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Putting Experience to Work

Colleen Holmes says client employment, inclusion, and empowerment have been challenged by the pandemic.

Colleen Holmes says client employment, inclusion, and empowerment have been challenged by the pandemic.

Colleen Holmes calls it a ‘full-circle moment.’

That’s how she chose to describe her decision to assume the role of president and CEO of Viability, the Springfield-based nonprofit with a broad mission that boils to providing services — and creating opportunities — for those with disabilities. Those opportunities come in a number of forms, and we’ll get to that shortly.

But first, that ‘full circle’ reference. Holmes used it to note that she spent a full decade at one of the legacy agencies, in this case Human Resources Unlimited (HRU), that became Viability in 2107 (Community Enterprises was the other) before moving on to a new role leading as president and CEO of the 18 Degrees agency.

So she’s back where she was. Well, sort of, but not really. Viability is a much bigger agency than HRU was — it boasts $36 million in annual revenues, 420 employees, and 37 sites in four states — and so much has changed in the interim, much it before COVID-19. And the pandemic has simply added another layer — or several layers, when you get right down to it — of challenge and intrigue.

“Coronavirus has in no way taken away from the need for the services we provide. And in many ways, it has made it even more important to provide those services; that has been job one for me, and for all of us here.”

“Coronavirus has in no way taken away from the need for the services we provide,” Holmes explained. “And in many ways, it has made it even more important to provide those services; that has been job one for me, and for all of us here.”

In that respect, much hasn’t changed, and she has, indeed, come full circle, especially when it comes to agency’s mission, which boils down to enriching the lives of the people served by the agency and continuously reinforcing the belief that every individual, no matter their ability, can be a valuable contributor to the community — and the workforce.

It carries out this mission through a number of programs and services, including:

• Clubhouses, which provide members with a supportive environment to increase their vocational, educational, and social skills;

• Partnering with more than 600 employers to provide members with a variety of supported employment opportunities;

• Community living programs that provide that provide care management, direct care, and referral services to individuals with disabilities, enabling them to live in the community with dignity;

• Day supports and various recreational programs that provide individuals with a broad range of community activities; and

• Transitional services that provide members with upfront job-readiness skills, placement assistance, and ongoing supports.

The common denominator in each of these areas, said Holmes, is dedicated staff that not only make the programs happen, but make the individual goal set by and for each member attainable.

“This work doesn’t happen without our staff — and I don’t mean that simply from the standpoint of hands being on deck,” she said. “A lot of the way in which progress is made with individuals is through trusted relationships that are built that give people a safe space to try things, to grow, to progress, to fail and come back and try again another day. Those trusted relationships are pivotal, and our staff’s ability to offer that is everything.”

But COVID has certainly impacted many of these initiatives, said Holmes, adding that the agency has collectively overcome a number of challenges to keep employment, inclusion, access, and empowerment for people with disabilities in the forefront, despite the pandemic. Moving forward, lessons learned from the pandemic will be applied to the future of these programs and services and how they are provided.

“What worries me is that some of these people are losing ground that they worked so hard to gain — people who were working, people who were gaining life skills, people who were gaining in their levels of independence, people who were ready for their next step in employment. There are a number of folks who have lost ground.”

And there will be some important ground to be made up, she said, adding that, in some cases, COVID stunted the progress being made by some members who were forced inside and into a form of isolation that is not part of this agency’s MO.

“What worries me is that some of these people are losing ground that they worked so hard to gain — people who were working, people who were gaining life skills, people who were gaining in their levels of independence, people who were ready for their next step in employment,” she noted. “There are a number of folks who have lost ground.”

Overall, however, many members, and the agency as a whole, have been able to carry on and move forward through this pandemic, she went on, adding that many members work in essential positions, and they take pride in being essential.

For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest talked at length with Holmes about her new assignment, but especially about how the pandemic has only magnified the need for the various services this agency provides, and how Viability has gone about responding to this changed landscape.

 

Work in Progress

Holmes said she certainly wasn’t looking for a new challenge when Don Kozera, the long-time CEO of HRU, her former boss (she served the agency as special projects coordinator), and, most recently, the interim president and CEO of Viability following the unexpected passing of Dick Venn (who stepped into that role after having the same titles at Community Enterprises), asked to talk with her about possibly becoming a candidate for this role.

Suffice it to say he did a good sales job, although it wasn’t necessarily a quick or easy sell.

“He said he thought I would be a good fit for this position and asked if I might consider it,” Holmes recalled. “And I said, ‘I don’t know … I’ll go talk to people; I’m always happy to do that.’”

She did talk to people, and came away intrigued by the possibilities.

“What I saw in this was an opportunity to sort of test my skills and challenge myself in a larger organization; this one is probably two and half times the size of the organization I was leading,” she explained. “Also, and this is probably most compelling, coming to Viability was an opportunity to advance work that matters to me in a different and larger arena.

“Our focus is on employment, training, empowerment, and inclusion with people who have disabilities and other challenges and disadvantages,” she went on, “and that speaks very much to me, in the combination of capacity building and social-justice change.”

Fast-forwarding a little, she did enter what became a nationwide search for a permanent president and CEO, and prevailed through a series of interviews conducted virtually, which she described as a new and different experience — at least as the interviewee.

She arrived in November to a full plate of challenges, including continuation of the daunting process of combining HRU and Community Enterprises into the larger entity that exists today, work that was in some ways slowed, and complicated, by both the passing of Venn and then the arrival of COVID.

“As I came on board, the organization that I am coming to know was ready to be on the other side of that transition,” she told BusinessWest. “And it would have been on the other side sooner had it not been interrupted by the grief and loss of Dick Venn, and had it not been for a pandemic.”

Elaborating, she said that what has been delayed has been the process of “breaking down the silos” within the organization. “You have a much larger organization in every way you can name — there’s more staff, many more programs and services, and in more geographic areas — and one that was continuing to grow, not just as a result of the merger but because it’s part of the mission, vision, and value of the organization. It’s about silos, systems work, and some of the basic functional things, like IT.”

A big part of the process of leading the organization to that proverbial ‘other side’ is to do a lot of “listening, watching, and learning,” she noted.

“You don’t walk into an organization like this one and think you know what you need to know,” she explained. “And I can say I’ve walked into an organization of people who are very welcoming, very helpful, who have lots to share, and who are deeply committed to the mission. Our people show up because they believe in the work that they’re doing and the people they’re working with.”

 

The Job at Hand

Supporting and nurturing this staff is just one of the many priorities for Holmes moving forward — and is, in itself, a challenge.

“One of my larger concerns, and it’s one that’s certainly shared, is the fact that human-service salaries are woefully inadequate to the jobs people do,” she explained. “Joining in advocacy efforts at the state level for eliminating the disparity in pay between community-based providers and state employees who do substantially the same work is important. But it’s also important for us as an organization to prioritize our staff to the extent that the limitations of our largely state-funded dollars allow us to do. Continuing services and supporting our staff are real priorities.”

Another priority, of course, will be transitioning, if that’s the right word, to a post-COVID world. Many staff members have been working remotely, she noted, and there are questions moving forward about how and where work will be carried out and even how much office space the agency may actually need in the short and long term.

And there are many factors to consider in making those decisions, she said.

“It comes down to how we most effectively support the services and the staff members that are delivering the services,” she explained. “There might be a natural tendency to say, ‘OK, there are certain positions that can be carried out remotely, so let’s just put all of them out and save that space.’ But it’s more complicated than that; human-services work is very collaborative. It’s teamwork, but more deeply than that, there is an environment of support that’s hard to come by when you’re not in contact with people, when people don’t see you walk through the hall and see you being a little more tired, a little more stressed than normal. In the kind of work we do, we need to pay attention to that.”

Meanwhile, there are those lessons learned and the new ways of doing things that came about out of necessity — and ingenuity.

“There was a brief period when staff needed to switch to providing services remotely, and … by golly, they did it,” Holmes told BusinessWest. “You get creative, and I’m sure we all have; you learn how to do some things differently, and you discover that the paradigm of how services are provided is turned on its head.

“That’s a new skill set we’ll carry forward, but it by no means replaces in-person services,” she went on, adding that, moving forward, the agency will look toward using the new skills and new technology, including virtual reality, to carry out its mission.

She noted that Viability is using virtual reality to acclimate and train clients and members for job placements. “We started during the pandemic, and we’re very much in the testing and piloting stage,” she explained, adding that early results are very positive. “If you have folks who have autism or others who for various reasons are highly sensitive to changes in environment or to noises, or just to new experiences … to be able to take a work environment and load it into a virtual-reality system so that people can safely explore and navigate that workspace without actually being there is very advantageous. It can lead to much smoother transitions.”

As for the employment programs, the ones that put thousands of individuals in jobs across this region and beyond, COVID prompted some businesses to close and many others to slow down, said Holmes, adding that obvious question marks remain about when and to what extent business, and jobs, will pick up again.

“It is a concern as to how long the economic rebound takes, and if there continues to be a shortage of positions,” she said. “As is so often the case, people who are marginalized are pushed out first, so that is a concern. But there are a number of employers we partner with who, through experience, will tell you the value of working with us, and that, when it comes to our members, their attendance is superior, and the quality of their work is at least on par.”

 

Past Is Prologue

Holmes has talked with many such employers over the years, so she understands those sentiments. She has, as she said at the top, come full circle when it comes to her career in human services.

But in most all respects, she is not coming back to where she was years ago. The landscape has changed in myriad ways and, thanks to COVID, it continues to change, each month and almost each week.

This is a different test, a sterner test, one she fully embraces. As she said, she’s excited about the opportunities — for herself, but especially for those benefiting from Viability’s programs and services.

 

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

Education

Balance Sheet

Dawn Forbes DiStefano

Dawn Forbes DiStefano

For Dawn Forbes DiStefano, it was the quintessential all-or-nothing proposition.

As the search for a successor to Joan Kagan, Square One’s long-time president and CEO, commenced last summer, Forbes DiStefano knew what few outside the organization — and probably few inside it, as well — knew: if she did not prevail in the nationwide search, she would no longer be working for the Springfield-based provider of childcare and other services for children and families.

That’s because the position she held at the time — executive vice president — was to be eliminated as the agency continued on a course of restructuring its top management.

But Forbes DiStefano, one of roughly 60 candidates to apply for the post, certainly had a leg up on the others — in large part because she was in that position. But also because she and Kagan had entered into what she described as a ‘shared management’ situation, one that familiarized her with all aspects of this operation and fully prepared her for the role she was seeking.

“I don’t think it was a shock that I was able to answer questions with more detail and probably more insight than other candidates, because I worked here,” she told BusinessWest. “But I worked really hard over the past 30 years to position myself to apply for a position like this.”

By that, she was referring to a lengthy career in the nonprofit realm, most of it at the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, but the past five at Square One, where she has displayed what she and others consider perhaps her best strength — an ability to combine a passion for the agency’s mission with a strong business sense and attention to the bottom line needed to make sure a nonprofit can survive and carry out that mission.

It’s a mindset that embodies a quote she attributes to Sr. Mary Caritas, the long-time president of what is now Mercy Medical Center, and uses often: “no margin, no mission.”

Her outlook on nonprofit management, and her take on her own management style and the need for that balance between business and mission, are further summed up as follows:

“My management style is direct, it’s collaborative, it’s mission-focused, with an acknowledgement that we’re running a business. And to a certain extent, as a nonprofit, that’s a tax status — it’s not a way to do business.”

Forbes DiStefano, who took the helm in late December, leads the agency at a time of perhaps unprecedented challenge — most of it brought on by COVID-19, although it was a difficult time for nonprofits even before the pandemic reached Western Mass. While coping with the pandemic and its day-to-day decision making, execution, and ongoing efforts to create an environment “not in crisis,” she is also planning for the long term and life after COVID.

“My management style is direct, it’s collaborative, it’s mission-focused, with an acknowledgement that we’re running a business. And to a certain extent, as a nonprofit, that’s a tax status — it’s not a way to do business.”

She admitting to disliking the word ‘normal,’ at least in the way many are using it now, and told BusinessWest she isn’t sure what ‘normal’ will mean moving forward. She will help create at definition, at Square One, anyway, while also continuing to build on the legacy and broad portfolio of programs she’s inherited.

“When Joan arrived, we were the expert in early education and care, and we remain the expert in early education and care,” she explained. “She knew that she wanted to focus on families and a holistic, family approach; she knew that children would thrive and families would stabilize and become self-sufficient if we were serving whole families. We have the foundation, and we want to keep building on it.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Forbes DiStefano about her new role, her long career in nonprofit management, and how she intends to apply all she has learned to effectively write the next chapter in this agency’s long history.

 

School of Thought

In many ways, Forbes DiStefano said, her career has come full circle. Well, sort of.

Indeed, she went to Boston College and then UMass Amherst with the goal of becoming an elementary-school teacher, although she never really made it into the classroom as an instructor, as we’ll see in a minute.

But she is now leading an agency specializing in early-childhood education, but not devoted to that exclusively, as it was decades ago.

Dawn Forbes DiStefano

Dawn Forbes DiStefano wants to build on Square One’s foundation of serving whole families, not just children.

Flashing back to her college years, or just after she graduated in 1993, to be more precise, Forbes DiStefano said she encountered a challenging job market and had trouble breaking into the profession locally. She recalled a conversation she had with the superintendent in Southwick, who happened to be her high-school principal in West Springfield, about her struggles.

“He told me that it might have been worthwhile for me to do my student teaching here in Western Mass. instead of in Boston — we hire local.”

After spending some time at home thinking about what to do with her life and career, she decided to take what she could find, and this was a job at the YWCA of Greater Springfield as a receptionist. She didn’t take it expecting to stay more than 23 years, but that’s what happened, because, well, “I found my home … I found my calling,” she explained. “I was just smitten by being surrounded by women and girls whose mission — and passion — was to make life better for women and girls.”

Despite this enthusiasm, boredom quickly settled in. However, she would soon take on a new and rewarding role, somewhat by accident.

“We would get piles of mail every day with grant applications, RFPs, and proposals, and told the executive director at the time, Mary Reardon Johnson, ‘we should be applying for some of these grants; we’re doing amazing work here,’” Forbes DiStefano recalled. “She sort of flippantly said, ‘I don’t care what you do, just don’t lie too much; practice, do whatever you want to do, stay busy.’”

She did all of that and started responding to grant applications, and in short order, she started to get some approvals. And this eventually led to a role as grants manager, and then as director of Resource Development, playing a lead role in a capital campaign and raising funds for a number of building projects and new-program creation.

“It was an exciting time to be a part of the YWCA,” she said, adding that, while her teaching degree came in handy in many ways, she never did enter the classroom.

In late 2015, with a change of leadership at that agency, she decided it was time to seek a new challenge, and to get some advice on what the next chapter could and should be, she invited Kagan out for coffee.

“With 100% of our families experiencing something, whether it’s poverty, hunger, or homelessness, we know that the majority of our children have experienced some level of trauma at some point in their life.”

In that conservation, she told Kagan she liked grant writing and knew there were opportunities for people with that unique and coveted skill. But she said she couldn’t write grants for just anyone or anything.

“I told her that the magic of grant writing comes because it’s something I care deeply about,” she recalled. “I told her I wanted her help because I had been offered a few opportunities, but wasn’t sure I could make it with those agencies.”

She wasn’t expecting to be given a job offer, especially because the agency had recently hired Kris Allard as vice president of Development and Communications, and wasn’t — at least initially. But she credits Kagan with sensing, and then seizing, an opportunity to strengthen Square One by bringing her on as a full-time grants officer.

But her role would soon involve much more than that.

Indeed, she would take a deep dive into the agency’s financial status, which at that time was “very unique and somewhat worrisome,” as she put it, and would eventually take on a broader role as chief Finance and Grants officer.

Over the next several years, she and Kagan would guide the agency through some difficult but necessary steps to stabilize the agency financially. These included closing Square One’s early-childhood education center in Holyoke in early 2017 — the agency still has a presence in that city with other services — and also a consolidation of services focused on infants and toddlers, with a greater emphasis on preschool.

“It was a very methodical and financially driven decision-making process,” she recalled. “And this is where Joan and I started finding a balance between the two of us. Joan is a social worker; she understands people and the strengths people bring to an organization, and she is phenomenal at program development. I think what I brought to her is an equal understanding of people and certainly the same amount of passion for children, but I really came to it with a fiscal mindset that we need to get this business financially viable.”

Through a hard focus on maximizing enrollment, creating efficiencies, and reducing expenses (often, again, as a result of difficult decisions), the agency, which was seeing annual deficits of $1.5 million or more only a few years ago, was at the break-even point for fiscal 2019.

“We have seen a massive improvement in our financial stability,” she said. “And we did that while keeping children and families at the core of what we do.”

 

Successful Succession

Forbes DiStefano told BusinessWest that she credits Kagan with taking a number of steps to successful transition to Square One to new leadership, work she believes will create a seamless passage of the baton.

“Joan reorganized Square One back in the fall of 2019,” she explained. “One of the senior-level administrators was leaving, and she [Kagan] took the opportunity not to announce her retirement, but certainly organize and structure the agency so it would be ready for when she was ready to announce.”

As part of that organizing and structuring, Kagan created an executive vice president’s role for Forbes DiStefano, one she said would enable her to make a desired transition away from the finance side of the operation and into a shared leadership role.

“From the fall of 2019 to the summer of 2020, we enjoyed that relationship,” Forbes DiStefano explained. “Joan was very mindful, very practical, and extremely generous in that space; I think some leaders want to be in a shared-leadership position, but then, when it really comes to fruition, they don’t want to be. Joan really lived it.”

As noted, there was a nationwide search for a successor, something the agency’s board, Kagan, and Forbes DiStefano all thought was necessary. In the end, she said her 30 years of experience with nonprofits, her five years in Square One in roles that exposed her to all aspects of its operation, and especially that time in that shared-leadership role, positioned her to excel in that search.

Moving forward, she intends to use all that experience and learning, both on the job and in the classroom — over the years she has added a bachelor’s degree in nonprofit management and a master’s degree in nonprofit management and finance — to guide Square One through the next chapter in its long history.

While doing so, she must first contend with the pandemic, which has tested the agency in myriad ways. Overall, she said it has been Square One’s goal to create a calm, safe place in the midst of the pandemic, and in most all ways, it has been successful in that mission.

“We’re making decisions minute by minute about the health and safety of everyone at Square One,” she said. “What we have done very well is read, digest, interpret, and then operationalize all the CDC and DPH guidelines for health and safety. We don’t want you to be in crisis when you’re here at Square One. We understand that there’s a crisis going on our world, but our job, every single day from 7:30 to 5:30, is to create a stable, warm, non-crisis, non-traumatic environment for children to be able to learn and thrive.”

Meanwhile, Forbes DiStefano said she, Allard, and other members of the leadership team are focused on “expanding what we do well.”

That broad phrase includes early-childhood education, obviously, but also other services, including those focused on the mental health of children, needs that have only grown during the pandemic.

“With 100% of our families experiencing something, whether it’s poverty, hunger, or homelessness, we know that the majority of our children have experienced some level of trauma at some point in their life,” she explained, noting that Square One has, in recent years, expanded what would be considered traditional mental-health services — referrals to therapists — with an early-childhood mental-services center called Cornerstone.

Launched as a pilot program, the center has grown in size, scope, and services.

“It’s designed to be both a physical and a social/emotional space — you can’t help but feel calm when you walk in,” she explained. “And I think it’s the most outstanding achievement we’ve made at Square One in the last five years.

“What we’ve created is a space where children can come with their peers,” she went on, adding that, instead of one-on-one therapy, there are group activities, such as games and book reading. “Everyone is experiencing some level of healing; it’s children helping each other learn how to cope, have healthy reactions, and reduce the triggers. And teachers are learning as well; they’re watching the therapist engage with the children.”

 

Bottom Line

Moving forward, Forbes DiStefano said it’s her goal — and now her job — to build on the solid foundation that’s been built at the agency and continually look for new ways to carry out the overriding mission: to improve quality of life for children and families. And there are many aspects to that work.

“It’s my job to welcome everyone to the table, make sure that our services are working seamlessly, and then find opportunities to bring new partners, new donors, new investors, and new ways of thinking to build on the good work that exists here,” she said.

That’s all part of managing Square One with that mindset, and with that balance, she described earlier.

As she said, ‘nonprofit’ is a tax status; it’s not a way to do business.

 

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

The Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts (WFWM) surveyed women and girl-serving organizations across all of Western MA to identify their capacity-building needs. The WFWM is collaborating with expert trainers to offer capacity-building workshops focused on the needs of organizations serving women and girls.
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Class of 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Support System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shedding Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Springfield Partners for Community Action is celebrating 55 years in action with a celebration to recognize the work being done by individuals and organizations within their community.

Springfield Partners for Community Action is hosting the Community Action Awards on June 13th, 2019 at 6:00 PM at the Springfield Marriott Hotel and Conference Center. This year’s event will hold a silent auction to raise funds to help keep programs and services free to the community. There will be keynote speakers that have witnessed the change and growth in Hampden County, and awards presented to individuals working hard for a future to better their lives and that of their community. We will also be awarding scholarships to our Community Scholarship recipients and rolling out a new project that we have been in the works.

Please join us for this night of celebration by registering at https://communityactionevent.eventbrite.com.

Cover Story

Creature Comforts

Executive Director Sarah Tsitso with a couple of poitou donkeys.

Executive Director Sarah Tsitso with a couple of poitou donkeys.

The Zoo in Forest Park & Education Center has seen its share of changes over the decades, and its current executive director, Sarah Tsitso, admits it’s still an underappreciated asset in Springfield. But an asset it is, she asserts, one that has honed its focus in recent years to emphasize education, conservation, and rehabilitation — and all the intriguing ways those ideas intersect.

Montana is a bobcat who used to be someone’s pet. That is, until, authorities found out and confiscated her; even out west, you can’t just go bring home a bobcat.

But since Montana had been declawed, the aging feline had no chance of survival in the wild, and needed a new home. The Zoo in Forest Park became that home.

“We’ve started working more collaboratively with other zoos, and particularly sanctuaries and rehab facilities, around the country for animal placements,” said Sarah Tsitso, who was named the zoo’s executive director last spring. “We want animals that make sense for our zoo in terms of our size, our geography, and our climate — especially animals that can’t be released into the wild, that are living in a sanctuary right now and are in need of a permanent home.”

With its 125th anniversary around the corner next year, the zoo has seen its share of evolution over the years, and that process is never-ending, Tsitso said. “We’ve been doing a lot of internal strategic thinking about the direction we want to take going forward, and one of the things we’re really focused on is moving away from that traditional zoo model and more toward education, conservation, and rehabilitation.”

The facility has been working recently with sanctuaries in Florida, Texas, Kansas, and Ohio to provide a home for animals in need of one. One example is a 1-year-old orphan coyote who was brought to a sanctuary with a broken leg. “She healed, but has never lived in the wild,” Tsitso said. “So she’s being flown in here.”

She’ll share the zoo’s four and a half acres with some 150 animal species, from timberwolf siblings Orion and Aurora to a pair of red-tailed hawks who rehabbed from injury but are not releasable in the wild, to a three-legged baby opossum who had the fourth limb amputated due to a serious injury, and is being moved from a sanctuary to its new home in Forest Park.

Then there’s a mink named Monte who escaped from a fur farm in Utah and found his way to a sanctuary, Tsitso said. “They were looking for a home for him because he’s never been in the wild; he was bred for his fur. We named him after the Count of Monte Cristo. Because of the jailbreak.”

In fact, the majority of the zoo’s animals are elderly, disabled in some way, or otherwise unable to survive in the wild, which makes the center’s focus on conservation and rehabilitation an important part of its robust educational outreach.

“Certainly, we want people to be aware that human interference has consequences,” Tsitso said. “Some of these animals have been hit by cars or are otherwise examples of nature meeting humans.”

Although a part of Forest Park for well over a century, the zoo is still an underap-preciated city asset, its executive director says.

Although a part of Forest Park for well over a century, the zoo is still an underap-preciated city asset, its executive director says.

The zoo is currently working to bring in two bald eagles, a male and female, from a wildlife sanctuary in Alaska. Neither is releasable into the wild, as one had to have a wing tip amputated, and other one had a broken wing, so neither can fly.

“They’ll provide some interesting education to the public about bald eagles and why they are a symbol of our nation and how they were once endangered and now, through all these conservation efforts, their population has stabilized, which is wonderful,” Tsitso said.

She hopes to one day tell similar stories about other threatened or endangered animals in the Zoo at Forest Park, including its ring-tailed lemurs, arctic wolves, and poitou donkeys. “We’re continuing that movement of bringing in animals that need a home, that fit with our collection, and that are educationally interesting to people.”

In the meantime, this nonprofit veteran has found her own new home in a job she loves.

“I just felt like it was my opportunity to give something back to Springfield,” Tsitso said, “and do what I could do to make sure this asset stays around another 125 years and that people know it’s it’s here, and come and enjoy what we have to offer — and we have so much to offer.”

Hear Her Roar

Tsitso told BusinessWest that Nathan Bazinet, the zoo’s interim director before she arrived, and Nunzio Bruno, then its board president, were looking for someone to come in and bring stability to this venerable nonprofit, despite the many challenges it faces.

“They wanted someone to connect it to the community and run it like a business,” she said, noting that conversations started a year before she came on board, but when she did, she fully embraced the opportunity.

“I really love the zoo,” she said. “It’s so ingrained in the fabric of Springfield and this neighborhood in particular. I really feel like I was meant to be here. I feel very fulfilled here — we have a great board, a great staff, and I love working with the animals.”

Until recently, Tsitso and her family lived in the Forest Park neighborhood — for more than 15 years, in fact.

“Our daughter was born in a house not a half-mile from here. And when she was little, we came here all the time. We’d walk from our house to here, she had birthday parties here, she loved this place. And I just really appreciated that it was here. Yet, so many people are unaware that we have this asset, this treasure, right here in the city.”

True to the zoo’s full name — the Zoo in Forest Park & Education Center — the facility focuses heavily on wildlife education, offering a variety of educational programs and special events for children and adults, from Zoo on the Go — which brings animals into schools, libraries, and senior centers — to guided tours and discovery programs for all ages, as well as Zoo Camp during winter and summer school vacations.

The zoo also offers a vibrant internship program, she said, providing students at area colleges studying animal science or veterinary care an opportunity to learn outside the classroom.

Broadening those programs is a priority, Tsitso said, for reasons that extend beyond the value of education, which is significant.

“Our biggest revenue stream is admission, and we’re only open five months of the year, and for two of those five months, it’s weekends,” she said. “So it’s very challenging to meet our budget. But we’re working on some new avenues of revenue. We’re expanding our education programs. Our Zoo on the Go and education programs run year-round, so we can really bolster those and create some new partnerships in the community whereby we can be offering those programs more consistently.”

The zoo used to receive state funding, but that ended about five years ago, although Tsitso and her team are trying to re-establish that revenue source. Meanwhile, community partnerships remain crucial, like Paul Picknelly’s recent donation of first-week proceeds at the new Starbucks at Monarch Place to fund an exhibit of African cats at the zoo.

“Those kinds of community partnerships are really what’s going to keep us growing,” she added, “and we’re really hoping that the community, as they realize all the wonderful things happening here, keep coming back.”

This wallaby is one of some 150 species of animals living at the Zoo in Forest Park.

This wallaby is one of some 150 species of animals living at the Zoo in Forest Park.

Operating a zoo at affordable admission prices — in addition to day passes, many families take advantage of $85 memberships, which are good all season for up to six family members — is a challenge, Tsitso said, especially since the zoo is not affiliated with the city and gets no revenue from other Forest Park-based events. It does benefit from a series of 25-year leases from the city at $1 per year — the current lease expires in 2035 — as well as the fact that Springfield foots its electric bill.

“We’re very grateful to the city because for a long time they have been great partners for us, but there is a differentiation between us and the city,” she said. “We’re not overseen by the city; we have our own board of directors.”

Poignant Paws

Those directors chose Tsitso — who has claimed leadership roles with nonprofit groups including Greater Springfield Habitat for Humanity, the East of the River 5 Town Chamber of Commerce, two Springfield-based Boys & Girls Clubs, and the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts — to guide the zoo through its next era of growth, but it has to be controlled growth, she said, based on its limited footprint.

“We’re four and a half acres, and we’re not getting an inch more of space. So whatever we do has to be self-contained in these four and a half acres. We’re really thoughtful about the improvements we’re making.”

That’s why she and her team are working with the animal-care staff to create a sort of wish list of what animal exhibits the zoo lacks, what it should bring in, and how it might acquire those animals.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate in working with people all around the country who are willing to help us and are looking for great placements for these animals,” she went on. “Most of them are so excited their animals are coming here.”

In many ways, the Zoo in Forest Park is not the same attraction families experienced decades ago, Tsitso noted.

“A lot of people have memories of the zoo when it was a very different place, when the monkey house was here and we had all those large animals, and it didn’t make sense for the animals. We’re very thoughtful about the kinds of animals here now. You’ll never see another polar bear. You’ll never see another black bear. You’ll never see another elephant. Those are animals we’ll never have again.”

The animals that do call Forest Park home have plenty to offer visitors, including the rush of school groups that take field trips there, averaging some two to three groups a day during the spring.

“That’s a big piece — we want to get kids in here, and we want to get them excited about nature and exposed to lots of different types of animals,” Tsitso said. “For a lot of kids, especially inner-city kids, they’ve never seen a lot of these animals. Even a goat is something that’s new and interesting to them. So it’s really fun to watch the kids come in and not just see the animals, but get to interact with some of them and get an education about them. How do they eat? How do they sleep?”

When the zoo shuts its doors to visitors for the cold months, typically around Halloween, the ones who don’t like the cold move into indoor facilities — like Oz, a spotted leopard Tsitso pointed out on a recent stroll with BusinessWest through the grounds. Oz has a large outdoor enclosure, but also a small ‘house’ that’s heated during the cold months.

It’s home to him, just as the Springfield area has long been home to Tsitso, who has found her new calling leading the zoo’s small staff — two full-time animal-care professionals, about four part-timers, and a raft of volunteers and interns — into whatever its next phase may bring.

“Springfield is very important to me. It really is the economic center of our whole area, and when Springfield succeeds, we all succeed,” she said, adding, however, that the zoo is a city asset that feels, well, apart from the city.

“One thing I love about this zoo, being inside Forest Park, is that it feels very natural in here, very close to nature, with lots of green and lots of trees. It doesn’t feel like Springfield. It really is a little sanctuary.”

Not just for her, but for those who visit the zoo — and the growing collection of animals that call it home.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Nonprofit Management

Sustainable Concept

Patrick Callahan doesn’t know exactly where the image originated.

It was a Facebook post about a community overseas that had set up a refrigerator on the side of a street to provide the homeless with leftovers offered by the local community.

“I think it was in India, but I really can’t be sure,” said Callahan, adding quickly that the exact location wasn’t and isn’t really important. What is important is the concept and the proactive, imaginative response to the needs of the homeless.

And what’s more important still is the way it inspired him to not only ask what could be done in this region — a thought experiment, as he called it — but to help answer that question.

“I thought to myself, we should be doing something like that refrigerator,” said Callahan, a member of the emerging third generation involved with Palmer Paving Corp., who approached the principals there, including his aunt, Jan, about leveraging the company’s many relationships within the communities it serves and building upon its long history of giving back to address obvious needs.

That ‘something’ is an emerging and intriguing story called Nicebox, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit created in 2016 to address the many needs of the homeless.

One of the original ideas — and it is still being talked about on many levels — was to install solar-powered vending machines in strategic locations that would, in exchange for a certain amount of recyclables, dispense a Nicebox, a pack filled with items the homeless can use. While discussions on machines continued, talk also focused on exactly what should go into these packs, said Pat Callahan, adding that, eventually, it was determined that several different kinds of packs are needed, including those filled with food, hygiene items, and healthcare needs.

And the newly created nonprofit set about creating some of these packs, starting with the one that has come to be called the Tidypack. It contains a host of hygiene products, including soap, shampoo, conditioner, a razor and shaving cream, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and more.

Working with the Friends of the Homeless, part of Clinical & Support Options (CSO), Nicebox has distributed more than 3,000 of these packs to date, said Pat Callahan, adding that the boxes are catching on, and so is that name, Tidypack, thanks to a true partnership with Friends of the Homeless.

“We’ve been working in close concert with them,” she explained. “Originally, we had an idea for the Tidypack — let’s give them these products. But then we took a step back and said, ‘let’s go in and see what they really need.’ So we sat down with the team at Friends of the Homeless and determined what they really needed.”

The packs can last an individual a week or more, said Jan, adding that the cost of filling one — thanks to wholesale purchases and discounts given to nonprofits — is roughly the same as that for a gourmet coffee, and this is the message Nicebox is spreading as it goes about enlisting support for its efforts.

“To help someone stay clean for a week only costs $2.50,” she noted. “When you think of an individual who’s struggling, you can help them for the same as it would cost to buy to a coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts.”

Pat Callahan and his aunt, Jan, say customers and partners of Palmer Paving have supported Nicebox early on, and they want to see that support expand outward.

And the nonprofit has secured quite a bit of help, she went on, noting that while Nicebox does some fundraising — she recently conducted an appeal on Facebook — it has thus far mostly relied on the support of customers, vendors, and other partners of Palmer Paving.

“With the reach that Palmer Paving has, we’ve been sending out sort of ad hoc requests for donations within our group of friends and company friends, and they’ve been supportive of this,” she told BusinessWest.

And support is needed as the nonprofit looks to not only expand the presence of the Tidypack, but also move forward with another type of assistance package — the Healthpack.

Indeed, Nicebox is collaborating with Mercy Medical Center, which already has a strong track record for work with the homeless in and around Springfield, to introduce the packs this summer.

They will include such items as a clean pair of socks, Band-Aids, ointment, a sewing kit, and other items, said Pat Callahan, and will be distributed by the medical center to those who, for whatever reason, will not come to a homeless shelter.

Moving forward, Pat and Jan noted that those involved with Nicebox have been working diligently over the past two years to track their progress and results, with the goal of using the accumulated data to apply for grants from foundations and other entities so the nonprofit doesn’t have to rely on donations and can expand its efforts geographically and through initiatives that might include a Nicebox on wheels that can distribute packs to a wider area.

Mercy Medical Center is part of the national Trinity Health system, noted Pat Callahan, adding that this affiliation may become a vehicle for taking the Healthpacks regional and perhaps national. Already, the nonprofit has become involved with some initatives in the Hartford area.

Meanwhile, Nicebox is also taking steps to increase its visibility through a number of initiatives, including booths at events like the upcoming Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival and others like it.

Overall, Nicebox is focused on putting its mission on a rock-solid foundation and continually building — those sound like phrases that would be heard at Palmer Paving — on a concept grounded in meeting need.

Like Patrick Callahan said, he’s not sure where that Facebook post of the refrigerator on the side of the road originated from. What matters is that he saw it, he was inspired by it, and he’s working with others to find similarly unique ways to help those who need some.

— George O’Brien

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