Home Posts tagged Difference Makers 2020
Class of 2020 Cover Story

Celebrating the 2020 Class

Back in late 2008, BusinessWest conceived a new recognition program.

It was called Difference Makers because, well, that’s the best way to describe those who would be honored. No matter what their career or field or passion — and, over the years, they have been myriad — the one common thread would be making a difference in the community.

Our goal was, and remains, to show the many ways in which an individual or group can make a difference, and suffice to say this goal has been met — as you’ll find out, once again, as you read the stories generated by the 12th such class of honorees.

The 12th annual Difference Makers gala will take place on Thursday, March 19 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke. Tickets cost $75. To reserve a spot, e-mail [email protected] or visit businesswest.com. Difference Makers is sponsored by Burkhart Pizzanelli, Royal, P.C., and TommyCar Auto Group, while the Tom Cosenzi Driving for the Cure Charity Golf Tournament, MHA, and United Way of Pioneer Valley are partners.

The seven members of the class of 2020 will be honored on Thursday, March 19 at the Log Cabin. For information about the event, sponsorship opportunities, or to purchase tickets, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100, or go HERE.

2020 Diference Makers
Thursday, March 19, 2020 
5 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
The Log Cabin, Holyoke

Tickets are $75 per person/$750 for a table of 10.

Purchase Tickets HERE:

2020 Difference Makers

Christopher ‘Monte’ Belmonte

DJ at WRSI the River Radio

His March is Changing
The Conversation
on Food Insecurity

Ira Bryck

Consultant and Former Executive Director of the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley

He’s Helped Create
Fun, Imaginative
Learning Experiences

Sandy Cassanelli

CEO of Greeno Supply

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

Dianne
Fuller Doherty

Retired Director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center

She’s Retired … but Not from Her Role as a Difference Maker

Ronn Johnson

President and CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services Inc.

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

Steve Lowell

President and CEO of
Monson Savings Bank

Giving Back Has Always Been a Big Part of His Life — and His Work

Rick’s Place

This Unique Nonprofit Provides Support, Light in the Darkest of Times

2020 Sponsors

Pay it Forward Non-Profit Partners


Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

Class of 2020

His March is Changing The Conversation on Food Insecurity

Sean Barry recalls listening to the first few editions of Monte’s March on the radio. (Photo by Leah Martin Photography)

What he remembers most is how Monte Belmonte, the radio personality who created this unique publicity stunt to raise money for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, seemed to keep getting lost on his trek from Northampton to Greenfield.

“That first year, I was listening to him taking wrong turns … I thought to myself, ‘maybe he needs help,’” said Barry, owner of Four Seasons Wines & Liquors in Hadley. “The second year, the march snuck up on me, so I wasn’t able to sign up. So again I listened, and I believe I heard him getting lost again — he didn’t seem to have a clear idea of where he was.”

Anyway, the more Barry listened, the more he wanted to be part of what Belmonte was doing.

“I’m a true believer in what the Food Bank does and how unfortunately necessary it is,” he said, adding that he secured enough coverage at the store to be able to march in the third event, and he’s been back every year since. He now carries out an important role in this curious and all-important spectacle — keeping the souped-up shopping cart pushed by Belmote out of harm’s way.

“I’m the one you see in the pictures with my hand on the cart, steering it so Monte doesn’t have to worry about it hitting a tree or getting it stuck in a pothole,” he explained. “That leaves Monte to do what Monte does best.”

In a way, Barry’s growing involvement with the march is a microcosm of its growth and evolution over the past decade. It started small, but almost immediately it caught people’s attention — and kept it. And then, they wanted to be part of it in some way. And all kinds of groups and individuals have found a way, helping to raise more than $1.2 million to date.

“Through his various efforts and interviews, people come to understand the complexity of the problem and the diversity of the problem. It’s not a once-a-year thing — he’s creating a movement, and he’s creating awareness.”

The ranks include lawmakers, especially U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, the Democrat from Worcester, who marches alongside Belmonte every year, as well as state representatives and senators. And school children, who have been inspired to raise money for the cause in many different ways and even hand over their allowance to Belmonte as he marches by. And the famous UMass marching band, which has joined the trek in downtown Amherst.

While on his march, Belmonte is, as they might say in the military, on point. That means he’s at the front of the line — actually, Barry is at the very front — usually interviewing one of those elected officials or kids as he’s conducting a radio show. In other words, he’s multi-tasking and looking forward, to the real estate in front of him.

That means that he’s generally unaware of just how many people have joined him for the march in a manner that has prompted some to compare him to the pied piper and others to Forrest Gump in that famous scene where he’s repeatedly running across the country.

Later, after the march is over and he sees photos, he’s often taken aback by just how much company he has.

“When I see that breadth of humanity behind us, it’s really overwhelming to me,” he said, adding that he’s also quite struck by how many people have “taken ownership” of the need to raise money for the Food Bank through their own initiatives — ranging from one brewery owner’s 50-mile run to a solidarity march conducted by students and teachers at Conway Elementary School, to one woman’s march in Antarctica (because she was visiting there the week of the march).

Monte Belmonte, seen here with U.S. Reps. Richard Neal, left, and Jim McGovern, gets set to start another of his marches. (Photo from Matthew Cavanaugh)

But while this event has grown to attract hundreds, and perhaps thousands of participants and supporters, Belmonte has been the individual most responsible for its success and its ability to keep food insecurity front of mind — not for two days in November, but all year.

McGovern perhaps said it best when he told BusinessWest that Belmonte hasn’t created a march — he’s created a movement.

“It’s a movement to not just be there in this fight against hunger during Monte’s March, but all year round,” the congressman explained. “Through his various efforts and interviews, people come to understand the complexity of the problem and the diversity of the problem. It’s not a once-a-year thing — he’s creating a movement, and he’s creating awareness.”

And those sentiments clearly explain why Belmonte is a member of the Difference Makers class of 2020.

Walking the Walk

Belmonte calls it ‘Amity Hill Horror.’

That’s meant to be a blend of The Amityville Horror, the movie, and Heartbreak Hill, the notorious stretch of the Boston Marathon in Newton that taxes the runners because of its sharp incline, and describes one of the only real physical tests along Monte’s March — the climb up Amity Street to the center of Amherst.

“Pushing up that hill and trying to broadcast is a bit of challenge,” said Belmonte, noting that Barry, whom he refers to as his ‘Sancho Panza,’ helps him navigate that climb and, overall, keep him on track.

Belmonte now has plenty of company as he attacks that hill with his shopping cart — outfitted for long-distance travel by students at Smith Vocational High School in Northampton — and that’s just one way to measure how far this march has come, and how impactful it now is. But there are many others.

Starting with the number $333,333.33.

That was the fund-raising goal for the march in 2019. It’s an odd number, one packed with significance, because those at the Food Bank estimate they can provide three meals for each dollar raised for their organization. Thus, this became the ‘march for a million meals’ — and the money it takes to provide them.

Over the years, Monte’s march has drawn ever-growing numbers of marchers, one of many indicators of how it has become a force in the fight against food insecurity.
(Photo from Matthew Cavanaugh)

“We had a lot of fun with it. We used that number — $333,333.33 — a ton, and people really gravitated toward it; we got a lot of $33 donations and $333 donations,” he said, adding that bestselling author and illustrator Mo Willems and his wife, Cher, who live in Northampton, pledged $33,333.33 “because they’re generous, but also because they love the schtick.”

As he talked about the march, Belmonte said it was hard to imagine those kinds of numbers back in the beginning when this wasn’t actually a march. Indeed, efforts to help the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts with a fundraising ‘publicity stunt,’ as he called it, started with Belmonte standing with a shopping cart in front of Whole Foods Market soliciting donations of food items.

When those at the Food Bank noted that, with that organization’s buying power, it could do much more with cash than it could with donated food, the focus eventually shifted to Belmonte pushing a cart from Northampton to Greenfield, soliciting donations as he went over the air.

As Barry’s comments earlier indicate, it took a few years for this endeavor to find its way — figuratively, but also quite literally.

“The first two years, I basically did it all by myself,” Belmonte recalled. “It was me, a shopping cart, a station van to make sure I didn’t get hit from behind, and a guy with a flashlight when the sun went down to make sure people could see me well enough.”

But from the beginning, the march resonated with people — and raised healthy sums of money. Over the years, it continued to pick up speed — and supporters, and donations.

In recent years, it has become a truly regional phenomenon as the march was extended from one day to two, from 26 miles to 43, starting in Springfield’s Mason Square, specifically Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services, led by another of this year’s honorees, Ronn Johnson (see story, page 35).

Positive Steps

But while the march has succeeded in garnering donations of all sizes and from a wide range of individuals and groups, its impact has gone well beyond money and the meals it buys.

Indeed, those we spoke with said Belmonte, his march, and his efforts before and after the annual trek have shed much-needed light on the subject of food insecurity.

“One of the great things about the march and the lead-up to it is Monte spending a great deal time on the radio and in public forums talking about the problem of hunger and food insecurity, and talking about the faces of the hungry in our community,” said McGovern. “And by doing that, he helps dispel those stereotypes that have become common in right-wing media; the reality is, hunger defies stereotypes. We live in the richest country in the world, and yet there are 40 million of our fellow citizens who don’t know where the next meal is coming from.

“People you’re working with may fall into that category of being food-insecure or hungry,” he went on. “And if you talk with teachers, you’ll come to understand the realities they see in their classrooms — kids who come to school on Mondays and can’t concentrate because they haven’t eaten all weekend or who ask for food on Fridays so they’ll have something to eat. And there are people who work full-time but make so little money they still qualify for SNAP benefits.”

Through his platform as a radio personality, Belmonte has broadened the discussion on hunger and taken it to a higher level, said McGovern. “The fact that he has some celebrity enables him to bring in people who might not otherwise gravitate to this issue.”

Andrew Morehouse, executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, agreed, and said Belmonte, now a member of the Food Bank’s Coalition to End Hunger, has taken his efforts well beyond the fundraising level.

“He’s been involved in an ongoing effort over many years to conceptualize and put into action long-term solutions,” he noted. “He’s learned a lot from it, and he’s been involved in a very different way, not just raising money and awareness.”

When asked about what the march that bears his name has accomplished, Belmonte said that, beyond inspiring people to write checks, it has prompted them to rethink this problem and join the effort to confront it.

“My hope is that more people will think differently about what it means to be hungry, and what it means to be poor,” he told BusinessWest. “No one wants to be hungry forever; no one wants to be on SNAP or food stamps forever. Most of the people who are on it are working and need help for a short amount of time. To demonize those people, who are in many cases children, the elderly, disabled people, veterans, and others who just need help for a little while, is wrong.

“Overall, I want to people to know that the Food Bank, and hopefully our government, has their back and will give them help when they need it,” he went on. “But I’m hoping more people will hear these stories from these people during the march and surrounding the march and change the way they think about poverty, being poor, and needing help — and pitching in when they can.

“As Jim McGovern loves to say, we could end hunger in this country, but we lack the political will,” he said in conclusion. “So I guess the goal of the march is to change hearts and minds about what it means to be hungry.”

Food for Thought

Monte Belmonte doesn’t have to worry about getting lost anymore.

He knows the route by heart now, and besides, he has lots of company, including Barry, with his hand on the shopping cart, guiding it away from potholes.

All this company, and the many forms it takes, is symbolic of how the march has grown and evolved, and how it has come to do much more than raise money for the Food Bank.

As McGovern said, it’s more than a march, it’s a movement — one that’s bringing a problem to light and maybe, just maybe, someday to an end.

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

Class of 2020

He’s Helped Create Fun, Imaginative Learning Experiences

(Photo by Leah Martin Photography)

Ira Bryck started working in his family’s business — Barasch’s, a store on Long Island selling children’s clothes — when he was 5, and continued putting in hours there on weekends, after school, and during the summer through his college years.

He has a lot of memories from those days, including the fact that he generally had more money in his pocket than his friends because he was gainfully employed — even in middle school.

But he also remembers something his father — and boss; a tough boss at that — told him. Something that gnawed away at him in some respects and stayed with him as he embarked on a career path he probably couldn’t have imagined while he was folding jeans and T-shirts, one that has made him a Difference Maker.

“He told me when I was a little kid, ‘if all else fails, there’s always the family business,’” Bryck recalled. “And I took that to mean, ‘if you’re a failure, you can come work with me.’ It took a long time — several years, in fact — for me to realize that this did not mean I was a failure.”

Years later, his father’s line worked its way into a play Bryck wrote called A Tough Nut to Crack, a title chosen to reflect his father’s toughness and the difficulty of meeting monthly sales targets at the clothing store. Thus, it became one of the intriguing and imaginative methods Bryck has used for convincing those who became members of the UMass Family Business Center (now the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley) that, like him, they weren’t failures if they joined the family enterprise.

Of course, there were other times when he helped individuals come to the realization that being part of the family business wasn’t the best idea, and that they should be doing something else. Anything else.

“We’ve helped family businesses that shouldn’t be family businesses anymore get out of jail,” he explained. “Because there are a lot of people who are trapped in family businesses.”

It’s all part of what Bryck calls ‘frank talk,’ which he still provides today, roughly six months after retiring from his role as the center’s director. He provides it as a consultant, mostly to those in family businesses, but in some other realms as well — as a speaker as various events here and in other markets, and even as the host of a weekly radio program called the Western Mass. Business Show.

Ira Bryck is seen with his parents, Bill and Barbara, outside Barasch’s for a piece in Kids Fashions magazine published in 1977.

He is a Difference Maker not simply because of the frank talk and his ability to help those in family businesses see the light — whatever that might mean to them — but because he’s helped people become better business owners and managers and become more comfortable handling all the frank talk that accompanies those roles.

Indeed, to say that Bryck’s unique style has resonated with those he’s worked with in family businesses would be an understatement, as is made clear by comments from some members we spoke with. They refer to him as a ‘communicator,’ ‘connector,’ ‘facilitator,’ and even ‘entertainer.’ And they use adjectives such as ‘determined,’ ‘assertive,’ and ‘direct’ to indicate how he approaches his work.

“He has an approachable and entertaining and positive way to talk about many issues, even when they can be tense or controversial,” said Kari Diamond, third-generation partner of Astro Chemical, the East Longmeadow-based company led by not one but two families. “He has a way of lightening things up so you’re comfortable talking about them. He makes it fun; he makes it interesting.”

Brenda Olesuk, who operates Graduate Pest Solutions with her husband, Glenn, agreed.

“He has an approachable and entertaining and positive way to talk about many issues, even when they can be tense or controversial. He has a way of lightening things up so you’re comfortable talking about them. He makes it fun; he makes it interesting.”

“This is a man who has a passion for what he does and is eager to both accomplish his mission and help people along the way,” she said. “He has done that with great intellect, the ‘connector spirit,’ and love.”

Those sentiments make it clear why he’s been chosen as one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers for 2020.

Common Threads

In 1977, Kids Fashions traveled to Long Island to do what turned into a cover story on Barasch’s. While noting that the landmark was the oldest children’s clothing store in the country, the magazine described it as “well-organized clutter.”

“Which we all felt great about,” said Bryck, who can be seen with his parents — Bill and Barbara — standing in front of the store in one of the photos from the article. The piece came not long after he ran a “hippie K-6 free school” after graduating from SUNY Buffalo and eventually decided to return to the family business for what he thought would be the summer — or until he figured out what he was going to do next.

“That summer lasted 17 years,” he said with a laugh, noting that, at one point, he was the president, the tailor, and the window dresser for this venture all at the same time.

And while he managed in all those roles, Barasch’s ultimately couldn’t survive all the many forms of competition it faced, and Bryck oversaw its closing in 1993.

Soon after, he moved to Amherst and started looking for gainful employment.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said, adding that a high-school friend from Northampton saw an ad in the Daily Hampshire Gazette seeking someone to lead the recently created UMass Family Business Center. While the job had essentially been given to someone else, he was granted an interview anyway, and that interview changed the course of the center — and a number of businesses in the area as well.

“They hired me and unhired him,” Bryck said of what became a somewhat controversial hiring. “And he called me the next day and said, ‘I want to buy lunch for the bastard that stole my job.’ And that’s how we became friends.”

The UMass program, the 12th in the country at a time when such centers were gaining in popularity, had a number of large companies as members in the beginning, such as Peter Pan, Big Y, and American Saw.

“But they never came to the meetings anyway,” said Bryck, adding that, over the years, the center’s membership came to be dominated by small to mid-sized companies across all sectors, but especially manufacturing and construction. Collectively, they were grappling with the many issues common to all businesses, and some that are unique to family businesses.

“It’s one thing to read a paper from a professor who deals in theory, but is that reality? Can that be applied to the everyday businessperson? Ira was able to translate those kinds of things.”

To showcase them — and create an effective dialogue about them — Bryck created a host of imaginative programs and learning opportunities. These included plays — in addition to A Tough Nut to Crack, there was also Wait Till Your Father Gets Home and The Perils of Pauline’s Family Business — as well as dinner meetings with insightful speakers and roundtables that had a specific set of rules, right down to attendees being forbidden from telling their spouses what was said.

“You couldn’t even go up to the person after it was over and say, ‘I had another thought about that,’” he explained. “You’re able to have this conversation in that time and space, and they were very helpful.

“I’m a big fan of roundtables, where you get a bunch of people who are listening well to someone’s challenge and asking good questions and helping them think it through,” he went on. “I think that’s probably been the highest and best teaching that we’ve done.”

Off the Cuff

As for the plays, they’ve been performed at family business centers and other venues across the country and around the world, he said, noting that A Tough Nut to Crack was recently presented by a group in Catalonia, Spain. And they’ve become a different, very effective way of presenting — and, again, creating a dialogue about — issues facing family business.

With each learning opportunity he created, the goal was always to give attendees something they could bring to the office or the plant the next day. Bryck calls them “gems.”

As he talked about family businesses and helping to resolve issues and conflicts within them, Bryck first compared such companies to snowflakes — “no two are alike” — and then summoned that famous opening line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

“No two tragedies are the same, but you start to see patterns,” said Bryck, who, as director of the family business center and a consultant, has always addressed these patterns with creativity, that entertaining style that Diamond mentioned, and a tenacity that became the subject of a number of jokes at the Family Business Center’s 25th anniversary last fall, which doubled as a passing of the torch from Bryck to current Executive Director Jessi Kirley.

Steve Neveu, second-generation principal of Notch Mechanical Constructors in Chicopee, describes Bryck as a resource and a “connector.”

“Whenever I had an issue or something to talk out, he was a great listener,” he said. “And he’d point me toward other people that might be helpful. He knew a lot of people, not just other businesses owners, but consultants and experts in related fields; he’s a great resource.”

Diamond agreed, and said Bryck, while providing learning opportunities for others, has a thirst for learning himself, and this is reflected in what he brings to the table — whatever table that might be.

“While many people think of him as an expert in this field, that doesn’t stop him from exploring new things,” she noted. “When you’re around him, he’s always saying, ‘I was listening to this podcast,’ or ‘I was reading this book, and this is a really good concept,’ or ‘this might be theoretical, but I can see how it can be applied by doing XYZ.’

“He can take things that are very theoretical and make them realistic,” she went on. “It’s one thing to read a paper from a professor who deals in theory, but is that reality? Can that be applied to the everyday businessperson? Ira was able to translate those kinds of things.”

Olesuk concurred, and said that, through Graduate’s membership in the FBC and her interaction with Bryck, she been able to develop new business relationships and, more importantly, continue to learn and develop as a business owner.

“He’s created a unique, creative, and holistic approach to supporting family and independent business owners,” she said, adding that this model has continued with the transition to Kirley.

Dress for Success

Bryck was quick to note that, while his father voiced that opinion — the one about working in the family business “if all else fails” — more than a half-century ago, those thought patterns — and, indeed, a stigma about working for one’s parents — still exist today.

“In China, it exists at billion-dollar companies,” he noted. “Children don’t want to work with their parents, even it’s a billion-dollar business.”

But for some, this is the path they want to take. It’s not an easy road to get on and stay on, but Bryck, through his unique learning tools, has helped keep them on track.

And pretty much all those who have learned from him — and with him — have said the same as Diamond. “He makes it fun. He makes it interesting.”

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

She’s Retired … but Not from Her Role as a Difference Maker

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Dianne Fuller Doherty has her own working definition of ‘entrepreneur.’

“Someone who’s resourceful,” said the now … well, let’s call it semi-retired director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network’s Western Mass. office, before elaborating in some detail.

“Successful entrepreneurs are willing to ask for help; many people, particularly young people, think they have to have all the answers themselves,” she explained. “They don’t, and they need to develop the willingness to seek help and not be ashamed to ask. It is amazing how many people have struggled with that.”

For more than 20 years, it was the MSBDC — and quite often Fuller Doherty herself — that entrepreneurs, including BusinessWest founder John Gormally, would turn to for such help and guidance with everything from financing a venture to marketing a product, to simply deciding if a concept had legs. Often, it didn’t, and she would help them come to that important conclusion.

It was immensely rewarding work — and it still is.

Indeed, even though she officially retired from the MSBDC in 2016, Fuller Doherty remains quite active — with everything from mentoring young entrepreneurs, and especially women, to serving on the boards at Valley Venture Mentors, Tech Foundry, and Western New England University, where she sits on the committee now searching for a successor to long-time president Anthony Caprio.

Fuller Doherty — who bylined a piece for the New York Times in 2010, one in a series of pieces spotlighting people working past, or well past, what would be considered retirement age — has always believed in keeping the calendar full, and today, four years after retiring and also losing her husband, Paul Doherty, to cancer, she does so with everything from yoga and Pilates to consulting and mentoring.

“My feeling is that, as long as I’m doing something of value, why not continue doing it?’ she asked rhetorically in the piece she wrote for the Times. And those words ring true as she continues to do a number of things of value.

Especially in her role as a mentor and, yes, a role model to entrepreneurs, including a number of women who have been steered in her direction, continuing work to build the region’s economy through the development and maturation of small businesses.

“I love helping people, and I learn more from any job than I’ve ever given to people,” she told BusinessWest. “And that’s definitely true with mentoring; you learn about new industries, jobs, and approaches. I learn so much from my clients and mentees.”

Throughout her life and her career, Fuller Doherty has been a strong advocate for women — she was one of the founders of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts — and “ensuring they have full and equal share in economic, social, cultural, and political decision making,” as she put it. There is still some work to do, but overall, she believes great strides have been made.

And she feels the same about the region itself.

“We have a lot going for us here — there is quality of life, great colleges and universities, and wonderful communities in which to raise families,” she said. “It’s a great story, and we need to be telling it.”

For all that she has done — and all she continues to do — she’s a true Difference Maker.

Role Modeling

By now, most people know at least some of the Dianne Fuller Doherty story.

Born in upstate New York, she went to Mount Holyoke College, where she earned a degree in philsophy. She lived for a year in Boston after graduating and, while there, met third-year Harvard Law School student Paul Doherty and fell in love.

Paul contemplated heading west to Chicago and work in investments, but ultimately chose the law firm in Springfield where his father and grandfather both worked. And that’s where our story unfolds.

Dianne Fuller Doherty (second from left) and the other founders of the Women’s Fund of Western Mass., as well as its founding executive director, Kristi Nelson, were honored at an event in March 2019 at the Tower Square Hotel. Seen here are, from left, Donna Haghighat, CEO of the Women’s Fund, Fuller Doherty, founder Martha Richards, Nelson, Mimi Goldberg (accepting for the third founder, the late Sally Livingston), and Haydee Lamberty-Rodrigues, board chair of the WFMA.

Doherty admits to not knowing much about Springfield beyond its train station and the Student Prince restaurant, where her parents would take her to dinner while she was in college, but she quickly went about learning more. And by the ’90s, she was becoming a force in everything from business to helping women break through the glass ceiling.

Over the years, she became involved with institutions ranging from the Springfield Regional Chamber to the YMCA; from the World Affairs Council to Glenmeadow; from Bay Path University to the National Conference for Community and Justice.

When her four daughters were in their teens, Doherty, seeking to be a role model for them, first earned an MBA at Western New England College (20 years after she graduated from Mount Holyoke) and then went about looking for work — and maybe a career.

She started in Springfield City Hall working as a volunteer with the grants manager. “I wanted some experience, and I’d taken a grants course; I liked writing, and I liked to raise money,” she said, adding that all these talents would come into play later.

From there, she took a job with a marketing agency in Hartford, working primarily in business development.

“I didn’t know much about business development, but I could pretend pretty well,” she joked, adding that she enjoyed the work and, inspired to go into business for herself, partnered with Marsha Tzoumas and created a marketing firm that took their last names. The venture did well, eventually growing to 16 employees and a deep portfolio of clients, but it couldn’t survive the recession of the early ’90s.

“It was fun on the way up and hard when the economy changed and no one was spending any money on marketing,” she recalled, adding that she went on to work for Springfield Mayor Bob Markel before winning the job leading the regional office of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center.

Her intention was to stay for a few years “until I figured out what I really wanted to do.” She stayed nearly a quarter-century because she quickly discovered this was, indeed, what she really wanted to do.

“It was such a fun job, and I got to know so many people up and down the Valley, because I was in Northampton one day a week and Amherst one day a week,” she recalled. “I really got to know the region.”

She used all kinds of adjectives to describe her work with entrepreneurs, including ‘rewarding,’ ‘fulfilling,’ ‘exciting,’ and also ‘challenging’ — that last one because entrepreneurs don’t need someone telling them what they want to hear. They want, or should want, what amounts to tough love.

This 2010 New York Times article makes it clear Dianne Fuller Doherty plans to do things — including retirement — on her own schedule and in her own way.

“You have to be encouraging — you never want to say anything negative, but you also want to be honest and realistic,” he said. “The best advice I give to people is to ask enough questions so that they can come to the right conclusion on whether this is the right time, or the right place, or the right financial backing to go forward.

“You let them come to the decision about whether it’s a ‘no,’” she went on. “And if it’s a ‘yes,’ then you just try to be as encouraging as possible and let them know that there are going to be highs and lows in any business, and the challenges will come. But the rewards will come also.”

Thinking Big

Overall, Fuller Doherty said she believes the growth and evolution of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem — which she is now an integral part of — is one of the better economic-development stories unfolding in the region.

She told BusinessWest that, while MGM Springfield has been a solid addition to the landscape, and the eds and meds sectors remain pillars of the economy, the development of small businesses — with the hope that they that will bring jobs and perhaps grow into larger ventures — is the best economic-development strategy moving forward.

“When you think about MassMutual, it started with one man in a little building at 101 State St.,” she noted. “We don’t know what the next new thing or the next new business sector might be — it might be something not even known to us yet — but the key is to support and mentor people with ideas and help them turn those ideas into businesses and jobs.”

But there are many other good stories, she went on, listing everything from revitalization of Springfield’s downtown to new businesses emerging from the science labs at UMass Amherst and other area schools; from the growing strength of the area’s higher-education sector to this region emerging as a solid, affordable alternative to Greater Boston.

It’s a message that needs to be delivered — both to other markets in the Northeast and perhaps beyond, and in this market as well, she said, adding that a good deal of work remains to be done when it comes to building pride within the region.

“When I had my agency, my mantra was ‘marketing starts in the toes of the bus boy in the kitchen,’ and I truly believe that,” she said. “If you get him excited about what he’s doing serving people, he’s enthusiastic about not only his job but the region, and he shares that with other people, and they get excited; there’s a ripple effect. It’s the same with people living and working in this area.”

But perhaps the story she’s most intrigued by, and most proud of, is how the scene has changed for women over the decades.

For evidence, she points to the number of area colleges now led by women; in addition to the women’s schools, Springfield College, Holyoke Community College, Greenfield Community College, and Berkshire Community College all have a woman in the president’s office. And also to the number of businesses and nonprofits, as well as many new business ventures, being led by women.

‘When you look at the number of women leaders in this valley … it wasn’t this way 20 or 30 years ago; there’s been a real concentration of effort to promote women,” she explained. “Between women college presidents, not-for-profit CEOs, and for-profit CEOs, this is a very different place.”

Bottom Line

Fuller Doherty has had a lot to do with this region becoming that different place.

Over the years, she’s been a business owner, trusted consultant, mentor, role model, advocate for women, and cheerleader of sorts for the Pioneer Valley. And with most all of those titles, we can and do still use the present tense, which is a good thing for this region.

The headline placed over that aforementioned New York Times article from a decade ago read, “When She’s Ready to Retire, She’ll Know It.” Fuller Doherty may have retired from the MSBDC, but she hasn’t retired from being active in this region or from motivating and helping others to fulfill their specific dreams.

In short, she hasn’t retired from being a Difference Maker.

George O’Brien 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]

Class of 2020

Giving Back Has Always Been a Big Part of His Life — and His Work

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Steve Lowell vividly recalls the conversation he had with his wife, Anne, when he decided to apply for a position at a bank located on Cape Cod — roughly half the state away from their home in Upton.

“She said, ‘Steve, you can go ahead and take the job, but I’ll tell you right now that we are not moving Emily out of school to go to another place,’” he told BusinessWest, noting that his daughter was in the second grade at the time. “If I wanted the job, I was going to have to commute.”

Long story short, he took the job, and he did commute — 90 miles each way — for 16 years. And, as we’ll see, he didn’t just commute to the office. In fact, he was at so many community events, and became so involved with all that was happening in that area of the Cape, that people just assumed he lived there and were often shocked to find out he didn’t.

This ‘giving back’ has always been a big part of who Lowell is, as a person and as a financial-services professional. And he certainly brought this trait to another job he pursued and eventually won — president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank.

Pretty much since the day he took that job early in 2011, Lowell has been active not only in Monson and surrounding communities, but also across the region as a whole, through his work with agencies ranging from the United Way of Pioneer Valley to Link to Libraries.

And when we say ‘from the day he took the job,’ we mean it.

Indeed, just a matter of weeks after he arrived, a tornado ripped across the region — and downtown Monson. As the community began the arduous task of digging out, many looked to the bank, one of the pillars of the community, for guidance and support.

Lowell and the bank responded in all kinds of ways, from helping to clear debris — he remembers cutting up fallen trees himself — to providing some leniency on mortgage and loan payments for those who needed it to emergency loans to help businesses reopen their doors.

For Lowell, who recently announced that he’ll be retiring early next year, ‘giving back’ isn’t just something he does. It’s something he preaches, if that’s the right word. Over the course of his more than 40 years in banking, he told BusinessWest, he’s had mentors who taught him the importance of community banks — and the people who work for them — to be involved in the communities in which they do business. And for decades now, he’s been teaching others.

Steve Lowell, center, is among the many dignitaries cutting the ribbon at the YMCA of Greater Springfield’s new Learning Center in Tower Square, sponsored by Monson Savings Bank.

“I learned early on, if I was going to be successful in this work, that it was important to be involved and give back — not only your monetary contributions, but your time and talent,” he said. “I’ve tried to live by that, and it’s worked out well.”

Thus, he has been a very effective role model for countless young professionals, and also something else — a true Difference Maker in Western Mass.

Saving Grace

Lowell said he could hear the tornado roaring down Main Street in Monson that fateful afternoon, noting that it really did sound like a freight train — a phrase so many have used to describe it. And that sound told him he needed to move. Fast.

“I hid in that bathroom right over there,” he said, pointing to a door in his office within the 150-year-old Lyons House, a large, handsome former residence now home to a few businesses, including some of the bank’s offices. “I looked around at the glass chandelier and all these windows and decided this was not a good place to be. And when I came out…”

He started shaking his head for emphasis as be recalled what he saw as he ventured out of that bathroom and then onto the street.

“It was over quickly, and there was dead quiet; I went outside, and it looked like a war zone,” he recalled, noting that trees were down, roofs had been torn off buildings, and a peaceful, rural town had been turned on its side, figuratively, but almost literally.

Lowell, who, as noted, had only been on the job a few months, hadn’t had a chance to meet too many people or find out just what kind of community Monson was. Suffice to say, the tornado greatly accelerated that process, thus providing the only real bright spot he could see from that catastrophe.

Steve Lowell, seen here with Link to Libraries executive director Laurie Flynn and students at Elias Brookings School, has made Monson Savings one of the leading corporate supporters of LTL.

“As traumatic and as bad as that was for the community, it provided me with the opportunity to meet a lot of people right away,” he said. “People from the town were reaching out to us, saying, ‘how is the bank going to be able to help?’ I got to meet a lot of people that it would have taken me years to meet.”

Only a few months before the tornado, Lowell was taking Anne on a drive to see Monson. He was applying to be president of the community bank based there and admits now to not actually knowing where said community was.

A headhunter had alerted him to the opportunity, and he was eager to consider it because the president of that bank on the Cape was just a little older than him and not ready to retire any time soon.

The subject of community involvement came up repeatedly during the many interviews for the position, and Lowell recalls being eager to answer those questions.

“I told them what I did on the Cape — I had been chairman of the United Way, chairman of the local YMCA, involved with the EDC, and involved with a host of other things, even though I didn’t live on the Cape,” he recalled. “So it was easy for me to let the board know what kind of commitment I was willing to make.”

And, as noted, it didn’t take long for this commitment to manifest itself, in all kinds of ways.

Starting with the United Way of Pioneer Valley, a story that is also related to the tornado in some ways.

Active Interest

Indeed, Dora Robinson, then executive director of the United Way chapter, knowing of Lowell’s involvement with that organization earlier in his career, asked him about being on her board.

Before getting to that, he informed her that many people in the Monson area were critical of the United Way’s response — or a perceived lack of a response — after the tornado struck. Upon being informed the agency was highly involved in relief efforts, Lowell recalls telling Robinson, “no one knows that — and you have to tell them; you have to take credit.”

And so he became not only a board member, but a very active one, taking on a role as “advocate” (his word) for those living in the many smaller towns in the eastern part of Hampden County.

“I have a hard time saying ‘no’ when people ask me like that,” he told BusinessWest, adding that his stint with the board, including his recent work as president, has been one of extreme challenge as the United Way chapter has battled through fiscal woes (as many have) and leadership changes, eventually coming into a partnership agreement to essentially share an executive director with the United Way of MetroWest, a move that has brought about many economies of scale.

Like most others, Lowell found it impossible to say ‘no’ to Link to Libraries (LTL) founder Susan Jaye Kaplan when she came to talk with him about that still-fledgling nonprofit soon after he arrived in the area. The occasion was a check presentation; soon after Lowell arrived, the bank created a program whereby the public could help decide how the bank gave back to the community through cash donations by voting for nonprofits via Facebook. Link to Libraries was one of the highest vote gatherers.

But upon learning more about the agency, Lowell took the bank’s involvement to a much higher plane.

“I was fascinated by the mission,” he said, adding that, through introductions made by Kaplan, the bank soon sponsored two schools — one in Monson and the other in Hampden — as part of LTL’s Community Book Link program. Today, the bank sponsors five schools — Elias Brookings School in Springfield, Springfield Public Day Elementary School, Springfield Public Day Middle School, Quarry Hill Community School in Monson, and Stanley M. Koziol Elementary School in Ware — the most of any company in the region.

“Steve Lowell’s generosity and passion for this community, particularly with regard to children and education, has had an enormous impact on our work at Link to Libraries,” said Laurie Flynn, president and CEO of LTL. “Through their sponsorships, community-giving initiatives, and emphasis on volunteering, Steve has created a culture of giving at Monson Savings Bank. Through their sponsorship of five local elementary schools in need and the numerous Monson Savings Bank employees who volunteer to read in classrooms each month, Steve Lowell and the bank have impacted the lives of more than 1,000 underserved children.”

Lowell has also become involved with Baystate Health, serving as chairman of its Eastern Region, as well as with the Monson Free Library, the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, and a number of other groups and institutions.

But what really makes him a Difference Maker is that culture of giving that he has helped create and the way he mentors others to give back.

“One of the things I really enjoy is helping my staff move up within the organization,” he said. “And I tell them all, ‘if you want to get ahead here, you’re going to have to be involved in the community.’ I tell them it’s not really important to me what they do, but I encourage them to find something they’re interested in and that they enjoy. I tell them they need to buy into that, and they need to be part of it.”

Common Cents

Returning to that commute from Upton to the Cape, Lowell said that, over the course of those 16 years, he became quite fond of books on tape — “I was very well read” — and adept at knowing when the traffic would be worst and how to avoid it.

“I made it work,” he said simply, adding that those years helped cement a legacy of giving back and getting involved.

But in Monson, he has taken that philosophy to an even higher level, putting the bank at the forefront of a number of efforts to improve quality of life and secure a strong future.

Today, he enjoys a much shorter commute, affording him time to be even more of a Difference Maker.

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

Class of 2020

This Unique Nonprofit Provides Support, Light in the Darkest of Times

Kelsey Andrews (third from left, with Therese Ross, program director; Bill Scatolini, board president; and Diane Murray, executive director) calls Rick’s Place “a wonderful support system” — and much more. (Photo by Leah Martin Photography)

Kelsey Andrews remembers her husband, Michael, a Massachusetts state trooper, being larger than life.

“He was full of life, full of energy,” she told BusinessWest as she recalled how quickly and how profoundly so many lives were altered when Michael was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma in June 2017 and passed away two short months later. And also how a big a void was left in all those lives.

Kelsey, mother to now-12-year-old Madeline, was abruptly pressed to take on the role of both parents, all while grieving the loss of her husband and trying to raise a grieving child — something no parent is ever prepared or equipped to do.

She recalls thinking — actually, knowing — that she needed help, but didn’t know where to find it or if it even existed.

“I wanted my daughter to be around kids who are, unfortunately, going through a similar situation, and for me to be around people who have gone through the same thing,” said Andrews, adding that, through a co-worker, she eventually found a unique nonprofit that provided all this in the form of free peer support to grieving families, especially children.

Creating just such a place was the mission of several friends and loved ones touched by Rick Thorpe, an individual who was himself larger than life in many ways. And so they gave it his name.

Thorpe, a former football star at Minnechaug High School and 1984 graduate, was among the more than 1,100 people who died in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11; he left behind his wife, Linda, and newborn daughter, Alexis.

After his death, friends — and there were many of them — felt the need to memorialize him and searched for ways to do so.

They started with a scoreboard placed in his honor at Minnechaug’s football field — the message written across it read “In memory of Rick Thorpe #3 – Class of 1984” — and later a memorial fund, a charity golf tournament, and scholarships. But they wanted something even more impactful.

For inspiration, they turned to Rick’s daughter, Alexis. The bereavement center they established in her father’s name was created in her honor.

Here, children and families can talk about their own experiences, or simply be in the presence of others who are facing similar situations. 

That’s something Executive Director Diane Murray and Program Director Therese Ross say can be incredibly comforting for grieving families. While each person experiences grief differently, they noted, what helps most is being with those who have gone through something similar — one of the main factors that encouraged Kelsey to walk in the door.

“It’s a unique grief journey, but it’s also a universal experience,” said Ross. “To hear from other people how they manage when their child says this or does that, it’s real boots on the ground, people living it, and it’s really helpful.”

Above all else, Rick’s Place provides families with a safe space to not only grieve the loss of their loved one, but keep their memory alive, and does it in a way that people are surrounded by those who understand what they are going through.

Younger children in Rick’s Place programs often use arts and crafts to explain how they’re feeling about their loss.

“To be around others who understand is the single most important thing we do,” Murray said. “There’s just something about being around others who understand a little of what you’re going through that helps diminish the isolation they feel.”

And that’s why this unique nonprofit has been chosen as a Difference Maker for 2020.

Support System

Bill Scatolini, president of Scatolini Insurance in Wilbraham, was a teammate of Rick Thorpe’s at Minnechaug. He describes Rick as a selfless, caring person who always considered others first.

“Rick was the type of person that always thought about the person sitting in front of him,” he recalled. “I would consider Rick to be a giver, whether it was helping somebody in the street or in a soup kitchen. That’s the type of person he was — always trying to look out for the other person’s welfare and see if he could help.”

The nonprofit formed in his honor has taken on this same quality, and it carries out its mission largely through volunteers — facilitators who complete a comprehensive, 17-hour training that addresses bereavement, child development, reflective practice, and group-curriculum planning and facilitation. The board of directors is also completely volunteer-run.

All those involved understand that, according to research, unexamined grief in children can lead to worsening mental-health issues in the long term, including poor school performance, anxiety, depression, addiction issues, and increased risk of suicide.

To help those who are grieving, Rick’s Place offers free programs on site at its home base in Wilbraham for kids ages 5 to 18, and separates groups by age to provide specific activities for each age group. For example, younger children may focus more on arts and crafts to illustrate how their grief makes them feel, while older kids may do more journaling.

The nonprofit also provides eight-week grief groups to schools in the Pioneer Valley, and has recently added a family night once a month where anyone can come in and share their story.

“It’s a unique grief journey, but it’s also a universal experience. To hear from other people how they manage when their child says this or does that, it’s real boots on the ground, people living it, and it’s really helpful.”

It’s this sharing of stories, of common emotions and challenges, that makes Rick’s Place so unique and impactful.

“Madeline’s been a trooper through the whole thing; she’s been very strong,” Kelsey said. “Rick’s place has been wonderful for her, just being around kids that have also experienced loss, knowing that other kids have been through it and she’s not alone.”

This concept of not being alone is at the very heart of Rick’s Place, said Murray, noting that the program began with six kids and four families, and has now served nearly 245 families.

Before finding Rick’s Place, both Ross and Murray served in education roles, and say that, while they loved their previous jobs, they can now truly feel the impact they are making.

Kelsey and Michael Andrews and their daughter, Madeline, before his tragic death in 2017.

“It’s been, quite literally, the most rewarding work of my life,” Murray said. “Being an educator was wonderful, but the way we touch lives here is so important to the families.”

Ross, who has a unique connection to the families that walk through the doors, agreed. She lost her husband to cancer and became a single parent to three children, and she said her experience with loss keeps her present and allows her to remember that each person’s journey is different.

“Just because my husband died doesn’t mean my experience is exactly the same as someone else’s because her husband died,” she explained. “It’s feeling like I’m in those shoes, and I’m farther out than they are now, but boy, do I remember the fog of that first week, month, year, multiple years. It keeps me present in what is the hard journey of grief.”

Both she and Murray emphasized that grief may also include laughter and happiness when remembering a loved one, and they try to normalize that as much as possible. During group activities, they may include projects that help keep a bond of connection to a loved one, such as memory boxes or dreamcatchers.

But, as they noted, each grief experience is different, and with the very young it may also include not fully understanding what’s happening, in which case things get a little trickier.

“We know that preschoolers and kindergartners often do not understand the permanence of grief,” said Murray. “Parents may think they have things under control, and then the child might say, ‘OK, but is she coming to my soccer game?’”

That’s just one of many difficult — sometimes seemingly impossible — questions that parents must try to answer as they navigate an extremely difficult time.

“It’s hard to parent in the first place, but then you have the challenge of parenting a grieving child,” said Ross. “It’s a daunting experience.”

While Rick’s Place does its best to assist parents facing a situation like this, it also encourages adults to find an outlet with either a counselor or a bereavement group themselves so they can work with their own grief while being present for their child’s grieving process.

Shedding Light

The agency is currently midway through a comprehensive strategic plan to examine possible paths to more sustainable growth, while continuing to provide the services so many families desperately need.

Coping with the loss of a loved one is a struggle that, while not often talked about, is more common than most realize.

And for folks like the Andrews family, Rick’s Place is more than just a place: it’s a family.

“They are always here for me and my daughter if we ever need anything,” Kelsey said. “Just being with the people that work here, the volunteers, the other parents, grandparents, that have unfortunately gone through loss as well, has just been a wonderful support system.”

Families often participate in activities together at Rick’s Place.

A support system that emphasizes it’s not about keeping a brave face, but being honest about what it means to be grieving.

A support system that fosters a caring, judgment-free, open environment to anyone who walks through the door.

A support system that encourages people to try to see the light, even in the darkest of times.

“You can choose to let the loss define you positively or negatively,” said Ross. “That doesn’t mean, when you choose to define it positively, that you’re not paying attention to the pain of it. It’s working with the pain to still continue to grow.”

That’s what Rick’s Place helps people do. And that’s why this agency is a real Difference Maker.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]