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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.