Home Posts tagged Difference Makers 2023
Class of 2023

His Life Story Is One of Creating Opportunities for Others

Leah Martin Photography

Leah Martin Photography

“This is my life story.”

That’s what Henry Thomas said as he gestured to a piece of furniture in his living room — an end table with a compartment under its glass top that contains dozens of items that, indeed, trace many points along his life’s journey.

It’s a story told by business cards and nametags. Badges from his days as Springfield’s Fire and Police commissioner. A ticket to President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. A campaign button from Mike Dukakis’ unsuccessful presidential run in 1988, which Thomas worked on. His Ubora Award from Springfield Museums, along with various other medals and ribbons. A baby-dedication program for one of his five grandchildren. A miniature saxophone, representative of the music he would like to pursue more fully when he has more time.

And two objects that are oddly related. One is a 1950s-era box from a product called Asthmador, a powder that was burned and inhaled in the days before aerosol asthma inhalers. “It looked like I was doing hash,” he laughed. The other object is his draft card for military service during the Vietnam War.

“I got a waiver when I was in college, so that saved me from having to go right away,” he recalled. But when it came time to visit the draft board, “they said, ‘sorry, we can’t take you.’ I said, ‘why not?’ They said, ‘you’ve got asthma.’”

“If you’re trying to get into the end zone for a touchdown, you can’t run out at the five-yard line, back to the coach, and say, ‘hey, Coach, I’m trying to get in the end zone, but this guy keeps stopping me.’ There’s always going to be a defense in life, and that’s what I’ve preached to my kids as well.”

Coming from a long line of men who had seen military service, from the Civil War through two world wars, Thomas felt … well, disappointed. And he argued about it, but was told that an asthma attack could get not just him killed, but other soldiers as well.

“That’s what saved me from going. But I shouldn’t say ‘saved me,’ because I do consider it an honor to serve your country,” he said.

After excelling in football, track, and gymnastics in his youth — he’s a member of the Springfield High School Sports Hall of Fame — he also aspired to play football professionally, but a severe ankle injury derailed that goal as well. But he took lessons from those days that have served him well all his life.

“In a sport like football, all the principles of life are embedded — I think you can say that about other sports as well, but I’m more familiar with football,” said Thomas, who was a running back at Technical High School and American International College. “If you’re trying to get into the end zone for a touchdown, you can’t run out at the five-yard line, back to the coach, and say, ‘hey, Coach, I’m trying to get in the end zone, but this guy keeps stopping me.’

This table contains many of the meaningful items

This table contains many of the meaningful items that tell Henry Thomas’s life story.

“There’s always going to be a defense in life, and that’s what I’ve preached to my kids as well,” he went on. “A lot of guys were bigger and better than I was. But I had a lot of willpower, and I think that was the difference sometimes.”

So, thanks to his asthma and his ankle, Thomas chose a different course after his graduation from AIC in 1971: he got to work on his master’s degree; married Dee, his wife of 51 years; and went to work for the Urban League.

Fifty-two years later, he’s still there, with almost a half-century at the helm. It’s a life marked by profound changes in society, with myriad opportunities to make a deep impact throughout this region. It’s the life of a Difference Maker.


Early Impact

Thomas’ first role at the Urban League was youth coordinator, and he immediately saw the impact the organization could have on youth, as well as older people.

“The late Vernon Jordan told me, ‘Henry, this is the best job in black America, because you have an opportunity to meet a host of interesting folks, and you become more sensitized to the challenges and issues that impact the lives of the people you know, or even in your family.’”

In 1974, at age 25, Thomas became the nation’s youngest leader of a national Urban League affiliate. One of his key areas of focus throughout his career has been education, and not just through Urban League programs; he also served for 13 years on the UMass Amherst board of trustees — including two and a half years as board chair — and was a co-founder of New Leadership Charter School.

In all Urban League initiatives — its programs include education and youth-development initiatives, as well as programs for economic and workforce development, health and wellness, and seniors — Thomas has been driven by an understanding of the importance of equity.

“No equity, no excellence,” he simply said. “I always had a feeling that things could be better, as it relates to equity, everyone getting the treatment that others are getting.”

Henry Thomas has made education central to his work

From co-founding a charter school to chairing the UMass Amherst board of trustees, Henry Thomas has made education central to his work throughout the decades.
Leah Martin Photography

Even today, programs like Youth STEM Enrichment, Digital Connectors, a partnership with UMass Amherst IT, and access to STEM programs at Springfield College speak to the need to break barriers to technology adoption by urban teens.

“Technology has had an impact on the Urban League, as it has with many other business,” Thomas said. “Technology is a real game changer in how well are you going to adapt to doing a new job — or an old job, because even the old job has to get upgraded. It’s major, because I’ve seen so many people working inefficiently, and that can limit you. If you want to climb, you’ve got to learn how to do these things.”

Thomas’ leadership and advocacy on the UMass board of trustees was instrumental in UMass Chan Medical School’s establishing its first-ever regional campus, UMass Chan Medical School – Baystate, in downtown Springfield, and its focus on improving the health and well-being of the region’s medically underserved rural and urban communities.

For that effort, he recently earned an honorary doctorate there, to go along with similar honors from UMass Amherst, Bay Path University, Westfield State University, and Nichols College. In addition to his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from AIC, he also earned a juris doctor degree from Western New England University School of Law.

Also in the vein of education and workforce development, Thomas established Step Up Springfield, a teacher-development program in Springfield; is funding (along with his wife, Dee, a former teacher and principal herself) a $50,000 scholarship for Black youth from Springfield; and tackled a two-year assignment with the National Urban League as its vice president for Youth Development, with a primary focus of youth development within inner-city communities.

Another one of Thomas’ successes was bringing Camp Atwater in North Brookfield — the oldest overnight camp for Black youth in the U.S. — back to life in 1980 after a period of dormancy. The camp, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2021, is especially meaningful to him because he attended as a youth.

“I don’t feel desperate. I feel like we can get to where we need to be. I’m optimistic.”

“It had an impact on me; this was the place where I learned that I don’t have to make a selection between being cool or being smart. I found out that I could do both.”

The lesson he took from his own experience at camp was that kids need to see other kids making the right choices in life.

“These kids knew all the contemporary dances. But they were talking about becoming a doctor, becoming a lawyer, and at the same time shooting three-point shots. And I said, ‘wow, I really don’t have to make a choice. I could do both.’”

But it’s not just showing teens positive pathways, but helping them get on them, that really matters, he added. He said his parents did that for him, and it’s been his life’s work at the Urban League to help others achieve their dreams.

“Like I said before, it’s equity. If you don’t have a chance to be as good as the next woman or guy, then you’re not going to achieve the excellence that you think you’re capable of. So I should give my parents a little credit.”


A Very Good Life

When considering his long list of achievements of impact, Thomas boils it down simply.

“It’s been a very good life,” he said, before expressing pride in his wife and his children; his son works for OppenheimerFunds in South Orange, N.J., and his daughter is an assistant school superintendent in Richmond, Va. And, as noted, Thomas’ own responsibilities have taken him beyond the Urban League, such as his role as first African-American to chair the Springfield Police and Fire commissions.

“I’ve actually marveled at all the various hats this man has worn through the years, particularly as Police commissioner,” Dee Thomas said. “Those were really rough times when he was in that position, and he met a lot of opposition in trying to change the face of the police force and make it more diverse. I will never forget those days. But I’ve seen all the people that he’s touched, and we still see officers come up and thank him for allowing them to be on the commission, because they know, if were not for him, they wouldn’t be there.”

It’s just another example, Henry said, of sometimes having to run the ball through a defense in life.

And he’s hopeful that the younger generation will continue to pick up his mantle, understanding that equity has not yet been achieved in all areas of life, no matter how much various corners of society — in government, education, and elsewhere — would like the conversation to go away, as evidence by the current tussles over critical race theory and what students are allowed to learn and read.

“I think it is doing an injustice to young people when they are not getting the kind of access that they need — and that they deserve — to help them understand the world and how it operates: the good, the bad, and the ugly. You can make better choices when you know all three,” he said. “I do think that there’s too much of a passive approach by people who are self-sufficient and feel, well, ‘that’s not my problem. I hate to see it, but I’ve got to move on.’”

Thomas is not moving on from those goals, even after his time with the Urban League is done. He’s seen enough to recognize the power of arming young people with education, creating access to opportunities, and continuing the conversation.

“But I don’t feel desperate,” he said — largely because of those young people with the potential to be difference makers themselves, as he certainly is. “I feel like we can get to where we need to be. I’m optimistic.”

That’s a life story — and a continuing legacy — much bigger than a glass-covered end table.

Class of 2023

This Nonprofit Helps Young People Get in the Game

Leah Martin Photography

Leah Martin Photography

James Gee grew up in Springfield, in a single-parent household.

He remembers his mother having to hold down several jobs and work very long hours — 70, maybe 80 a week by his count. He also remembers sports, and especially basketball, being … well, much more than a game at that critical time in his life.

Sports were something to look forward to at a time when there wasn’t much in his life that fell into that category, he told BusinessWest, and something that provided a number of invaluable life lessons — on everything from the value of teamwork to overcoming adversity; from learning from role models to understanding the importance of working hard to achieve one’s goals.

“I had sports as something to keep me engaged and focused,” said Gee, head coach of the women’s varsity basketball team at Central High School, which won the state championship in 2022; a former player at Central himself; and a history teacher at the school. “I had coaches who would pick me up and drop me off and be there as role models as well. Mom was always there for me and always pushing the importance of academics, but the reality was, she had to go to work to pay the bills. I understood that, but when you have that much time, you can get in trouble and find the wrong friends and the wrong crowds. For me, because I had sports, I didn’t have time to get in trouble; my focus was much different.”

It is this basic understanding of the importance of sports in the development of young people that led to the creation of Springfield Ballers, a nonprofit that got its start with an all-girls basketball team (the Lady Ballers) back in 2006 — and also led to Gee to join the effort, become a pivotal force in its growth and development, and become passionate about its mission.

“I believe that sports correlates with life in so many ways. Everything from just being on time to handling adversity, dealing with different situations, dealing with different individuals, learning how to work through struggle; it’s huge. There are so many lessons that sports provide — and it also gives young people something to look forward to.”

Today, through the leadership of Gee, who now serves as president and CEO of the nonprofit; fellow coach Mike Anderson; and a strong board of directors, the Ballers has expanded its mission in many different ways.

Indeed, there are now 27 basketball teams involving boys and girls of all ages; other sports, including golf, lacrosse, and softball; clinics; competitions; and more. Access to sports and competition is now year-round.

Omar Almodovar, James Gee, and Tim Allen

From left, Omar Almodovar, James Gee, and Tim Allen attend a Biddy Ball practice in Springfield.
Leah Martin Photography

Summing it up, Gee said it’s about making sports affordable and accessible, and thus enabling young people to enjoy the many benefits of sports and competition. But the equation also includes exposure to coaches and other positive role models, support with academics, and much more.

“I believe that sports correlates with life in so many ways,” he explained. “Everything from just being on time to handling adversity, dealing with different situations, dealing with different individuals, learning how to work through struggle; it’s huge. There are so many lessons that sports provide — and it also gives young people something to look forward to.

“With a lot of the coaches, they become a really important figure in the kids’ lives. And they provide a lot more than just coaching them on the court.”

Amy Royal

Amy Royal

“With all the challenges people face today, sports gives them something to distract them, especially children in lower socioeconomic and demographic areas,” he added. “Sports gives them something to look forward to after school; sports teaches you so many lessons.”

Sports also helps break down racial barriers, he noted, adding that, when young people from communities with different demographic characteristics come together to play ball, eyes are opened, preconceived notions melt away, and there are learning experiences, and forms of acceptance, on many levels.

“When they play together, the best relationships are formed,” Gee explained. “It’s just people, kids playing basketball or playing sports together; when they finally interact with other, it knocks down barriers and builds so many great relationships.”

Amy Royal, a principal with the Springfield-based Royal Law Firm, long-time supporter of the Springfield Ballers, and one-time coach of a team, agreed.

“It’s so important in so many ways because the Ballers programming does so many different things in the community,” said Royal, who worked with Gee to create the 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity for the agency. “It’s not just about playing basketball or getting instructional lessons in golf; it’s not just about the sports — it’s about learning to be on a team, be with other kids, getting exposure to a diversified group.

“When they play together, the best relationships are formed. It’s just people, kids playing basketball or playing sports together; when they finally interact with other, it knocks down barriers and builds so many great relationships.”

“Also, the Springfield Ballers do a lot of different camps, providing an opportunity to do something when school is out of session — and do something that’s good and positive and productive,” she went on. “There’s also the mentorship and the mentoring programs, the academics, and beyond; it’s all very essential.”

It certainly is, and that reality goes a long way toward explaining why the Springfield Ballers are part of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers class of 2023.


Nothing but Net

They call it ‘Biddy Ball.’

That’s the name given to the basketball program for the youngest of the young people served by the Springfield Ballers — those in preschool up to grade 2.

They gather for clinics at Kiley Middle School in Springfield on Saturday mornings. Gee, who is on hand himself for these clinics, said some youngsters who took part in Biddy Ball years ago are now playing at Central and other area high schools and even at the college level.

James Gee

James Gee says his life-changing experiences with sports when he was young inspired him to become part of, and now lead, Springfield Ballers.
Leah Martin Photography

This is one example of how the program shapes lives, not for the short term, but for the long term, by not just showing participants how to pass, shoot, rebound, and defend, but also about how to work as a unit, work together to achieve a common goal, and stay on track, as Gee put it. Indeed, when asked to try to at least quantify the impact that involvement with the Ballers has had on participants over the years, Gee said he sees the results very day.

“When kids have a purpose and a reason and a ‘why,’ they start to focus a little better,” he explained. “We’ve had kids that were struggling in middle school … people would think that they didn’t have a shot. But some became college graduates and have their own business.

“I believe involvement has helped reduce teen pregnancy,” he went on. “You have young ladies who are now engaged in sports — they have goals. Young men, the same thing. Participation in sports helps improve attendance and their academic achievement. I’ve seen first-hand how the program has helped.”

This is what organizers had in mind when they started a girls basketball team 17 years ago and gave the initiative the name Springfield Ballers. The program was soon expanded to include girls and boys from across the region, and, eventually, it moved well beyond basketball to those other sports mentioned earlier.

As Gee said, the mission boils down to providing affordable access to sports, and the Ballers program has done that for thousands of young people of all ages and from across the region.

Indeed, many of the participants are from Greater Springfield, but they are also from Greenfield and other points north and west, and the next expansion initiative is into Northern Connecticut, to meet demonstrated need for such a program.

Meeting needs has been the goal from the beginning, said Gee, adding that those needs vary, from financial support to transportation to an introduction to sports such as golf and lacrosse that are expensive, but important in the way they can provide opportunity — to make connections, make friends, and possibly even earn a college scholarship.

The organization, which partners with a number of organizations and institutions, including area YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs, American International College, USA Lacrosse, and Dick’s Sporting Goods, does all this mostly through donations from individuals and businesses, but it has applied for and received some grants, said Royal, adding that there is an annual fundraising gala, and this year will include a golf tournament as well. Meanwhile, individual teams stage their own fundraisers.

These funds are used to provide what are called ‘scholarships’ — up to 100% — for those who don’t have the ability to pay the costs associated with playing for various teams, especially those that travel to play teams in other parts of the state and other regions of the country. Funds are also used to provide participants with equipment, especially for the more expensive sports such as lacrosse and golf, she went on, adding that the agency received a grant from Dick’s Sporting Goods for that purpose.

“The money is absolutely needed because we have so many kids, and so many dollars being spent on scholarships,” said Royal, adding that, last year, the Ballers awarded more than $25,000 in scholarships.

Over the years, the agency has continuously looked for ways to broaden its mission and its many forms of assistance to make organized sports even more affordable and accessible, said Gee and Royal. It has done that by adding more sports to the portfolio, and also by extending its geographic reach.

And, moving forward, it will do this by providing more assistance with transportation — to practices, games, events, and even visits to colleges by high-school athletes getting ‘looks’ from recruiters. With the help of some grant money, the Ballers will look to add some vans, said Royal, adding that the need is obviously great.

And it is great in many areas, she went on, adding that sports — and the Springfield Ballers —have the ability to meet many of them.

“It’s not just about putting kids on teams so they can play sports, which obviously is important for exercise, health, well-being, and all of that; there’s so much more to it. A big part of it is forming relationships and connections.

“I know that, with a lot of the coaches, they become a really important figure in the kids’ lives,” she went on. “And they provide a lot more than just coaching them on the court.”


Crunch Time

As he added up all that sports has provided him in life, Gee said that, in addition to all those lessons he mentioned earlier and the manner in which sports helped keep him out of trouble, they have provided him friendships that have endured for many years.

“I was able to have friends in different communities, not just in Springfield, and I have great relationships to this day,” he said, adding that he’s not sure how his life would have turned out if sports hadn’t intervened, but he’s quite sure he wouldn’t be where he is today.

His goal is to have sports intervene in as many young lives as possible. Springfield Ballers exists to do just that, and it has created a formula for winning — in every sense of that phrase.

And that’s what makes this organization a Difference Maker in this region.

Class of 2023

When It Comes to Community Involvement, He Puts the Pedal to the Metal

Gary Rome

Gary Rome
Jeffrey Byrnes Photography

Gary Rome says it was like the Oscars — or at least what he’s seen of the Oscars on TV.

He was referring to the recent ceremonies at which he was named TIME magazine Dealer of the Year.

The Oscars reference was a nod to everything from the size of the crowd gathered for the National Automotive Dealers Assoc. Show at the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center in Dallas — roughly 3,000 — to the butterflies that were in his stomach when, as one of four finalists for the coveted award (from among 48 nominees), he stood on stage awaiting the announcement of the winner.

“It was very nerve-wracking,” recalled Rome, who can now add being on the cover of TIME (not to mention BusinessWest) and the back of Automotive News to his long list of accomplishments. “My heart rate was like 100; I was really nervous, and then they pulled out that envelope and said, ‘from Holyoke, Massachusetts, our award winner is Gary Rome.’”

With the Dealer of the Year Award now on prominent display at his Hyundai store, Rome now has an even more crowded calendar for the months ahead. Indeed, representatives of TIME and Ally Financal, sponsor of the program, will be coming to Holyoke to celebrate the award, and officials from Hyundai corporate will be coming in from California to mark the occasion as well.

“If it were up to me, I’d give the money to an organization focused on animals, in honor of Jack. But … it’s not up to me. It’s not about me; it’s about my team — that’s who I attribute our success to.”

And he also has a big decision to make — only, he’s quick to note that he won’t make it himself.

The prize comes with a check from Ally Financial for $10,000, to be awarded to the charity of Rome’s choice. But, as a reflection of how he operates his dealerships, Rome will let his team help him decide.

“If it were up to me, I’d give the money to an organization focused on animals, in honor of Jack,” he said, referring to his beloved companion, spokesdog, and customer favorite, who passed away in October. “But … it’s not up to me. It’s not about me; it’s about my team — that’s who I attribute our success to.”

The TIME award was announced just a few weeks after Rome was chosen by BusinessWest to be one of its Difference Makers for 2023. The juxtaposition of the two honors is significant, and he was chosen by two different sets of judges for essentially the same reasons.

They are summed up in comments from Doug Timmerman, president of Ally Financial, who said of Rome — and the other auto dealers nominated — “they go above and beyond for their customers, communities, and employees.”

Gary Rome was recently honored

Gary Rome was recently honored as TIME magazine’s Dealer of the Year.

In Rome’s case, it’s well above and beyond, especially when it comes to communities and his employees.

With the former, Rome is omnipresent, it seems, serving as a foundation board member at Holyoke Community College (HCC); presenting a car annually to a graduating high-school student in Holyoke; carrying on a holiday tradition called the Trees of Hope event, which raises funds for the Ronald McDonald House; and presenting, in collaboration with other Western Mass. Hyundai dealers, an honor called Salute to Heroes, among many other initiatives. The latest such hero, who received a new Hyundai in gratitude for his work in the community, is Bob Charland, a/k/a the Bike Man, who was named a Difference Maker himself in 2018.

With the latter, Rome’s operating philosophy is perhaps best summed up in the company’s core values — excellence, passion, integrity, caring, and especially the last one, ‘we have fun.’

“My involvement with cars started at the age of 9 — I was just enthralled with my father and his business, so I wanted to be around him all the time. My father would go to work, and I would chase him down the hallway at home to make sure he would take me with him. I was very excited about being there, being around him … it got into my blood.”

This is made clear by the monthly calendar for the business, printed out for all employees. It lists birthdays and anniversaries of employment, but also regular raffles staged at the dealership, which coincide with ‘holidays’ such as (in January) ‘Time to get Organized Day’ and ‘National Cuddle Up Day,’ as well as ‘National Peanut Butter and Jelly Lunch Day,’ for which the company provided peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to Providence Ministries — and to employees as well.

That philosophy is also represented in monthly newsletters that profile specific employees in a ‘Get to Know’ section, spotlight employees of the month (and employees of the year in the December issue), as well as collections of photos involving events and company involvement in the community. The December issue included shots from the Mayflower Marathon (Gary Rome Hyundai was a presenting sponsor), Gary and Daisy (another spokesdog) at a Springfield Thunderbirds sponsor-appreciation day, and a Gary Rome Auto Group employee-appreciation party at the Castle of Knights in Chicopee.

Gary Rome, Eastern Region board member for Hyundai Hope on Wheels

Gary Rome, Eastern Region board member for Hyundai Hope on Wheels, Hyundai’s philanthropic initiative to raise funds for research for childhood cancer, presents a $300,000 check to Massachusetts General Hospital last fall.

All this — and it’s just a sample, to be sure — helps explain why Rome is not just Dealer of the Year, but a true Difference Maker.


Model Citizen

Getting back to Jack, he took the title ‘official greeter’ for the Gary Rome Auto Group. That title is still held by Daisy, who has her own business cards and is often sought out by customers (most of whom want photos) as they look over models or come to pick up a vehicle they’ve purchased.

“Some people will say they’re not buying a car until they meet the dog,” Rome said. “When Jack passed away, we put it on social media, and it reached 220,000 people; I received more than 6,000 messages on Facebook, hundreds of cards, letters, flowers, chocolate. We put it on LinkedIn, and it reached almost 60,000 people, and I had almost 2,000 people reach out to me, saying they grew up with Jack, and he was a big part of their life.”

Dogs have been prominent in this business for years, from their barking heard on radio and TV commercials to the company’s marketing slogan — ‘the best doggone place to buy a car’ — and their presence is seen everywhere, from the dealership itself to all those events highlighted in the newsletters. In fact, in addition to a new car wash being planned for the Hyundai store, there will a dog wash as well.

“Why would you put your dirty dog in a clean car?” he asked rhetorically, not waiting for an answer.

And dogs are just part of an intriguing story that most know by now. It starts with a young Gary working odd jobs at his father Jerry’s Datsun (later Nissan) dealership in Holyoke.

“My involvement with cars started at the age of 9 — I was just enthralled with my father and his business, so I wanted to be around him all the time,” he recalled. “My father would go to work, and I would chase him down the hallway at home to make sure he would take me with him. I was very excited about being there, being around him … it got into my blood.”

Gary Rome Hyundai sold a record 306 cars

Gary Rome Hyundai sold a record 306 cars last August, and to celebrate, the staff was treated to lunch, one example of how the company values its employees.

So much so that plans to pursue a law degree were eventually shelved, and he followed his father into the business.

By 1985, he was general manager of Jerry Rome Nissan, which would eventually move to Riverdale Street in West Springfield. In 1997, Gary bought the old dealership in Holyoke and opened Gary Rome Hyundai, at a time when that brand was more of a punchline than the respected name it is today. In 2006, he bought a Kia dealership in Enfield, thus creating the Gary Rome Auto Group.

In 2016, the Hyundai store was moved to its present location on Whiting Farms Road, where it has become one of the most successful Hyundai dealerships in the country — ranking fifth in sales in the Northeast and 28th in the country, out of 820 dealers. It has also become a model for others in the brand, he said, noting that Hyundai’s regional manager recently brought his entire team of 65 to Holyoke for a day in October “so they could see what this dealership looks like, take photos, and show their other dealers what a dealership should look like.”

Those numbers, and those tours (there have been many over the years), help explain how Rome has gone from his humble beginnings to TIME’s Dealer of the Year. His work in the community — make that his team’s work in the community — and the culture he has created at his dealerships are perhaps even bigger reasons.

Let’s start with that culture. It is embodied in those newsletters and that monthly calendar of events. It’s an attitude more than anything else, encapsulated by that core value, ‘we have fun.’

Gary Rome (and Jack) read to fourth-graders at Peck Middle School

Gary Rome (and Jack) read to fourth-graders at Peck Middle School in Holyoke as part of the read-aloud program created by the nonprofit Link to Libraries.

As for his work in the community, he said it takes many forms, from his involvement at Holyoke Community College, which he called a ‘crown jewel’ in the region, to support of Providence Ministries, to the Trees of Hope program for Ronald McDonald House, which this past year raised more than $175,000. On a shelf behind his desk is an array of stuffed dogs that resemble Daisy, Jack, and another predecessor, Buddy. The dealership sells them for $25 each, with proceeds going to the Jimmy Fund; more than $15,000 has been raised to date.

As with the $10,000 check coming his way from being Dealer of the Year, Rome said decisions about community involvement and where to put time, effort, imagination, and money are made as a team.

“We try to find charities that are near and dear to our employees’ hearts because we want them to be invested, and we want to them to participate,” he explained, adding that this strategy, which includes a special emphasis on Holyoke, where the company is a large corporate citizen, has proven itself very effective over the years.

Within the city, he’s on Mayor Joshua Garcia’s transition team, he’s a member of the Holyoke Taxpayers’ Assoc., and he’s on the governmental affairs committee for the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, among many other forms of involvement.

“When people ask me where I live, I say I live in Holyoke — I just sleep somewhere else,” he explained.


It’s Been Quite a Ride

Rome said his father had a few favorite sayings and words to live by. There are a few that he lives by and will recite quite often.

“He always said that your education is something that no one can take away from you,” he noted, adding that this sentiment helps explain his heavy involvement in education, be it at HCC, the Holyoke public schools, or other initiatives.

Gary Rome presents the keys to a new car to a graduating senior

Gary Rome presents the keys to a new car to a graduating senior at Holyoke High School, one of many initiatives to support education and area young people.

“He also used to say, ‘it doesn’t cost any extra to be nice,’ and he would say it over and over and over again,” Rome went on, adding that this is a mindset he has bought to work, and to the community, every day.

“For 61 years, I heard, ‘Gary, it doesn’t cost any extra to be nice,’” he said. “And that’s why I have an excessively positive outlook on things. If you tell me there’s a 70% chance of rain, I don’t even hear you; I just hear there’s a 30% chance of sun.”

That outlook on life, work, and community explains not only why Rome is TIME’s Dealer of the Year for 2023, but why he’s always been a Difference Maker.

Class of 2023

These Amherst Leaders Work in Partnership to Build a Stronger Community

Leah Martin Photography

Leah Martin Photography

March 13, 2020.

Both Claudia Pazmany and Gabrielle Gould remember that date, and they say they’re not likely to ever forget it.

It was the day when Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID) received word that the Downtown Amherst Foundation she created had officially received its 501(c)(3) status. But that long-awaited good news was rendered all but moot by what else was happening that day — the shutting down of the Commonwealth by Gov. Charlie Baker as the COVID-19 pandemic reached the Bay State and the first deaths were being reported.

“I was thinking, ‘I did all this work to create this foundation that was going to do all these amazing things, and now we’re in lockdown, and we’re not going to be doing anything,’” Gould recalled.

She and Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, who share space in the chamber offices on South Pleasant Street in the heart of the community’s downtown, remember walking out the door together that afternoon, turning off the lights, and setting the heat at 56 degrees as they went.

What they were walking into … well, they had no idea, really.

Turns out, they were walking into what would become a deep (or deeper, to be more precise) and quite extraordinary partnership, through which they would help lead a community that was devasted by the pandemic perhaps more than any other in this region, and maybe the entire state, out of that darkness.

A partnership that makes them true Difference Makers in the Greater Amherst area.

Working separately on some initiatives, but hand-in-hand in most all others, they have helped change the landscape in Amherst and its downtown in all kinds of ways, as we’ll see. But they are also being honored for ensuring that the landscape didn’t change more than it did. Indeed, it is through their efforts that many businesses were able to survive that storm.

“It was a devastating time, but from that, we forged this great partnership,” Pazmany said of the early days of the pandemic. “And we put our collective talents and resources together to put information out there and help people and businesses in need. It was remarkable to see how people came together in that time of crisis.”

By Gould’s count, Amherst “lost more than 45,000 people overnight” that fateful day in March 2020. That number includes students at the three colleges that call the community home — UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College — but also thousands of people who came to work at those institutions and other businesses in town. It also includes tourists who wouldn’t be coming, parents of students and alumni who wouldn’t be attending sporting events or anything else, visiting lecturers who wouldn’t be on campus, performing artists who wouldn’t be coming … you get the idea.

“It was a devastating time, but from that, we forged this great partnership. And we put our collective talents and resources together to put information out there and help people and businesses in need. It was remarkable to see how people came together in that time of crisis.”

In the wake of this exodus, businesses were left dazed and looking for some kind of answers — and any kind of help. Pazmany and Gould helped provide both, with everything from PPE (which they delivered themselves) to virtual ‘tip jars’ to help those out of work; from small-business microgrants to grant-application coaching. They bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of meals from restaurants and gift cards and other items from businesses to both help them survive and assist families and individuals in need.

With this assistance, and their own sheer will to survive, many businesses have made it through the pandemic and to the other side.

But this story, this partnership, is not just about COVID and helping businesses ride out that storm. Indeed, it’s an ongoing story of bringing new businesses and new vibrancy to downtown Amherst and beyond. Businesses like the live-performance venue known as the Drake, an initiative of the Downtown Amherst Foundation, which, in less than a year, has brought roughly 1,000 performers and more than 15,000 patrons to the community.

Claudia Pazmany arranges meals

Claudia Pazmany arranges meals that were bought from Amherst-area restaurants and given to those in need as part of the Dinner Delights program staged during the height of the pandemic.

This informal partnership’s philosophy is summed up in a branded campaign launched in 2021 and funded by a Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism grant, called, appropriately, “What’s Next? Greater Amherst.” It includes a YouTube video and a website — www.greateramherst.com — that highlights the natural beaty, global cuisine, and arts and culture in the community and helps people who are planning a visit.

“Without our collaborative help and willingness to sit in these offices at 7 o’clock at night with business owners with masks on and help them upload their documents and write grants, I think you would have seen a lot more businesses throughout Amherst close.”

Overall, these partners continue to work to make Greater Amherst both a destination and a place to put down business roots. Thanks to them, what’s next is more creative programing, more opportunities for growth, and more vibrancy.

And that makes them true Difference Makers.


The Power of Two

Returning to the dark days of the start of the pandemic — and they were dark … the lights literally went out in downtown Amherst — isn’t exactly easy for Gould and Pazmany.

These were extraordinary and, in many ways, desperate times when business just stopped. There was a great deal of uncertainty about what would happen, they recalled, and for several weeks after the state was shut down, businesses suffered mightily.

But as they looked back, these two partners said that was also a time of what could, in some ways, be called triumph, when people, and a community, reached down deep to find ways to support one another and help them through that darkness.

Stamell Stringed Instruments

Stamell Stringed Instruments was one of dozens of Amherst-area businesses to receive gifts of PPE — free safety posters, gloves, sanitizer, and more — as a part of the #IAMherst campaign, through monies raised through the Downtown Amherst Foundation.

Before we elaborate on that, let’s set the stage by talking about the two organizations and their missions.

Like several other communities in the area, Amherst has both a chamber and a business-improvement district. The former, as most know, exists to promote and support businesses, and it does this through everything from advocacy (at the local, state, regional, and national levels) to education and providing forums for businesses to gather, network, learn, and perhaps do business with one another.

The BID, meanwhile, is charged with everything from cleaning up downtown and watering the plants growing from hanging baskets to handling holiday lighting displays and marketing the community through initiatives such as Destination Amherst.

But it was during the pandemic that the two organizations really came together, pooled their resources, and put their various skills sets to work.

Pazmany and Gould were working remotely at the time — the chamber office, like most businesses, was closed — but they were together often, working long days (and a great many nights) to help businesses. Here are just some examples of what they were able to do together:

• Raise close to a half-million dollars and distribute what became known as Relief and Resiliency microgrants to 67 small businesses throughout Amherst, the lion’s share of the money coming from residents, with donations from $25 to $50,000;

• Buy bulk PPE (masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and more) at a time when it was difficult for businesses to attain it, and deliver it to businesses;

• Create a virtual tip jar so residents could support the many who were out of work — rom artists to hairdressers to bartenders;

• Launch the Dinner Delights program, through which the two agencies raised more than $100,000 and used those finds to purchase dinners and lunches from area restaurants to keep them in business, and hand out the meals to families in need;

• Provide those same families with gift bags filled with toys, puzzles, and gift cards purchased from a wide array of businesses — from hair salons to convenience stores — to help those small ventures;

• Continue some time-honored traditions, albeit virtually, such as the lighting of the Merry Maple, a maple tree on the North Common, during the holidays;

• Encourage takeout business at a time when the restaurants needed it and when there was some resistance to such efforts from the colleges and elsewhere in the community;

• Register close to 200 individuals within the business community, including many for whom English is their second language, for vaccination; and

• Provide assistance with state and federal grants. Together, by Gould’s estimates, they were able to help businesses secure more than $2.1 million in state and federal grants by sitting down with them and helping them write grants.

“Without our collaborative help and willingness to sit in these offices at 7 o’clock at night with business owners with masks on and help them upload their documents and write grants, I think you would have seen a lot more businesses throughout Amherst close,” Gould said. “While many people were at home staying safe, which they should have been doing, Claudia and I came to work every day; we showed up, we went out in public, we hand-delivered grants.”

Pazmany agreed, noting that both agencies looked beyond their respective missions and beyond the downtown itself to help a decimated community at a time of dire need.

Gabrielle Gould and Claudia Pazmany

Gabrielle Gould and Claudia Pazmany have worked tirelessly to promote Amherst and the surrounding area as a destination.
Leah Martin Photography

“We all had PPE in our cars for two months — and we delivered it door-to-door,” she recalled. “I looked beyond my membership, and she looked beyond the downtown, and together we were able to look at the collective impact of our shared work around the entire town of Amherst.”

As significant as the work during the pandemic was, this partnership, as noted earlier, is about much more than those efforts.

Indeed, it’s about ongoing work to put Greater Amherst on the map and make it even more of a destination for visitors and home for businesses of all kinds. Here again, the agencies have worked independently of one another, but mostly in concert, to get a number of things done.

Things like the Drake, a venue that has brought people from across New England and beyond to downtown Amherst and provides ample proof of the power of the arts as an economic-development engine.

“I truly believe that arts and culture in a community builds economic development,” Pazmany told BusinessWest. “And it builds reasons for people to come to your community and be part of your community, to want to live here and do business here.”


Bottom Line

Looking ahead, Gould said the BID is working on several initiatives, including a spring block party in the downtown with a focus and arts and culture, a summer music series on the Commons, revitalization of the North Common, and creation of more anchors in the downtown.

As for the chamber, Pazmany said a great amount of momentum was generated in 2022 as a number of popular events, from After 5 gatherings to the annual fundraiser Margarita Madness, returned to the calendar. The goal for 2023 is to build on this momentum, generate new membership, and continue to support businesses across Greater Amherst.

“I truly believe that arts and culture in a community builds economic development. And it builds reasons for people to come to your community and be part of your community, to want to live here and do business here.”

“For us, it’s getting back to what we normally do as a chamber,” she explained. “We’re focusing on getting all our events back, making them better than ever, and connecting businesses.”

Gould told BusinessWest that she’s learned that Amherst’s response to the pandemic — the various programs created and carried out by the chamber and the BID — has been hailed as one of the best in the Commonwealth and a model of cooperation and innovation for other communities to follow.

Likewise, the Drake project has become a model itself — of how an organization like the BID can take a concept, raise the money needed, and make it a reality, all in roughly a year’s time.

Pazmany and Gould weren’t thinking about creating models or case studies when they undertook these programs. They were thinking about their community, and how to make it stronger, more resilient, and more of a destination. The fact that they have become models for other towns is testimony to the high levels of imagination, determination, and perseverance these two have brought to their ongoing work.

And that explains why they are Difference Makers.

Class of 2023

She’s Guiding an Arts Renaissance That Will Reverberate Beyond Easthampton

Burns Maxey

Burns Maxey

Looking back over two decades in Easthampton, and her current work with a volunteer organization called CitySpace, Carol Abbe Smith saw, in its leader, someone who is making a difference in myriad ways.

“If you came to Easthampton in 2000, you would see empty storefronts and no foot traffic,” said Smith, owner of Delap Real Estate. “Today, Easthampton has restaurants, interesting shops, and music venues, in part due to the vision, energy, and leadership skills of one person: Burns Maxey.”

She’s right, though Maxey is quick to share credit — and share it with a lot of people — for the revitalization of Easthampton’s downtown in the form of an intriguing project to transform Old Town Hall into an arts and performance space, and the ways in which that project has caused, and will continue to generate, economic ripples far beyond the center of town.

“I think artists have the capability of making change happen on a smaller scale and creating reverberations with communities,” Maxey told BusinessWest. “And imagination is the key to thinking outside of the box and really considering what the possibilities are — or beyond the possibilities.”

“I think artists have the capability of making change happen on a smaller scale and creating reverberations with communities.”

Maxey has been heavily involved in Easthampton’s arts culture for the better part of two decades, including serving as arts coordinator for Easthampton City Arts from 2011 to 2016; during her tenure, she oversaw the creation of events like Bear Fest, Cultural Chaos, and the Easthampton Book Fest, securing grants in the process.

Also in 2011, she joined the all-volunteer board of CitySpace, which had been tasked with creating a flexible arts and community space in Old Town Hall, which was built in 1869 and housed the town’s municipal offices until 2003. In 2015, she became board president, and since then, she has helped secure Community Preservation Act funds, multiple foundation grants, and historic tax credits, as well as heading the capital campaign and events committee in an effort to raise about $8.5 million for the project.

Phase one involved renovation of the first floor, including the creation of a small, 80-seat rental performance space called the Blue Room. In conjunction with that, Maxey established a program called Pay It Forward to allow low-income artists the resources, space, and support to create or collaborate on a project, or have a residency to complete a project prior to public performance. After a successful trial in 2022, the program will roll out more fully in 2023, with the help of a $30,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

“This gives access to this space for rehearsals or performances to artists who need it — underserved artists, artists of color, low-income artists, really — anyone who doesn’t have the capacity to pay for the affordable rates we have,” she explained.

It’s also a sort of incubator space, she said. “It’s used for performing-arts groups and everything from community meetings to nonprofit fundraisers to exercise classes and rehearsals. Last year, we had close to 100 events within the space, different populations coming into the building. They get to see what’s happening here and really get to learn about what CitySpace does. So it’s kind of a neat way for us to test some ideas.”

Burns Maxey stands in the Blue Room

Burns Maxey stands in the Blue Room, which hosted about 100 events in its first year.
Leah Martin Photography

One Pay It Forward recipient, Amherst-based musician Kim Chin-Gibbons, brought her band, Sunset Mission, to CitySpace for a three-day intensive to practice, hone their sound, create a video, and play for a crowd, followed by an audience talk-back session.

“We discovered things about our tech and performances I don’t think we would have for months or maybe years,” Chin-Gibbons said. “It was the perfect place to control all our variables and grow as musicians and people.”

The next phases of the Old Town Hall revival include the restoration of a 350-seat space on the second floor (likely double that capacity for standing-room shows). But that takes fundraising, and Maxey and her board continue that effort, seeing the impact a broadened arts culture has already had on the town’s vitality, and understanding how the completed project will multiply that impact.

“This was established in 1869 to be the hub for community, for performances, for meetings, for dances. It was the place where people gathered.”

“I believe everyone has a place to live and thrive in Western Massachusetts, and now we have a great opportunity to plan smartly to create both affordability and economic flourishing,” she told BusinessWest. “I believe CitySpace is a partial solution to concerns like gentrification by creating long-term affordability to creative space on Main Street, right in the middle of the region.”

By fostering the arts and community she added, “we can make a destination where people want to be, and this, in turn, has economic reverberations. It’s that cycle of reciprocity that will allow this region to fully lift itself up to its potential.”


One Step at a Time

While touring Old Town Hall with BusinessWest, Maxey stopped by Big Red Frame, a business owned by Jean-Pierre Pasche that moved into the building around 2007, a few years after the municipal offices moved out.

“I fell in love with this place 17 years ago when I heard that it was going to be transformed into an arts center,” Pasche said. “I approached the people submitting RFPs to the town, and I said, ‘if you need a tenant on the project, I’ll go in. And I’m still here.”

Maxey credits town officials at the time for having the foresight to envision an arts and culture hub in the building, and recognize the impact that could have on economic development in town.

“I could see the potential for this building,” she added. “And when they showed me the second floor, I was like, ‘oh yeah, I’m really interested in this project.’”

Old Town Hall housed Easthampton’s municipal offices until 2003.Staff Photo

Old Town Hall

The first floor, which includes a number of art spaces and the Blue Room, is largely completed. “When you look at the second floor,” Maxey said, “you see where the funding stopped.”

Elaborating, she explained, “when the pandemic hit, we started to think about phasing the project and what our options would be to continue the work. So we talked to our architects, and they said, ‘yes, you can phase it.’ Initially, we thought that it would be one project as a whole, but it grew from a $6.6 million project to an $8.5 million project, which is a lot, but compared to a lot of other projects within the region and beyond, it’s not too far off from where we originally started.”

Phase two of the project, which has already seen the HVAC system upgraded and modernized, will also add an elevator and newly accessible entryway in front of the building; Maxey said CitySpace needs about $170,000 to get there.

Phase three, easily the most expensive part of the $8.5 million project, will complete the second floor, restoring the ceiling and floors, adding restrooms, installing new electrical and fire-safety systems, and investing in state-of-the-art theatrical and lighting equipment. Amid the modern amenities, Maxey wants to retain as much history as possible, including the mahogany balcony.

“Easthampton, historically, wasn’t a wealthy town,” she explained. “Unlike Holyoke or Springfield or Northampton, we really don’t have a plethora of beautiful buildings throughout the city. This was established in 1869 to be the hub for community, for performances, for meetings, for dances. It was the place where people gathered.”

It’s Maxey’s vision to see that happen again, and she intends to maintain affordable rental rates, not just in the small space currently open, but in the large performance hall on the second floor, once it’s complete.

“That’s part of our mission, to keep this building affordable for arts and community programming,” she said of the Blue Room. “When somebody comes into the space, there’s a flat, hourly rate. But they get everything, like the PA, the projector, tables, chairs. So it’s not like an a la carte menu where we’re adding dollars for each item.”

That model will continue upstairs. “We’re thinking of keeping it very similar to what we’re doing in the Blue Room. It’s a rental space with affordable rates, attracting and really serving artists throughout Western Massachusetts, and we want some traveling artists to come in as well. It’s really a place for people who want to produce events, and it’s also allowing for CitySpace to have our own programming.”

The 350-seat capacity is a “sweet spot” for the area, she added, larger than compact spaces like the Parlor Room in Northampton and the Drake in Amherst, but smaller than the Academy of Music in Northampton, which seats about 800. “Sometimes that’s too much to fill for some artists, and there are a lot of 150-seat locations throughout the region, so this is one step above that.”

CitySpace has a 44-year lease with the city on the building, and Maxey is looking long-term, including applying for Massachusetts historic tax credits after the building is completed, to go toward its continual upkeep.

“Even though we’ll be restoring the second floor,” she said, “we know that having a long-term plan for maintenance on the building will allow it to be here for another 150 years.”


Labor of Love

Maxey, like all the others on her board, serves CitySpace as a volunteer. Meanwhile, her career — which has taken her from Williston Northampton School as communications associate from 2005 to 2011 to her role as Easthampton’s arts coordinator from 2011 to 2016, to the positions of manager, then director, of Digital and Creative Marketing at New England Public Radio from 2016 to 2020 — has entered a new phase with BurnsMax, the art and design business she launched last year. She is also an adjunct professor of Marketing at the Arts Extension Service at UMass Amherst, teaching a class titled “Marketing the Arts.”

In a sense, that’s what she’s doing at CitySpace, too, a role she called “a joy because of the people who surround me.” In doing so, she singled out several other board members, including former Easthampton Mayor Mike Tautznik, Nikki Beck, Peggy Twardowski, and Smith, as well as an artist advisory committee including Trenda Loftin, Emily Ditkovski, Kyle Boatright, Amber Tanudjaja, and Pamela Means, not to mention a capital-campaign team led by Alison Keller and Tara Brewster.

“Seriously, CitySpace is a labor of love,” Maxey said, “and there are so many more that could be named since we are all volunteers right now — me included — as we kickstart this organization into adulthood.”

And pump some energy into the region as well, she added, noting arts organizations and venues opening up from Greenfield to Springfield, all holding the potential of boosting economic development through the arts.

“You can go to all of these locations, and it’s kind of like this renaissance; you see the potential for performing arts to really enliven and connect the whole Western Massachusetts region. And because of that, we have the capability for incredible economic growth within the region — not just a lovey-feely connection, although that exists too.”

Economic development and its many reverberations. The renovation of a historic building. Creating long-term affordability and accessibility for artists. That’s a lot of differences to make, and Maxey and her team are far from done.

“I’ve made my home here, and it’s such a fantastic place to live and work and play,” she said. “And I think we have a lot of potential to make it even better.”

Class of 2023

From Wrestling to Ice Cream, They’ve Made a Community-wide Impact

Steven and Jean Graham

Steven and Jean Graham
Leah Martin Photography

As he talked about wrestling and how it can help shape young people, Steve Graham offered a wry smile, a cock of the head, and then a look that spoke volumes.

Indeed, it conveyed everything from the many ways the sport helps build character and provides lessons in perseverance, to just how grueling and difficult wrestling practice can be in high school. And Graham, who wrestled in high school and college, has coached the sport on many levels, and helped create the Grit & Gratitude Wrestling Academy in Springfield’s North End, backed up the look with some commentary grounded in those decades of experience.

“The sport is really nice because there are weight classes, so all sizes fit from day one,” he explained. “And that’s unusual. You don’t have to be tall, you don’t have to be big, you don’t have to be anything. But you do have to be tough mentally because wrestling is physically very taxing, and you’re literally fighting with your teammates every single day. And, inevitably, when you start, you’re getting your butt kicked as a freshman and a sophomore by the older kids. Eventually, you become more proficient and stronger and more mature.

“But wrestling also teaches you discipline, and it teaches you control,” he went on. “So when someone does beat you and throws you on your back, you can’t start punching them, you can’t start kicking them, you can’t start actually fighting with them. You have to control yourself, and you have to get back up and face them again.”

Those are great life lessons, and lessons for business as well, he noted, adding that, for anyone in business, there are days when you get knocked down and you must get back up again. And to persevere, one must be mentally tough. He and his wife, Jean, who together started Toner Plastics, now based in East Longmeadow, would know all that, too.

“You don’t have to be tall, you don’t have to be big, you don’t have to be anything. But you do have to be tough mentally because wrestling is physically very taxing, and you’re literally fighting with your teammates every single day.”

In different ways, separately in some cases, but mostly as a team, Steve and Jean Graham have been real difference makers in their community — as an employer, as a wrestling coach and indefatigable promoter of the sport, as supporters of countless nonprofits and education-related causes and organizations, and, yes, as purveyors of ice cream.

Indeed, the Grahams turned an East Longmeadow landmark, the old train depot in the center of town, into an ice-cream shop, but also much more. It has become a gathering spot in the community and a place where children and families can hear music, take in car shows, ride a miniature train, play cornhole, and get a cup or cone of sea-salt caramel. (Much more on that later).

Grit & Gratitude Wrestling Academy

Steve Graham was instrumental in creation of the Grit & Gratitude Wrestling Academy in Springfield’s North End, which introduces young people to a sport that provides many life lessons.

BusinessWest talked with the Grahams about all this, and, well, it wasn’t easy. Both would much prefer to just do what they do than talk about it. Humble and unassuming, they both said, in essence, that they have been simply motivated to help others and improve quality of life in this region.

“We are happy to help out other people if they need it, and we have the means,” Jean said. “It’s nice to help other people out.”


Landmark Decision

The old train depot in the center of East Longmeadow is a small, rather non-descript structure. But it is loaded with history, much of which can now be seen in photos on its renovated walls.

Built in 1876, this was where people gathered to catch two commuter trains each day, back when the train was how people got from here to there — and there to here. One train, which originated from Hartford, left at 10:57 in the morning. The other, which started in Springfield, left the station at 3:21 in the afternoon. Meanwhile, freight trains, which also passed through the station twice a day, carried a wide range of goods in and out of the community, but especially the sandstone and brownstone that came from more than 100 quarries in town and was used to build many historic structures, including Boston’s Trinity Church; the original Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York; buildings at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton; and East Longmeadow Town Hall.

Later, after the last train came through in the late ’60s, the depot was converted into the Community Feed Store, where area residents could buy grain, coal, farming supplies, and more.

Steve and Jean Graham learned or witnessed much of this history after moving to the town in the ’90s, and that’s one of the reasons why they became determined to somehow preserve the station for future generations. Steve told BusinessWest that they decided to buy the depot from a developer who planned to create an apartment complex on the site, not knowing where they would move it if the need arose — and it probably would.

Steve and Jean Graham inside the old train depot

Steve and Jean Graham inside the old train depot they have converted into an ice-cream shop and gathering place for the community.
Leah Martin Photography

“We thought … we’ll move it to our backyard if we have to,” he noted, adding that this wasn’t necessary, as he and Jean eventually bought the property around the station as well, as those development plans failed to materialize. And they created an ice-cream shop that opened in the spring of 2021.

Its called the Depot at Graham Central Station, and has since expanded in several ways, including a café where lunch is now served and a small railroad that runs on a track around a portion of the property.

It’s a moderately successfully business, but turning a profit is not really what motivated the Grahams in this effort to not only rescue the station but transform it into something for the community.

“We wanted to create a place for families,” said Jean, who played a lead role in renovating the station and providing a new, warm, and inviting look. “Communities need places to gather, where people can come together and have a good time. That’s what we wanted to do here.”

Those sentiments effectively sum up what drives the Grahams and the many ways they have been involved in the community. There has always been a desire to help children and families through initiatives that include:

• Work with other parents to launch the East Longmeadow Educational Endowment Fund, which today stands at more $1 million and has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the town’s schools. The couple, and especially Jean, helped stage the annual dinner dance that raised money for the fund and raised awareness as well;

• Work building stronger minds and bodies through wrestling. From 2005 to 2015, Steve, who wrestled in high school in New Jersey and then at Princeton, was a volunteer and eventually head coach of the wrestling team for six years at East Longmeadow High School. In 2021, in the middle of the pandemic amid the suspension of interscholastic sports, he worked with other coaches in the area to open (and fund) the nonprofit Grit & Gratitude Wrestling Academy, where they work with young people ages 5 and up;

• The train depot, which has a become a community gathering place, with park benches, live music, and more; and

• Support to a wide range of area nonprofits, from Link to Libraries to the Ronald McDonald House; from the Springfield Jaycees to the National Epilepsy Foundation (Steve’s brother suffered from the disease, so for him it was personal).


One Word: Plastics

Meanwhile, the Grahams have been difference makers as business owners and employers as well, providing opportunities on many levels.

As for their business, Toner Plastics, it started small, as in very small — “we had one sale for $200 the first six months,” Steve noted — but eventually they garnered some regular customers, first the old Woolworth’s department store and then eventually Walmart, Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, and others.

Today, the company manufactures everything from point-of-purchase displays to radiator covers to filament for 3D printing equipment. It is still headquartered in East Longmeadow, but has other locations in Pittsfield, Rhode Island, and Florida. While growing the company, the Grahams have amassed a strong track record of providing not only job opportunities, but opportunities to thrive, personally and professionally, after being hired.

Frank Valazquez, operations manager at Toner Plastics, explains.

“I had never met a man like Steve, with a pure heart, humble, fair, quick to listen, patient, wise, consistent, and willing to help anyone willing to help themselves — and who genuinely enjoys helping others by doing good. And for me, a young kid with no sense of direction, 22 years old at the time from Springfield’s North End, he was a difference maker.

“All I needed was a chance,” Valazquez continued, “an opportunity for someone like Steve Graham to truly listen and say, ‘I believe in you, and I am here to help you through the process as long as you are patient and put in the work.’”

Steve said he and Jean have helped script many similar stories at Toner Plastics, where they provide employees more than a job and a paycheck. Often, there are other forms of support and other types of doors they’ve helped to open.

“We have a program that allows employees to borrow money for any reason without divulging why, and they set the payment schedule,” he noted. “The money is loaned interest-free; in the more than 30 years of business, I can’t recall anyone not paying the money back. We encourage employees to invest their money not just in a 401(k) but in the stock market in a conservative manner, and show them the value of compounding. Most of the people who work for us on the factory floor have been able to buy a home and send their kids to college if they so choose. It is wonderful to see.”

Added Jean, “to me, it’s like a family here. Everyone works very hard, and we appreciate everything they do. And we love to see them progress in their lives.”

As noted earlier, the Grahams don’t like to talk about themselves. They would rather let their actions and deeds do the talking for them. When prodded, Jean noted that they are motivated, primarily, to help children and families and “do the best we can.”

Most would say this is a classic understatement.


Pinning Him Down

While he doesn’t like talking about himself, Steve Graham really enjoys discussing wrestling and all that it can do to help shape the lives of young people.

In short, he said, it teaches them about much more than maneuvers like the single-leg takedown and the front quarter nelson. Indeed, it also provides important lessons in perseverance, teamwork (even though they’re on the mat themselves), and, yes, humility.

“Wrestling is special because you know that the person in the mirror is the only one responsible for success or failure,” he told BusinessWest. “It is special because, no matter how tough you think you are in street clothes, someone is going to beat you on the mat. And getting beat physically and mentally on the mat is very beneficial; it makes you humble, teaches you respect, and makes you tougher mentally.”

Speaking of special, that’s a word you would need to describe the Grahams, although they probably wouldn’t use it themselves. They put their time, their talents, their resources, and their experience to work helping others and building a stronger, better community.

And that certainly makes them Difference Makers.

Class of 2023

He’s Netting Wins in the Community, Regardless of the Score on the Ice

Nate Costa

Nate Costa

When the Springfield Thunderbirds shut down the 2020-21 season in the midst of a raging pandemic, Nate Costa understood the impact — and the longer-term risk.

“It was an awful period because I had to lay off half of my staff, and the staff that stayed with me were on reduced hours,” he recalled. “And we really didn’t know what we were facing.”

That was the initial impact — which also included serious revenue losses. The longer-term risk had to do with momentum — more accurately, a complete halt to it.

“COVID affected our business like few others. You need people to get together to come to sporting events, to have success in this business. So COVID was a scary thing,” Costa continued. “And we weren’t sure how long it was going to take to have people come back together again.”

Looking back to 2016, when a large ownership group comprised of local business owners brought the Thunderbirds to Springfield just two months after the Falcons moved to Arizona, Costa said it was critical to move that quickly, as other cities that had lost AHL teams, including Worcester and Albany, never replaced them, so maintaining momentum was paramount.

Which is why late 2020 posed such a concern. But Costa understood that the way the organization was constructed would put it in the best position to succeed when hockey returned — and return it did, with a late-season surge in both wins and attendance in the spring of 2022, and a playoff run that stopped just a couple wins short of an AHL championship.

“We had taken the right steps to build the business the right way … to do things that were going to put us in a position to be sustainable long-term,” he said. “And that was really focusing on community activity, being visible in the community, and giving fans a good experience here at the building.”

By continuing with those efforts — and for leading a team that positively benefits community organizations, an enthusiastic fanbase, and the economic vitality of downtown Springfield — Costa has been named a Difference Maker for 2023, though he’s always quick to deflect credit to a hardworking staff and a committed ownership group.

“We had taken the right steps to build the business the right way … to do things that were going to put us in a position to be sustainable long-term. And that was really focusing on community activity, being visible in the community, and giving fans a good experience here at the building.”

“I’m a young person — I have a lot of life to go,” he said, contrasting his experience with Ted Hebert, a member of the T-Birds’ ownership group, who was honored as one of last year’s Difference Makers for a lifetime of work in the community. “It’s cool to be recognized, obviously, but it’s a humbling thing because it’s not what I got into it for.

“I grew up in Springfield,” Costa continued. “I used to come to games. I always thought it would be the coolest job in the world if I could run the hockey team one day, and it happened. And the extension of that is that I get to do things that are going to be the right thing for the community.”


Raising Their Game

It’s called Pink in the Rink.

It’s a national effort across the AHL to raise awareness of breast cancer; teams dye the ice pink, wear pink jerseys, and often highlight local efforts.

“Some teams partner with national organizations; some teams don’t partner with anybody — they just host an event, and there’s not a lot of teeth to it,” Costa said. “But when I came here, I knew that the way to make that event as effective as possible is to partner with somebody locally. It’s like an amplification of messages.”

Nate Costa credits his staff of salespeople and other personnel for maintaining momentum during and after the cancelled season of 2020-21.

Nate Costa credits his staff of salespeople

In the T-Birds case, the local partners include Rays of Hope and the Baystate Health Foundation, and the event isn’t held in October, the traditional month for breast-cancer awareness, but in March.

“We do it during a time of the year where there isn’t a lot of focus on the breast-cancer cause. That’s strategic. October is a time when there’s already a spotlight on that cause. Our idea was, ‘well, why don’t we have a second event that brings just as much attention as we would in October to a whole different group of people?’”

Last month, the team hosted a Stair Climb as part of its Hometown Heroes night, celebrating first responders and raising money for the T-Birds Foundation, with support from the American Lung Assoc. “That night, at the game, we have police vehicles and fire vehicles on the ice, and we recognize people that have made a contribution to our community throughout the night.”

Back in November, the team partnered with Rock 102 on the Mayflower Marathon, raising thousands of dollars to battle food insecurity locally. December saw the annual Teddy Bear Toss, when players collected thousands of stuffed animals thrown by fans onto the ice and delivered them to several local nonprofits serving children. The list continues: Military Appreciation Night; St. Pawdy’s Day, which raises money for the Foundation for TJO Animals; a sensory-friendly game in February; and so on.

“Obviously, you want to win a championship, and you want to bring that excitement to the city and to your fans. But I do think, on a day-to-day basis, we put a lot of focus and time and effort into creating value regardless of the score on the ice.”

Many of these events generate a quantifiable community impact, as opposed to the team’s emotional impact on individual fans. But that’s just as important, Costa said.

“We’re getting to the point where COVID is behind us, and getting back to providing experiences for kids and giving them access to players — high-fiving the players, lining up with the players, doing interactive things. Those are things we couldn’t do all last year.”

Costa noted one young girl who attends games all the time, and a member of Costa’s staff gave her a signed stick from one of the players as a reward for her achievements in school. The girl was thrilled.

“I waited behind because I wanted to see the whole thing, because that’s the stuff that you don’t necessarily get to see every single day,” he said. “But that’s what our organization really means. You have an ability to make a real impact on someone’s life. You don’t know what they’re going through; you don’t know what they’ve been through; you don’t know what they’re striving for. But at that one moment, giving someone a stick from their favorite player, it’s a really meaningful experience.”

He recalled his employee was in tears after the encounter. “Those moments that get burned into your mind … that’s what it’s about,” he went on. “Where else in this area can a little kid go and get to sing the national anthem in front of 6,500 people? Where else can you go and high-five professional hockey players that tomorrow night might be on the ice at the NHL level? You can’t do that elsewhere in Western Massachusetts. How many times can we make a difference in someone’s life? How many times can we provide them with an experience they can’t get anywhere else? We want to sell that story to people, and by extension create lifelong fans by the experiences that we’re providing.”

And although it’s not the main factor — as roster decisions are up to the St. Louis Blues — fielding a winning team is a net positive, he added.

“It definitely helps. People have been spoiled in this market because of the success of the major four,” he said, referring to the raft of titles won by the Bruins, Celtics, Patriots, and Red Sox over the past two decades. “So that’s a good thing at the end of the day. But are we reliant on it? No. I think we have built an organization that could be sustainable even if we’re not necessarily going to the Eastern Conference championship.

Nate Costa says he was gratified, post-pandemic, to see the return of opportunities for young fans to have experiences on the ice.

Nate Costa says he was gratified, post-pandemic, to see the return of opportunities for young fans to have experiences on the ice.

“That was the goal from the beginning,” he added. “Obviously, you want to win a championship, and you want to bring that excitement to the city and to your fans. But I do think, on a day-to-day basis, we put a lot of focus and time and effort into creating value regardless of the score on the ice.”


Downtown Goals

The third major impact the Thunderbirds — and Costa — have had is on Springfield itself, especially its downtown.

“We take a lot of pride in being sort of the centerpiece for the downtown renaissance, I think, hand in hand with MGM Springfield; I mean, none of this would be possible without their investment in downtown, too. They’re driving as much of that renaissance here as we are,” Costa said, again trying to distribute credit. “I think a good example of showing how much we mean to the downtown area is this brand-new garage going up across the street. I don’t think it would be possible if it weren’t for the success of the franchise. We’re averaging more than 5,000 people, 40 nights a year. So we’re bringing bodies downtown.”

And that benefits restaurants like Red Rose, Nadim’s, Theodores’ and others, as well as bars and other attractions — and contributes to an ongoing effort to change long-held misconceptions about being downtown, especially at night.

“I think we’ve really changed the perception. Very rarely now do I hear, ‘I don’t want to come downtown because it’s not safe.’ That is not something we deal with, ever.”

It’s not just hockey and gambling driving the renaissance, he added, noting projects like the renovation of the former Court Square Hotel into mixed-use space. “It’s great to see that local people are trying to invest in living downtown; I think more people living downtown makes our job easier. Everybody coming to our games now, they’re driving downtown. If we have more people living downtown, they can just walk across the street.”

He went on to cite continuing investments by MGM, the revitalization of Tower Square, and new places to eat and drink on Worthington Street as examples of why downtown Springfield is on the rise, and he knows the Thunderbirds are a big part of that. That potential is what the ownership team recognized when they moved quickly to draw another AHL franchise to the MassMutual Center after the departure of the Falcons.

“They understood the need for this,” Costa said. “Yes, we want to have a successful franchise; obviously, that’s our mission for long-term sustainability. But at the end of the day, these guys have successful businesses and were able to take on the risk because they wanted to do something for the city of Springfield — for this renaissance of this area.”

And while championship runs may not happen every year, Costa said, there’s no reason why the fan experience can’t be stellar all the time.

“I think if you come to one of our games and then you go to any other rink, you’ll see we’re putting on, if not the best, one of the best experiences in the American Hockey League. And it doesn’t matter that we’re in a small city; in fact, we take a lot of pride in that. It’s pretty cool that I get to go to the league meetings, and we’re winning awards and getting recognized next to teams that run the same type of business in cities like Chicago, Austin, San Diego. Look at Hartford — we’re outdrawing them almost two to one. There’s a reason for that: we’re really investing in the entire experience.”

He may balk at being singled out as a Difference Maker, but for leading a staff that continues to impact lives and communities — both inside and outside the rink — Nate Costa certainly lives up to that title.

Class of 2023

For More Than 150 Years, This Agency Has Been Giving Kids a Chance

Leah Martin Photography

Leah Martin Photography

John Pappas doesn’t know exactly when (he’s now somewhat committed to finding out), but he does know that his maternal grandmother served on the board of the Children’s Study Home and, for a time, as its president.

Likewise, his father followed that same pattern. And his paternal grandmother served on the board as well.

And now, he’s making it three generations in a row. He joined the board in 2016, and he became its chair just last year. This tradition of service speaks to just how much this family believes in the mission of the Children’s Study Home, now known as Helix Human Services, following a needed rebranding that we’ll get into later.

“There’s certainly a lot of connection over the years with my family,” he said in a classic bit of understatement. “Things have changed mightily from then to now, but the underlying mission has not.”

But as long as this continual pattern of service to the agency on the part of Pappas and his predecessors might be, it still covers only a small fraction of its long history.

Indeed, this is the oldest social-service agency in Western Mass., tracing its roots back to 1865, when it was known as the Springfield Home for Friendless Women and Children, and its purpose was to provide care, comfort, and healing to destitute women and children orphaned by the Civil War.

And there were many of them, said John Morse, the now-retired president of the Springfield-based dictionary maker Merriam Webster and long-time member of the agency’s board, who noted that Rachel Capem Merriam, wife of the company’s co-founder, was the agency’s first director.

Over the past 157 years, the agency, which has programs in Western Mass., the Berkshires, and Cape Cod, has moved well beyond its original mission, while remaining true to its purpose — providing relief to families and especially children in need.

“We all believe in the mission, which hasn’t changed over all these years,” Pappas said. “You have to give kids a chance — that’s what we’re all about. Your heart has to go out to kids that were born in less-fortunate circumstances; they have the power to create their own path and their own destiny, and you love to see it when they blossom.”

“This is an organization that has always thought outside the box. When you’re doing this kind of care, it really makes a lot of sense to not just take care of the kids and get them in a better place.”

John Pappas

John Pappas

Need comes in many forms, he went on, and so do the programs created to address it. They include:

• The Mill Pond Schools, with locations in Springfield and the Berkshires. These facilities serve students — kindergarten through age 22 — who have social-emotional and/or behavioral challenges, a learning disability, or who may have a diagnosis of high-functioning autism, and they serve the ‘whole child,’ including the child’s family;

• The SHARP residential program, which is designed to support young people who identify with the LGBTQIA+ community. The program supports youth who have experienced trauma, with moderate to severe mental-health and behavioral-health challenges, and may be struggling with their personal identity;

• The Family Wellness Center. A recent addition to the portfolio, the facility, located in Holyoke, offers a wide array of outpatient mental-health services, including individual therapy for anyone over age 5, family therapy, couples therapy, community-based therapy, telehealth, and parent education, among others;

• The Cottage residential program, an inclusive environment designed to support male clients, regardless of how they identify, who have experienced trauma, with moderate to severe mental and behavioral challenges;

• The Family Reunification Support Program (FRSP), which supports Department of Children and Families-involved families whose children are not currently living at home but who are expected to return home within six months; and

• Fathers in Trust (FIT), a parent-education initiative that helps men ages 16 to 60 develop skills central to positive parenting, yielding healthy outcomes for children and families.

Will Dávila, outgoing president and CEO of Helix Human Services

Will Dávila, outgoing president and CEO of Helix Human Services, center, with several staff members. Formerly the Children’s Study Home, the nonprofit is the oldest social-services agency in Western Mass.

Slicing through all that, one reads the words ‘trauma,’ ‘youth,’ and ‘family’ early and quite often, and these are themes that defined this agency from the beginning, and continue to define it more than a century and a half later.

And the agency’s evolution continues even today. Indeed, between the time BusinessWest selected the Children’s Study Home as a Difference Maker for 2023 and this announcement issue, the agency rebranded to Helix Human Services and launched a search for a successor to Executive Director and CEO Will Dávila, who will become president and CEO of Rochester, N.Y.-based Villa of Hope in the spring.

Helix is coping with challenge the same way it has from the beginning, said Pappas — through a focus on the future, innovation, and … giving kids a chance.


A Long History of Service


There are many words than can sum up what it takes to persevere and serve those in need for 157 years, but none do it better than this one.

The Children’s Study Home has shown as much resilience as those it serves, said Pappas, noting that, over the past century and a half, it has endured myriad challenges on the way to delivering it various services.

And the challenges have continued into this century, and this decade, with everything from COVID and its many side effects to leadership changes and struggles with maintaining strong census at its homes and the Mill Pond Schools.

The agency perseveres because of the importance of its mission, said Pappas, adding that an agency doesn’t live to celebrate its sesquicentennial unless it is able to evolve, adapt, and cope with adversity. His grandmother and father could have told him that — and they probably did.

“This is an organization that has always thought outside the box,” he told BusinessWest. “When you’re doing this kind of care, it really makes a lot of sense to not just take care of the kids and get them in a better place, but also take care of the family that they’re going home to, making sure that services are provided there and that the path they were on is not going to be traumatic moving forward.

“As we think of children, we don’t want to be thinking of them in isolation — we have to be thinking of them as being parts of families, parts of communities, parts of systems, and addressing all those aspects of children’s experiences.”

“The mission is to do that for as many people as we can while also providing quality service,” he went on, adding that the process of change, evolution, and focusing on not just children but the family has continued into this century, with new programs and initiatives created to meet emerging needs.

Morse agreed. “Over the years, what the agency has gotten right is making subtle, or sometimes not-so-subtle, shifts to its mission in order to best address the needs of the community,” he said. “If you go back to when they adopted the name Children’s Study Home, I think they were focused on diagnosis and treatment of children with some kind of behavioral or emotional challenge. As admirable as that is, what the agency has been doing steadily since then is broadening its view of ‘how do you best meet the needs of children facing a broad range of challenges for a broad range of reasons?’

“What I see when I look at the Children’s Study Home now is about a dozen different kinds of programs that we’re running that tackle issues facing children and families in a variety of different directions,” he went on. “And I think that’s the right way to be thinking; as we think of children, we don’t want to be thinking of them in isolation — we have to be thinking of them as being parts of families, parts of communities, parts of systems, and addressing all those aspects of children’s experiences.”

As an example, Pappas and Morse both cited the Family Wellness Center in Holyoke. It was established to address the surging need for outpatient mental-health services, a need that was there before COVID but made even more apparent by the pandemic, which strained families and individuals in many different ways.

“This is a walk-in clinic that anyone can use,” Pappas explained, adding that it was a timely and much-needed addition to the portfolio, and part of an overall operating philosophy he described in this simple yet poignant way: “leave people in a better place than when they came to the organization.”

Elaborating, he said this process of leaving people in a better place is never easy. Results come over time, and the road to progress is rarely smooth. The goal is to get them there.

“We’ve always been dynamic when it comes to looking to the future and where we can expand, strategically, not just for the sake of doing so,” he noted. “We know what we do best, and it’s really trauma-informed care. If we can be on the cutting edge of trauma-informed care, that’s where we want to be, with initiatives like the mental-health clinic.

“We don’t want people to be with the Children’s Study Home forever,” he went on. “But we want them to be at the Children’s Study Home for as long as they need to feel like they’re on solid ground again.”


Name of the Game

It was Shakespeare’s Juliet who famously asked the question, “what’s in a name?” and then followed it up with … “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Perhaps, but when it comes to nonprofits and their need to effectively convey who they are and what they do for a broad range of constituencies, a name carries plenty of weight.

And it is with that perspective that that the need to rebrand the Children’s Study Home was identified during a seven-month strategic planning process involving representatives of the board and the staff.

“Certainly, the agency’s work is known and appreciated by our referral and funding sources, our donors, board members, and sponsors,” Pappas said. “But we recognized there was work to be done to make sure our story and our brand reflects who we are today.”

Elaborating, he said none of the three words in the name — ‘children,’ ‘study,’ and ‘home’ — really work anymore, at least when it comes to shedding light on the agency’ broad mission.

Yes, they work to some extent, he said, noting, for example, that there is still a heavy focus on serving children, but something new and different was needed to get the message across.

“The goal isn’t to erase history, but to build upon it,” he went on. “I think we need to be dynamic; the name Children’s Study Home … while it has history and it had great intentions years and years ago, today it seems quite antiquated.”

By whatever name the agency is called, it will carry on as it has for the past 157 years, said Pappas, adding that there has always been a simple philosophy guiding it: “there’s no such thing as a bad kid — just kids who are brought up in tough circumstances.”

This organization now known as Helix Human Services exists to help change the equation so they are no longer in those circumstances, he went on, and it has been able to do that for several generations of young people.

And this clearly explains why this agency belongs in the category of Difference Makers.