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A Different Kind of Gig

For roughly two decades, Richard Swift hop scotched the country on a series of interim assignments during which he shared his considerable expertise with several different health plans. As fruitful as this niche has been for Swift, he has traded his ‘interim’ tag for something permanent at Health New England — the role of president and CEO — and at a very unique and challenging time, for him and the company.

Richard Swift says he applied for the position of interim chief financial officer at Health New England with the expectation that this assignment would be like all the other longer-term interim gigs that had dominated his résumé for the previous few decades.

To say that things haven’t turned out as he originally thought would be a huge understatement.

For starters, while he interviewed for the position at Health New England’s offices in Monarch Place in downtown Springfield and had the opportunity to meet many of those in the finance team before starting, once he was awarded the job, he wouldn’t set foot in those offices for close to six months, and only then for short, very infrequent stops.

His arrival coincided almost exactly with that of COVID, which would put him in a working environment unlike anything he was used to.

“I’m told I was the first person they remotely onboarded,” he said, adding that several days before his scheduled start date the company had begun “experimenting” with employees working remotely, experiments that went very well. “They said, ‘I guess we’ll just send you a laptop.’ They sent me a computer, the IT folks hooked me up … the first time I came into the office was in August.”

While that was a huge adjustment for him, there was an even bigger one to come later.

Indeed, he would soon lose the word ‘interim’ from his business card — only he never actually had any in the CFO role, to the best of his recollection — not only from that title, but from the one he would be given roughly a year ago — president and CEO, succeeding Marion McGowan, who would become executive vice president and chief operating officer at Baystate Health, which owns Health New England.

After roughly 20 years of taking on year-long assignments as president of Medwise Partners and flying home every weekend from wherever he was stationed to his home in Arizona, he was planting roots; he even bought one of the Classical High Condominiums. When asked why, and why at Health New England, he said, “this was the right opportunity at the right place at the right time.”

It’s certainly been a whirlwind 18 months for Swift, whose tenure has, indeed, been dominated by the pandemic in every way imaginable, from its impact on Health New England and all health plans, to how and where the 380 employees at the company get work done, to the company’s work within the community and how it has changed in some ways but not in any of the ones that matter.

In a wide-ranging interview from his office at Monarch — he’s been there for several months now, usually without much company — Swift talked about all of the above. And in so doing, he provided some keen insight into what it’s been like to manage during a period unlike anything that a business manager has seen before.

“One size is not going to fit all. And for the 360 of our 380 employees who have been remote for the past year and a half, it’s been an almost seamless process. So given the fact that it’s been successful, it makes it hard to say ‘you have to come back, because it hasn’t been successful and that’s the only way to make it work.’”

“We need to be sensitive to our diverse workforce and their diverse and different needs,” he said, while summing up the challenge of leading at this time. “As a leader, I need to be sensitive to these varying needs, and I need to make sure the organization is sensitive to them. One of the things this experience has taught me is the need to be adaptable — both personally, for myself, and the organization and everyone within it — and accessible.”

As for the pandemic and health plans like Health New England, he said COVID and the changes resulting from it have brought challenges in many shapes and sizes, including to the bottom line. Indeed, while 2020 saw insurers facing far fewer claims than would be considered normal, and most eventually issuing rebates to members, 2021 has seen a surge in claims, with many health plans posting losses in the second quarter.

Swift said Health New England posted losses in that quarter as well (specific numbers were not available), but it has been able to avoid layoffs and cutbacks while actually increasing its involvement in the community, financially and otherwise (more on that later).

As for where and how people work, Swift said the pandemic gave him a first-hand look at how effective employees can be when working from their home office or dining-room table.

And he is using that experience as he goes about setting policy for the company. Above all else, he said he’s learned that managers must be practical and flexible in such matters.

“One size is not going to fit all,” he noted. “And for the 360 of our 380 employees who have been remote for the past year and a half, it’s been an almost seamless process. So given the fact that it’s been successful, it makes it hard to say ‘you have to come back, because it hasn’t been successful and that’s the only way to make it work.’”

 

Assignment Desk

As he talked about his lengthy tenure as a consultant to a number of different health plans and life as an ‘interim,’ Swift said he thoroughly enjoyed what he considered a ‘niche,’ and a successful one at that.

“For me, it was fun to parachute in somewhere and learn new people, new things, and new places; I liked to travel — it was fun to go back and forth,” he told BusinessWest, adding that his various gigs took him to all corners of the country and for assignments — usually as CFO but also CEO and COO — that varied with the health plan in question.

“Sometimes they were eight months long, sometimes they were for a couple of years,” he explained. “In some cases, people left suddenly; in other cases, it wasn’t suddenly, but they realized that they didn’t necessarily have the successor they thought they had, or they knew they didn’t have one and were going into a search process.

“Sometimes they were successful, strong health plans that just needed some expertise, and some of them were turn-arounds,” he went on. “What I brought to the table was that experience of running that business.”

Health New England was looking to tap into that experience early in 2020 when its CFO announced his retirement and a search for a successor had commenced. As noted earlier, Health New England was going to be another one of those interim assignments.

“When I looked at what was going on here, and at the opportunities that Baystate has with Health New England and that Health New England has with Baystate, I realized that there is so much that we can do together in the Western Massachusetts market.”

But things didn’t go according to script, starting with day one — or actually, even before day one.

Indeed, Swift was scheduled to start in April of 2020. COVID, as we all know, made its arrival in the 413 in mid-March, abruptly changing the landscape for the company and its new CFO (he quickly lost the interim tag), who wouldn’t have to get on a plane to take on his latest assignment.

He recalls that leadership at the company was going to use March 13, 2020, a Friday, as an experiment to see how effectively people worked remotely. That experiment went so well, and COVID invaded so suddenly, that workers never came back. In his case, he never arrived.

“I remember that conversation about ‘we’ll just send you a computer and you’ll work remotely,’ and how stunned I was at the time,” he recalled. “Because in 20 years of interim work, I pretty much got on a plane every week and flew out to my client. I was in my office in whatever city it was, on site. So the notion of doing all this remotely … it took me a while to wrap my head around it.”

While making these adjustments, Swift would soon have to make some others as well.

Indeed, in June, as McGowan was assuming some duties at Baystate while still serving as president and CEO at Health New England, Swift picked up some additional responsibilities for the company. And in October of last year, as McGowan moved to Baystate full time, he was asked to become CEO — again, without the ‘interim’ before the title.

When asked what he saw in Health New England that made him accept a permanent position — he had declined a few offers of that type in the past — he said it was a combination of things, including the team that was in place at Health New England and the opportunities he saw to partner with Baystate in meaningful ways.

“When I looked at what was going on here, and at the opportunities that Baystate has with Health New England and that Health New England has with Baystate, I realized that there is so much that we can do together in the Western Massachusetts market,” he said. “And I was really excited by those possibilities.”

 

By the Numbers

Looking back on his first 18 months with the company — and ahead to what might come next — Swift said this has obviously been a different and very challenging time for Health New England, and all health plans.

And the pandemic is just one reason why, albeit a big reason. At first, it contributed to a steep decline in claims because people were not visiting the doctor or seeking help even if they needed it. And then, it prompted a huge surge as people went back to the doctor and the emergency room, often with conditions made more serious by not seeking care through most of 2020. Meanwhile, treating COVID itself has often required lengthy and very expensive hospital stays.

“We’re certainly seeing more members having more claims and more services, and more-costly services than we did in 2019,” he said, adding that all this certainly contributed to the company’s second-quarter losses.

Richard Swift

Richard Swift

“COVID has brought a tremendous level of uncertainty. So all of us who put plans and benefits and rates in place for 2021 did that in the summer of 2020 in the middle of COVID, trying to understand what that would look like, and we’re doing it now for 2022, and we don’t know what next month is going to look like, let alone six months from now.”

But mostly, the pandemic has created uncertainty and even greater difficulty forecasting into the future, which creates problems for health plans, Swift noted.

“We set rates well in advance based on what we think our costs are going to be, and we don’t really have a chance to revisit those until the next year,” he explained. “And we obviously don’t know what the services are going to be or what new technologies are going to emerge.”

Elaborating, he said that telehealth technology certainly came of age during COVID, and Health New England, like many health plans, had previously created a telehealth benefit for members.

“In all of 2019, we had something like 850 or 900 total claims for telehealth visits; over the past year, it has averaged almost 30,000 per month,” he noted, citing this as just one example of how quickly and profoundly the landscape can change and health plans can be impacted by those changes.

Vaccines are another example, he said, adding that health plans couldn’t anticipate a two-dose vaccine when they set rates for 2021 last year, and they couldn’t have anticipated a booster, or third shot, as they set rates for next year.

“COVID has brought a tremendous level of uncertainty,” Swift went on. “So all of us who put plans and benefits and rates in place for 2021 did that in the summer of 2020 in the middle of COVID, trying to understand what that would look like, and we’re doing it now for 2022, and we don’t know what next month is going to look like, let alone six months from now.”

As noted earlier, the surge in claims and other factors have generated losses for some health plans in recent quarters and prompted layoffs and cutbacks as well.

Health New England has been able to avoid such cuts, he said, adding that, in the meantime, it has been able to maintain and, in many ways, increase its financial support to the community and its business community, something Swift takes great pride in.
“Even with everything going on with COVID, we’ve continued, and increased, the community support in terms of activities, foundations, grants, and actually providing PPE and hand sanitizer to people who didn’t have the wherewithal and the ability to get it themselves,” he said. “A lot of companies have turned inward, and many of them have laid people off; we made a conscious decision not to lay people off if we could at all avoid it, and fortunately, we have been able to avoid that.”

Elaborating, he said the company adjusted some of its sponsorship activity to accommodate what it would call “COVID mini grants,” roughly $300,000 worth of them that were awarded to community organizations that needed support to address their COVID-related needs.

In addition, the company created Where Health Matters grants, multi-year grants totaling $50,000 to $150,000 awarded to organizations to help offset the effects of COVID on their operations.

 

Giving the Forecast

Moving forward, Swift said the company would continue its pattern of flexibility and responsiveness to changing conditions as a fall shrouded by uncertainty approaches.

As he talked with BusinessWest, he noted that he was one of very few employees in the building that day, and things would probably remain that way for the foreseeable future. Employees were slated to return, in a hybrid format, by this time, he went on, but there is now more of a wait-and-see approach than a definitive schedule.

Meanwhile, Health New England has joined a growing number of businesses, especially in the broad healthcare realm, that have made vaccination a requirement for employment, a step taken in the interest of maintaining the safety of employees and customers alike.

“One of the things we’ve said concerning our coming back to the office is that we don’t know what we don’t know,” he said. “The only thing we know for sure is that things are going to change.”

And with those sentiments, he summed up both the short term and what could be called the post-pandemic world — whenever that arrives. When it does, said Swift, noting that, in some respects, it is already here, it won’t look like the pre-pandemic world.

And that goes for everything from how and where employees work to how people will access healthcare.

With regard to the latter, telehealth will almost certainly continue to increase in popularity, he said, adding that while the numbers have fluctuated as the pandemic has waned and surged, the technology has gained a broad level of acceptance.

“I do think you’ll see a lot more movement to leverage the technology that’s out there and technology that’s being developed for care without having to traditionally go back and see your doctor in the office on their schedule,” he explained.

As for the office setting and what it will look like, Swift said things simply won’t go back to the way they were in 2019. Companies have learned that employees can work effectively in remote settings, and thus it only makes good business sense to allow them to continue doing so, either in a fully remote fashion or in a hybrid format now being tried by many area businesses of all sizes.

“We have some departments that, by and large, were partially remote before and will be partially, or maybe completely remote in the future,” he explained. “The work they’re doing is such that it’s fine remotely, and they’ll stay that way.

“We have not come out with any edicts that people have to be here on ‘x’ amount of days,” he went on. “Because we know that one size does not fit all and there are certain departments and functions that have very different needs than others; we came to the conclusion that an edict was as arbitrary as pre-COVID, Monday through Friday, 8 to 5, in some respects.”

And there’s a competitive aspect to creating flexibility with working conditions, he said, adding that Health New England can now hire talented individuals from outside the 413 and even outside the state because they have the ability to work remotely.

As for business strategy and long-term planning, Swift said COVID has certainly made such exercises more difficult. But companies still have to plan, he noted, adding that there must be layers of flexibility built into such plans.

“I think that COVID requires us to plan even further ahead, but be more nimble with those plans,” he explained. “Our original date for returning to the office was Sept. 1; with what’s happened over the past several weeks, we’ve pushed that back. But in the spring, we threw out that date of Sept. 1 as the one we were targeting, again with the caveat that everything is subject to change.”

 

Bottom Line

Swift told BusinessWest that, a few weeks back, his sister called him asking for recommendations on restaurants in Detroit, which she would soon be visiting.

He was able to help her, because that was one of the places he parachuted into while doing his consulting work.

That life has ended, at least temporarily, with a permanent assignment, one that is a far cry from what he thought he was originally signing up for back in March of 2020.

He was, by most accounts, the first Health New England employee to be onboarded remotely, but he certainly wasn’t the last. His first 18 months have been a learning experience on myriad levels, and in all ways it is still ongoing.

 

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

Daily News

NORTHAMPTON — Lynnette Watkins, MD, MBA, an ophthalmologist and widely respected health care administrator and leader, has been named president and chief executive officer at Cooley Dickinson Health Care.

Currently the group chief medical officer for the Baptist Health System/Tenet Healthcare — Texas Group, she will begin her new role at Cooley Dickinson Sept. 27.

Following a national search, Watkins was selected to lead the Northampton hospital based on her extensive healthcare leadership experience and her many accomplishments in performance improvement, quality, safety, provider relations, and financial management. Since joining Baptist Health System/Tenet Healthcare in 2017, she has been a member of the team that has provided executive oversight for the multi-hospital system that stretches across the state, with more than 3,600 beds and $3.45 billion in patient revenue. She also has significant leadership experience in community hospital settings.

In addition, Watkins has ties to Massachusetts and the Mass General Brigham system, having completed her residency at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, where she began her clinical career in ophthalmology and oculoplastic surgery and served on the faculty of Harvard Medical School.

“Dr. Watkins brings to us a breadth of skills, leadership experience, perspective and vision that will help Cooley Dickinson continue to thrive as a destination of choice for health care in the Pioneer Valley,” said Fraser Beede, chair of the Cooley Dickinson Health Care Board of Trustees. “She not only has been an extraordinary leader within the organizations she has served but also has been a trusted voice and active participant in the communities where she has worked. Dr. Watkins will be instrumental in guiding our future strategic direction as a strong and vibrant organization and key contributor to the success of Mass General Brigham.”

Before joining the Baptist Health System, Watkins held the position of chief medical officer and chief operating officer at Paris Regional Medical Center in Paris, Texas. She has also served as chief medical officer in Tenet’s Abrazo Community Health Network in Arizona. Her career as a healthcare executive began in Mishawaka, Ind., where she was vice president and chief medical officer for the Saint Joseph Health System/Trinity Health.

“It is truly an honor and privilege to have been chosen to serve the patients and community of the Pioneer Valley,” said Watkins. “Cooley Dickinson Health Care is a unique and valuable institution that has a proven track record of excellence in care close to home. As part of Mass General Brigham, Cooley Dickinson can leverage the strengths of this top academic medical system to continue its tradition of excellence and expand the level and complexity of services it offers to the community.”

Watkins earned her undergraduate and her medical degrees at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and completed her internship in internal medicine at Truman Medical Center in Kansas City before coming to Boston in 1995 as a resident in ophthalmology at Mass Eye and Ear. After residency, she completed a fellowship in oculoplastic surgery at the University of Iowa, then returned to Mass Eye and Ear, where from 1999 to 2004 she directed the Emergency Ophthalmology Service/Walk-in Clinic and was an attending physician in the Ophthalmic Plastic Surgery Service.

Active in the community, Watkins has been a board member of the San Antonio Chapter of the American Heart Association and has been involved as a mentor in the AHA’s STEM program. She served as a participant in the San Antonio Mayor’s Business Roundtable. Her awards and honors include Dean’s Community Service Award, Harvard Medical School; Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Society (Medicine); Beta Sigma Gamma Honor Society (Business); Female Healthcare Executive of the Year-Bexar County (Texas) Medical Society Women in Medicine; Notable African American San Antonians; Becker’s Hospital Review of African American Leaders in Healthcare; and San Antonio Business Journal C-Suite Awardee.

Watkins and her husband, Ed Sackett, a Presbyterian minister and photojournalist, are the parents of three adult daughters. A second-generation ophthalmologist, Watkins’ father Garey L.C. Watkins, MD, is one of the first African American practicing ophthalmologists in St. Louis.

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 62: May 3, 2021

 George O’Brien talks with Dr. Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health

Dr. Mark Keroack

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Dr. Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health. The two discuss a wide range of topics, including the current pace of vaccinations, strategies for improving those numbers, the challenges facing the country as it strives to reach herd immunity, and expectations for when the region, the state, and the nation might be able to reach something approximating ‘normal.’ Keroack provides keen insight into all these matters, and his takes certainly provide food for thought. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

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Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Symphony Orchestra (SSO) has announced that its current executive director, Susan Beaudry, will be leaving the SSO effective April 23, to pursue entrepreneurial interests.

John Anz, currently development director, will step in as interim executive director, according to SSO Board President Robyn Newhouse.

“We appreciate all that Susan Beaudry has done on behalf of the symphony and for the arts in our region. Susan has made valuable contributions during her six years leading the symphony, first as development director and then as executive director. She is a strong leader and will be sorely missed,” Newhouse said.

Beaudry said she will pursue a passion in the wine industry. “I will be leaving my position with the symphony in the good hands of the board and John Anz. I was pleased to be a part of the most recent strategic planning process that I believe will lead to the re-emergence of the SSO and the goal of providing classical music in the region. As the arts and live performances re-emerge from the pandemic, I am optimistic the SSO will continue to fulfill its mission.”

Anz joined the SSO as development director in 2019 and has a 20-year career in development that includes independent schools, the YMCA and in music and the arts. Prior to joining the SSO, Anz worked as director of Development at Berkshire Hills Music Academy in South Hadley, and is a former board member of the Northampton Community Music Center.

“These are challenging and exciting times for live music and symphony orchestras everywhere,” said Anz. “So, it is both an honor and privilege to be asked to serve the SSO in this capacity at this moment. I look forward to working with all of our community leaders, cultural and business partners, and other key players to continue to move this cherished institution forward as we look toward a bright future, and beyond.”

According to Newhouse, the strategic planning process and the choosing of a new executive director will figure largely in how and when the symphony meets its mission of engaging the public around classical music performances. No time frame has been finalized on the selection of a new leader, she said.

Class of 2021

For This Youth Leader, Opportunities Make All the Difference

By Mark Morris

Leah Martin Photography

Bill Parks like to tell the story of a former ‘Youth of the Year’ at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Westfield who was discussing possible careers with a staff member.

“She wanted to be a marine biologist but said, ‘I know that will never happen,’” Parks recalled, but the staffer assured her that her desire was most certainly possible. This led to numerous conversations with the young woman about what she could do at the club and in her studies to make this dream a reality.

“He convinced her to think in terms of ‘yes, I can do this,’” Parks said. “Today, she is working in Florida as a marine biologist.”

And it’s not a surprising outcome to someone who believes life is about opportunities and relationships. As the club’s executive director, he follows this guiding principle, which, as much as anything else, is responsible for his being named a Difference Maker.

His own experience with the Boys & Girls Club actually began when he was a young boy attending the Marlborough Boys Club. He enjoyed going there because it was a place to meet up with friends, play basketball, and take part in activities. At that time, the club was for boys only, but Parks credits his sister with breaking the gender barrier and becoming the first girl to become a member.

“We snuck her into a Halloween party one year,” he said with a laugh. “After we did that, the staff decided to allow girls be part of the club.”

Once in high school, the club provided Parks his first job. “I worked at the gym, in the game rooms, and at the front desk,” he remembered. “It taught me how to deal with the public and how to work with kids.”

As a basketball player for Marlborough High School, Parks was recruited to play basketball at Fitchburg State College, allowing him the opportunity to become the first member of his family to attend college.

“That small gesture, to make sure I could go back to school, had a huge impact on my life. I’ve never forgotten it, and it’s been a goal of mine to always pay that forward.”

But the Division III college does not award scholarship money for athletes, and his parents — his father worked in a shoe factory, and his mother provided day-care services in the home — couldn’t afford to send him. To make matters worse, a local bank rejected his student-loan application.

Parks was worried he would have to give up his college plans, but when the club’s executive director heard about the rejection, he got involved, and gave Parks the name of a banker at First National Bank of Marlborough who was willing to approve the loan request. “You’re all set,” Parks recalled the director telling him. “You’re going back to school.”

It’s a story he recalls often as a moment that changed him forever. “That small gesture, to make sure I could go back to school, had a huge impact on my life,” he said. “I’ve never forgotten it, and it’s been a goal of mine to always pay that forward.”

By paying it forward through his role at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Westfield — by helping other young people act on opportunities they don’t see as possible — Parks is truly a Difference Maker.

 

View to the Future

While the story of the marine biologist is inspiring, Parks told BusinessWest, it’s not really about any particular job.

“It’s more important for young people to see the opportunities they have to develop their futures,” he said. “Our latest campaign is called ‘Building Futures’ because that’s who we are and what we do.”

Education has been a driving force in Bill Parks’s life

Education has been a driving force in Bill Parks’s life, and he emphasizes its importance to those he serves.

Parks’ professional career with the Boys & Girls Club began in Eastern Mass., serving as executive director for clubs in Billerica and Waltham. Before he joined the Westfield club in 2004, he spent two years with the Jason Foundation, where he helped introduce STEM programs to Boys & Girls Clubs on a national level.

While he enjoyed the work at the foundation, he missed the interaction with all the staff and families who form the culture of a Boys & Girls Club. He found that again in Westfield, which was, in some ways, a return to his geographic roots, as he was born in Springfield and moved to Marlborough as a young child.

Applying what he’d learned in his earlier executive roles, Parks began to lay out a vision and a course of action for the Westfield club. He also understood that he could not accomplish his goals alone but needed to convince others to get behind his vision.

“One of the things I am most proud of is that people in the community wanted to be part of the vision we had for the club,” he said.

When he started in Westfield, the club provided services for nearly 100 children every day with an annual budget of $600,000. Now the club provides day-care, educational, and meal services for 350 children and teens every day with an annual budget of nearly $3 million.

Parks credits his staff for helping to make the vision a reality. Many staffers have long tenures on the job, and several started there even before he arrived.

“When you can maintain your existing staff, it allows you to do big things because you are not constantly changing people and roles,” he said, adding that the staff has also grown to 12 full-time and more than 40 part-time workers, making the organization a “decent-size employer in the city.”

A dedicated and consistent staff that gets results, he noted, makes it easier to attract potential donors. One donor told Parks he supports the club because he is confident that the contribution will generate efforts to help young people succeed, adding, “I like what you are doing, and I believe it will have an impact on our community.”

The role of Boys & Girls Clubs today has greatly changed from the days when Parks played basketball with his friends in Marlborough. Once he began his career there, he saw education becoming a more vital part of the organization’s mission.

Bill Parks says, the club became a critical resource

During the pandemic, Bill Parks says, the club became a critical resource for both kids with their remote learning and their parents who had to work.

“It was easy to see that, in addition to having a gym director and game-room director, clubs also needed an education director,” he said, adding that relationships with the School Department and the community at large are essential to his club.

“We are a part of the city of Westfield,” he said. “We think about what’s outside the walls of our club and how to help the overall community because, in the long run, that’s going to help the kids who are members of the club and kids who are members of the community.”

In 2011, the Westfield club was licensed to provide daycare for 77 children. Concerned he was running out of space and anticipating increased demand, Parks led a $3 million fundraising campaign titled “Raise the Roof.”

“We literally took the roof off the gym, raised the gym up to the second floor, and built classrooms underneath for the licensed childcare program,” he said, adding that the club also expanded the education room and technology lab. Now, the facility is licensed to provide daycare services for 200 children.

 

Learning Experiences

When COVID-19 hit, the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Westfield was available for virtual learning for students, and in September, the club became a remote-learning site for the School Department. The city of Westfield provided every school-age child with a Chromebook tablet, and, with club staff making sure to keep age groups separated and properly distanced, students are linked into the school system for a full day of learning via their Chromebooks. Middle-school and younger kids make up most of the students in this program, which has proven to be a vital resource for families.

“Some of the students couldn’t link in from home, while others have parents who have to leave the house for work during school hours,” Parks said. “With no one at home to take care of them, they have the option to come here and not miss school.”

With all those young minds at work, the club has become a significant meal provider for children as well.

“Parents can drop off kids at 7:30 in the morning, and they will get breakfast, lunch, a snack, and a hot meal every day,” he explained. The club also provides meals at three public-housing sites, resulting in the staff serving nearly 600 meals a day. Like remote learning, Parks sees the meals program as essential to the organization.

“A working parent can pick up their kid at the club and know their homework is done and they’ve been fed,” he said. “It allows parents to interact more with their kids instead of rushing around to put a meal on the table.”

Right now, Parks has plans to expand the club and its services further with a 15,000-square-foot addition, which will allow the club to offer services to an additional 100 children.

“We think about what’s outside the walls of our club and how to help the overall community because, in the long run, that’s going to help the kids who are members of the club and kids who are members of the community.”

The building plans originally called for an 11,000-square-foot expansion, but the pandemic forced engineers to increase the square footage per child and redraw the now-larger plans. The addition is scheduled to be completed by August with a September opening, in time for the new school year.

For Parks, the new structures are exciting, but the real payoff is the impact the programs have on people’s lives. “One of the things I’m most proud of is that people in the community say, ‘let’s call the Boys & Girls Club because they can probably help us or help these kids.’”

Thinking back to the time he got some needed help, Parks said he learned, years after graduating from college, that the banker who approved his student loan was on the board of directors for the Marlborough club. Likewise, he credits his current board of directors as the “guiding force” that supports all the Westfield club’s efforts, and points with pride to the cross-section of community members who make up the board.

“It’s not always easy to encourage people to be on your board,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate that people have reached out to us with an interest in joining ours.”

They are people, he added, who are willing to step up and help a kid in the community, and who recognize the value of paying it forward. His future was changed when he was able to go to college, and he’s dedicated his career to changing lives and finding ways to truly make a difference.

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 51: February 8, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Spiros Hatiras, president and CEO of Holyoke Medical Center

Spiros Hatiras

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Spiros Hatiras, president and CEO of Holyoke Medical Center, recently honored as one oof the magazine’s Healthcare Heroes for 2020. The two discuss the state of the pandemic and current trends with cases and hospitalizations, as well as the many ways COVID is impacting the bottom line at this and other hospitals. The two also discuss HMC’s ongoing, and now changing, plans to add more behavioral health beds in a region that sorely needs them. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

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Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — On the heels of the recent retirement of Joan Kagan, Square One has named Dawn Forbes DiStefano its new president and chief executive officer.

The announcement follows an extensive national search lead by the agency’s board of directors, staff and members of the community.

Following a 25-year career with the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, DiStefano joined the Square One team in January 2016 to lead the agency’s grant research, grant writing, and program-compliance efforts. She was quickly promoted to chief finance and grants officer, where she added oversight of the agency’s financial team to her list of responsibilities. In 2019, she was promoted to executive vice president where she took on oversight of the agency’s early-education and care programs and family-support services, and management of operations, including transportation, food service, and IT.

“We received nearly 60 applications and interviewed impressive candidates from across the country for this position,” says Peter Testori, board chair. “Not surprisingly, Dawn rose to the top of the list. Her breadth and depth of experience in the non-profit sector, her outstanding reputation throughout the Commonwealth, and her extensive knowledge of Square One’s programs, services, and staff make her the ideal person to continue to build on the success of Joan Kagan’s leadership.”

“Just as we pride ourselves on developing the leaders of tomorrow through our own programs and services, I am privileged to have experienced the leadership of Joan Kagan. “It is an honor for me to continue to navigate the path that Joan and those before her have paved.”

Kagan, who led the agency for 17 years, announced her retirement plans last summer. She continues to serve as an advisor to the leadership team during the transition.

“There is no one better suited for this role than Dawn,” says Kagan. “Square One has an amazing history of responding to the changing needs of our community through our programs, services and partnerships. I have every confidence that Dawn’s great determination, passion for serving children and families, and the tremendous respect that she has earned will allow her to continue that legacy.”

DiStefano serves on the boards of directors for the Massachusetts Council on Gaming Health, Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, Springfield Regional Chamber, Baystate Community Benefits Advisory Committee, and Businesses to End Human Trafficking. She also serves as a Commissioner on the Hampden County Commission on the Status of Women and Girls.

She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and her master’s degree in public administration and nonprofit management from Westfield State University.

Women of Impact 2020

CEO, Girls Scouts of Central & Western Massachusetts

She’s a Role Model and a Strong Advocate for Women and Girls

Pattie Hallberg

Pattie Hallberg

Pattie Hallberg has a large collection of keepsakes scattered about her office on Kelly Street in Holyoke. Together, they effectively tell a story of who she is, what she does, what she believes, and what’s important to her.

There’s the Ruth Bader Ginsburg bobblehead, for example, an indication of whom she draws inspiration from. There’s also the sign siting on her window sill that reads “No Solicitors, Unless You Sell Thin Mints,” a nod to her role as CEO of the Girls Scouts of Central & Western Massachusetts (GSCWM) and one of the programs for which the organization is most noted — cookie sales.

There are also a few framed quotes. One, attributed to Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts, reads: “The Work of Today is the History of Tomorrow, and We Are Its Makers.” There’s another that’s unattributed and says simply “Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You.”

Hallberg must have been at least a little scared the day she made the decision to leave her job as chief executive of Invent Now Kids Inc., a subsidiary of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and find a new challenge. Actually, she and her husband took the same plunge, if you will.

“I had four girls, and we were all kind of in transition,” she said while relaying the story. “My oldest was graduating from college, my two youngest were graduating from high school, and Jessica was at Lehigh University. I decided it was time for a transition for me; my husband and I decided that we were going to leave Northeast Ohio, and whoever found a job first — that’s where we were going to go.”

Long story short, she found employment first. Only it wasn’t a job she found, but a passion — or, to be more, precise, a new outlet for an existing passion.

“This is a business about relationships. I spend a lot of time talking to people who were Girl Scouts about what Girl Scouts meant to them. And then I talk to a lot of girls about what they’re doing, what they want to do, and where they want to go.”

This bold career move itself, fueled by ambition, confidence, and some adventurousness as well, makes a Hallberg a fine role model for the thousands of Girl Scouts under her charge. But there are plenty of other reasons why she’s worthy of that descriptive phrase. That list includes her accomplishments with this Girl Scout body, which resulted from a merger, which she managed, of three councils; her advocacy for young women; her work to inspire girls to pursue careers in STEM; her involvement in the community (she’s involved with groups ranging from the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts to the Investing in Girls Alliance in Worcester); and even how she has handled the responsibilities of being a mother and grandmother.

“It’s so important to teach children in general — for me, my job is girls — to learn about the community and to give back to their community,” she said. “That’s the ultimate community service in Girl Scouting, and I try be a role model for that; I try to give back to my community as best I can.”

Mostly, though, she is a role model, and a Woman of Impact, for the way in which she has devoted most of her career to understanding the issues and challenges facing women and girls — and there are many of them — and being proactive in finding ways to address them.

When asked about what her work entails, Hallberg said there is a lengthy job description, as might be expected when managing a $4 million agency. But overall, she said it boils down to two main duties — listening and relationship building.

“This is a business about relationships,” she explained. “I spend a lot of time talking to people who were Girl Scouts about what Girl Scouts meant to them. And then I talk to a lot of girls about what they’re doing, what they want to do, and where they want to go.”

Suffice it to say, during her career advocating for women and girls, she has gone well beyond talk. And that’s why she was nominated for, and is a recipient of, this BusinessWest honor.

 

Moving Stories

Among her many goals and aspirations, Hallberg wants to someday hear someone say, ‘Eagle Scout? Is that the equivalent of being a Gold Scout in the Girl Scouts?’ or words to that effect.

Pattie Hallberg says she enjoys spending time with Girl Scouts, and those who have been Scouts and can talk about what that organization has done for them.

Pattie Hallberg says she enjoys spending time with Girl Scouts, and those who have been Scouts and can talk about what that organization has done for them.

She’s heard the reverse of this question more times than she would care to say or count, because while most everyone has heard references to Eagle Scouts, the highest rank in Boy Scouts and a proud line on any résumé, only those in the know understand its counterpart. Hallberg wants more people to know and thus put an end to those frustrating questions.

But she has more pressing concerns at the moment, especially the many challenges facing girls of all ages today. When asked to give a list, Hallberg put stress at the very top of it.

“Girls are under an incredible amount of stress today,” she explained. “There’s the stress to do well in school, and all those things that we’ve all had, but there’s this added layer to it now that’s really overwhelming.”

Much of this stress is connected to bullying, she went on, adding that, while it has always been an issue, today it is an even deeper concern, for obvious reasons.

“The stories are overwhelming … what can happen to a girl in just a moment, mostly around the internet,” she said. “It’s frightening, and it really takes its toll on these girls.”

For these reasons, the Girls Scouts and especially the GSCWM have always been focused on creating what Hallberg called a “safe space,” one in which they could be different and unique. But beyond that, the agency is devoted to giving them opportunities — and the confidence to realize them.

Pattie Hallberg has devoted much of her life to being an advocate for women and girls, especially in her current role with the Girl Scouts.

Pattie Hallberg has devoted much of her life to being an advocate for women and girls, especially in her current role with the Girl Scouts.

Which brings her back to STEM, and the numbers involving girls in those fields, statistics that in large part fueled her desire to seek a new career challenge.

“I developed a sincere concern about girls and women in the STEM field,” she recalled, flashing back to her days at the Inventors Hall of Fame. “The youth STEM programs we ran … at the elementary-school level, in kindergarten, first, and second grade, half of those kids were girls, and half were boys. Around third or fourth grade, the girl numbers started to drop, and there were more and more programs where there was a disproportionate number of boys.”

Years later, the problem persists to a large degree, she said, adding that changing this equation has been one of her many goals with the GSCWM.

Indeed, since arriving in Western Mass. in 2008, Hallberg has done much more than merge three Girl Scout councils, covering 186 communities, into one, although that was a significant feat in itself. She has shaped the organization into a leader in this region in advocacy for young women and also put in place an aggressive strategic planning process that has sharpened the council’s focus and championed leadership development of young women.

As part of these efforts, the council has instituted a Girl Leadership Board made up of two dozen girls who meet regularly with Hallberg to share ideas, concerns, challenges, hopes, and aspirations. An important aspect of this board is the manner in which she has created space and practice for young women to speak out and experience being heard and empowered to bring their ideas to life through scouting.

“We have 18 middle- and high-school girls, and I meet with them once a month on a Saturday morning,” she told BusinessWest. “They are fantastic at talking about what it’s like to be a girl right now, what they need from programs like the Girls Scouts, and what they want, which is different from what they need. So I get a lot of perspective.”

And this perspective often helps shape programming and the overall direction of this 108-year-old institution, said Hallberg, noting that her job essentially involves a balance of honoring the history and traditions of the Girls Scouts, but also looking to the future as well.

“There’s so much to learn from the past and so much to learn about the future from these girls,” she went on. “What I try to do beyond the job of running this business and organization is to really try to understand the issues for both women and girls in our area and to advocate for them.”

 

Bottom Line

Managing the GSCWM, an agency that covers territory ranging Worcester to the New York border, requires Hallberg to travel extensively. She rolled her eyes when asked how many miles she puts on her car each year.

She spends the time on the road listening to books on tape — and thinking.

Thinking about the many challenges facing young women today — from bullying to financial literacy to having the skills needed to succeed in today’s technology-driven economy.

She’s managed to convert many of these thoughts into effective action, and this helps explain why she is a member of the Women of Impact class of 2020.

 

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

Features

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]