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HOLYOKE — Girls Inc. of the Valley has named nine recipients of its first-ever Dream Maker Award ahead of the agency’s Spirit of Girls event on May 5.  

During the past two years, several members of the community have stepped up to provide high-quality learning opportunities for youth, advocate for funding for Girls Inc. programs, and volunteer their time, talents, and treasure to benefit 

Girls Inc. of the Valley. Girls Inc. is awarding the following people the Dream Maker Award. 

 

  • Mary Kay Brown is director of Partnerships at John J. Duggan Academy, a Social Justice Magnet School, Kennedy Middle School, and the Academy at Kiley. She has been the liaison to get Girls Inc. programming in Springfield schools and has advocated for funding from the district for Girls Inc.’s healthy sexuality curriculum;

 

  • Angelina Cicerchia graduated from UMass Amherst in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree and currently works at Mass General Hospital. She has been a champion for youth, which includes her dedication as a mentor in Girls Inc.’s College Access Now (CAN) Mentor Program;

 

  • Cady Coleman is a former NASA Astronaut and Air Force colonel with more than 180 days in space, accumulated during two space shuttle missions and a six-month expedition to the International Space Station (ISS), where she acted as the Lead Robotics and Lead Science officer. Coleman is a vocal advocate for inclusion in STEM fields. She has hosted workshops to energize youth about space and science careers, and inspired girls to dream bigger and pursue a career as an astronaut;

 

  • Rep. Patricia Duffy represents the state’s Fifth Hampden District, which consists of Holyoke and is expanding to include Chicopee Ward 3B in January 2023. She continues to advocate for state funding for Girls Inc. and hosted the press event at Girls Inc.’s new home at 480 Hampden Street. Rep. Duffy’s weekly resource meetings for organizations during the height of the pandemic were also impactful;

 

  • Sarah Etelman has been a part of the Girls Inc. family for more than 12 years (which includes nearly a year as a consultant before a full-time position opened up). During that time, she’s been witness to the many transformations that Girls Inc. inspires. During the pandemic, she helped keep girls creatively engaged with felting workshops, and outfitted Girls Inc. staff with handmade masks.

 

  • Nikai Fondon is a recent graduate of the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, and now works at a woman-owned marketing agency. She hosts her own podcast called She Did That!, dedicated to highlighting women of color leaders in our community. She has lent her voice to the Girls and Racism Town Hall, and worked with Girls Inc. teens to develop their own Zine

 

  • Jean Mendoza currently serves as the director of Marketing & Communications for Auxiliary Enterprises at UMass Amherst, where she facilitates and leads high- level marketing projects and strategic plans for the campus community and beyond. A Springfield native, her commitment to enrich, empower, and engage her local community has been a priority throughout her career. She has shown up for youth in many ways, most recently as a mentor in the CAN Mentor Program.

 

  • Senator John C. Velis represents the 2nd Hampden and Hampshire district in the Massachusetts State Senate, which includes the City of Holyoke and 10 other cities and towns in Western Massachusetts. He has been a champion of the Eureka! Program, secured a $50,000 earmark for Girls Inc.’s new building on 480 Hampden St., and continues to advocate for state funding.
  • WWLP-22News, an NBC affiliate, is the area’s multimedia leader and the most watched television station in the market. The station and its reporters have participated in important conversations that center and elevate girls’ voices in the community, like Project Red to bring awareness to the inaccessibility of period products during the pandemic, and Project TEAL, to shine a light on the hyper-sexualization of girls and women of color.
Daily News

HOLYOKE — After a four-year search, Girls Inc. of the Valley unveiled what will become its new home on Tuesday — the former ‘O’Connell building’ on Hampden Street in Holyoke.

At an elaborate, well-attended press conference, Girls Inc. leaders announced that the nonprofit had acquired the property and has mapped out extensive renovation efforts and plans to open the new facility perhaps as early as a year from now.

Girls Inc. Executive Director Suzanne Parker (photo by Adam Belson Photography)

Girls Inc. Executive Director Suzanne Parker told those assembled that, as part of a strategic plan created more than four years ago, the nonprofit has sought a new home that will bring all its programs together under one roof and facilitate growth that will enable it to serve more girls in the Pioneer Valley. The search for such a facility has been a long and sometimes difficult undertaking, she noted, one that eventually brought Girls Inc. to the Hampden Street property, which was the longtime home to the O’Connell Companies, and later law offices after O’Connell built a new headquarters on Kelly Way in Holyoke.

“In many ways, the pandemic has helped make this possible,” said Parker, noting that the law firm’s plans to attract office tenants to the property were certainly impacted by changes in how and where people work.

Girls Inc. closed on the property earlier this month, acquiring it for $790,000 with financing from PeoplesBank, said Parker, noting that extensive renovations to many portions of the property will bring the price tag for the project to roughly $3.5 million. A capital campaign — the Her Future, Our Future campaign, which has an overall goal of $5 million — was launched more than a year ago, she said, adding that funds raised through that campaign will be used to cover those costs.

A rendering by Kuhn Riddle Architects of the future front entry of the Girls Inc. facility

The site brings a number of benefits, said Parker, listing a 55-space parking lot and ample room — 16,000 square feet over two floors — for facilities that will include a cutting-edge STEM makers’ space, library, two multi-purpose rooms, a teen lounge, a kitchen and dining area, administrative offices, and more.

The press conference included remarks from Holyoke Mayor Terry Murphy and several Girls Inc. leaders and alumna, including Cynthia Medina Carson, board member and co-chair of the Her Future, Our Future campaign, who remembers becoming involved with Girls Inc. when she was just 5.

“What we need now is the next-generation place for Girls Inc. — a location that enables our programming to match up to where we want and need to be, for girls,” she said.

Women of Impact 2019

Executive Director, Girls Inc. of the Valley

Girls Inc. Leader Is an Innovator, Role Model, and Inspiration

The phone call came roughly 13 years ago, but Suzanne Parker remembers it like it was yesterday.

It came several days after she had agreed to become the new executive director of Girls Inc. of Holyoke, but a few days before she officially took the helm. The caller was informing her that the nonprofit was not going to be able to make payroll that week — unless some action was taken.

“I said, ‘you have a line of credit — and you’re going to have to use it,’ she recalled, adding that this was an expensive but very necessary step for an organization that had relied heavily on a federal grant that was due to expire soon and essentially lacked a plan for sustainability.

As she recounted that phone call all these years later, Parker said she wasn’t entirely surprised by it — “I went into this with my eyes wide open,” she told BusinessWest, noting that she was well aware of the agency’s fiscal condition — and not at all fazed by it.

“I like a good challenge — I knew what I was getting into,” she said, adding that she was in many ways motivated by the situation she found herself in.

Indeed, within a year she had righted the financial ship at the agency through a series of cost-cutting and revenue-generating steps (more on those later) and recalls with a huge dose of pride that she has never again had to tap that aforementioned line of credit.

“Suzanne lives and breathes Girls Inc.’s mission and vision — for girls to be strong, smart, and bold.”

But Parker, who earned a law degree earlier in her career and has certainly put it to very good use in her position, has done much more than put Girls Inc. of Holyoke on solid financial footing. Since becoming executive director in late 2006, she has led the nonprofit on an ambitious course of expansion — geographically, programmatically, and in terms of its overall impact to the region as a whole and to the individual girls who walk through the door.

For starters, she has taken the organization beyond its original borders and into Springfield and Chicopee, territorial expansion that has prompted a name change to Girls Inc. of the Valley. She has also helped introduce new programs, including the hugely successful Eureka program, an innovative and intensive five-year program that Girls Inc. operates in partnership with UMass Amherst and which is developing a pipeline of girls into STEM majors and careers.

Overall, Parker has become deeply and energetically involved in every aspect of the program, from board recruitment to fundraising; from events management to marketing.

And the results have been stunning, with the local chapter of Girls Inc. winning recognition for its efforts regionally — the nonprofit was named one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers for 2018, for example — and within the Girls Inc. network, especially for its innovative programming.

Melyssa Brown-Porter, chair of the Girls Inc. board, put Parker’s impact on the nonprofit, area girls, and the region in its proper perspective while nominating her to be a Woman of Impact.

“Suzanne lives and breathes Girls Inc.’s mission and vision — for girls to be strong, smart, and bold,” she wrote. “She is extremely passionate about the work that GI is doing for girls and the communities they live in. She is always looking out for the best interest of the girls and concentrates very hard on the results programming has on their lives. Her focus is to reach and serve more girls with impact on our community.

“Suzanne has been an innovator and leader throughout her career,” Brown-Porter went on. “In tune with workforce needs and changes in the economy, Suzanne was piloting state-of-the-art science, technology, engineering, and math programs for girls long before STEM became the focus that is today.”

Innovator. Leader. Inspiration. These are the words many people have used to describe Parker’s work not only at Girls Inc., but at Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start before that and other stops on a lengthy career working with and on behalf of young people.

Some of her best work, however, may be as a role model for the girls who come into the program.

Indeed, Parker, who became a mother at 41, has managed to effectively balance work, life at home, and deep involvement in the community, meaning that girls looking for proof that all that can be accomplished need only walk down a few doors at the Girls Inc. complex in Open Square.

And now, those looking for more descriptive terms that can be applied to Parker have three more — Woman of Impact. Although, truth be told, they’ve probably been using them all along.

Orchestrating Progress

Parker joked that, while she played the clarinet well in her youth growing up in Belchertown — and later in some impressive performance venues, like the Esplanade and Government Center in Boston — she didn’t play it well enough to get paid to do it.

But her love of music prompted her to get a degree in music education from UMass Amherst and eventually teach instrumental band music at Cohasset Middle School. And that’s a good place to begin our story, because it was there that Parker developed an interest in working with young people — and a passion for helping those less privileged.

Seen here with some members of Girls Inc. of the Valley, Suzanne Parker has become a mentor and role model for many members.

“Cohasset was a very affluent community, and, with my humble beginnings in Belchertown, it was a little bit of a culture shock for me,” she explained. “The students I connected with the most were those who were part of the METCO program, mostly students of color living in Dorchester.

“It was important to me to make sure they were included in the band,” she went on. “I also wanted to include kids of different abilities, something that wasn’t the case when I got there, thus creating an environment and atmosphere where there was a lot of inclusion. That’s what I was most proud of from my work there.”

These themes of inclusion and working to provide opportunities to those less fortunate would define her work throughout her career.

Fast-forwarding a little, Parker said she soon realized that she wanted and needed more than teaching, but didn’t know exactly what. She started by returning to Western Mass. and working in sales for a time. Her career path took a rather sharp turn, however, when she saw a sign on the roadside advertising for Head Start substitute teachers.

She knew was overqualified, but took the job anyway, with her first assignment at the Westover Air Reserve center for Head Start. She spent the next 16 years moving up the ladder, serving in a number of roles and eventually deputy director.

Along the way, she realized she needed another degree, and after considering several options, including a master’s in social work and a master’s in education — she settled on a law degree.

“A friend of mine who I grew up with decided to go to law school at Western New England University, and he passed,” she recalled. “And I said to myself, ‘I know that guy — I think I’m as smart as this guy; I think I can do it.’”

So she applied, received some needed financial aid, and went to law school part-time at night, commencing an arduous journey that ended in 2003 when she passed the bar.

“There were many days of tears because I was working tons of hours as a senior-level exec at Head Start,” she said in reference to the difficult task of balancing everything she was doing at the time. “But I did it.”

And now, her very unofficial job description at Girls Inc. is to not only show young girls that they, too, can do it — but to give them a road map for getting where they want to go and the tools to get on the right course and stay on it.

Degrees of Progress

As noted, she has put that law degree to good use, providing ample evidence that such an education isn’t just for those who want to work in the courtroom.

“I use it every day,” she told BusinessWest. “That law-school education helps you every day as an executive director. I use it with everything I’m involved with: contracts, employees, real estate, administrative law — we have federal and state funding — as well as writing skills — I was on the Law Review. It was a really great education, and it has really helped me.

Beyond serving as a great advertisement for law school, those comments hint at Parker’s broad job description at Girls Inc. Slicing through it all, though, her primary work early on involved turning the organization around, putting it on solid financial ground and a path to sustainability — and keeping it on that path.

“It’s all about the mission. It’s so empowering, and there is such a need; we know that there are still gaps that exist with women and girls with regard to opportunities and pay and STEM fields … there’s still such a need, and that’s why we do what we do.”

She’s done that through a variety of measures, including some restructuring, belt-tightening, and the establishment of several of reliable fundraisers, especially the annual Spirit of Girls breakfast, launched in 2007, which does a lot more than raise roughly $150,000 each year, although that is certainly significant.

Indeed, girls involved in the program are heavily involved with the event, and several take to the microphone — in front of an audience of more than 500 people — to talk about Girls Inc. and how it is impacting their lives.

“We keep the expenses incredibly low; it’s a light breakfast, and we don’t pay for speakers — the girls are the speakers,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s an empowering experience for the girls themselves — they take leadership roles in this event.”

The breakfast is just one of the ways the organization works to empower girls and put them on the path to becoming leaders — in their chosen fields and the community as well.

Looking ahead, Parker said the obvious goal is to broaden the regional impact of Girls Inc. and continue those efforts to give the nonprofit the same qualities it strives to give young girls — to be strong, smart, and bold.

Thus, the agency will look to continually extend its reach within Springfield and Chicopee, while keeping Holyoke as its home and base. Finding a new, permanent home is one of the assignments moving forward, said Parker, as is creating sustainability for the Eureka program, conducted in partnership with UMass Amherst and its College of Natural Sciences, Bay Path University, and several other area colleges, and scaling up that initiative. A capital campaign to pay for all this is also in its formative stage.

As for Parker, who has continually sought out new challenges throughout her career, she’s looking forward to being with Girls Inc. as it strives to get to the next level.

“It’s all about the mission,” she noted. “It’s so empowering, and there is such a need; we know that there are still gaps that exist with women and girls with regard to opportunities and pay and STEM fields … there’s still such a need, and that’s why we do what we do.

“Every year, we have the conversation — am I still helping this organization, and is it still a win-win, for me and Girls Inc.?” she went on. “As long as I can still feel challenged and that we’re growing and we’re changing, and that I have something to give and I’m making a difference, I’m in.”

Leading by Example

And there are a great many people who are happy she’s in.

Indeed, Parker has become a Woman of Impact not just because of what she’s done as the leader of a nonprofit clearly in need of strong leadership.

She’s also reached that status by being an effective role model for the girls who join her program — and girls across the region. Years ago, she set goals for herself, understood what was needed to reach those goals, and positioned herself to succeed.

That, in a nutshell, is what Girls Inc. is all about, and while its success doesn’t stem from the work of a single woman, Parker’s influence has greatly enhanced its ability to carry out that all-important mission.

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

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