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Into the Breach

Debbie Bitsoli

Debbie Bitsoli says her learning curve has been altered by COVID-19, but she’s made the most of the opportunity.

Debbie Bitsoli understood she was taking on a huge challenge when she accepted the role of president and CEO of Mercy Medical Center and its affiliates late last fall.

But she certainly wasn’t expecting anything quite like this.

Indeed, the first six months of her tenure have been dominated not only by a global pandemic that has tested hospitals, and especially smaller community hospitals, in every way imaginable, but also a painful and controversial decision to close inpatient beds at Providence Behavioral Hospital, one of Mercy’s affiliates (more on that later).

Overall, it has been a pressure-packed, greatly accelerated learning experience on innumerable levels, one that has left her knowing more about herself, and also about Mercy and its team; Trinity Health Of New England, the parent to Mercy Medical Center; and the community the hospital serves.

“This has given me the opportunity to learn more about the culture here at Mercy and its history,” she noted. “It’s allowed me to cherish that history more as I’ve understood it, and all the years the hospital has stood on these grounds. It’s been a different type of learning experience because I’ve had to do a lot of it virtually, but I’ve made the most of it.”

The pandemic arrived in this region just a few months after Bitsoli did, and, as noted, it has impacted the hospital and its staff on a number of levels — everything from combating shortages of personal protective equipment to the strain of treating those with the virus, to the financial trauma resulting from the inability to perform elective surgery and a sharp decline in emergency-room visits due to the public’s fear of contracting the virus.

“This has given me the opportunity to learn more about the culture here at Mercy and its history.”

All hospital administrators have been facing the same potent mix of challenges, but for Bitsoli, who came to Mercy from Morton Hospital in Taunton in early December, the pandemic has greatly accelerated but also profoundly changed the process of putting her stamp on the 147-year-old institution.

And it has left her calling on experience — and experiences — going all the way back to when she worked in the dietary department at a hospital, delivering meals to patients — a job her mother, an emergency room nurse, helped her land.

“My mother set an extremely high bar,” Bitsoli told BusinessWest. “And when she got me my first job, she said two things to me — first, ‘when you bring that tray in to that patient, you’re to think about the person in front of you, not yourself.’ And, second, ‘don’t embarrass me.’ I don’t think I ever have.

“The 12 years I spent on the front lines — in dietary, housekeeping, and ultimately in the intensive care unit by the bedside with the nurses — really helped to prepare for what it’s like in direct clinical care,” she went on. “It has provided me the empathy, respect, and admiration for the front-end work that all the caregivers — the nurses, the doctors, and all the medical staff and colleagues — contribute. I had that as background, which I think equips me very well for the future.”

While the first six months of her tenure have been difficult, Bitsoli said there have been some silver linings, if one chooses to call them that. She said the pandemic has enabled her to work with her team and her board on a level — and under circumstances — that could not have been anticipated when she arrived. Meanwhile, the crisis has enabled her to see first-hand — and in many different ways — the importance of Mercy within the community and the strong level of support the institution enjoys.

“The outpouring from the community, and the love, respect, and admiration that they feel for Mercy Medical Center, has been … I can’t describe in words how much it resonates for me and how much it means for the front-end staff,” she said. “All those contributions we received, and the prayers, respect, and recognition, have meant the world to people here and allowed them to move forward knowing they’re contributing significantly.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Bitsoli about her brief but already memorable tenure at Mercy, and how this stern challenge has tested her and the medical center — and will keep doing so for months, if not years, to come.

Background — Check

Bitsoli brings a deep portfolio of experience in healthcare management to her role at Mercy — and the current crisis — with all of it coming in the Bay State.

As noted earlier, she came to the Springfield campus after a four-year stint as president of the 110-bed Morton Hospital. Prior to that, she served as chief operating officer and vice president of Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, a position she took after serving for three years as COO of MetroWest Medical Center in Framingham. Previously, she served as associate COO, chief administrative officer, and chief financial officer at Cambridge Health Alliance; administrator of Internal Medicine at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates; and audit manager and project manager at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

She said she was drawn to the leadership post at Mercy by a number of factors, including the hospital’s somewhat unique mission as a Catholic hospital, its strong reputation for quality and caring, and its status as part of the larger Trinity Health Of New England system.

She took over a hospital that reported a $12.6 million loss for the 2018 fiscal year and had made a number of staff reductions and other cutbacks in the months prior to her arrival.

“The 12 years I spent on the front lines — in dietary, housekeeping, and ultimately in the intensive care unit by the bedside with the nurses — really helped to prepare for what it’s like in direct clinical care.”

But such challenges were common to most all smaller hospitals in Massachusetts and New England, and Bitsoli said this was part of the landscape when it comes to hospital administration in this era. And so was dealing with crises, she said, adding that she’s helped lead institutions through recessions, the fallout from 9/11, and even other epidemics, such as SARS.

But this pandemic? That’s another story, and it has changed that landscape quickly and profoundly. Indeed, in addition to treating those with the virus and safeguarding staff and the community from it, Mercy, like all hospitals, has been hit hard by the inability to perform elective surgeries and sharply declining revenues from declining visitation in the ER — conditions that have forced hospitals to trim staff and implement pay cuts, even to doctors.

To guide the hospital through the crisis and its many impact points, Bitsoli said she and the management team have been focused on three things — planning, preparing, and anticipating — to the extent that they are all possible with this fast-moving pandemic.

“We have twice-daily meetings with the executive team seven days a week, so we can plan and adjust accordingly based on what’s occurring,” she noted, adding that, in recent weeks, patient volumes related to COVID-19 have declined. “The key for me was planning, preparing, and anticipating as this unfolded so that we could make sure we had our structures and designs in place to keep our patients safe.”

Meanwhile, the decision to close the 74 inpatient beds — the pediatric, geriatric, and adult units — at Providence has brought its own set of challenges. Deemed necessary because of a lack of permanent psychiatrists, the planned closure of the units, with the intention of patients seeking care at other Trinity Health facilities in Connecticut, has been criticized not only for the level of inconvenience it imposes on area residents, but also for its timing.

Indeed, the pandemic has generated a sharp rise in the need for behavioral-health services as residents cope with everything from isolation-related issues to depression and other conditions related to job loss and financial pressures, promoting even greater need for beds at Providence.

But Bitsoli said that, for several reasons, and especially the lack of psychiatrists, the hospital cannot continue to operate those beds.

“It’s been a difficult but necessary decision in light of the fact that you need physicians to take care of the patients,” she explained, adding that the services are slated to be discontinued on June 30, although the state Department of Public Health has asked for a more detailed plan on how and where people can get help before it can approve the closure plan.

Vision Statement

When asked specifically about what is involved with leading a hospital through a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic and difficult transitions like that at Providence, Bitsoli paused for a moment as if to convey that there is a lot that goes into that equation.

She mentioned everything from leading by example, something she strives to do every day, to communicating effectively with constituents ranging from patients and staff to the community to state and federal lawmakers about the many forms of help hospitals will need to weather this storm.

When Bistosli, a CPA, was working toward her MBA at Babson College in Wellesley, she did a considerable amount of reading on the subject of leadership, and is putting what she learned from that time — as well as at all the other stops on her résumé — into practice now.

“I read historical books about great leaders like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and I think that’s the learning there,” she noted. “One key element of leadership for me is trust and really making sure that the people who are on the direct team know that my vision for leadership is that we’re all in a boat together and we’re all united in that boat moving downstream, with the goal of looking at our workday to provide the maximum impact to patient safety and the colleagues we work with and for.

“For me, leadership is about trust and the ability to have a relationship with people to allow them to do the best work possible,” she went on. “To learn, to adapt, and to sometimes make mistakes, which is OK, because you learn from them. At the end of the day, you mature as a business owner and as a professional, and to me, that’s what leadership is all about.”

She said another key element to providing effective leadership — during a pandemic or any other time — is to inspire team members to reach a level they may have thought was beyond their reach, and then give them the support and the tools needed to get there.

“I want people to really aspire to greatness because, through my career, I’ve seen great, great people who didn’t know that they could get there, but with a little prodding and trust and a comfort zone, they’re able to rise above what they thought they were capable of,” she told BusinessWest. “They got there through a little support, mentorship, and really nudging — and that’s a the sign of a great leader; you invest in people, you mentor people, and you prod them because you know they can get to another level of performance.”

Moving forward during this pandemic, Bitsoli said Mercy, and all hospitals, for that matter, are summoning the same two-word phrase being used by every other business sector to describe the present and the near future: ‘new normal.’

Indeed, as COVID-19 cases decline — Mercy recently closed two of its COVID units — and the state slowly begins the process of reopening the economy, hospitals are, like all other businesses, looking to get back to what was normal.

But that won’t happen for some time, she said, adding that there are several factors that will determine when and if that state can be reached, including everything from possible new surges of the virus to the public’s appetite for returning to places like emergency rooms and doctor’s offices and fully addressing their health issues.

And, again, as at other businesses, the day to-day will certainly be different in this new normal.

“For Mercy and all the other hospitals nationally, there is going to have to be more state and federal funding allotted,” she said, referring to the fiscal challenges created by the pandemic. “It’s going to take a long time for hospitals to be able to open their doors as they did six months ago or even four months; it’s going to be a while.”

Elaborating, she said that so much depends on both the state’s reopening strategy and the ability of individual hospitals to convince the public it is safe to seek care at such institutions. The plan, released on May 18, allows hospitals that can meet specific capacity criteria and public-health and safety standards to resume a limited set of in-person services. These include high-priority preventive services, including pediatric care, immunizations, and chronic-disease care for high-risk patients, and urgent procedures that cannot be delivered remotely and would lead to high risk or significant worsening of the patient’s condition if deferred.

“Hospitals have to demonstrate to the public that they have sufficient areas that are COVID-free, which Mercy does,” she noted, “and demonstrate to the public through word of mouth that people are coming back, they’re seeing the signage, they’re seeing the care, they’re seeing that we’re going to great lengths to ensure that the public is safe and we’re screening at the door, handing out masks, and taking temperatures.

“It’s going to take the public seeing that continued structure in place to demonstrate that acute-care hospitals are safe for them to come back to,” she went on, adding that it’s difficult at this time to say when that day will come.

She said she couldn’t properly quantify the economic impact at this point, noting that April’s numbers are still being analyzed. What she does know, though, is that all hospitals are in the same boat, and that Mercy is fortunate to be part of the larger Trinity system. “The hospitals that are in the smaller systems that don’t have the leverage and the scale — they’re in a different bucket than a hospital that is based with a system nationally.”

Bottom Line

When asked when things might start to get better for hospitals, Bitsoli said matters are complicated by uncertainty about when elective surgeries may begin again and how a second wave of COVID-19 cases might impact that equation.

“There are criteria being established at the state level for when people can start to do more elective surgeries, and the key driver to that is your intensive-care unit and your number of staffed beds,” she explained. “As we look at the data, we do expect that there will be a second wave, so as they’re discussing opening up the doors to hospitals for elective surgeries, they are factoring in that second wave, which they think will be in the fall.

“Once the state establishes the criteria and we can start to do more procedures based on Governor Baker’s recommendations, we’re going to have a better sense of what the future projections are going to look like,” she went on.

At this time, it’s difficult to make projections about the future because there are simply too many unknowns. For Bitsoli, the plan is to continue planning, preparing, and anticipating, and to lead by example as Mercy confronts novel challenges on an unprecedented scale.

She has several decades of experience to call on, right down to the words of advice her mother gave her about how to focus on the patient when she was bringing in that tray of food.

And, like her mother, she sets a high bar, one that will be needed during this time of challenge and the ongoing work of meeting it head on.

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

Class of 2020

She’s Fighting to Find a Cure for Metastatic Breast Cancer

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Thirty-seven. 

That’s the age Sandy Cassanelli was diagnosed with stage-3 breast cancer. 

Thirty-eight.

That’s the age she was declared cancer-free — a bilateral mastectomy, eight rounds of chemotherapy, and 28 days of radiation later.

Thirty-nine.

That’s the age she was diagnosed with stage-4 metastatic breast cancer — a diagnosis with no cure.

Forty.

That’s the age many doctors start to recommend mammograms for women.

Yes, Cassanelli was diagnosed with uncurable breast cancer before most women even get their first mammogram.

In just three short years, she was knocked down by this disease more than once, but each time, she did something extremely difficult — she got right back up.

Living with a terminal illness is a different experience for each individual it affects. But Cassanelli is determined to take her personal experience with cancer and use it to help others to, hopefully, find a cure.

Sandy Cassanelli (third from left) with daughter Samantha, husband Craig, and daughter Amanda at Breast Friends Fund’s biggest annual fundraiser, Taste the Cure, in March 2019.

“I feel like the more you give, the more you’ll get,” she said. “I feel so blessed that I’m able to give, and I get so much that I just want to give and show people that, if you are kind, it just makes life so much easier.”

Four years after her stage-4 diagnosis, she continues to try out new medications and treatments, but has yet to find one she can stick with. In October 2018, she began an FDA-approved treatment, but recently found out, once again, her medication was not working. The next step — discussing possible options with her team of doctors.

Despite her diagnosis, Cassanelli lives her life full speed ahead. She’s a mother (to daughters Samantha, 17, and Amanda, 13), as well as CEO and co-owner (with her husband, Craig) of Greeno Supply, a company in West Springfield that distributes various cleaning and packaging supplies both locally and nationally.

She’s also the creator and manager of the Breast Friends Fund, a charity that takes aim at the very disease she was diagnosed with. One hundred percent of funds raised go directly to metastatic breast-cancer research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

That’s a heck of a load for any person, let alone someone with severe health problems. But Cassanelli holds the weight just fine, and with a smile on her face.

“Having a terminal illness, of course I live every day like it’s my last,” she said. “I try not to sweat the small stuff. I believe that every day I get is a gift, and I’m going to make the best of that day, and I’m going to be positive, because if I’m positive, then everybody around me is going to be positive.”

It is estimated that 155,000 Americans currently live with metastatic breast cancer, a disease that accounts for approximately 40,000 deaths annually in the U.S. That’s why Cassanelli has made it her mission to raise money for the cure.

“Once I became metastatic, it was obviously a big punch in the gut to our family, and we realized that we needed to help find a cure,” she said.

Upon her research into some of the major charities and organizations that support breast-cancer research, she found herself in shock at some of the information she came across.

“We started to do our homework about what most breast-cancer organizations give to research to find the cure,” she said. “We were totally and utterly shocked that most of them give 7% of their money raised to research for the cure.”

So, where does the rest of the money go?

Much of it goes to awareness campaigns, pink ribbons, salaries, community outreach, and more — all important things, she said, but not what she is looking for. So she decided to take matters into her own hands and start her own charity — one that has raised $400,000 in five short years.

But Cassanelli isn’t stopping there.

She says she has a long-term goal of raising $1 million, and is dedicating her life to finding a cure for the very disease that causes her to see every day as a gift — and an opportunity.

Determined to Fight

Cassanelli says being a full-time mom and CEO while running a very successful charity is not an easy task, but she is grateful she can spend many of her days with her family.

“I cherish every minute with my family,” she said. “We do a lot of trips together; we spend a lot of time together.”

Before purchasing Greeno with her husband, Cassanelli lived a very different life. She was a travel agent for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), booking flights and hotels for superstars like the Rock and the Undertaker — a non-stop job that required a lot of traveling.

This is where she met Craig, who was also working at the WWE as an advertising agent in New York City. They got married, and, after 9/11, it became difficult for Cassanelli to send Craig into the city for work every day.

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Then they had their first daughter, and working in a big, corporate environment became even harder. When Craig’s uncle passed away, he left behind a business, Greeno Packaging. So, the two purchased it from the estate in 2003.

“There’s nothing glamourous about selling toilet paper and paper towels,” Cassanelli joked, explaining the differences between her previous job and the position she now holds. “I was used to a different lifestyle. To come to Western Mass., it was definitely a culture change … but it’s nice to be your own boss and to be an employer to other people and give back that way.”

A member of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty class of 2014, Cassanelli has successfully run Greeno for more than 15 years. The company distributes regionally to Western Mass. and Connecticut, where she resides, but also ships nationally with an online Amazon store. Local manufacturers, hospitals, schools, and other companies utilize its products.

Greeno is also a certified woman-owned business, and Cassanelli holds a few key core values that she uses not only in her business, but also in her charity work.

“I believe that, with hard work and dedication, you can do anything,” she said. “I tell my daughters that all the time: try your hardest, work the hardest, and you can achieve your dreams.”

While Cassanelli refers to her charity as part-time, it never slows. Once she realized she wanted to start something on her own, she approached her doctor, Dr. Eric Winer at Dana-Farber, to see if they could make something work.

“When I approached him, I said, ‘why would I give somebody else money to give to you? Can I start this thing and give money directly to you?’” she recalled, adding that he agreed, and that’s when she began the Breast Friends Fund. Every single dollar raised goes to metastatic breast-cancer research at Dana-Farber. Every expense, from postage stamps to signs for fundraisers, is paid for by Cassanelli’s company, Greeno.

The decision proved to be a solid one. In just five years, the fund has raised $400,000, with a long-term goal of $1 million.

Coming up soon for Breast Friends Fund is its annual Taste the Cure fundraiser on March 27. This wine-tasting at the Gallery in Glastonbury, Conn. includes a wine tasting, appetizers, silent and live auctions, raffles, and more. Last year’s event raised more than $120,000.

Cassanelli maintains that the charity wouldn’t be as successful as it is today without the involvement of the Dana-Farber institute and all the help from her community. “I think our partnership with Dana-Farber is why I’m such a huge success,” she said. “People really believe in them.”

In Connecticut, she said, several local businesses hold fundraisers for the Breast Friends Fund, especially in October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

In the past, 2 Hopewell American Bistro & Bar, a restaurant in Glastonbury, donated $1 per pink martini to Cassanelli’s charity. A local bakery also sold cookies and donated 100% of the profits to the charity all month long.

Additionally, in September during the Big E, Greeno parks cars in its space and gives $1 per car to the charity.

This support and growth is a clear testament to the genuine intentions of Cassanelli and her family and the charity that she works so hard to run.

Chasing the Cure

Cassanelli continues to tell her story as much as possible to get the word out about metastatic breast cancer, and hopes to get more Western Mass. businesses involved as the charity grows in more regions across Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Despite her diagnosis, she chooses to get up and fight the fight every day — not just for herself or for her family, but for others who are battling this terrible disease.

“Does it suck? Yeah, it totally sucks,” she said. “But me crawling up in a ball and putting the sheets up over my head is not going to fix anything, so I might as well just get up and go.”

And that’s exactly what she does — she gets up, even when she has every reason not to, and that’s why she is a Difference Maker.

“There’s no point in being sad because, I mean, we’re all going to die,” she said. “I know that every day is a gift, and I’m going to live it to the fullest and do the best that I can.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2020

This Community Leader Has Tackled Many Roles With a Sense of Purpose

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Back in the mid-’70s, Ronn Johnson recalls, he’d walk past a nondescript house on Wilbraham Road in Springfield, a few blocks down the road from both his home and his school. Sometimes he’d sit in the front room of that house, waiting for a dental appointment. In the neighboring Presbyterian church, a young, dynamic pastor, the Rev. Ronald Peters, had recently taken over a decidedly dwindling flock.

“I never thought this was a place I’d ever have a connection to,” Johnson told BusinessWest. “But I do believe that God has a plan for every one of us. I’m a very faith-driven person. I’ve been blessed to be in places where people see my interests and read my heart, and where I’m able to make some things happen.”

Today, he makes them happen in that same house. The dental office long gone, it now serves as the administrative center of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services Inc., where he’s been president and CEO for the past seven-plus years.

The neighborhood has changed much over the past half-century. Peters, who rebuilt that church by attracting kids and teenagers and then their parents, restored the church to vibrancy and oversaw the construction of the community center that became MLK Family Services.

Meanwhile, Johnson has spent much of the past four decades making a real difference for children and families in the community.

He’s done that through a variety of roles, all of which blended business acumen with a heart for service. He’s also done it through the Brianna Fund, a charity named after his daughter that has, over the past 22 years, helped children with disabilities access the tools and resources they need to achieve a better life (more on that later).

“I do what I do because I have a passion for making a difference for people,” Johnson said. “It’s that simple. And I’ve been fortunate enough where I’ve been able to make a career around doing that. So I feel I’m doubly blessed to have made a good life for myself, but in the context of being a professional helper.

“I do what I do because I have a passion for making a difference for people. It’s that simple.”

“It’s made my life more complete, more purposeful — not just crunching numbers for folks to get rich, but working on the side of creating opportunities that help corporations make good decisions about how to invest in our community and invest in people,” he went on. “And meeting the most basic needs people can have — food, sustenance, shelter, education — that’s very much what we’re about here.”

It’s a winding story with many stops, each of them worth visiting to understand why Ronn Johnson is a true Difference Maker — one whose influence will continue to resonate in the decades to come.

‘A Springfield Person’

Johnson’s family moved from Georgia to New England during the 1950s, part of the great African-American migration from the South in search of better economic opportunities, and he grew up along that stretch of Wilbraham Road.

“I’m a Springfield person. My formative years were right here,” he recalled. “I was part of a very caring community, as were most neighborhoods during that time. It wasn’t until later that we became so disparate and not as connected to our neighbors as we used to be. That laid the foundation for me to become very relationship-oriented. That has served me well.”

Indeed, each stop in his long career has been marked by building relationships between various entities — businesses, schools, social-service agencies, government — in the service of helping individuals and improving communities. “It’s not what I’ve done that’s so great, but other folks have sown seeds and shared a vision, and collectively we’ve come together to make it happen.”

He might have never made a career in Springfield had he followed through with an acceptance to Morehouse College in Atlanta. But when his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he decided to stay home with his mother and sisters, and attended Western New England College instead. “And I have no regrets,” he noted.

That’s due to the remarkable journey of service that followed. After graduating from WNEC, he was recruited to the W.W. Johnson Life Center, an organization that dealt in mental-health issues, and earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Cambridge College.

His next stop was the Dunbar Community Center, where he was involved in grant writing in an effort to meet the needs of an “underfunded community,” as he called it. “Poverty was at the core of what so many people were living with on a daily basis.”

His next role was vice president of Child and Family Services at the Center for Human Development (CHD), where he worked for 13 years — giving him a larger platform, a much broader range of financial supports, and a specific mandate.

Ronn Johnson has spent a lifetime improving the neighborhood of his youth — and impacting lives far beyond it.
(Photo by Leah Martin Photography)

“Leadership at the time wanted to make a stronger connection to community,” he recalled. “Yes, was important to do closed-referral programs, but we were getting referrals because of the dysfunction that existed in the communities, the poverty that was happening.”

Gang violence was also on the rise during the early part of the 1990s, and it was creeping into local schools, so he created a CHD program called the Citywide Violence Prevention Task Force.

“We had no contract for violence-prevention work, but we committed some resources to make some changes,” he said, adding that police, faith-based organizations, youth-serving agencies, concerned citizens, and businesses all wanted to be a part, as did college students who helped with marketing strategies and research projects.

“I got really tuned in to how to address violence from a public-health perspective because people don’t think about kids being shot in the street as a public-health issue — but, my goodness, for urban youth, it’s the number-one killer. Cancer is big, diabetes is big, but if you’re a young person in a certain urban environment, you’re more likely to be killed by violence.”

Part of that initiative was a street-outreach program that drew young people to environments where they could feel better about their lives, draw on community resources, and develop aspirations for a healthier future. That plan, dating back two decades, was recently used to write a proposal to fund a similar street-worker program, and the Department of Public Health issued grants to several organizations to launch it this year — including MLK Family Services.

“That made me feel old,” Johnson said with a laugh. “This thing has come full circle. I couldn’t have designed it that way.”

Measurable Results

Before his current role, however, Johnson had one more notable stop, as director of Community Responsibility at MassMutual.

“I moved from the micro side and case work to being a social worker in the macro context, setting policy and strategy around a corporation’s giving of millions of dollars to the community. It was a cultural difference, but I was happy. I got to spread my wings and be a positive contributor and see that these things we were funding were making a difference with people, and that they were measurable.”

He worked there for almost six years, until the economic downturn in 2009 forced cutbacks at many companies, and he was laid off. But he had no regrets, and he took advantage of relationships he had built in the worlds of higher education, healthcare, and other sectors and launched a consulting firm, RDJ Associates.

One of his clients was MLK Family Services, which approached him, during the summer of 2012, with an offer to take over leadership of the venerable but financially struggling agency. When he came on board, the first goal was simply to make payroll, but eventually he righted the ship — with the help of a business community that saw the organization’s value and quietly helped raise a half-million dollars.

“It was stressful, but I was committed. And I had a committed board of directors who hung in there and facilitated the change that needed to happen,” he said. “We regained credibility with funders. That was big.”

“It’s made my life more complete, more purposeful — not just crunching numbers for folks to get rich, but working on the side of creating opportunities that help corporations make good decisions about how to invest in our community and invest in people.”

Importantly, at MassMutual, he had learned the value of measurable results, and he’s been able to demonstrate that the agency’s programs — from helping people access healthier food to a College Readiness Academy that gives students tutorial help while bringing them to college campuses to raise their educational aspirations — do make a difference.

But no effort has been more personal to Johnson than the Brianna Fund, named for his daughter, who was born into the world with multiple broken bones from the brittle-bone condition known as osteogenesis imperfecta. Over the years, she would fracture dozens more. The family decided they needed an accessible van to keep Brianna in her wheelchair while moving from place to place, so they started a fundraiser.

“The community got behind us so significantly that we over-fundraised by about $30,000,” he recalled. “That was a message from God. I said all along that I didn’t want to do this if we’re not in it for the long haul. This needed to be ongoing, in perpetuity, for children in our community.”

Twenty-two years later, the Brianna Fund has raised more than $750,000 and helped 50 children. “Sometimes it’s advocacy, but in 90% of the situations, it’s to purchase a vehicle, renovate a home, widen hallways, install ramps,” he noted. The 50th recipient, Omer DeJesus, will use the funds to bring home a service dog.

The Brianna Fund also honors the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. each January with a benefit gospel concert, drawing thousands of attendees to the MassMutual Center.

“This is a ministry for me and my wife, something we do together that has a lot of benefit for folks,” Johnson said. “For us, it’s a gratifying experience to give something to folks that we know is going to move their life forward.”

Legacy of Service

These days, Johnson’s son, Ron, works as an attorney at Yale New Haven Hospital, while Brianna is living in a city she loves, Washington, D.C., working for an agency focused on issues that affect poor people, especially women. Often, someone will tell Johnson he saw Brianna wheeling around the capital, enjoying a life of service no doubt partly inspired by her difference-making dad.

He comes back repeatedly to the fact that he can’t do any of it alone. To serve 750 different people each week with after-school programs, college courses, family support, public-health outreach, sports programs, cultural activities, and more — with only about $1.6 million in annual funding — he relies not only on his team, but 114 active volunteers. “We could never do that kind of volume without the important role volunteers play.”

Still, he added, “small not-for-profits are under siege in this state and across the country,” because large funders want to give bigger contracts to fewer agencies, those with a broader infrastructure than MLK Family Services has. “In the meantime, those agencies who have the best relationships with the consumers on the ground, we get squeezed out of the game. So we need the support of our home communities and the business owners.”

In short, the challenge never ends. And Ronn Johnson, a man with a heart for the City of Homes, who works within shouting distance of his own childhood home, will keep working to meet his community’s needs.

After all, he’s a Springfield person. 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]