad choices, skipping classes, and disrupting teachers,” the 17-year-old said. “But I didn’t care because I was going to drop out.”

Anaeishly De Jesus and Kayliana De La Cruz

Anaeishly De Jesus and Kayliana De La Cruz say they are doing well in school thanks to the second chance Phoenix offered.

That changed as soon as she sat down in her first class at Phoenix. She felt comfortable and said the support since that time has been amazing. “If I do something bad, they don’t throw it in my face,” De Jesus noted, explaining, however, that students get demerits for things like chewing gum, having their phone out, or cursing.

“I didn’t ask for help at first, but my algebra teacher kept telling me she knew I could do the work,” she said. “I told her over and over that I couldn’t, but she insisted I could, and she sat down and showed me how.”

To her astonishment, she was able to follow the teacher’s instructions and completed the assignment.

“After that, I started finishing all my work, and also did my homework. It gives me energy to know that people actually care and want me to be successful in life,” she went on. “They give you a lot of chances here, and if you make a mistake, they still stand by your side. Kids can come here until they are 22, and you don’t get a GED; you get a real diploma.”

The belief that students can and will change if they are repeatedly encouraged and given another chance to do well is exemplified by Eboni Lopez, who transferred to Phoenix from Commerce High School.

“I used to skip classes, skip school, and was hanging out with the wrong crowd,” she said, adding she was going through some difficult life situations, which included being bullied.

She attended classes at Phoenix last year but remained unmotivated. However, this year, the 17-year-old has set ambitious goals for herself.

“I didn’t want to be here when I was 20, and knew I needed to change, so I put my foot down. I’m getting good grades, and my attendance is good now, too,” she said, adding that she is looking forward to graduating next year, enjoys playing soccer at school, and is interested in a career as an athletic trainer.

“I feel like I fit in this building,” Lopez said. “The people here push us to do everything we need to do. You have to meet the standards, and I don’t want to waste time. I am trying to get back on top.”

Corey Yang also attended Commerce before starting at Phoenix in September. At Commerce, he said, he was frustrated because he wasn’t making any progress and his teachers weren’t offering him extra help, even though he needed and wanted it.

The teen felt alone and unsupported, so he left school early each day or skipped it entirely, and was failing as a result. “I like learning new things, but I wasn’t getting anything out of school,” he told BusinessWest.

But that has changed since he entered Phoenix.

“I’ve met new people and am working hard,” he said, noting that he has attended the Saturday sessions because the teacher is a former wrestling coach and sets aside time for teens to wrestle under his supervision if they choose to do so, which Yang enjoys.

“I wanted to change and start trying; I wanted to see what would happen if I pushed myself,” he said.

And he has done exactly that, thanks to unprecedented support. “People want to help me with my work here and will also help get me into college,” the 16-year-old said, adding that his goal is to study computer engineering after graduation.

Expanding Opportunities

Last year, Phoenix accepted 125 students. This year, it has 175, and next year, it plans to accept 250 young people who need and want a second chance.

It’s a place where encouragement never ends. Twice a week there is a community meeting with the entire school body, and students and staff give each other shout-outs, recognize each other’s work with beads, and even publicly choose to apologize for inappropriate behaviors.

“Phoenix symbolizes rising after you have been burned, so students who have been kicked out of other schools always get a second chance here,” De La Cruz said. “To me, it’s a really amazing symbol.”

Cover Story
Area Farmers Benefit from a Changing Landscape

Ryan Voiland, owner and manager of Red Fire Farm

Ryan Voiland, owner and manager of Red Fire Farm, awaits customers at the weekly farmers market at Springfield’s Forest Park.

Joe Shoenfeld calls it “an attitudinal shift.”

That’s how he chose to describe a movement, for lack of a better term, that has made terms like ‘fresh,’ ‘healthy,’ ‘organic,’ ‘sustainable,’ and especially ‘local’ not just adjectives that dominate the lexicon — and also the marketing materials — of those who grow, sell, and prepare food, but also part of this region’s culture.

“I think we’ve definitely moved beyond something that could be called a fad or a trend regarding local purchasing and local food,” Shoenfeld, associate director for the Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment in the College of Natural Sciences at UMass Amherst, told BusinessWest. “Cynics may think it will fall away, and maybe interest will decline from where it is now. But what we’re seeing is a real shift, especially in Western Mass. There’s been a shift in attitudes about the local economy and about food, especially among the younger generations.”

And this shift is having a rather profound impact on the region’s agricultural sector, one that has manifested itself in countless ways. These include the rapidly growing number of farmers markets in area parks, downtowns, bank parking lots, and on the grounds of major employers like MassMutual and Baystate Medical Center; the buying habits of UMass Dining, the largest operation of its kind in the country, serving more than 45,000 meals a day; the ranks of restaurants loudly boasting a farm-to-table operating philosophy; the number of students in the Sustainable Food and Farming program at UMass (there were five in 2003 and 150 this past spring); and the number of acres Ryan Voiland is devoting to kale, that leafy green vegetable that has seen its popularity skyrocket in recent years.

“Kale has really taken off — as have many other things,” said Voiland, 37, owner and manager of Red Fire Farms, operating in Granby and Montague, and one of a sharply rising number of people who are considered new to the profession — and finding opportunity in that aforementioned attitudinal shift.

Joe Shoenfeld, right, and John Gerber

Joe Shoenfeld, right, and John Gerber both say that students at UMass Amherst reflect what they call an attitudinal shift toward buying local and eating healthier food.

Voiland, who said it would take less time to list what he doesn’t grow, now sells at many of those farmers markets, offers CSA (community-supported agriculture) shares, supplies several area restaurants and co-ops with fresh produce, and recently inked a roughly half-million-dollar contract with the Wegmans supermarket chain, which is expanding its reach in the Bay State.

“They approached us because they heard we had pretty good stuff, it’s certified organic, and in Massachusetts,” Voiland explained, adding that the first deliveries will begin in a few weeks. “They really wanted to link up with a farm that could provide enough volume to supply their Massachusetts stores, and they also want to promote that they’re making organic local produce available in their stores.”

Such motivations help explain why sales at nearly all of the farm’s various outlets have grown, and also why the Red Fire story is typical of what’s happening locally, both with relative newcomers like Voiland and individuals whose families have been working the land for generations.

This shift didn’t come about quickly or easily, and in many ways it is still evolving, said Phil Korman, executive director of Communities Involved in Sustainable Agriculture (CISA), which advocates for area farmers, engages the community to build the local food economy, and has launched, among other initiatives, the ‘Be a Local Hero’ program that now boasts more than 400 members, meaning those who grow products locally and those who buy them.

The new attitude came about through hard work on the part of CISA, other industry groups, and individual farmers themselves to generate far greater appreciation for the foods being grown and those tilling the soil, he explained.

“Part of what the problem has always been is that there’s been a lack of respect for the people who are growing our food and other farm products,” he said, adding that this is another attitude that is changing. “We’ve created an environment in this region where people love their farmers and they want to buy from their neighbors who are farmers.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how the landscape is changing, figuratively and quite literally, for area farmers, and why many believe, as Shoenfeld does, that this is not a trend or a fad, but a change with staying power and vast potential for growth of a proud industry.

Root Causes

Gideon Porth says farmers in Western Mass. probably have a different working definition of ‘drought’ than their counterparts in many other regions — especially those toiling in California, for example, which is experiencing a dry spell of epic proportions.

“In New England, we go two weeks without a drop of rain, and we start screaming ‘drought,’” Porth, owner of Atlas Farms in Deerfield and another newcomer to this profession, explained in a voice that blended sarcasm with a large dose of seriousness. “But we’re at about the one-month mark now, which is totally unheard of in April and May; we never seen that long a dry stretch, and the farm’s about as dry now as I’ve ever seen it.”

Gideon Porth, owner of Atlas Farm in Deerfield

Gideon Porth, owner of Atlas Farm in Deerfield, is one of many individuals who would be considered new to the profession.

And on the day he talked with BusinessWest, there was no end to this dry patch in sight. Indeed, the showers that visited early that morning did little more than make the dust more settled, he said with a laugh.

But while area farmers are looking at the blue skies with some apprehension (things were still quite dry at press time), there are fewer storm clouds in a figurative sense as well, and that development bodes well for a sector that was in sharp decline and defined by serious questions only 20 years ago.

Indeed, CISA was created out of concern for the future of this sector and a desire to advocate for it, said Korman.

“CISA started amid conversations among farmers and farm advocates who, in the mid-’90s, were concerned about the challenges to agriculture in Western Massachusetts,” he explained. “And some of those challenges still exist today — the challenge of accessible farmland, the loss of farmland to development, competing in a global economy, and public policy favoring very large industrial farms.”

Out of those conversations, a grant was obtained from the Kellogg Foundation to basically use marketing for social issues, he went on, adding that CISA began to promote local farms to their neighbors. And two decades later, it’s clear that these efforts have been quite successful.

Indeed, the 2015 edition of CISA’s Locally Grown, a farm-products guide covering the Pioneer Valley, now boasts more than 400 busineses, including more than 250 farms that grow products and a host of restaurants, co-ops, supermarkets, colleges, hospitals, retirement homes, and other businesses that sell or buy them.

“Every single year, that number goes up,” said Korman, adding that there are now more than 60,000 copies of the guide published, putting information in the hands of those who want to buy local and buy healthier foods — a rapidly growing constituency.

How this attitudinal shift described by Shoenfeld, Korman, and others came about is largely a function of changing priorities and growing concerns about health and the environment. And while this movement is cross-generational, in many respects, it is younger people who are leading this charge and who also have the power — and the inclination — to ensure that this isn’t a fad.

“This change has been evolving for a long time,” said Shoenfeld. “And I think it goes all the way back to basic understandings about ecology that started with Silent Spring [the Rachel Carson book credited by many with igniting the environmental movement in the ’60s], and moved on from there to climate change and personal human health and the unexplainable new health problems that our culture seems to be coping with.

Phil Korman

Phil Korman says one of CISA’s goals is to expand economic opportunities for farmers, which it does through initiatives ranging from its ‘Local Heroes’ program to winter farmers markets.

“People are concerned and want to see what they can do themselves to control those aspects of their life that they can,” he went on. “And one of the aspects of your life that you can have a little more control over is what you eat and where it comes from. Perhaps not total control, at least at this point, but more. I think that’s where this is coming from.”

John Gerber, a professor of Sustainable Food & Farming at UMass Amherst, agreed, and referenced students at the university as examples of those espousing what might be considered new thinking.

“There’s both fear and opportunity,” he said with regard to current events and daily headlines. “Every time you open the newspaper, you see an egg recall or a cantaloupe recall, or a processed-food recall, and that leads to question marks. And then, these students see opportunity; they go to the dining commons and see that their potatoes are coming from a farm almost within eyesight of that dining commons.

“And there’s a connection there — a meaningful connection to something that’s real,” he went on. “The processed foods — things that come in a can or a box — don’t feel real, and a lot of people, especially young people, are searching for meaning in their lives. And food is something you can actually do something about.”

But there is much more to the buy-local and eat-healthier movements than college students looking for meaning, said those we spoke with, adding that society in general is trying to get healthier and paying more attention to the notion of supporting the local economy.

The trend, or shift, hasn’t caught on everywhere, said Gerber, but there are some hot spots, and the Bay State — especially Western Mass. — is certainly one of them. (Washington and Oregon would constitute another, while Southern California would be a third.)

“From a production perspective, we’re seeing a lot of young farmers getting involved in what they consider to be a meaningful life, producing something real — food for a population that seems to demand it,” he explained. “There are many places in this country where this is not on the radar, but we’re seeing it grow.”

Experts in Their Field

Since arriving at UMass Dining more than a decade ago, Ken Toong, who now leads Auxiliary Enterprises at the university, has implemented a number of initiatives that have made that operation one of the nation’s leaders, a program that schools across the country are trying to emulate.

Steps have ranged from spending tens of millions of dollars to modernize and upgrade the dining commons, to the introduction of sushi as a staple on the menu (the school now serves roughly 3,000 pieces a day); from the implementation of food trucks that roam the sprawling campus and bring a new layer of convenience to students, to use of so-called ‘trash fish’ to both broaden students’ palettes and provide new opportunities to the region’s beleaguered fishing industry.

But arguably his most impactful initiative has been a campaign to buy local, a program not only supported by students, but, in many ways, demanded by them.

“As we survey our students, more than 80% of them think buying local is important to them, and they want to see more of it,” said Garett DiStefano, director of Residential Dining at the Amherst campus. “And that number’s been going up steadily over the past five years as well.”

This is a far-reaching plan, one with several goals, including healthier eating, support of the local economy, and conversion of the Hampshire Dining Commons, the largest on the Amherst campus, into an eatery “dedicated to healthy, local, sustainable, and great-tasting foods and to providing a defensible and cost-effective example for all campuses to emulate.”

That’s wording from one of the slides in a PowerPoint presentation called “Diving into the Numbers: A Local Food Data Analysis,” which, as that title suggests, uses hard nunbers, and lots of them, to explain the UMass Amherst program.

Mike Cecchi

Mike Cecchi says the buy-local movement has created new opportunities for E. Cecchi Farms, started by his grandfather in 1946.

The buy-local initiative is measured in a number of ways, but especially the figure $3.25 million, which represents the number spent in FY 2015 (which ends in a few weeks) on what would be considered local or sustainable produce. That includes roughly 100 vendors, said Toong, and encompasses everything from pizza dough from Angie’s Tortellini in Westfield to honey supplied by the Hadley Sugar Shack, to milk purchased from Mapleline Farm in Hadley. And it includes several kinds of fruits and vegetables grown by Joe Czajkowski on land in Hadley that his family has tilled since 1916.

The university spent nearly $500,000 with Czajkowski, who farms a total of 400 acres, 162 of them certified organic, during FY ’15, on everything from tomatoes and carrots to french fries and blueberries. The contract is one of the the more visible examples of that attitude shift described by Shoenfeld, and one that has helped open many new doors for the operation.

“Ken Toong had a lot of interest in buying local, and we were already there,” said Czakjkowski, who said he was supplying a small amount of produce to the university’s Top of the Campus restaurant (part of University Enterprises) when the university decided to escalate its local buying in a significant way.

“It’s like having an anchor store in a mall — this helps us do a better job with other customers,” Czajkowski said of the UMass contract, adding that it has, in many ways, inspired and facilitated contracts with the Worcester and Chicopee school systems, other members of the Five College system, Baystate Health, Cooley Dickinson Hospital, and other institutions. “We’re out getting things for one school; now it’s possible to get things for the Chicopee schools and the Worcester schools and pull the orders together because we’re already doing it.”

In many ways, Czajkowki’s story is typical of many of the established farmers in the region, who have found new outlets for their crops in restaurants, schools, supermarket chains, and businesses that now buy local for many reasons, including the fact that their customers are expecting and even demanding it.

Mike Cecchi would fall in that latter category. His grandfather started working some land in Feeding Hills not long after emigrating from Italy in 1946, and the tradition has continued since.

The 90-acre operation is known for its corn, but grows everything from asparagus to zucchini, with most of the letters of the alphabet covered by Cecchi crops.

Like other farmers we spoke with, he has customers that come in many forms — from individuals visiting the huge farmstand on Springfield Street to the Geisler’s supermarket chain and Big Y Foods, to restaurants ranging from Lattitude to ABC Pizza — and he’s seeing more interest in all those products.

“The buy-local, buy-healthier trend is having an effect on both the retail and wholesale sides,” he explained. “There’s just a lot more demand for what we grow.”

Beet Reporters

But maybe the more compelling change to the region’s agricultural landscape is the number of newcomers to the industry — people choosing to enter the field not because their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather did, but because it’s a profession they believe has many different kinds of rewards.

Porth is one of these individuals. He started a dozen years ago, taking a passion for agriculture that he developed while working on a farm in college and turning it into a career.

Joe Czajkowski

Joe Czajkowski says his contract with UMass has facilitated other sourcing of his many crops.

“I wanted to start my own operation, but I didn’t have land or equipment or money,” he explained. “I had an opportunity to go back to school at UMass and got a master’s degree in plant and soil science. I had an opportunity to stay at UMass and teach, but had the bug to get going.”

And he did, starting with three acres — “it was like a big market garden” — and accumulating additional pieces of land over time. He now farms 85 acres in two locations in Deerfield, half of which he owns, and the rest he leases.

Lettuce and leafy greens are the specialty at Atlas — yes, kale is a big part of that mix — but there is a wide variety of crops. And they’re sold in many different ways, from company-operated farmstands to farmers markets; from a form of CSAs to wholesaling efforts involving outlets ranging from the Whole Foods chain to the River Valley Co-op in Northampton.

Porth entered the business as the buy-local movement was gaining steam, and he’s watched it create a number of new opportunities.

“The whole buy-local trend has really benefited the farm,” he explained. “The farm started in 2004, just as this was gaining traction, and it’s just grown from there. Each year that goes by, we’re seeing more and more from the restaurant world, but grocery stores are really getting on board as well; their customers want local, and at the farm store and farmers markets, business keeps increasing with people demanding foods that are healthy and local.”

Voiland, who would also be considered part of this new breed, agreed.

He started virtually from scratch, with a tiny roadside stand he opened when he was in middle school, selling items from the family garden and various wild berries he picked. By the time he was in college, he was renting 10 acres from an “old timer.” Soon after graduating, he acquired land in Granby and, well, put down roots.

The operation, which employs 80 to 100 people during peak seasons, now boasts roughly 30 acres in Granby and 70 in Montague, and recently expanded into Belchertown with a variety of fruit trees.

“If you can grow it in this climate, we probably grow it,” said Voiland, adding that Red Fire produces everything from arugula and baby kale to a host of root vegetables, including potatoes, carrots, and radishes. It is perhaps best known for its tomatoes, and stages a one-day festival at the Granby facility on the fourth Saturday in August focused on that versatile vegetable and featuring more than 150 varieties.

As he talked with BusinessWest at a weekly farmers market in Springfield’s Forest Park at which Red Fire is now a regular, Voiland, like Porth and others, made heavy use of the word ‘diversified,’ and used it to describe not only what he grows, but how he sells those crops.

Indeed, in addition to several farmers markets — in this region but also in Greater Boston — he also sells CSAs, through which households pay a set amount ($550 to $600 annually in this case, depending on which option the customer chooses) for weekly distributions of all those aforementioned vegetables and fruits, starting later this month. There are also pick-your-own fields, farm stands in both Granby and Montague that operate from May 1 to at least Halloween, and wholesale business to restaurants such as Alvah Stone in Montague and others in Boston; co-ops, including the Greenfields Market & Co-op in Greenfield; and supermarkets such as Fresh Acres, operated by the Big Y chain, and now Wegmans.

While the CSA movement has essentially peaked and business is flat in that realm due to oversaturation, Voiland said, the needle continues to move up with those other revenue streams.

“With restaurants, and consumers in general, there is more awareness of food and wanting to eat good food, both in terms of one’s health, but also the flavor,” he told BusinessWest. “The stuff we grow can help in both ways. We’re focused on freshness, and we grow varieties that taste good; we’re not so concerned about varieties that ship well and keep forever in the truck like some of the stuff that shows up in supermarkets.”

Yield Signs

While the outlook for the region’s agricultural sector certainly looks promising, this remains an ultra-challenging profession, said Shoenfeld, Gerber, Korman, and the farmers we spoke with.

The competition is truly global, margins are generally quite thin, and there are many factors simply beyond the farmer’s control — especially the weather.

“Farming is not for the faint of heart — whether you’re a new farmer or you’ve done it for multiple generations in your family,” said Shoenfeld. “It’s hard work, and there’s a lot of problem solving to be done. But it’s interesting to think about all the new energy being brought by those new farmers, most of them young, but not all them — we’ve seen a number of career changers moving into farming.

“And it’s interesting to wonder how this energy from the new farmers, and the smarts that they might be bringing from other sectors of the economy, might affect some of these seemingly very difficult issues facing farmers,” he went on.

Overall, to succeed in this environment, farmers have to be well-trained and highly skilled, said Korman, adding that many in this profession are now receiving the respect they deserve.

“This is a highly skilled position, and people are now realizing that,” he explained. “The person has to be able to understand quite well the strength of the soil and what needs to be added to it; they have to be a really good business person, understanding which parts of their business are profitable and not as profitable; they need to be able to communicate what they grow and what they’re selling to hundreds of thousands of people; they need to compete globally; and they need to deal with totally unpredictable work conditions, which most of us don’t have to do.”

CISA provides help to farmers coping with these challenges in the form of technical assistance that covers basically everything but growing practices, he said, such as education in how to write a press release or to how to construct a business plan.

And much of CISA’s work involves opening up new markets and avenues for sales, said Korman, citing, as just one example, winter farmers markets.

“Five years ago, there were none of them in Massachusetts,” he said. “The first one was a one-day market in Greenfield launched by the community, and we did one in Northampton in 2010 that had 2,000 people come in four hours.

“Now, there is an ongoing winter farmers market in seven different towns in Western Massachusetts,” he went on, adding that participating farmers sell everything from root vegetables to cheese; from maple syrup to preserved foods like jams and jellies.

Another example of new markets is a trend toward selling at various workplaces, he went on, adding that MassMutual now has what amounts to its own farmers market, and Baystate Health hosts CSA distributions at several of its facilities.

Manwhile, CISA stages what Korman called “meet-and-greets” between farmers and a range of potential customers that could use their goods, including restaurant owners, co-op managers, nursing-home operators, college food-service administrators, and hotel managers.

“We’re always trying to expand economic opportunities for farmers, and also make more connections in the community,” he explained. “And when one takes a look at national statistics, they’ll see that Massachusetts ranks third in the nation in terms of direct market sales for operations, and we’re first in the nation in the percentage of farms with CSAs.”

Those statistics and others result from farmers responding to their challenges and opportunities with diligence and creativity, said Shoenfeld, adding that they are finding new and intriguing ways to essentially bring the farm to consumers — including those who live 100 miles away in Boston — and make healthier foods available and affordable to those in all income classes.

“We’re seeing attention paid to how good, fresh, locally grown food can get into the hands of those who traditionally seemed like they couldn’t afford it,” he explained. “One refrain heard over the past 10 years is that this is just for people who have spare dollars to spend on food. Increasingly, we’re understanding that fresh, local food is one of the keys to improving some of our health issues, like obesity, and we’re finding that fresh, local food in elementary schools and junior high schools, with the farmer coming in to talk about it once or twice a year, is something that prompts kids to take home information about healthy eating and exercise. And that’s a pretty powerful idea.”

Looking ahead, Gerber said there is promise of continued growth for this sector. Indeed, while Western Mass. is among the nation’s leaders in the percentage of food bought locally — the number is at or just over 15% at present — that still leaves 85% that is not purchased from area producers.

That number can’t reach 100% in this climate for obvious reasons, he told BusinessWest, but it can go considerably higher, and he expects that it will.

“Food Solutions has a target of 50% local food by 2060 — ‘50 by 60’ is their campaign, and that’s driven by climate change, energy costs, and especially health concerns,” he said.

“If I was going to predict the future, I would project continued growth. Not without difficulty, not without pain, and not without disruption, but certainly continued growth.”

Till Tomorrow

Returning once again to the dining commons at UMass Amherst to get his points across, Shoenfeld said students there will not be abandoning their philosophies about eating healthier and buying local when they get their diplomas.

“As they emerge from a place like UMass, where they’re eating this fabulous local food in their dining commons and start cooking for themselves … they’re already interested in and wanting local, healthy food that supports local farmers,” he told BusinessWest. “And I think that’s going to stick with them.”

If he’s right, then the attitudinal shift that he and others described will become even more pronounced, and that will generate even more opportunities for area farmers, who are already sowing seeds for a brighter future, in every sense of that phrase.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story
Roca Is Relentless in Efforts to Give Young People a Fresh Start

Christine Judd, director of Roca’s Springfield facility, with Kadeem Batchelor

Christine Judd, director of Roca’s Springfield facility, with Kadeem Batchelor, one of the “young people” now in phase 1 of the agency’s intense intervention program.

It’s called Roca — that’s Spanish for rock, as in rock solid. And it’s an apt name for an organization, created in 1988, that helps very high-risk individuals — those who have been incarcerated, are in gangs, have substance-abuse issues, and have dropped out of school — somehow get their lives on a much better track. Now four years old, Roca’s Springfield office is enjoying success with this daunting task by being, in a word, relentless.

David Rios says that, in the weeks and months after he entered the Roca program in Springfield last summer, “the street,” as he called it, kept trying to lure him back to a lifestyle that eventually landed him in the Hampden County Correctional Facility in Ludlow, and he was often tempted — very tempted.

And it’s easy to see why.

Indeed, the money he could make selling drugs was almost exponentially higher than what he earned shoveling snow, clearing fire hydrants, mowing lawns, and cleaning alleyways in downtown Holyoke — just some of the many assignments parceled out as part of Roca’s transitional employment efforts.

But what kept him from returning to the streets was something far more important — and powerful — than money.

“I’m the father of six now, and I saw myself either looking at them through glass and explaining to them why I was there, or being out with them,” he told BusinessWest. “I put my mind in a place where I wanted to be home and be able to see my kids and hug my kids.”

Helping all the “young people” — that’s the term this organization uses in reference to those it works with — who come through the doors find such a place is the unofficial mission statement for Roca, which was founded in Chelsea in 1988 and expanded into Springfield in 2010 and later into Boston.

Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe

Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe

The official mission is to “disrupt the cycle of incarceration and poverty by helping young people transform their lives,” and it carries out this mission through a four-year program that all those involved, from Christine Judd, director of the Springfield facility, to Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe, to people like Rios, described with the word intense.

“And it needs to be because of the people we’re working with,” said Judd, noting that Roca — which translates into ‘rock’ in Spanish — was designed specifically for individuals (in Springfield, males ages 17-24) who are seriously at risk, meaning they’ve been incarcerated, have no real work history, dropped out of school, and usually needed to be dragged into this program kicking and screaming.

She calls them “Roca kids.”

Ashe, sheriff for more than 40 years now, needed a few more words to describe this constituency. “In every urban area in America today, there is a population of young people who are over a cliff,” he said. “And what we’re trying to do is set up a safety net at the bottom. Roca is that net; no other nonprofit, no other education center has been able to connect with this population and get them to consider changing their ways.”

David Rios

David Rios says he found it tempting to return to the street, but he’s been steeled by a desire not to view his children through the glass wall of a prison visiting center.

The intensity it takes to make this connection and get people into, and then to stay with, the program is only heightened by the fact that the organization’s efforts are funded through what’s known as a ‘pay for success’ (PFS) model, which, as the name suggests, only pays for Roca’s services if and when better outcomes are achieved and days of incarcerations are avoided, thus reducing the burden to the taxpayers.

A year into the unique PFS initiative, Roca is hitting its numbers and actually exceeding them, said Lili Elkins, the agency’s chief strategy officer, noting that, of the young men retained in Roca’s model 24 months or longer, 92% had no new arrests, 98% had no new technical violations, and 89% retained employment for at least 90 days.

While still in its relative infancy, at least when compared with the facility in Chelsea, Roca Springfield is making major contributions to that success record. Last December, the operation honored its first ‘graduates,’ those who had successfully completed the four-year program and moved on to permanent employment.

Trevor Gayle was one of them.

He’s now a full-time employee of Chase Management, a Springfield-based property-management company for which he handles a variety of duties ranging from painting to maintenance to apartment-turnover work. He has his own place now and has been able to put the street in his rear-view mirror.

When asked if he thought such a fate was possible when he came to Roca, somewhat reluctantly, in the summer of 2011 — after spending six months in jail for sitting in the seat next to a friend who shot and wounded an individual as he approached their vehicle — he paused a minute and shook his head.

“No … I never thought I’d be here,” he said as he sat at what amounts to the conference room at Chase’s office, explaining that he didn’t find Roca — it found him. “Every day, I think about how many times I could have been put away or put in the dirt, just because of me hanging out there. I’m really lucky.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Roca and how it manages to help people Gayle turn their lives around, stay out of prison, and beat the street.

Coming to Terms

Kadeem Batchelor said that, when he first arrived at Roca six months ago after spending four years at the Ludlow jail for “being young and following,” which translates into drug and gun crimes, he didn’t get the concept, or big picture, as he put it.

Suffice it to say, he gets it now.

“I was used to everything happening overnight,” he said. “Once I realized the concept that things don’t happen overnight, and once I calmed down and started listening, my outlook changed. Before I came here, I was ignorant and didn’t care; I’m much more mature now. Here, they show you how to face reality, stand up to your problems, just be a man about your situation and not try to take the easy way out.”

Such an attitudinal change is what Molly Baldwin had in mind when she founded Roca in 1988. The concept, as summed up in the marketing slogan ‘less jail, more future,’ was simple — use street outreach, data-driven case management, stage-based education, and employment training to reduce individuals’ involvement in crime, keep them out of jail, and help them get jobs.

Carrying out that mission has been anything but simple, but Roca has succeeded through partnerships — with constituencies ranging from law-enforcement officials to private business owners — that essentially involve the entire community in the work to keep young people on a path to success. “We’ve always operated with the attitude that everyone matters in life,” Baldwin told BusinessWest. “Today, many young people are having a lot of difficulties, but they, too, can make the changes to turn their lives around, and it’s a privilege to do this work.”

Roca’s success in Chelsea eventually caught the attention of Ashe, who, over the years, had created or adopted a number of programs to transition individuals from incarceration to the workforce, but needed a program that specifically focused on that ultra-high-risk constituency, which, as he said, was over a cliff, and possessed the requisite intensity to achieve results.

“We really liked the model,” he explained. “There is a relentless pursuit, or unyielding pursuit, of these people, and we knew that it took this kind of intensity, this kind of focus, to get young people away from a pursuit of drugs, violence, and gangs. Roca had the passion, the commitment, and the dedication to connect with this population.”

From the beginning, all those who became involved locally, at Ashe’s behest, understood the agency’s importance, its mission, and the many challenges to carrying it out.

Frank Fitzgerald, principal with Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law and a member of the original advisory board for Roca Springfield, said the City of Homes — like other major urban centers — has changed considerably since he grew up there.

“When I was a kid, we’d hang out on the corner; the cruiser would pull up, and the officer would crook a finger at us and put us in the back seat,” he recalled. “We’d say, ‘I didn’t do anything,’ and they’d say, ‘it’s not what you did, it’s what you’re thinking about doing.’ We’d be driven home to our parents, and the activities for the evening would be substantially curtailed.

“Today, in our core cities, it’s not like that — it’s serious crime,” he went on. “And this [Roca] is what we need; we need people out bringing these guys in, putting them through the program, and putting them to work. The economic benefit of someone who’s productive in society, as opposed to someone in jail, at the taxpayer’s expense, is huge.”

Trevor Gayle, a recent graduate of Roca

Trevor Gayle, a recent graduate of Roca, is now a full-time employee of Chase Management Service, whose owner, Sheryl Chase, saw an opportunity to help young men in the program.

The challenging demographic with which Roca works, as described by Judd, Ashe, and Fitzgerald, is captured in these statistics, supplied by Elkins: In FY 2014, the Springfield site served 140 young men in its intervention model, 97% of whom were Hispanic/Latino, African-American, or biracial; 97% had a history of arrests; 83% had prior convictions; 86% had dropped out of high school; 83% had a substance-abuse history; 81% were gang-involved; and 49% were young fathers.

Beyond these characteristics, many of the participants didn’t want anything to do with Roca — initially, at least — and that’s the way the agency wants it.

“If you want to be in, we don’t want you,” said Elkins, as she talked about all three Roca operations. “We’re an interesting program because we are truly focused on the highest-risk young men and the ones who are not able to engage in traditional programming. We joke with people and say, ‘if you’re able to show up for programming on your own, without us needing to harass you and drag you in, we’ll send you somewhere else because you’re too high-functioning, and you don’t need our services.’”

Judd agreed. “If you’re high-risk enough, and I’ve had a conversation with you and I deem you a Roca kid, we own you,” she said. “At which point, we’re relentless and we’ll stay on you, whether you want us to or not. Our outreach workers are constantly knocking on doors, and sometimes they’re slammed in their face; it’s a four-year program, and for that first six months, it’s about being relentless and building that relationship of trust.”

The Springfield program began with 50 such individuals and a staff of three. Things got started in a few rooms donated to the cause by Ashe, and the operation later moved into a small building on School Street. Its first day there, a tornado roared through the South End, just a few blocks away.

Since then, Roca has been an equally powerful force.

Work in Progress

Judd said the agency’s four-year program has three phases: the first six months (and there’s actually a phase within that phase); months six through 24, when transitional employment initiatives take place; and then the final two years, when the young people move on to outside placement with a number of area employers, including Beacon Management, Lenox American Saw, F.L. Roberts, Steven A. Roberts Landscape Architecture & Construction, and others.

Actually, work sometimes begins while someone is still incarcerated, so that when they reach Roca’s door, they know what the program is about and can, in some ways, hit the ground running, she explainedJudd added that, through that pay-for-success initiative, referrals come to Roca from probation departments, parole offices, the Department of Corrections, and the Department of Youth Services.

“We’ll go behind the wall in those facilities to meet with those young people and build those relationships before they get out,” she explained. “When they get out, we find their address, and we maintain contact; our whole goal is to get them into our building, and when they’re here, it’s very rare that they walk out without some sense of camaraderie, a sense of belonging, or a sense of family.”

Gayle recalls that he hadn’t been out of jail long after that shooting episode before those at Roca started looking for him. Actually, they went to his younger brother first, hoping he might be an intermediary and convince him to take part. Those plans didn’t go according to the script.

Christian Vasquez

Christian Vasquez, who arrived at Roca last summer, is working toward his GED and driver’s license, and possesses what he called a “new attitude.”

“My brother told me, ‘Trevor, you don’t want to do this — it’s the police after you again; what are they talking about, getting you a job? Don’t do it,’” he recalled, adding that, thankfully, he didn’t heed that advice. “I went down to Roca and decided to give it a shot; I didn’t want to keep getting incarcerated for things I didn’t do and wasn’t involved in, because that’s what it seemed like to me.”

But he admitted that it was difficult in the beginning. Indeed, like Rios, he said the street kept beckoning, and it was hard not to listen. Meanwhile, he didn’t take to the Roca way quickly or easily.

“In the early stages, I was being real belligerent, and they were telling me stuff that I couldn’t do, and I was upset because I couldn’t do it,” he recalled. “I was still in that phase where, if you tell me not to do something, I’m still going to do it anyway.”

Judd said such struggles are commonplace, and, as she talked about phase 1 of the program, she drew a comparison to the TV show The Biggest Loser and the beginning of those contestants’ experiences.

“That’s when you see the biggest behavioral change,” she explained. “The first time a young man walks into our door, his pants are down around his knees, he’s got his colors on, he’s representing his set. And his language and decorum are way off — he doesn’t look you in the eye, there’s no handshake … that’s the first 60 days.”

Transition Game

By the time those two months are over, there is usually recognizable change, she said, adding that the first phase of the program is dedicated to assessing an individual, achieving some measure of buy-in, and building the relationships and trust that will certainly be needed to get through phases 2 and 3.

The former involves transitional employment, she noted, adding that this takes place between months six and 24 and involves work four days a week for a host of employers, including the cities of Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee, as well as a few property-management companies, including Chase. The fifth day, Wednesday, is “development day,” said Judd, during which the young people work on everything from financial literacy to mock interviews to what she called “fatherhood class.”

The move from phase 2 to phase 3 equates to shifting from basic training to advanced programming, said Judd, adding that those who make this transition — and some make it more easily than others — become essentially temporary employees for several area companies, including the property-management businesses, F.L. Roberts, Lenox American Saw, and others.

“They either have a job or they’re still looking for a job, or whatever, but we’re working hard over the next two years to get them placed, get them in housing, or get them in school,” she explained. “This is where we say, ‘it’s time to put your big-boy pants on and do it. You still have our support; however, it’s time to grow up.’”

For phases 2 and 3 to meet their missions, and for participants to move on to graduation and permanent employment, Roca needs partners in the form of area employers willing to step forward and assist this still-high-risk demographic, Judd said.

Sheryl Chase became one willingly because she recognized the need, had some opportunities to help, and saw a responsibility to assist a constituency that many would prefer to ignore or designate as someone else’s problem.

“Roca is a great program, and its work is really important to the community,” said Chase, who now has a diverse portfolio that includes everything from single-family homes to a 50-unit apartment complex and manages 10 full-time employees.

She first became involved with the transitional-employment phase of the Roca program, using participants to help clear properties of the heavy snows last winter, before taking things to a higher level by hiring two men, one of them Gayle, full time.

The other hire didn’t work out, she said, an indication of how difficult it is for some to make the transition from the street to the workforce. “It’s tough going from making $1,000 a week selling drugs to making $12 an hour busting your butt; it’s a whole different mentality, and you have to answer to people in ways you’ve never had to answer to them before.”

Gayle is faring much better with the transition, said Chase, adding that the company is being supportive in any way it can. Indeed, while employees are required to have cars so they can get from site to site easily, that policy has been waived for Gayle, who either works with a partner or stays at one site all day.

“We understand the challenges he’s facing,” said Chase, “and are trying to help him succeed.”

Street Smarts

What Roca has been able to provide for both graduates and those still involved in its various phases is a sense of hope that they can leave the street behind and find something better, if not inherently more lucrative financially. It’s also provided both a desire to set goals and an attitude that they can, indeed, be met.

Gayle, 24, soon to be 25, calls them “power moves,” or big steps toward being successful in life. Getting a job was simply the first, he said, adding that he wants to eventually go back to school, become a great father to his son, own a home, and, most importantly, become a role model for his child.

“I feel like, if I can change everything around now, then when he gets older, when he starts acting up, because every kid goes through it … when he sees that and he sees how his father did it, he can definitely follow suit and do the same thing.”

As for Rios, he has three and half years to go before he graduates, but already he sees significant light at the of the tunnel.

“I see myself doing good; I see a lot of doors opening that I couldn’t imagine opening for me,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot, including stuff I didn’t even know that I could do.”

Christian Vasquez, like Batchelor, Gayle, and most others, was hard-headed when he arrived at Roca last summer after a short stint in prison that was nonetheless long enough to make him pledge never to go back.

But his stance eventually softened during that six-month period of transition Judd described. He’s working toward his GED and his driver’s license, is exploring possible paths to a career as a graphic artist, and has developed what he described as a new attitude.

“I’m carrying myself the right way, and I’m looking forward, not back at everything that happened,” he told BusinessWest. “I’ve changed a lot — I’m not the same person I used to be. I’m more calm, and I’m just striving for my goals like I’m supposed to. I’ve got stuff I’m looking forward to.”

Batchelor, meanwhile, is currently enrolled at Springfield Technical Community College, with designs on majoring in business, while also looking toward getting into comedy — he recently did a one-man show at Roca — or acting.

“Whatever you put your dream to, they’re here to support you,” he said of the staff and volunteers at Roca. “They can help you change your life.”

With that, he spoke for everyone who has somehow made it to and through Roca’s door.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

40 Under 40 The Class of 2014
Manager of Properties, Marketing and Human Relations, Century Investment Co., age 28

Liz-Cohen-Rappaport-01A chance encounter with an employee from W.F. Young led to Liz Rappaport working in that company’s Equine Division for a couple of years.

“There are few times when you have the opportunity to combine your vocation and your avocation,” said Rappaport, who has been riding horses since she was 10 and is an accomplished equestrian, including an Arabian Canadian championship. “I took it as a chance to work for a family business and get a lot of amazing opportunities at a young age; I was only 22.”

But another family business called —specifically, the commercial real-estate firm her grandfather started 70 years ago. So Rappaport went back to school to earn her MBA, then knocked on the door at Century Investment Co. “I said, ‘Dad, will you hire me? Because, if you don’t hire me, I’ll just apply to your competitors.’ That’s what got me hired.”

Over the past three years, Rappaport has managed the sale of more than $1 million in real estate and negotiated leases with a host of tenants at Century’s many properties.

“Technically, Dad calls me the assistant gofer,” she said. “One day, I’ll be doing a mortgage refinancing and signing tenants to 10-year leases, while the next day, I may have to go pick up trash somewhere or help out parking staff. I’m a jack of all trades, master of some, hopefully.”

One thing she has mastered is the technology of her industry, introducing new digital and print marketing materials and updating the bookkeeping system. “We’re bringing the company into the 21st century, updating accounting processes and establishing the first digital marketing campaign, getting us on the Internet.”

Rappaport also pours herself into civic volunteerism, most notably serving on the board of the Western Mass. Council of the Jimmy Fund, taking a leadership role in several fund-raising activities each year. She takes pride in helping to fight against childhood cancer, but is also proud of her place in her family’s business.

“I love working with my father, and I love real estate. I get to interact with tenants, but also get the finance side, the accounting aspects, the management side — a little bit of everything,” she said. “You’ve got to like what you do.”

— Joseph Bednar

40 Under 40 The Class of 2014
Quality Improvement Manager and Human Rights Coordinator, Department of Mental Health; Vice Chair, School Committee, City of Springfield, age 34

Denise-Hurst-01To say Denise Hurst has a passion for advocacy would be an understatement.

“I started off volunteering at the Everywomen’s Center while studying at UMass Amherst; I was a trained rape and sexual-assault counselor and advocate,” she explained. “From there, I landed a position with the Hampden County District Attorney’s Office, doing a lot of work around domestic violence and restraining orders. But I realized I needed to go back to school in order to further my education and get the skills needed to really advocate for those in need, particularly children and families.”

So she earned her master’s degree in social work at Springfield College while working for the state Department of Children and Families, spent time overseas in London as a child protective supervisor, and eventually transitioned to the state Department of Mental Health, where she works on quality improvement and human-rights issues.

On top of that, Hurst won a spot on the Springfield School Committee in 2009, and was re-elected last fall.

“I’m passionate about education, in particular for children in the city of Springfield,” she said. “I graduated from the public school system, and did so at a time when Springfield’s public schools had a better reputation. Now we have a lot of challenges, and there’s a sense that your zip code could dictate your future or how successful you can be. I want to help fight that idea.”

Hurst and her husband, Justin — a business owner and Springfield City Council member — are the first married couple to be named to the 40 Under Forty in the same year, but that doesn’t surprise former winner Ryan McCollum, owner of RMC Strategies, who nominated both. “They are truly the first family of Springfield in my eyes,” he said. “They love Springfield dearly and show it through activism in government, nonprofit volunteerism, and their professional life.”

It’s all about that passion, Denise Hurst said.

“I know what I’m doing will have life-changing effects for the broader community, and that can only be beneficial to us all,” she told BusinessWest. “Having grown up in Springfield, being a child of color, I’m passionate because I’m not that far removed from the many ills that affect our city.

“My mother always made it very clear we’re to help others,” she added. “I think it’s our responsibility.”

— Joseph Bednar

Education Sections
MacDuffie’s New Campus in Granby Offers Room for Growth

Steve Griffin, left, and Tom Addicks

Steve Griffin, left, and Tom Addicks say the Granby campus can help create a stronger balance between boarding and day students.

Steve Griffin wasn’t at the MacDuffie School campus on Ames Hill in Springfield when the June 1, 2011 tornado tore through the middle of it, uprooting huge trees and damaging century-old buildings as it moved east.

He started as head of the then-121-year-old school two weeks later, when the institution was still sorting out the damage, adding up the cost, and counting blessings — the tornado hit on the last day of classes, and students and staff took shelter in a basement, with no recorded injuries.

Originally, Griffin’s first assignment when he arrived was to oversee relocation of the school to new quarters on the grounds of the former St. Hyacinth seminary in Granby — a process that started roughly two years earlier — but the tornado changed that plan somewhat. The new first order business would be a healing process.

“We have many tornado stories from the campus,” said Griffin. “And from my standpoint, since I wasn’t here during the storm, I was unaware of the extent of it, but you had people, even a year later, opening file folders and seeing shards of glass fall out.”

But if the memories of the tornado and some of the physical evidence of that day still remain, MacDuffie has certainly moved on from that calamity and some years of economic struggle that preceded it, and the new campus in Granby has greatly facilitated that process.

Indeed, the move represented what Griffin called a “new day” for the institution, and in many respects.

He explained to BusinessWest that the new campus enables the school to market itself more effectively to a much wider audiences — from residents of Hampshire County communities such as Amherst and Northampton, who were previously intimidated by a commute to Springfield, to international students.

The sprawling campus, coupled with recent renovation and expansion efforts, are enabling MacDuffie to continue and expand its respected academic programs, while also making huge strides in efforts to take its athletic programs to a much higher level.

The former St. Hyacinth seminary in Granby

The former St. Hyacinth seminary in Granby offers an environment in which the MacDuffie School can grow, with more classroom space, boarding quarters, and several acres of playing fields.

At the Springfield site, there were no playing fields to speak of, said Tom Addicks, assistant head of school and a math teacher, adding that the school had to make use of various municipal parks and sports facilities. “And here, we have so many playing fields and a very in-depth sports program, and that was very appealing to us.”

The sprawling grounds that roll out like green carpet to the stately stone former seminary offers the classic New England preparatory-school experience that appeals to parents of American and international students, and allows MacDuffie to compete with nearby Wilbraham Monson, Deerfield Academy, and Suffield Academy, said Griffin.

“The site is a real gem; it’s got the ‘look’ when you drive up the drive — ‘majestic’ is a great word for it considering the open space, the pastoral setting,” he noted. “I think parents feel this will be a safe environment for their children to learn, both day students as well as international students.”

And there are now hopes — and high expectations — for growing enrollment in both the day and boarding categories, he went on, adding that enrollment is currently at 246, with a capacity of 270 and a firm resolve to get to that number.

For this issue and its focus on education and going back to school, BusinessWest toured the ‘new’ MacDuffie, and talked at length with administrators about why the new location and facilities will help students grow physically, culturally, and academically.


History Lesson

MacDuffie can trace its history back to one of the first graduates of Radcliffe College, Abigail MacDuffie.

In 1890, she and her husband, John, recognized a need in the Greater Springfield area for a strong college-preparatory school that would open doors for women and provide them access to to the same quality education they received at Radcliffe and Harvard, respectively.

They opened the MacDuffie School with 70 girls and quickly earned a reputation for excellence, one that would eventually draw students from across the area and around the world. By 1990, the school had taken on a far more international feel — in many ways out of necessity —  with students from many foreign countries.

By the dawn of the new millennium, however, MacDuffie’s enrollment was falling, and the urban campus in Springfield, one that had charm but was still lacking in facilities, was viewed as one of the main reasons why.

The school’s board quietly began a search for a new, more suburban home, and eventually narrowed that search to the former St. Hyacinth’s, which had become a temporary home to Holyoke Catholic High School.

MacDuffie officials eventually commenced negotiations with Wayne Brewer, who was eyeing the site as home for the planned Granby Preparatory Academy, a facility he blueprinted based on a model very similar to MacDuffie’s. The school would go on to purchase the assets and intellectual property of Brewer’s business.

The school now owns 26 of the 500 acres at the St. Hyacinth’s location, with an additional 29 acres in negotiation. It has invested millions in building infrastructure, sports fields, and classroom improvements — including expanded dance, music, and art facilities — since the summer of 2011. Currently, a new computer lab is under construction within the main academic building, while a new, 400-seat auditorium, more classroom and boarding space, and sports facilities are in the planning stages.

The new location had an immediate and profound impact on enrollment, said Griffin, noting that there were 175 students at MacDuffie in the spring of 2011, and 206 enrolled by the start of classes that fall. The numbers have been steadily rising, due in large part to larger boarding facilities on the St. Hyacinth’s campus, which have enabled more students from overseas to enroll.

“There’s a real international appeal,” said Griffin. “The old campus was limited in its footprint, and we’ve been able to double the boarding population, and that’s just in two years.”

Moving forward, the school wants to grow enrollment in both the day and boarding categories, and create more balance within the student body; currently, 60% of those enrolled are boarding students, while the stated goal is a 50-50 split.

Historically, the school has been known for its performing-arts programs, specifically drama and dance, but is also noted for its math program, Addicks told BusinessWest. But while the academic offerings have never been an issue for the school, broadening its sporting opportunities had historically been a challenge.

The move to Granby has enabled the school to aggressively address such issues, said Addicks, noting that the MacDuffie Mustangs, members of the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council (NEPSAC), have moved to the AA division from the D division, a move made possible by improved facilities and a larger pool of student athletes.

The sports program includes boys and girls soccer, girls volleyball and lacrosse, badminton, cross country, golf, a swim club (which operates out of the Holyoke YMCA), tennis, ultimate Frisbee, and an advanced boys and girls basketball program that is bringing townspeople of Granby to the gymnasium.

“The town is realizing that this is some really high-quality basketball,” said Griffin. “The enhanced facilities have allowed us to broaden our appeal, so to speak.”

And broadening their appeal couldn’t have come at a better time.

“We survived the recession when other independent schools did not,” Griffin said. “However, while some private schools are recession-proof, most parents have to rely on more financial assistance these days.”

With day-school tuition at $20,250 (grades 6-8) and $25,250 (grades 9-12), and boarding tuition at $48,650 for all grades, Griffin and Addicks say MacDuffie’s prices are certainly competitive, and now offer additional value with the facilities at the new campus.

“I think our biggest selling point is the relationship we have between our teachers and our students, and our success at integrating our international students with our day students is a very important part of MacDuffie,” said Addicks.

Added Griffin, “we want our claim to fame to be known as the local full-service educational institution that can offer the individualized attention in a caring community.”


Common Ground

The tornado that touched down on June 1, 2011 represented a sad final chapter to MacDuffie’s long history in Springfield.

But as that book was closing, another was getting set to open 15 miles to the north.

The move to Granby was undertaken to give the school that new day that Griffin described, and the opportunity to grow and evolve in ways that were simply not possible on the Ames Hill campus.

Two years after the relocation, the picture is considerably brighter than it had been, and the potential for the future is as vast as the open spaces at MacDuffie’s new mailing address.


Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

40 Under 40 The Class of 2013
Owner, North Country Landscapes and Garden Center, age 34

Pelis-JustinJustin Pelis was making good use of his bachelor’s degree in Finance and Economics from UMass Amherst at a Boston accounting firm, but something just wasn’t right.
“I found myself spending more time in Boston Common than in the office,” Pelis recalled, and he made a move to head back to school with the goal of spending much more time outdoors.
With a second degree from the UMass Stockbridge School of Landscape Design and Horticulture, he purchased what was then a very small garden center in Westhampton called North Country Landscapes. With just two staff members at the start of the Great Recession, Pelis grew the business to 11 staffers who provide high-end, luxury landscape-design plans that include rock formations, stone patios, and walkways with integrated gardens.
Targeting what he calls the ‘aspirational gardener’ — the client who wants more of an artistic, outdoor living-room area that celebrates nature — Pelis took advantage of trends associated with the recession that impacted his industry.
“People were staying home more often, not going on vacations, and willing to put $20,000 or $30,000 into their backyard, with a patio and firepit,” he noted. “Now, they’re spending even more.”
While growing his business, Pelis has also broadened his involvement within the community, devoting more time and energy to civic causes that he finds personally rewarding and important in others’ lives.
Watching his late mother, who suffered for years with multiple sclerosis, enjoy an active quality of life through the Stavros Center, he decided to give back to that organization in her name by serving on the board beginning in 2012. Meanwhile, his love of art, and his desire to help others appreciate what is in their own backyard, has kept him active on the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center board and gala committee.
A frequent attendee of Northampton Area Young Professionals and Northampton Chamber of Commerce events, Pelis donates time to bowl-a-thons, golf tournaments, and nonprofit auctions, as well as donating birdbaths and garden-themed gift baskets from North Country Landscapes for raffles.
“I find it to be the cheapest and the most rewarding form of advertisement for my business,” he said, “and it feels good.”

— Elizabeth Taras

Sections Women in Businesss
Local United Way to Form Women’s Leadership Council

Dora Robinson, left, and Kathy Dube

Dora Robinson, left, and Kathy Dube say the timing is right for creation of a Women’s Leadership Council in Greater Springfield.

Kathy Dube says that talk of creating a women’s leadership council within the United Way of Pioneer Valley (UWPV) has been ongoing for some time now.
There was never any doubt about the benefits to creating such an organization, both within the community and for the women taking part, she explained, noting that there are now 130 such councils operating across the country in partnership with United Way chapters. And they have been effective in reaching out to women leaders in the community to engage and involve (the two words you see most often with respect to such groups) them in meeting the most pressing needs in a given area through donations of time, leadership, and financial support.
No, the only question facing the UWPV was whether a WLC, as they’re called, would duplicate the efforts of other women’s organizations in the area, such as the Women’s Fund of Western Mass. and the Professional Women’s Chamber of Commerce, said Dube, senior vice president and private banking officer with TD Bank and current chair of the UWPV board of directors. And some due diligence has determined that this would not be the case, she told BusinessWest, noting that while those groups and others do some of the things a leadership council would, they don’t do them all, and a council could fill what she described as a critical void.
“I felt there was a missing link between the professional women’s groups in Greater Springfield and the nonprofit world,” she explained. “And this is the perfect solution that pulls it all together. I don’t think there was a group that was doing all that a council does — fundraising, but also mentoring women in the process and getting actively involved in a key community need, and helping to put together a plan that solves an issue that we may have in Springfield.”
Thus, a 20-member “design team” is taking the concept for a leadership council from the drawing board to reality, said Dora Robinson, president and CEO of the UWPV and a member of that team. Some of the next steps in the process, and there are many, include everything from recruitment of members to creating an awareness campaign, to initiating discussions about possible projects for the council to undertake.
And there are intriguing examples to consider from across the country. In Cincinnati, for example, a WLC got directly involved in the plight of homeless women, doing everything from raising money for a new housing initiative to actually decorating the apartments. Meanwhile, the council affiliated with the United Way of Greater Chicago is involved in a partnership with the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School, and specifically an initiative known as its middle school academic intervention program, designed to ensure that girls stay on track to graduating from high school. And the council affiliated with the United Way of Northern New Jersey is helping to improve quality of live for those whose situation is described by the acronym ALICE: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.
In each case, the initiatives involve the three pillars of leadership council activity — financial support, volunteerism, and mentoring, said Dube, adding that the UWPV’s group will do the same in this market.

An Involved Process
Dube and Robinson both said that the catalyst for moving forward with the WLC came at a United Way conference in Nashville roughly a year ago.
One of the workshops was on women’s leadership councils, how they’ve evolved, and the many intriguing issues they were involved with, said Dube. “I left there thinking, we have to do this in the Springfield area.”
The reasons for doing so are obvious and many, she went on, but they come down to two: a strong base of professional women who want to get directly involved in the community, and an abundance of issues that could be addressed through donations of money, time, and talent.
“The timing is right for something like this in the Springfield area,” she told BusinessWest. “There are many issues to be addressed here.”
Robinson said the number of councils nationwide is growing steadily, primarily in response to national trends involving women, wealth, philanthropy, and effectively harnessing that power and influence. Among those trends:

• The Internal Revenue Service reported in 2010 that 2.5 million (38.8%) of the top wealth holders in the U.S. were women. These individuals had a combined net worth of almost $4.2 trillion. As of 2011, 50% of top wealth holders were women;
• In 2010, the Center for Women’s Business Research found that one in 10 women in the U.S. was a business owner, and their companies continue to grow at twice the rate of all firms; and
• Women live longer than men, meaning they will end up in charge of much of the $41 trillion expected to pass from generation to generation in the next 50 years.

“Given the fact that no two communities are alike with respect to the affluence and influence of women, the number of women-owned businesses, and opportunities for women to give and be involved, UWPV has a unique opportunity to build on the success of the national Women’s Leadership Council framework,” said Robinson. “We are committed to developing, designing, and implementing a program that is fitted to our local needs.”
And by that, she meant a council that can not only address recognized needs in the community, but also get women engaged and involved (there are those two words again) in not only creating a solution to a problem, but carrying it out.
Here’s how a women’s leadership conference works:
First, professional women are recruited to join. Membership involves an annual monetary donation, with those funds used to help finance projects the group will take part in. These donations vary with the market, said Dube, adding that while some councils assess $2,500 or more, the group in Hartford started with a few hundred dollars, opting to gradually increase that amount, a model that will likely be followed in this market.
Recruitment efforts are already underway on an informal basis, said Dube, adding that the design team will provide a solid base on which to build. One key to membership, she noted, is to make the council large enough to enable it to be effective, but not so large that members cannot be directly involved in a specific initiative.
“We want to make sure we know what we’re doing before we open it up to too many people,” she explained, adding that the initial goal will be 50 to 75. “But we have to make sure that those 50 to 75 are actively engaged in what we’re doing.”
The next big consideration is deciding what to do with the funds that are raised, or how to get the membership involved in the community it has been tasked with serving.
Existing councils are involved in a wide array of initiatives, as those examples from Cincinnati, New England, and Chicago clearly show, said Robinson, adding that a small yet effective council in Greenfield has been active with the broad issue of literacy and putting books in the hands of children.
And the Springfield-area group will be diligent in selecting projects that are impactful, but will also directly involve women in the group, said Dube, adding that many endeavors involving councils focus on helping women break from poverty.
“There have been discussions about doing a scholarship program for women who want to re-enter the workforce and need to go back to school to do that,” she noted. “And at the same time, we would weave into that mentoring and financial literacy training; that’s one possibility.”
The council will obviously look to avoid duplicating efforts already underway, said Robinson, noting, for example, that early childhood literacy, while an important issue, is being addressed by other groups, especially the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation.
“Initially, we’ll be looking for a project that has a start and a finish, so we can have some success,” Dube explained, citing the initiative in Cincinnati as one to emulate in that regard. “What was great about that project was that they recognized a need for housing, they went out and raised the money for it, and they did it — there was a start and an end, and now they’re moving on to another project.
“I think we’ll also try to find a project where we accomplish some objectives in a relatively short period of time, maybe a year,” she went on, “and then move onto another project that might be entirely different.”
Whatever direction the council takes, mentoring and direct involvement will be part of the equation, said Robinson, because those on the design team, and others who have expressed interest in the council concept have indicated that they want to do much more than write checks.
“There has been a fairly consistent theme around mentoring,” she noted. “Women want to be involved with other young women or girls in mentoring relationships. How that gets crafted into what we’re doing will be determined over the next few months.”

Impact Statement
The unofficial timeline for the council calls for a public launch sometime this fall, with planning and recruitment to take place in the months preceding.
But already there is considerable momentum for this initiative, which organizers believe has enormous potential to harness the desire among professional women in this region to donate more than money (although that’s certainly an important part of the equation) to the task of addressing some of the deeply rooted issues in area communities.
And addressing them by getting these women engaged and involved.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Education Sections
Kittredge Center Course Teaches Soft Skills That MBAs Overlook

Richard Steiner, CEO of MD Enterprises

Richard Steiner, CEO of MD Enterprises

It’s a familiar scenario in the workplace.

The venerated top sales professional gets his big break and lands the coveted manager position. But soon, something is wrong. The top seller has no idea how to manage people, and it’s affecting the entire office. He’s been doing his own thing for years, and it’s always worked, but now he’s got to deal with everyone else’s personalities and problems.

Meanwhile, the expectations from upper management are not only higher than in his previous position, but completely different. In some cases, add to that the jealousy factor in the office because someone feels they were overlooked for the job.

“This new situation has to be based on facts, not opinions, and in the workplace, emotions — like guns and knives — need to be left at the door,” said Richard Steiner, CEO of MD Enterprises and a freelance business trainer at Holyoke Community College (HCC). “It’s critical that you recalibrate the relationship to recognize that this is a ‘professional’ relationship.”

But knowing how to ‘recalibrate’ that professional relationship, from peer to manager, requires behavioral skills that may seem obvious, yet unfortunately don’t come naturally to some, and are completely foreign to others.

That’s where the American Management Assoc. comes in.

The AMA offers a certificate in Management program through the Kittredge Center at HCC. Steiner explained that the cost-effective courses are held either one day a week for two weeks, or one evening a week for five weeks.

Instead of the analytical and technical hard skills that MBAs focus on, this series of courses is all about dealing with people, time, and how both affect company profits.

“It’s a program of study that focuses on a practical way to learn the soft skills of management,” said Steiner, “the sorts of things you don’t pick up at an MBA course.”

Of the 14 courses, each of which costs $325, the subject matter covers “The ABCs of Management,” “Effective Team Building,” “Essentials of Supervision,” “Conducting Productive Performance Appraisals,” and “Effective Communication Skills,” to name a few. If an individual completes five of the 14 courses successfully, Steiner said, the AMA issues an internationally recognized management certificate through HCC.

Jim Phaneuf sees the value in such a program.

While nothing was broken from within, Phaneuf, president of Bell & Hudson Insurance Agency in Belchertown, knew that he could use some help in the area of time management. But not all company executives, or those on the fast track to the C-suite, think they need help.

“A lot of business people think they have things right where they want them to be,” said Phaneuf. “I’ve always had the feeling that, if we’re not improving all the time, someone else is.”

For several professional levels of management and front-line supervisors at Holyoke Gas and Electric (HG&E), the courses on communications, supervision, and management ‘ABCs’ were eye-openers, said Comptroller Brian Richards. He called the courses a ‘framework’ in which a mix of those with MBAs and those lacking any management training could put what they learn to real use.

“There are ideas that are not inherent, but once you are exposed to them, you may use them,” he explained. “But unless you have the framework to actually put those ideas to use, the actions are not always effective. These courses give you that type of framework to put ideas into action and practice.”

Brian Richards

Brian Richards says the courses are useful to both those with MBAs and those lacking any management training.

The beauty of the program, both Phaneuf and Steiner said, is that, no matter who takes one of the 14 courses — a professional on the management fast track or a business student — the vital soft skills can be used immediately as soon as they walk out the door.

Steiner’s said too few companies pay attention to the importance of people skills, “and they wind up losing a valuable employee and gaining an ineffective or even destructive manager.”

For this issue’s focus on education, BusinessWest sat down with Steiner and some of his former students, all professionals in the region, to learn about the unique AMA courses, and how their focus on soft skills often overlooked in MBA college programs can help not only office morale, but productivity ― and, ultimately, the bottom line.


Talk Is Cheap

While it’s hard for Steiner to pick which course is the most important overall, communication training is high on his list because it’s often overlooked in the workplace, or at least not identified as a major problem for companies.

Steiner said the course, “Effective Communication Skills,” is as important, and as basic, as it gets.

“If a manager is complaining about communication, he or she should look in the mirror,” he said. “Communications is a loop: message transmitted, received, and the receiver gives feedback. They either do what the instruction was, answer what the question was, or agree or disagree with a proposition and close that loop.

“As a transmitter,” he continued, “if you don’t get that feedback, ask for it.” But closing the loop all the way doesn’t happen often enough, and when communication is hampered, time is wasted and productivity goes down.

One of Steiner’s classic examples is what he calls the “stone story.” A manager asks an employee to go get him a stone. The employer goes out and brings back a stone, but the manager says, “I wanted a rounder stone.” The employee returns several times with more stones, none of which are the right kind because little to no direction or description was given. But, Steiner added, “the employee is also wasting time by not asking.”

While humorous, Steiner said everyone can identify with a similar situation in the past where they were the one searching fruitlessly for something — or the one, sadly, who was giving the weak instructions for what kind of ‘stone’ they wanted.

For Richards and the professionals from HG&E, the communication classes were well-received, due partly to what Richards calls Steiner’s ability to speak to everyone’s discipline. “He did a good job of a balancing act by not making it too boring for some and not too much for others,” he said. “For many, this was their first time being exposed to these types of ideas, and it was conducive for people who are in different jobs — engineering, accounting, etc. — working together, and those younger and older were able to share their experiences about how situations come up and how people handle them.”

While communication is high on Steiner’s list, he said “Essentials of Supervision” is another key course for someone on the management fast track, who learns what to expect in the transition and some of the pitfalls to avoid.

Steiner teaches why first-line supervisors are important and the issues they have to deal with, like the balance between needing time to learn management skills and understanding what management is expecting of the group. Add to that the new, required workload that can’t be delegated to others, as well as the challenge of managing a group of different personalities.

One pitfall to avoid: reverse delegation. This is a scenario, Steiner said, in which an employee is given a task, then comes back and says he or she doesn’t know how to do it, so the new supervisor says, “OK, I’ll do it; let me find something else for you to do.”

The consistent act of reverse delegation trains the employee to know the manager will always finish the job, similar to a child learning that when a parent says ‘no,’ it doesn’t mean that at all.

With almost a wink, Steiner added, “in essence, management is very much like bringing up children.”

He also teaches the balance between being a micromanager and letting the staff freewheel through their day with no oversight whatsoever. In the “Managing and Resolving Conflict” course, students learn that those in charge who don’t want to deal with conflict professionally are going to see problems grow and fester beyond the area of the manager’s responsibility and up to the next level, which reflects badly on the manager and his or her obvious lack of skills.

At this point, one starts to see how the specifics of each session melts into other topics. A manager’s consistent avoidance can lead to employees who lose motivation or escalate to major conflicts that never get resolved — and that can affect every area of company business.


Planning Makes Perfect

Of all the AMA courses, Steiner said the one he really enjoys teaching is “Conducting Productive Performance Appraisals” because it is absolutely the most misunderstood area of management.

“Feedback should be a continuous process, both positive and negative,” he told BusinessWest. “The idea of performance appraisal is to improve performance and productivity all year long; it should not be a point where the boss unloads on the employee … it should be a summary.”

Steiner said the contents of an annual performance review should not be a surprise to anyone, and bad reviews are a classic sign of manager avoidance.

During the weekly meetings leading up to the review, one of Steiner’s rules is to never play the blame game. Start with determining how the process broke down, and use ‘I,’ not ‘you.’ His example of what not to say: “you’re always late; you never meet your deadlines.” Instead: “on this day, I observed that you were late,” or “I saw that you missed your deadline by a few days.”

Steiner said this makes the feedback more easily accepted because the situation, similar to the jealousy problem, should be unemotional and based on facts, not opinions.

Meanwhile, the “Managing Multiple Priorities” course discusses a trap that many new managers fall into: automatically putting a new job at the top of the priority list, which endangers the deadlines of everything else. It’s all about planning, said Steiner.

“We do a lot of meetings in our office,” Phaneuf noted, “and one of the courses helped us learn about planning agendas and making sure only the most important items are covered in meetings. And we now have a great understanding the cost of meetings … and the importance of not ‘meeting people to death,’ because when you add up what people are making per hour, meetings are expensive when nothing is accomplished.”

To sum up the program, Steiner argues that a good management foundation is necessary to have the most profitable bottom line. “Then success brings visibility and approval from peers outside the team, resulting in pride in a job well done and the motivation to do even more.”

From years of being a consultant and working in management-level positions, he also weaves into his teaching an affirmation he calls “Plan. Do. Learn.”

“Plan what you want to do. Do it. Analyze the lessons learned after to find if it worked or not and what you would do differently in the future,” he explained. “That way, you don’t make the same mistake twice.”

Richards said the courses provide a framework so that participants can look back later to see which ideas are most successful and determine how to do a better job moving forward.

Phaneuf added that the courses were helpful to him and his staff, not only for the basic, yet vital concepts, but because of the ability to literally go back to school.

“Sometimes it’s good to have an outside person give a second opinion,” he said, “because you’re just too close to it.”

He and Richards are among a growing group of managers who understand that going back to school at any age or level of professional management can only help the company as a whole, by getting the most out of its greatest asset — its employees.


Elizabeth Taras may be reached at [email protected]

Nonprofit Management Sections
Colleges Tout the Value of Degrees in Nonprofit Management

Melissa Morriss-Olson

Melissa Morriss-Olson says nonprofits increasingly recognize the need to be more business-savvy.

“No money, no mission.”

That’s a commonly heard saying in the Nonprofit Management and Philanthropy graduate program at Bay Path College, a catchphrase repeated by professors and absorbed by students, many of whom already work for nonprofit organizations.

“You have to be able to manage the bottom line to fund your mission,” said Melissa Morriss-Olson, a professor in the program and Bay Path’s provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. “If you lose sight of that, all the good you want to do is not going to happen. You can’t have one without the other.”

Nonprofit organizations face tough sledding these days — with the economy sluggish and societal needs on the rise, fund-raising and program implementation is more difficult than it used to be (see story, page 16), and nonprofits increasingly realize that to compete and thrive in this environment, they have to run like for-profit businesses. One way that trend manifests itself is a proliferation in college degree programs centered on nonprofit management.

“I had founded a similar program in Chicago, one of the first academic centers for nonprofit management in the country,” Morriss-Olson said. “At the time, there were maybe 30 graduate programs in that field, and now there are well over 100 — and more than 300 colleges offer some kind of course in nonprofit management.

“That increase reflects a growing awareness of the nonprofit sector,” she continued. “It used to be that you fell into a job in the nonprofit sector; now it’s a much more well-defined career path for people who want to work in the sector. It’s everywhere in our country; in this area alone, probably once a month, a new nonprofit is starting.”

Kathryn Carlson Heler, director of the Master of Business Administration (MBA) program at Springfield College, said such programs are attractive not only to executives and employees of nonprofits who want to advance their skills and improve their organizations, but young people and older career changers alike who are looking to launch new enterprises or take roles in established ones.

“It’s a wonderful time for people to get an education in the nonprofit world because there are so many upcoming openings in the field,” she noted. “So many of the executives are looking forward to retirement, and there’s no one behind them.”

That said, “I’ve found that a business background is a perfect background for people in the nonprofit realm, because a nonprofit is a business — a business with a mission — and having the knowledge and skills to run a business is so important.”

Bay Path and Springfield are two area schools that have created graduate programs in nonprofit management, launching their efforts in 2006 and 2010, respectively. In this issue, BusinessWest examines the different shades of such programs — and why nonprofits, and those who lead them, are starting to take notice.


Different Flavors

Bay Path actually offers two separate degree programs for nonprofit professionals and those who want to get into some aspect of that world.

“One is an MS in Nonprofit Management and Philanthropy, and one is an MS in Strategic Fundraising and Philanthropy,” Morriss-Olson said. “They are distinct, both in the type of student who enrolls and the careers that each leads to.

The MS in Nonprofit Management and Philanthropy, she noted, is geared toward those who see themselves in a management role, such as executive director, director of operations, or chief financial officer. “It gives you a really good foundation for understanding the unique management and operating context that nonprofits have.

“When I came here,” she explained, “rather than just taking the Chicago program and dumping it at Bay Path, we convened a group of about 30 nonprofit leaders in the region. We invited them to campus and discussed what they saw as the more critical leadership needs of their organizations. We took that and turned it into an advisory group, and the courses are a direct response to what those leaders told us.”

Class topics range from board governance to strategic management; from finances to law and policy matters.

“One of the biggest issues we heard is the need to know how to manage a double bottom line — being not only financially viable, but also effective in realizing the mission,” Morriss-Olson said. “In the business world, you just worry about the bottom line, but in the nonprofit world, that’s not enough. You need to be mission-driven but also smart from a financial perspective.”

That unique perspective, she explained, informs the foundation of all the courses offered. “That emphasis is the focus of every single course you take, so when you graduate, you really are schooled in management issues through the lens of that unique operating context.”

Bay Path’s other track in nonprofit education is an MS in Strategic Fundraising and Philanthropy, and it was developed after the first degree program after students began requesting more coursework in fund-raising,” she explained. The program certainly provides that, with classes in communication and relationships, donor behavior, grant writing and foundation relations, capital campaigns, planned giving, and more. “Fund-raising and getting revenue is so critical for these organizations, and they want to know as much about it as they can.”

Springfield College included Nonprofit Management as a concentration in its MBA program launched just two years ago. The track is attractive to people eyeing opportunities in health care, recreation, youth, the arts, sports, and as fund-development officers, to name just a few possible career paths.

In creating a two-pronged MBA program, “we looked at what areas would be common between a for-profit business and a nonprofit, and we have a number of courses that both types of students take,” Carlson Heler said. “Those include courses on entrepreneurship, financial management, accounting, economics, and marketing. And then there are a couple of areas that are very specific to nonprofits; one is fund-raising and philanthropy, and another is governance of an organization, so we developed courses that focus on those.”

The overlap is natural, she said, at a time when nonprofits need to become more bottom-line-driven to survive.

“Foundations and corporations that donate are beginning to say, ‘we want the nonprofits who receive our money to be run like a business; we don’t want our money to be wasted,’” she noted.

Citing the research of Dennis Young of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Carlson Heler noted that there are two different classes of nonprofits. One comprises bodies that come together to meet an immediate need over a finite period of time; the groups that responded to Springfield’s tornado destruction last year are a good example.

“Then there’s the nonprofit that’s a real business. They need all those business skills because they’re competing not only for dollars, but also for customers.”

Even colleges that don’t specifically offer nonprofit management degrees recognize the overlap. David Stawacz, assistant vice president for Marketing and External Affairs at Western New England University, said MBA programs in general are valued in the nonprofit world.

“It’s the most recognized degree,” he said. “The skills you pick up in an MBA are readily transferable to running a nonprofit — strategic planning, qualitative analysis, leadership, finance, marketing, even organizational behavior. It’s not the same as running a for-profit business and going to shareholders, but you still need to have all those pieces of the puzzle in place.”

WNEU has seen the interests of the business and nonprofit communities interlock in other ways, too, including its eight-week Leadership Institute offered from February through April each year in conjunction with the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield.

“A lot of our MBA faculty teach the workshop. Once a week, people take one afternoon off a week and go downtown and focus on leadership and strategic thinking,” Stawacz said. “It’s open to all, and it was geared in the beginning toward business, but a lot of nonprofit organizations found it valuable, and it has grown quite popular with some of the nonprofits.

“It has a lot of the same principles behind an MBA, but in a much shorter time, with a much broader view of things,” he added. “In eight weeks, you can only accomplish so much, but there are definitely a lot of skills you can take back to a business or nonprofit. It also helps with networking opportunities between the nonprofit world and the business world.”


Moving On Up

Morriss-Olson said many nonprofit employees see a degree in philanthropy studies as a sort of career ladder.

“We get a lot of people, in both degrees, who have worked their way up, then got to the point where they realized they needed a graduate degree to jump to the next level. And we have executives who may not need the degree, but want to add to their experience,” she said, adding that they’re finding it to be a worthwhile endeavor.

“They tell me, ‘finally I’ve got a vocabulary to help me understand the work I’ve been doing all these years.’ The coursework has helped them frame their own experiences in a way they find very helpful.”

It also helps them develop new strategies for dealing with the myriad demands placed on nonprofits today.

For many just entering the field, she said, “what surprises them is how much time and attention they have to spend managing constituencies, whether it’s community leaders, board volunteers, donors, client families — it goes on and on. We have a course in the curriculum on board governance and volunteer management; it focuses on how to recruit and then effectively manage a board, but also how to effectively deal with the volunteers who will help you with your mission.”

But it’s not only established professionals who are signing up for the degree. “A number of our students want to start nonprofit organizations, and they’ve found that enrolling in this program is a great way to get help doing that,” she continued. “One of the wonderful things about our country is, if you have an interest and want to do some good, it’s very easy to get together and get state and federal recognition for your cause,” she said.

In either case, Morriss-Olson said, it helps that many courses are taught by actual nonprofit executives who bring real-world experience to the classroom. “That’s helping us marry theory to practice.”

Carlson Heler said enrollment in the nonprofit side of Springfield College’s MBA program is low, but growing steadily. “As I go around and talk about it, more and more individuals are interested in the degree and see its worth,” she said, adding, however, that efforts to boost the numbers encounter two problems.

“One is that the nonprofit world has, in the past, relied heavily on workshops and conferences to pass along the knowledge that is needed to run a nonprofit,” she explained, “and people have the attitude of, ‘well, I can just go to a workshop on how to do an audit, or a workshop on how to market my program,’ instead of thinking, ‘hey, how about a degree?’

“The second thing,” she continued, “is that it costs money to get a graduate degree. It can be expensive, and a lot of nonprofits do not have the funds to send their people back to school.”

She hopes that’s changing. “I have a wonderful student out of Connecticut who is an executive director; her board is paying her whole way because they do see the benefit.”

As those benefits become more apparent, expect enrollment to rise — not only locally, but across the country. After all, knowledge is power, and nonprofit organizations fighting for every dollar can never have too much of that.


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Employment Sections
What a Résumé Can Say — or Not Say — About a Candidate

Katherine Lamondia-Wrinkle

Katherine Lamondia-Wrinkle says the references from the résumé don’t always tell the whole story.

Cynthia Landry says that, despite many advances in the process of recruiting, evaluating, and eventually hiring talent, the résumé remains one of the most critical pieces of the puzzle.
It presents the candidate with a chance to make a case, she explained, and thus do what every job seeker strives to do — get their foot in the door. And yet, many simply don’t make effective use of that opportunity, and sometimes that’s why the door doesn’t open, said Landry, a human resources generalist for Health New England (HNE).
“The résumé is for you to put your best attributes out there so we can match your skills to the requirements of the job,” she told BusinessWest, adding quickly that such attributes can be lost amid too many words about things that don’t matter — someone’s hobbies, for example — and too few about what does matter, such as how an individual has helped a company grow revenues and reduce expenses.
Katherine Lamondia-Wrinkle, a partner with the law offices of Thomas M. Libbos, agrees. She said too many candidates fail to take full advantage of a résumé’s ability to make a good first impression. Meanwhile, she advises business owners and managers to maximize their opportunities to use a résumé to learn about a candidate, and thus pose effective questions that will enable them to ascertain more.
Kim Kenney-Rockwal, director of human resources for HNE, said there is an art and science to both writing and reading résumés, and she stressed the importance of using the document to not only present a past employment history, but also — and more importantly — explain what one has accomplished and how.
“If you have two people that are equally qualified, it’s hard to differentiate each one,” she explained. “You have to show how you stand out, and you need to show how you can bring more to that position than anyone else.”
For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest talked with several résumé readers and writers about what a résumé can say — and why, all too often, it doesn’t say enough.

The Write Stuff
Jill Grindle, a certified professional résumé writer who owns A Step Ahead Résumé in Agawam, said there are three styles of résumés.
The first and most common is the chronological résumé. While entirely overused, it serves a purpose for someone younger — say, a recent college graduate who doesn’t have much work history to report. The next is what’s known as the combination or hybrid, and it lists not only the dates and places one has worked, but also what they accomplished in that job. For instance, did the applicant start a new process that saved himself and others in the office time and effort? Did she go above and beyond her sales goals? Were they rewarded by their former employer for certain accomplishments?
The third style is the functional résumé, and, according to Grindle, this is the “job obituary.”
“It’s typically used when someone has a spotty work history and feels they need to minimize those gaps, but it’s a red flag for most employers, and it’s very hard to track when a skill was learned in what job during what dates.”
The functional résumé style lists a candidate’s information by skill sets, and while it does allow the person to match their skills to what a job description is requiring, it’s difficult for an employer to read, especially when 20 seconds is about all you get to make an impression on paper or computer screen.
Typically, those with many years out of the workforce — due to, say, raising a family, military obligations, or a multi-track job history — might use this style, but the hybrid should still be the number-one style choice.
Kenney-Rockwal says that fewer than one-quarter of the résumés that Health New England receives are in the hybrid format, and this is regrettable because opportunities are missed to showcase how a person has truly benefited a company.
“How much money did you save the company in what amount of time?” she said, referring to one question that a résumé should help answer. “Don’t just tell me what the role was; tell me what you did in that role to make it different.”
She adds that one of the biggest mistakes that people make is taking their former job description and simply transfering it onto the résumé.

Mind the Gap
But what about those gaps in a work history? According to Grindle, candidates should just be honest.
“If you were home raising children, say so,” she said. “If you had to leave full-time work to care for ailing children, you’re not alone. Many Baby Boomers, who are still a major force in the labor pool, are facing this same issue and will continue to for many years. If you were off for some time, what did you do during that time to gain more skills, or what effort did you take to make use of that time for the future?”
Kenney-Rockwal agrees, and said that the effort to keep strengthening skills during those gaps shows serious intent. “If someone is transitioning from one industry to another, then of course we are going to expect some gaps of time for education or job searching. Even using the time wisely to go back to school is important, and we recognize that.”
Elisa Rose, another human resources generalist with HNE, adds that some of the questions being asked these days regarding work-history gaps include inquires about what a person learned during their time off that can be beneficial to the company.
Lamondia-Wrinkle is leery of short-term hiccups in the work history, and uses the applicant’s references to do some fact-finding. Obviously, she’s looking for a reference to give a great review of the candidate, but sometimes the unfavorable review — if she can get it in this age of privacy laws and fears of legal ramification — doesn’t always tell the full story.
She gives the example of a recent position that had to be filled by someone who had fantastic people skills and would represent the firm at the first point of phone or in-person contact. One résumé presented the initial requirements, and after a stellar set of interviews, the reference from a former employer just didn’t add up for this particular candidate.
“Her references were not supportive of what her résumé said, but we really took a chance on who she was, how well she appeared, and how well-spoken she was — despite the poor references.”
Lamondia-Wrinkle says the situation turned out to be the result of bad feelings that lingered between the candidate and the former employer who made the past personal. “She really impressed us in the personal interview. She’s been a phenomenal asset to our company; she was the right person for the job.”

The Bottom Line
The résumé is still a force to be reckoned with and doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. Kenney-Rockwal says that not everybody can afford to hire a professional résumé writer, or automatically know the presentation skills that are necessary for the personal interview, but there are plenty of area organizations and career fairs that offer free services to help.
And, while there are many aspects to the job search, the résumé is one of the keys, she stressed — a key that just might open a door and allow one to get a foot inside.

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

40 Under 40 The Class of 2012
Practice Manager and Registered Nurse, Pediatric Services of Springfield

Nordstrom-NeilBeing the practice manager of a growing pediatric group — one that started in East Longmeadow in 1983 and added a second location in Wilbraham in 2005 — certainly keeps Neil Nordstrom busy. But he still craves something more.
“I basically run all facets of the business,” he said. “I do accounting, manage the personnel, basically all the day-to-day operations. I help the billers out. And then I’m a registered nurse, so I also help the nurses out. We have people in each department, but I’m the person they see to put out a lot of fires.
“I enjoy all those aspects of running a business. It’s very challenging, but I look forward to coming to work every day,” said Nordstrom, who has also spearheaded technological innovation in the practice, such as incorporating tablet devices in patient care.
What he craves, however, is more interaction with patients — and he’s doing something about it. “I enjoy the kids, and I love pediatrics, so I’m going back to school and finishing my doctorate as a family nurse practitioner,” he said. “I love business management, but now I’m actually going to get back into the clinical world, and I’ll start seeing patients in 2013.”
But his workplace isn’t the only venue Nordstrom has shown a commitment to young people. He has coached multiple sports in Wilbraham over the years, in addition to five years as baseball coach at Minnechaug High School and a stint as board member at the Scantic Valley YMCA.
When his three boys started growing up, he couldn’t devote time to all those activities, but he’s still active in youth sports, coaching his kids’ baseball and basketball teams.
“Over the past year, I’ve been helping the Wilbraham Recreation Department to build its baseball program,” he explained, including a clinic for coaches on teaching fundamentals to young athletes.
“That’s one of the things I love to do,” he said. “I love to coach, I love kids, and I love allowing kids to get better, getting them the skills they need to succeed.”
— Joseph Bednar

Sections Technology
Could the Valley Become a Hub for Video-game Companies?

Allan Blair freely admitted his understanding of the video-game industry is limited. Or was, anyway.
“I had the simplistic view that gaming meant being frustrated by Angry Birds,” said Blair, president of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council (EDC). “The fact is, it’s truly a business, a real industry, and not just something to wile away time on. I had no idea.
“But once I got my mind around that,” he continued, “naturally, as an economic developer, I asked, ‘how do we nurture growth in this kind of industry in Massachusetts?’ As I learned about the industry, I came to believe we have in Western Mass. a lot of aspects necessary for this industry to grow and thrive.”
That was the general sentiment among more than two dozen panelists participating in “Digital Games: Playing in the Valley,” a recent symposium co-sponsored by host Hampshire College, the Mass. Digital Games Institute, and the EDC. The event drafted video-game entrepreneurs, professors from several colleges, political and economic-development leaders, and other speakers to discuss the potential of this fast-growing industry to take root and bring economic benefits to the Bay State.
“I am not part of what you would consider the ‘video-game generation,’ but video games encompass more than they used to,” said state Rep. Jim McGovern (D-3rd District). “Few industries these days can project the growth characteristics of the game industry … and those jobs should be in Massachusetts.”

Mike Levine

Mike Levine says Western Mass. won’t reach its full potential in video-game development and related fields until the region is adequately wired for high-speed Internet.

Many already are; the Bay State’s digital-games cluster employs nearly 4,000 people at more than 75 companies, with gross industry revenues estimated at around $2 billion. More than 20 colleges and universities in Massachusetts offer majors or courses in game design and development. And much of that activity is thriving in the Pioneer Valley.
“The Western Mass. region thrives on creativity and innovation, and I want to see these businesses blossom right here, and for these students to stay in the Valley and pursue their passion for video-game design,” McGovern said, noting that game technology has crossed over into other industries, from military training to medical applications, and is likely to expand further. “This is not a bunch of people talking about this in theory; this industry is growing now. And to get the economy back on its feet again, this is one of the answers.”

No Smokestacks
John Musante, Amherst’s town manager, called video games a potential “smokestack industry without the smokestacks. I enthusiastically believe that the gaming industry would be good for Amherst and good for our region.”
He mentioned that the three colleges in his town alone — UMass, Hampshire, and Amherst — include some 29,000 students at any given time, while others at the symposium noted that the 13 colleges in Western Mass. total some 65,000 students, many of whom are enthusiastic about gaming and might be likely to pursue jobs in the industry locally if they exist.
“Creativity and innovation are what our region is all about,” Musante added. “We believe the creative economy is part of our future, and the prominent potential of the gaming industry certainly seems like a perfect opportunity to build upon together, right here in the Valley.”
Take Raf Anzovin, for example. He launched Anzovin Inc., which creates character animation for games and other entertainment, in Florence in 1999 — a time when he was one of only a handful of people in the area doing that kind of work.
“There are both advantages and disadvantages to being in this area,” Anzovin said. “The cost of living is difficult to minimize. I’m not sure we could possibly start a small character-animation studio from nothing in a place where the cost of living wasn’t so low. We’ve also had a good relationship with the colleges; there’s a lot of good talent coming out of them, and that’s been very beneficial.”
Then there’s HitPoint Studios, a game-development outfit specializing in newer platforms such as social and mobile games. “We started HitPoint in 2008 with eight people in Greenfield,” said its founder, Paul Hake. “Now we’re in Hatfield with 37 people, and we’re anticipating growing quite a bit more.
“We’re excited about what’s going on in the Valley,” added Hake, who sees the region eventually becoming not just a mini-hub for the video-game industry, but a full-blown hub.
Musante said the region sells itself, especially at a time when industry professionals are virtually connected across the globe, and no longer have to be located in a major metropolitan center.
“We have a critical mass of higher education and talent. We have space,” Musante said, adding that the Pioneer Valley’s location less than two hours from Boston and less than four hours from Manhattan, combined with that aforementioned lower cost of living, is a major draw, as well as reputable public-school systems and the region’s natural beauty and outdoor activities. “We feel like we have a lot of things to nurture this industry so it can grow right here in the Valley.”
That growth is already happening, said Pat Larkin, director of the John Adams Innovation Institute, an arm of the Mass. Technology Collaborative. “In this region, the market has already spoken,” he argued. “Firms have flourished; they’re able to germinate, be disruptive, do startups, and grow on a sustained basis in this region.”

Ruth West (right, with Terrence Masson from Northeastern University)

Ruth West (right, with Terrence Masson from Northeastern University) says the fact that game development requires both creative and technical skills is a draw for many students.

However, precisely because it’s not New York or San Francisco or even Boston, this “middle-tier” region, as he called it, needs to more aggressively market itself. “We need to work harder, smarter, faster, better in order to build and sustain the critical mass we want to achieve.”

Getting Wired
The region poses some drawbacks, too — including one very basic problem in many rural communities.
“The Internet is really what made all this possible, in my opinion,” said Mike Levine, president of Pileated Pictures, an online- and mobile-entertainment studio in Shelburne Falls. “Amazingly, up in the hilltowns, many people do not have broadband. I really think this is a crime at this point; it’s like people not having electricity or television. That’s the number-one issue. Everyone should be connected in the state — not just for entertainment, but for public safety and other reasons.”
Hake agreed, noting that “broadband connectivity in Western Mass. is still not where it needs to be.” Another challenge, he said, is the lack of an experienced workforce to staff growing video-game companies. “We have huge amounts of talent coming out of the colleges, but we have a hard time finding industry veterans.”
There’s a sort of chicken-and-egg component to this issue, however, suggested Joe Minton, president of Digital Development Management in Northampton, which represents video-game-development studios; before that, he was president of game developer Cyberlore Studios.
Specifically, he said, the industry needs to expand in the region to attract that pool of available talent. “In San Francisco, you can walk down the street and meet five or 10 people willing to hire you.”
He talked about the importance of building critical mass in the region, forming a kind of ‘safety net’ so that talented designers, programmers, and others will know that, if one opportunity doesn’t work out, others will be available. Building many success stories, he said, “will make it much easier to bring talent here.”
Fred Fierst, a partner at law firm Fierst & Kane in Northampton, has represented video-game companies for 20 years, he said, amassing a strong reputation in the U.S. and overseas. But even he still sometimes encounters a “credibility issue” regarding Western Mass. that must be overcome. “They think if you’re not a New York or LA laywer, you can’t be a good lawyer; even a Boston lawyer is considered second-rate.”
Fierst noted another issue in video-game development, and that’s a pronounced dearth of women in the field. “I am constantly amazed how few women there are, and those who are [in the field] are in marketing and PR,” he said. “But that’s changing.”
Anzovin agreed. “I’d love to see more women in the industry,” he said, noting that he has worked with many female producers, but few artists and programmers — in other words, people on the creative side. “I don’t know that there’s a magical solution to that problem, but it’s getting better slowly.”

Back to School
Hake said colleges and universities are doing their part by recruiting more women into computer science and related programs.
Ruth West, associate professor and director of Computer Graphics at Springfield College, said the field has an appeal that should appeal to a wide variety of career seekers, no matter their gender. “It requires students to use their whole brain. It’s not just creative, but you have to think technically. There’s a whole mechanical side and a visual side, and it gets students to integrate their whole personality.”
It also requires professors to constantly keep up with trends, she said, which is why she and other faculty attend many conferences and continually track the industry in other ways.
“The only thing we can teach them is how to learn, because five years from now, it’s going to be something different,” West said. For example, social-media and mobile games have dominated the field recently. “I learned 56 programs, and they need to learn how to be that flexible.”
Paul Dickson, visiting assistant professor of Computer Science at Hampshire College, said video-game design is a motivator for students to learn many other skills. His program focuses on training students as generalists, so they can adapt to any platform, a trait valued by smaller video-game companies. Students who go on to specialized work — in a certain type of programming or animation, say — may find greater opportunities at larger companies.
“Games are a hook,” said Mark Claypool, professor and director of Interactive Media and Game Development at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “We get students coming through the doors passionate about the things they’ve been playing. That’s gold, to get a student who comes to college excited about learning something … not just about the latest game, but the physical calculus, the music, the storytelling. There are lots of elements that have to go into the next great game.”
Or the next great … whatever. “There are many applications outside entertainment,” Claypool said, “and that’s where the real action is going to be; that’s where the real money is.”
McGovern said Massachusetts clearly has the intellectual capital to build on this work and be an innovator in those future applications, adding that state leaders are continually trying to determine how best to invest in those growing industries through infrastructure and research dollars.
“I feel like there’s a renaissance period going on now,” Pileated’s Levine said, noting that, when he was in school, video games weren’t even mentioned as a possible career path. “Now we actually have schools teaching programs, and kids coming out of school knowing game design.
“I think it’s a very exciting time,” he continued. “As a company, we’re really interested in growing our business in this region, and we need young talent who understand mobile and social gaming far more than we do. What we learned was a very different business model. Things are changing very rapidly.”
And because of online connectivity, breakthroughs can happen anywhere, Minton said. “The world is flat, and it’s really exciting what can be done nowadays.”
He cited Rovio, the Finnish maker of the Angry Birds franchise. “This was a small company making a number of games that weren’t very successful,” he noted. “Now they have many, many hundreds of people. It just takes one hit — and there’s no reason that can’t happen here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care Sections
The Employment Outlook Remains Strong in Health Care

In many respects, the phrase ‘jobless recovery’ still applies to the landscape in Western Mass. But one key sector where that term doesn’t fit, or at least to the same degree, is health care. Indeed, shortages exist in many specialities, and hiring remains steady across the field. This situation presents opportunities for job seekers and career changers, but many positions require degress and completion of challenging programs.

In the midst of a still-sluggish economy that, overall, is adding jobs at a frustratingly slow pace, Cathy Dow-Royer paints a significantly rosier picture.
“We’re seeing an increase in the number of students coming through,” said Dow-Royer, director of the Occupational Therapy program at American International College. “A lot of students are interested in medical fields like occupational therapy, and they’re seeing no problems getting jobs at all.”
Overall employment trends are packed with good news for the health care sector. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 26% of all new jobs created by the nation’s economy between 2008 and 2018 will be in health care and social assistance — a broad category encompassing hospitals, nursing and residential-care facilities, and individual and family social services.
Those fields overall are expected to expand by about 24% over that 10-year period — an increase of about 4 million jobs — driven largely by an aging population and longer life expectancy in the U.S.
David Miller, dean of the School of Health Sciences and Rehabilitation Studies at Springfield College, cited data from the same report as he talked optimistically about this sector and its future. He noted that, for specialties represented in his institution’s roster of programs, the numbers are often even better — 39% for physician assistants, 37% for athletic trainers, 30% for physical therapists, 26% for occupational therapists, 21% for substance-abuse counselors, 19% for rehabilitation counselors, and 19% for speech and language pathologists.
As a result — at least in Springfield College’s case — young people mulling career options are increasingly giving health care serious consideration. “Enrollment in our [health] programs a few years ago was in the 500s, then the 600s, then the 700s, and now the 800s, so we’ve had steady, incremental growth,” Miller said.
“One of the reasons for that,” he continued, “is that prospective students and their families see that there are very good opportunities for employment on the other end — and that is, in fact, the case for 100% of our graduates, or very near that.”
Many of these programs require some clinical rotations or other field work, which exposes students and employers to each other, often greasing the tracks to a full-time job, he added. “Once they’re there, and they like the job and the employer likes them, our students are often offered employment in that setting. It’s a great opportunity for employers to work with our students and supervise them during their training.”

Cathy Dow-Royer

Cathy Dow-Royer says most graduates from programs at American International College have little trouble finding jobs in their chosen fields.

Dow-Royer added that internships in occupational therapy are usually a significant step toward employment. “Ninety-nine percent of graduates end up getting hired at field work sites; they go into internships and usually get hired by one of those.”
These employment success stories are being echoed across the region, in a wide variety of medical disciplines. But in many cases, job seekers must complete much more education and training than in the past, and need to be more flexible about where they want to work. But in most cases, the end result — a steady, good-paying job — is more than worth the effort and expense.

Outside the Office
According to Dow-Royer, one reason her department’s graduates are experiencing a solid hiring outlook is because occupational therapy has expanded its reach into so many areas of health care.
“Hospital outpatient rehabilitation is one area of practice, as well as prevention and chronic care management,” she said, which can include care at home, at skilled-nursing facilities, and elsewhere. “We’re working in primary care, with intensive care units, we’ll always be involved in mental health, and then there are extremity programs — working with doctors doing surgery on hands and arms, and getting people back to work again.”
Miller agreed. “To some extent, this is not necessarily hospital-based,” he said. “Some of the robustness is due to a shift away from bricks and mortar, from acute-care hospitals, into community-based settings. Home care, for instance, is projecting a 46% increase.
“There are rich opportunities — I don’t mean fiscally rich, but robust opportunities — in geriatrics,” he continued, citing the ever-advancing age of the Baby Boom generation, many of whom are living longer with chronic medical conditions than ever before. “Many of us are crossing that threshold into our 60s. People are living longer and want to be active and well and continue to work.”

Lynn Ostrowski, director of Health Programs and Community Relations at Health New England

Lynn Ostrowski, director of Health Programs and Community Relations at Health New England, says health insurance is just one of many fields experiencing job growth.

Another rapidly changing field is health insurance; that industry has spawned a need for more workers with specialized skills, said Lynn Ostrowski, director of Health Programs and Community Relations at Health New England.
“Even in this economy, we have been measurably growing,” she said. “It’s been slow but steady growth, and as we have entered new lines of business and marketed a variety of products, we’re looking for a trained workforce to come in and do these jobs. It’s getting more and more specialized. Medicaid product requirements are very different from Medicare products, and so on.”
That means looking for employees with a variety of skill sets, Ostrowski explained. For instance, “we have this brand-new role today — it’s a Medciaid community outreach leader, and we have a huge need for people who are bilingual. It was very difficult for us to fill this position. It took us almost six months to find someone with some knowledge of medicine with communication skills, who could work with members, someone we could teach the plan to and have them hit the ground running.”
At a recent seminar in Springfield on health-insurance reform (see story, page 32), state Rep. Michael Finn, D-West Springfield, said lawmakers recognize a shifting of jobs across the health care landscape, and have created a workforce-development fund that helps people working in struggling health care fields to transfer into areas with healthier employment rates.
In addition, he noted the state’s chronic shortage of primary-care physicians, exacerbated by pay disparities with other specialties and the five-year-old mandate that every citizen must carry insurance, creating access issues at doctors’ offices. In response, the state is exploring options such as loan-forgiveness programs and regional-disparity payments to try to broaden the pool of medical students entering primary care.

Back to School
While opportunities in many fields are expanding, however, education requirements are increasing as well. Occupational therapy, for example, is now typically a master’s-level program, while incoming physical therapists almost universally need a doctorate today. Even careers that once required just an associate’s degree now demand a four-year track of study.
Ostrowski’s “other hat,” as she called it, is coordinator of the Health Services Administration degree program at Elms College. “I teach mostly students who have an associate’s degree in some form — it may be occupational therapy assistant, nursing assistant, physical therapy assistant, dental hygienist — but most of these jobs we’re talking about need a bachelor’s degree just to be looked at.”
However, through a partnership between Elms and Holyoke Community College, these students can complete their bachelor’s degrees in less than two years through a Saturday program, making the track ideal for students who need to work or support a family while moving toward greater career opportunity.
“The tuition is the HCC tuition structure, but they get the degree from Elms College, so it’s a great opportunity for people to come into the health care field who have only an associate’s degree, but need to get their bachelor’s degree quickly.”
“From skilled-nursing facilities to the managed-care environment to teaching hospitals to rehab facilities, there are just so many different places where people can work,” Ostroski said. “The goal of the program is to give people experience across the entire industry so they can get an idea of what role they want to have, and then prepare them to take on that role. As soon as they get that bachelor’s degree, their salary goes up significantly.”
But it’s more than salary, Miller said. For those willing to make the necessary commitment to education, the result is usually a job that’s both well-paying and personally gratifying.
“There are wonderful opportunities — good jobs with good benefits — and if you look at job satisfaction, these are people who like some control over their day, respect, and work that makes a meaningful difference in someone’s life,” he said. “These are really positive things.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at  [email protected]

40 Under 40 The Class of 2011
Loan Review Officer, Country Bank

Michelle Cayo

Michelle Cayo

Michelle Cayo says each of her mornings starts with a rigorous kickboxing workout. “They go about an hour,” she said. “I burn a lot of calories … it puts me in a really positive mood for the day.”
Which is good, because most of her days are long, crammed with challenging, rewarding work as loan review officer at Ware-based Country Bank; community involvement that ranges from service as a committee member for the Professional Women’s Chamber to mentoring of young women at the Mass. Career Development Institute; and a home life that centers around her husband, Ed, and son, Nicholas. And what she likes best is that each day is different — and fulfilling.
At Country Bank, her work centers around analyzing the risk in the institution’s commercial-loan portfolio and ensuring that factors are in place to mitigate the risk. She enjoys the diversity of her work, as well as the learning opportunities.
“I’m always learning something new, and it’s interesting to see what’s going on with the economy,” she said. “You can hear about it on the news, but to be hands-on and see directly what’s going on and how it affects businesses is very interesting. And no two businesses are alike, which makes this work intriguing.”
As for her work in the community, she said she has enjoyed working with others in the Women’s Professional Chamber (formerly the Women’s Partnership) to “ramp up” that organization, as she put it, and develop new and different ways to “empower young, career-oriented women to be leaders.” And she takes great satisfaction from her mentoring of young women, many of whom have seen life throw them some curveballs.
“These are women who would be considered non-traditional,” she explained. “They may have lost a job or been laid off, and now they’re coming back to school to try to get their lives back on track. I tell them that not everything comes easily, and that the most important part is to try hard, because it pays off, and that the trials and tribulations they’re experiencing are only going to make them stronger.”
— George O’Brien

Sections Supplements
Area Colleges Report Heated Interest in Summer Classes

Debbie Bellucci

Debbie Bellucci says a number of factors have led to a surge in summer enrollment, including a still-uncertain economy.

Summer school is certainly not a new development at area colleges and universities, but interest in this educational option has been picking up in recent years, especially at community colleges. The economy has a lot to do with it, but there are other factors, including the increasing popularity of online offerings and a greater number of summer-month program options.

Summer used to be a time when college students took a break from classes and earned a little cash. But the downturn in the economy has changed that dynamic, especially at state schools where tuition is comparatively low.
Many students are trying to fast-track their education, while others who attend private schools are signing up for transferable summer courses at community colleges where tuition is inexpensive. The faltering economy has also led many adults back to school year-round to maintain or boost their marketability. They are often juggling myriad responsibilities, so the increasing demand for online courses, which are convenient and flexible, is changing the face of higher education.
The trend has also given birth to a variety of degree-completion options, as well as what are called hybrid classes, which combine online and face-to-face meetings, as the requirements for all courses can’t be completed online.
Bill McClure, executive director of the Continuing Education Department at UMass Amherst, said the university has seen an increase in demand for courses year-round. “It is generally accepted that, when the economy is down, the demand for education goes up,” he said.
Summer is no exception, and UMass students are taking summer classes in both undergraduate and graduate programs. “Last summer, online courses across the board were up by 30% overall,” he said. “However, face-to-face classes did see a decrease.”
Kimberly Tobin, dean of graduate and continuing education at Westfield State University, has also seen a pronounced demand for summer classes that began in 2008. “From 2008 to 2010, we had a 77% increase in the number of students taking summer courses online,” she said. “That’s huge for us. In addition, many faculty members have moved to hybrid courses, where they use the Web shell to post assignments, readings, supplemental materials, or PowerPoint presentations, and these numbers don’t include those classes.
“We are finding that more traditional students are also taking summer courses because they are less expensive here than at private schools,” she continued, referring to students who go to college after high school and have not spent much time in the workforce.
Greenfield Commun-ity College (GCC) is mirroring the trend. Last summer, 715 students took credit courses there, and 387 took non-credit courses. In 2009, there were 596 students taking credit courses and 342 taking non-credit summer courses.
“The increase has been substantial,” said Shane Hammond, dean of enrollment at GCC. “Historically, there has always been an increase in enrollment when the economy is struggling. People who are unemployed are interested in moving through their education as quickly as possible because they want to get back into the workforce. Many are looking to retrain, so they come to us for that education. We have also seen an increase in students with bachelor’s and master’s degrees taking courses in an effort to advance their education or change their field.”
For this edition and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes a look at the changing trends in summer sessions at local colleges and how they are responding to the growing demand.

Balancing the Budget
Tobin said books about college written for parents advise them to have children take core credit courses at less-expensive schools. Some do this at community colleges, while others turn to places like Westfield State.
The option offers a number of benefits, in addition to cost savings. It allows students to lighten their course load during the traditional school year and accelerates the time it takes to complete their education.
“Since 2008, we have seen a 25% increase in traditional students taking summer classes at Westfield,” said Tobin. “Students can take a course online here and get it transferred. This summer, we are offering 80 online courses. Last summer, we only had 64. We are trying to make sure they are the courses most in demand, and have also added an online bachelor’s completion program in business management. Plus, we are about to offer three more online degree-completion programs in sociology, history, and liberal studies.”
Tobin said the average age of students enrolled in these courses is 30. Many live in the eastern part of the state, and half of those are in the Business Management program. “It’s one of our largest growth programs in continuing education,” she explained. “People are asking, ‘what can I go to school for that will give me an edge in the workforce?’ and management is one of those areas.”
She added that today’s students want and need the flexibility that online courses offer. “At Westfield State, most of our students have to work to afford school. So we are giving them an option that allows them to do that.”
Summer courses concentrate a semester’s worth of learning into a few short weeks, which makes them rather intense. “They are not easy, but our students aren’t afraid of work; they just need balance and flexibility, which they get with online courses,” said Tobin, adding that many students take only one course per semester, which allows them to really focus on doing well, which can be difficult with more than one if they have families and other responsibilities.
Another increasing segment of the summer population is high-school students.
If their guidance counselors agree, they can take college courses during the summer and earn both high-school and college credits for them. “Most are taking basic core courses, but some are incredibly motivated and are taking advanced math and science classes,” Tobin explained, adding that classes that span generations offer different perspectives in learning. “Imagine being in a class online or in person with high-school students, traditional college students, and adult learners. To me, that is an amazing educational experience that you can only get in summer coursework.”
Springfield Technical Community College has also experienced an increase in demand for summer courses.
“In 2010, we had an 11% increase in students during the summer; that was a 25% increase in credits sold over the previous summer’s enrollment,” said Debbie Bellucci, dean of the School of Continuing Education and Distance Learning. “We attribute the increase to several things — the economy, our affordability, the wide range of summer courses that STCC offers, and the availability of summer Pell grants for returning students last year.”
STCC typically sees two types of students. The first group is composed of individuals who didn’t do as well as they wanted at their home institutions and want to lighten their loads for the upcoming semester with a cost-effective option. The second group is students who need health and nursing prerequisite courses required for entrance into many health or nursing programs.
The courses in greatest demand are Anatomy and Physiology I and II and Microbiology. General-education courses are also very popular, since they are required in every major, and include English Composition, Psychology, History, Math, Biology, Chemistry, and various business courses.
“STCC also offers several upper-level and unique courses, such as Organic Chemistry and Calculus I-IV, that attract students from other institutions who are home for the summer. They can transfer the course credits back to their home college or university,” Bellucci said, explaining that the school is continuously adding new courses.
This summer, new offerings include Physics of Green Energy, Fundamentals of CNC Machining, and Fundamentals of Acting, as well as online offerings such as Environmental Biology and Principles of Biology.

Private Offerings
McClure said all indications are that this summer will be a strong term at UMass at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. “Our registration staff is putting in overtime so folks aren’t delayed in signing up for classes,” he said.
However, students also want online courses, and enrollment in face-to-face classes has dropped. “Students find online classes more adaptive to their lifestyles, as they can take a class anywhere at any time. It is a national trend that online classes and degree programs are experiencing a lot of growth. So we are offering 30% more online courses this summer,” McClure said. “Frankly, we are astounded by the demand.”
About two-thirds of the university’s summer-school enrollees are traditional students. Some have double majors and want to ease their course loads in the spring and fall, but many work year-round and are able to take only 12 credit hours per semester. “So summer courses allow them to compensate for that; across the board, we are very pleased that we are getting this type of response,” said McClure, adding the university is holding three summer terms beginning in May. “We are highly motivated and continuously looking for new courses to meet people’s needs.”
Frank Bellizia, dean of Continuing Education at American International College, said AIC’s numbers have held steady during the past few summers. However, the school encourages adults thinking about returning to school to “test the waters” with a summer course. “Most of our continuing-education students are in degree-completion programs and are 45 to 50 years old,” he said.
This summer, AIC is launching a pilot program with about a dozen online courses. “We are probably among the last to get into this and want to see if it will make a difference in enrollment,” he said. “Not all courses can be offered online, but we are encouraging our instructors to try it out. We’ll see what happens.”
Bellizia isn’t surprised that state schools are reporting an increase in student population during the summer months. “Cost is a big factor, and we can’t compete with them, plus public schools are able to offer a wider range of summer courses. Holyoke Community College and STCC are our biggest competitors,” he said.
However, this summer AIC is offering a certificate program to try to expand its offerings in Institutional Advancement, Grant Writing, Fundraising, and Therapeutic Touch. “The programs are targeted at area professionals who want to get their certifications,” Bellizia said.
Matt Fox is director of recruiting and marketing for Western New England College, where summer enrollment has also held steady over the past few years. “We saw a significant spike in the summer of 2008, but since that time it has leveled out, and there has not been as much interest,” he said. “We feel it is due to the economy. Students are looking for more economical options. In the past, we had visiting students picking up courses, but we didn’t see the numbers last year.”
However, the school has six accelerated degree programs, which adult learners find attractive. The courses offer a mix of face-to-face, online, and hybrid courses, and adults like them because they have the ability to mix and match. “Some students prefer to take math courses face to face, especially if they have not been in school for some time,” Fox said.
But overall, there in an increasing trend toward spending a year or two at a community college and transferring the credits. “A lot of it is related to the cost of education; we do give discount tuition for part-time students, but the reality is that community colleges provide great opportunities,” he explained.
WNEC has seen an uptick in interest from adults who are thinking about returning to school. “They figure, if the economy takes a downturn again, more education will make them more employable,” Fox said, but most have a “wait-and-see mentality” because they don’t want to incur more debt. “If anything is changing, it’s that we are offering more and more online courses as people prefer them.”
The bottom line is that the demand for summer courses has risen. The economy and changing lifestyles are leading savvy consumers to meet their needs in a cost-effective and convenient manner, and those lazy, hazy days of summer have all but disappeared.

She Helps in the ‘Upward Climb of Entrepreneurship’

Dianne Fuller Doherty

Dianne Fuller Doherty, director of the Mass. Small Business Development Center Network, Western Regional Office

Dianne Doherty remembers the urgent tone in the voice of Bai Qing Li, a client and friend who was looking for some help — and not the kind Doherty was used to offering.
Lee was looking for someone to teach a course in Marketing at Shandong University in Jinan, China. The individual who was slated to take that assignment had to back out of that commitment, and only a few weeks before the start of the spring semester. Lee wanted to know if Doherty could recommend someone with the skills and desire — and flexibility — to step in.
To make a long story short, Doherty wound up recommending herself.
“I was driving somewhere in Vermont with my husband [Paul], and I asked him, ‘what would you think of me taking that job?’” she recalled. “He reminded me that I’d never taught anything before, but then said, ‘if that’s what you want to do, go do it.’”
And she did.
Doherty quickly arranged a leave of absence from her job as director of the Mass. Small Business Development Center Network’s Western Regional Office, obtained a visa, and by early March she was in front of two different classes of 70 students each. She actually wound up teaching Finance 101 — another American woman took the Marketing classes — an assignment that became a learning experience on many levels.
“I learned about the country, the people, the economy — and a lot about myself,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, while she thoroughly enjoyed her stint in Jinan, by the time the semester was over, she was certainly ready to come home.
“I was very happy to be back, happy to be an American, and happy to be back in this job,” she said, adding that, among other things, her time in China provided her with great appreciation for everything she left behind when she got on the plane. Meanwhile, she added, her leave was “very renewing — it definitely recharged the batteries.”
Not that Doherty has ever lacked for energy. In addition to her more-than-full-time duties with the Small Business Development Center, she’s also involved with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission’s Plan for Progress, sits on the task force for the high-performance computing center planned for Holyoke, and volunteers her time for Digital Divide Data, a social enterprise that provides jobs and training to youths in Laos and Cambodia, among other activities.
And she says she gets the energy for all that from her work and, more specifically, her clients. These are entrepreneurs, or would-be entrepreneurs, who come to the SBDC looking for assistance with everything from writing a business plan to securing financing, to pricing a product or service.
In her 18-year stint with the SBDC, Doherty and her staff have assisted budding entrepreneurs such as Stanley Kowalski, president of FloDesign and its subsidiary, which is working to bring a new wind-turbine design to the marketplace; Suki Kramer, who has developed her own line of cosmetics; Li, who immigrated to this country from China a decade ago and now has several business ventures, including China Access, which arranges visits for transfer students and others interested in that booming nation; and BusinessWest founder and ABC 40/Fox 6 owner John Gormally.
But there are hundreds of other stories, many of which haven’t generated headlines, but that, together, add up to thousands of jobs and some much-needed strength and flexibility for the local economy.
Through her work with several successful businesses, as well as her involvement with the computing center, the WestMass Area Development Corp., the Plan for Progress, and other economic-development-related agencies, Doherty is understandably bullish on Western Mass. She thinks others should share in this optimism, and believes, overall, that one of the things holding this region back is a self-confidence problem.
“There are a lot of exciting things going on in the Valley, and I really believe we need to change our attitudes about Springfield and believe in it again,” she said. “We need to change some attitudes about Springfield and this region, and put our inferiority complex behind us, because there is such great potential for this region, and it’s not just potential — it’s real.”

Occupational Therapy
Doherty told BusinessWest that she wasn’t quite sure what to think or do when a writer for the New York Times called her back in January and asked that she be a subject for an ongoing series called Preoccupations, which is essentially about people and twists and turns in their career paths. The slant for this particular piece was someone working well past what most would consider retirement age — and why.
For starters, Doherty wasn’t sure why she was being considered for this subject matter or how the Times knew about her. And she wasn’t exactly keen on talking about her age or the fact that she was working past 70. Eventually, though, she acquiesced, and in early February, her story, complete with the headline “When She’s Ready to Retire, She’ll Know,” appeared in the Times’ Jobs section.
“If I left now, I think I’d miss the structure and the intellectual challenge of the job and the people,” Doherty told the Times when asked why she was still working. “My feeling is that, as long as I am doing something of value, why not continue doing it?”
It is because of this mindset that Doherty, who told some people a few years ago that she might retire in a few years, doesn’t make any more comments or projections on that subject, other than to say that the Times headline sums it up nicely — and she’s definitely not ready yet.
Instead, she wants to add more chapters to a professional career that began shortly after earning an MBA from Western New England College, exactly two decades after graduating from Mount Holyoke with a degree in Philosophy. By then, her four daughters were all in their teens, and she had the time and the desire to go back to school.
“I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, so I decided on an MBA because it was a versatile degree,” she said. “That was interesting, going back 20 years later and taking classes with people half your age and with professors younger than you.”
She would eventually take a job handling business development for a marketing and public-relations firm in Hartford, and, after doing that for a few years, took a job centered on marketing and promoting downtown Springfield.
“MassMutual, SIS [Springfield Institution for Savings, now TD Bank], and Steigers put up a quarter of a million dollars to do a marketing campaign for the city,” she said. “This was after there had been a lot of bricks-and-mortar investment in downtown, but no one was coming. They wanted to change people’s attitudes about Springfield and downtown.
“What we discovered was that $250,000, while it sounded like a lot, was nothing for a media campaign, so we turned it into a PR campaign,” she continued, adding that she worked in conjunction with current Spirit of Springfield director Judy Matt, then working for the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and others to create programs including the Taste of Springfield, the Big Balloon Parade, and the holiday lighting initiative.
“All of those things brought people downtown,” said Doherty, adding that, 25 years later, the Spirit of Springfield continues many of those programs and has added others. “That was a fun job, and I never worked harder in my life.”
Eventually, though, the entrepreneurial spirit that Doherty fosters at the SBDC prompted her to start her own business. She partnered with Marsha Tzoumas (now Marsha Montori) to start a marketing and PR firm that would take their two names.
Between 1983 and 1992, the firm grew from its two principals to 12 total employees, and handled work for many prominent businesses, including Colebrook Realty Services, SIS, Fontaine Brothers, Daniel O’Connell’s Sons, and others. It was once named Agency of the Year by the Ad Club of Western Mass.

Getting into Gear
Doherty had just entered into some commitments for marketing projects when she saw the job posting for the directorship of SBDC’s western office, so while she was intrigued with the job and its description — she was very familiar with the SBDC, having served it as an advisory board member — she didn’t think she was in a position to pursue it.
“But a friend told me, ‘just apply — you don’t know the university’s search process,’” she said, adding that she did, and her friend was right; the search took several months, and when it was over, Doherty gained the nod.
She thought she would only be in that position for perhaps a few years, but instead it’s been almost two decades and counting, and for the reasons she outlined for the Times; the people and the intellectual challenges keep her coming back for more.
“It’s such a great job, because of the diversity and variety and the great staff I have,” she said, “and because of the great people I have to work with; it’s very rewarding to help people take their dreams and make them reality.”
When she came to the SBDC, Doherty brought with her a wall ornament from the marketing firm — a brass bicycle, almost life-size. She has it hanging in the agency’s front lobby, at an upward angle, and tells everyone who asks (and that’s most people) that this is to illustrate what she called the “upward climb of entrepreneurship.”
Helping people negotiate that climb is the unofficial mission statement for the SBDC, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, said Doherty, noting that, while roughly half of her workload with the SBDC involves one-on-one consultation with clients, the rest involves economic development, a subject she’s passionate about.
This is evident from her 20 years of involvement with the Plan for Progress, a commitment of similar length to the Affiliated Chambers, work with the former Regional Technology Corp., and, most recently, the high-performance computing center, a project she believes has enormous potential to change the business landscape in Holyoke and the region as a whole.
“That’s one of the biggest things to ever come to this region, and I’m really excited about what can come from this,” she said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for our area.”
Overall, Doherty says the region has an enormous amount of intellectual and entrepreneurial energy that has not been adequately tapped, a situation that she says must change.
“Here in the Pioneer Valley, which I think is aptly named, we have so many pioneers in terms of entrepreneurship and small business and good ideas around wind and energy and other things,” she told BusinessWest. “There’s such intellectual capacity in this valley, between the colleges and the businesses we have. We have an enormous amount of intellectual energy, but we have to harness it, package it, and market it, and these are things we haven’t done well.”
Doherty said she has no regrets about putting aside her work at the SBDC, as well as her economic-development exploits, for three months to take that aforementioned teaching assignment, one that gave her a detailed look at how China is growing, both outward and especially upward. Indeed, this was her fourth trip to that country and the first since 1998. She marveled at how the landscape had been altered in a dozen years.
“It was absolutely astonishing the changes that had taken place,” she explained. “As one friend said as we were driving from the airport at night into Shanghai, ‘this makes Manhattan look like a Third World country.’ The lighting is incredible in all the cities, but especially Shanghai. There were clusters of high-rises everywhere.”
As for the teaching assignment itself, Doherty said it was eye-opening, but also challenging. Her students had six years of English behind them, and were both hardworking and disciplined, but trained to essentially learn by memorization.
“It’s very hard to get them to be interactive,” she explained. “If you asked a question generally, there would just be dead silence. If you called on someone directly, they’d stand up very properly and try to answer as best they could. But they just weren’t used to speaking in English, and they weren’t used to dialogue or the Socratic method, which I was naive enough to try to explain to them during the first class.”
She said the Chinese people are very interested in the U.S. and Americans, and, upon learning what Doherty had for a day job, they wanted to know about entrepreneurship and owning a business.
“That’s just starting to happen there, so they were very interested in knowing about American business,” she said. “Meanwhile, the women there wanted to know about the women in America, because they’re going to be the first generation of women in the workplace, and they didn’t have colleagues and mentors and mothers and grandmothers who had been in the workplace.”
She came home with new respect for teaching, greater appreciation for the opportunities people in this country have, and recharged batteries with which to help clients make that upward climb of entrepreneurship.
“I blogged about the experience, and while doing so I talked about the external journey of China, but there’s also an internal journey that accompanies that, and it’s very important,” she said. “You get to see who you are in a foreign environment and who you are in this environment, and it’s an interesting process of introspection.”

Signs of the Times
Doherty told BusinessWest she was pleasantly surprised by the number of people, from this region and far outside it, who read the Times piece and commented to her about it in one way or another.
“I couldn’t believe the response … I had a woman call me, whom I’ve never met, who said, ‘I just want to thank you for that story; I’m going to start my third career now,’” Doherty recalled. “She said she was going back to get a master’s in Education and start teaching because she thought that was the most important thing she could do — something of great value to the community.”
Doherty believes she’s doing many things that are of value to this region, so she has no intention to stop or even slow down. Aside from the occasional break to teach in China, she’s going to keep working on ways to harness all that entrepreneurial energy in the Valley.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Area Architects Have Designs on Business Improvement in 2010
Rough Drafts

Christopher Riddle, left, and John Kuhn say the recession has altered the landscape for architects in a number of ways.

The economic downturn hit the construction sector across the board, from builders all the way back to the architects themselves. While the historic effects are reportedly on the wane for this industry, local architects draw up their own tales of the Great Recession, and offer some thoughts on how they will recognize the signs of recovery.

Growing numbers of competitors from outside of the region, private-sector financing not readily available for new construction, and cutbacks in staff numbers and workdays … wait, wasn’t this just reported about the construction sector?

Recently BusinessWest spoke to the people holding the hammers about the nature of the building trades and how the economy was affecting them in unprecedented ways. While area tradesmen knew the news wasn’t very good, most reported on how they are successfully navigating these turbulent times.

However, another key component of the construction sector, the architecture industry, has also been finding its business hit, and hit hard, by many of those same forces, and they too have undertaken measures for successfully riding out the economic downturn.

John MacMillan is president of Rheinhardt Associates in Agawam. Like construction workers out in the field, he said that competitors from outside the area have been bidding on design jobs in numbers he’s never seen in his 25 years in the industry. “It’s very fierce,” he told BusinessWest.

But while industry analysts foresee the potential for grim times ahead in the construction sector, architects and those who monitor the industry have designs on a much better 2010.

Kermit Baker is the chief economist for the American Institute of Architects, and in that organization’s Billings Index, a monthly measurement of the number of projects ‘on the boards’ for architectural firms, he reported that, while billings were “at historically depressed levels in March,” that month’s confidence index of 46.1 reflected an increase from February’s 44.8.

This figure is the highest recorded since August 2008, and while an index rating over 50 is a mark of growth in the industry, March’s numbers indicate a four-point increase over the previous two months.

“We could be moving closer to a recovery phase,” Baker reported, expressing that old faithful known as cautious optimism. But he added that firms “are still reporting an unusual amount of variation in the level of demand for design services, from ‘improving’ to ‘poor’ to ‘virtually nonexistent.’”

It’s a familiar story for architects in Western Mass., who say their firms have faced challenges like nothing they’ve seen before. For this issue, BusinessWest looks at the blueprints for the business of architecture, and what designs some area firms have for a hopeful 2010.

Big Fish in a Small Pond

Leon Pernice has been designing buildings from his home office in West Springfield for close to 50 years — office buildings at the Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, several area churches, the municipal center of Brimfield, and numerous senior residential facilities.

Like everyone else, he said that competition has reached numbers that he’s never seen.

For such competition, he added, the number of jobs that his firm usually bids has dropped in reverse proportion. “There’s work out there,” he said, “but much less private work and more public. And when I say more public work, that doesn’t mean there’s a lot of it, though.”

For smaller projects, he said, firms are coming from far afield, which was once only the case for the largest regional jobs.

While large, high-profile projects typically had drawn architectural firms from all over the nation, something that Pernice said was perfectly understandable, “the top-tier projects are often financed by boards of directors or trustees who have different criteria for their selection process,” he said diplomatically, adding that he is unsettled by the fact that the smallest jobs also now see bidders from outside the area.

“When you have municipalities assigning their smallest work to architects out of the area … I don’t know how that works,” he said while shaking his head.

MacMillan agreed, noting that his firm has faced competition from outfits that never went after this market, meaning mid-scale to larger scale projects such as the Berkshire Medical Center, Belchertown Fire Department, Agawam police station, and currently the Holyoke Multi-Modal facility, among others.

“A lot of those offices are Boston-based or, in some cases, from New York. We never used to see them before,” he said. “We’re getting firms that used to work at a different tier — high-design firms from Boston or Cambridge, 100-plus offices with business-development staff and marketers.

“For ourselves, having this competition, with the bigger guys bottom feeding,” he continued, “we’ve had to shift some focus onto projects that used to be too small for us. That’s where we are now.”

Rheinhardt Associates has been designing for the public sector for more than 50 years, he said, and with stimulus projects and municipal upgrades that can’t be put off, that sector is where design work is holding steady.

In order to compete for the larger projects that come to bid, MacMillan said that his firm has taken a cue from the competition to remain a key player.

“We’ve teamed with larger firms,” he explained. “We realize that is what we have to do, because the day is not here where we can land the largest projects on our own, especially not with the competition.

“When the projects are local,” he continued, “that regional expertise is what we can bring to the table. Sure, it’s a smaller piece of the pie, but at the end of the day, we are supporting this firm competing against other large firms. This is unusual for us. In a better climate, the locals might carry the day entirely, but these are not the times for that.”

Back to School

As the current principal of Juster Pope Frazier Architects in Northampton, Kevin Chrobak said that some words of wisdom from one of the founders sketches out a winning plan for his firm.

“Jack Frazier used to have this saying, ‘you have to learn to enjoy the slow times as well as the fast times,’” he said.

As a means to that end, Chrobak said that JPF has a policy of “flex time” for employees, one of its techniques for riding out the economy. “It’s a win-win situation here,” he explained, “which gives people the ability to deal with their own schedules as they see fit. People have used flex time to spend more time with their families without really impacting our ability to do projects. It also makes them a bit more appreciative of working here.”

And during straightened times, he added, the firm doesn’t sweat the bottom line on a 40-hour workweek.

But JPF is fortunate as a smaller firm, with only six employees, not to be facing tough decisions at their drafting tables or their accounting ledgers.

“We have a strong portfolio of repeat clients, with decent projects,” he said. “But our size allows us to stay largely outside the harsh effects of the downturn. The bigger firms might feel the need to constantly bring in new projects, but we don’t really feel that burden.”

For a small office, Chrobak’s firm is responsible for numerous big-ticket projects, such as the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, the Longmeadow Fire Station, and the Springfield Visitor Information Center, to name just a few. He says that repeat clientele has been a major player in JPF’s strength and vitality through the recession.

“Having diverse clients and a diverse portfolio has helped us very well,” he said. But while his office stays busy with numerous projects, Chrobak said that he is aware that the number of projects in the area is small. “There’s just not a lot of new construction out there.”

UMass Amherst is consistently a source for much of the area’s vitality in design and construction, Chrobak said, adding that “they are a real boon to our firm as a source of design work for us, and the construction industry in general. They’re one of the few organizations that are doing any construction work on that scale. I don’t think they get enough credit for that.”

Christopher Riddle, a principal with Kuhn Riddle Architects in Amherst, made a wave-like motion with his hand to describe the variation he sees for this area’s architectural business, specifically addressing the market for educational work that has neither real highs nor lows. UMass and the overall strength of higher education has been a great lifeline for the region’s architects, he said.

“They have fluctuations, to be sure,” he said, “but they don’t go away altogether. They don’t go up and down with a great amplitude, but stay fairly regular with a consistent volume. A lot of our business is either directly or indirectly associated with the health of the education industry in Western Mass.”

Other sectors that are engaging projects are also known for their overall stability. Health care continues to draw new business, as does the transportation industry, which MacMillan said is responsible for a large part of his firm’s current planning.

In addition to the Maple Street project for the Holyoke transportation center, MacMillan said the PVTA is responsible for a good volume of work in rehabilitating many of its older structures. That repair and renovation market, he said, is a source of a lot of design work for many architects in the area.

Crediting UMass Amherst again, Chrobak applauded its House Doctor renovation program as a good source of work for many area firms, including his own for the past 20 years. Essentially it is a program whereby a small group of architects are hired on retainer to work on an equal number of projects for renovation.

“A lot of local firms really rely on that,” he said.

Sketching It Out

Riddle’s partner, John Kuhn, expects this recession to have a lasting impact on architecture.

“There is a shift toward sustainability and green systems,” he said. “And I think the days of subdivisions with McMansions on cul-de-sacs with funny names is over. That’s a completely dead market.”

In agreement, Riddle said that clients have had a renewed focus on buildings’ systems, with an eye towards energy efficiency and alternative means of making a building economically viable, not just at the ribbon cutting, but for a longer span of time.

Since the recession officially started in the fall of 2008, he said that KR has tackled four LEED-certified projects totaling $17 million. Its design for New England Environmental, an Amherst-based consulting firm, aims to be a LEED platinum structure, the highest level of certification.

Riddle said that energy systems are a particular interest of his, and he hopes this renewed enthusiasm drives more design projects in the future. “We spend a lot of time trying to optimize new construction,” he said, “trying to keep the energy consumption of new buildings down. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated new buildings are now. That’s easy. What you have to do is try to figure out how to deal with the enormous, vast numbers of existing buildings.”

Opting to look at the current market in a positive light, Kuhn said that “this recession brought a lot of creative change to the industry.

“It’s a very exciting time, in many ways, for architecture,” he continued. “The types of buildings that we’re working on, and the way we deliver projects, are all changing. The key is to stay nimble.”

Architectural Rendering

Responding to the positive forecast from the AIA, Kuhn said that he reads the industry reports, but he doesn’t take them too seriously.

“I don’t track the stock market,” he explained, “nor do I take to heart what I read on the front page of the paper. What I think of as indicators are the people you run into every day on a job site, what you hear from them at the coffee shops. What is the housepainter or carpenter or building owner seeing and saying?”

Those field notes are one way to find hope for an industry-wide turnaround, he said, but when all is said and done, he’ll know that business is picking up when the phones start ringing again.

Drawing upon the experience of increased firms at public bids, Pernice said that, for him, recovery will be manifest in smaller numbers of those competitors from out of the area.

“I’ll know it when you go to an open review session for a project to find eight people there instead of 28,” he said.

MacMillan said that his projections are for a flat quarter ahead, with his firm staying busy, but with smaller-scale and shorter-term projects than he is used to.

“We usually carry a backlog that’s anywhere from five to eight months,” he said, “and that’s very healthy. Today, it’s down to two months, max. When I start seeing a bigger backlog, I’ll feel comfortable.”

But echoing the hopeful uncertainty from most in this industry, he said that all it takes is one significant project to turn the tide altogether.

“That would be a huge bump for us,” he said. “So, it could be next week, or next month.”