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Episode 151: February 27, 2023

George Interviews Suzanne Parker, executive director of Girls Inc. of the Valley

Suzanne Parker, executive director of Girls Inc. of the Valley, is the guest on the next installment of BusinessTalk. In a lively discussion with BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien, she talks about the ambitious project to create a new home for the nonprofit in Holyoke and the many learning experiences it has provided for Girls Inc. administrators — and members — alike.

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A Journey Continues

Suzanne Parker, left, and Yadillete Rivera-Colón

Suzanne Parker, left, and Yadillete Rivera-Colón in the new home of Girls Inc. of the Valley on Hampden Street in Holyoke.

An adventure.

A struggle.

An experience.

A journey.

Suzanne Parker used all those terms and others that would be considered synonyms, usually with more than a hint of understatement in her voice, to describe the process of taking Girls Inc. of the Valley to the doorstep of opening its new headquarters facility in Holyoke.

The journey, adventure, or whatever she wants to call it is far from over. In fact, construction is still in what would be considered phase 1. But most of the really hard work — and there has been a mountain of it — is now behind Parker, executive director of this nonprofit, and countless others who have been involved.

Thus, they can focus even more of their energies on making this facility all that they hoped it could be when people first started thinking about a new home more than seven years ago.

Indeed, Parker noted that the ceremonial ‘thermometer’ erected on a sign just outside the property on Hampden Street needs to be adjusted to reflect that 92% of the stated $5 million fundraising goal has now been met. Meanwhile, work continues inside on the various spaces that will define this facility, from a community room to a maker space to a teen lounge.

The work to create a new space for Girls Inc. began in earnest out of necessity — specifically, the knowledge that a 40-year lease on property the nonprofit was leasing in downtown Holyoke was expiring and would not be renewed — and brought Parker and other leaders of Girls Inc. to countless properties in or near downtown Holyoke in search of the perfect fit, knowing that such a thing probably didn’t exist.

But they found something close in the former headquarters of the O’Connell Companies on Hampden Street, a building, or at least portions of it, that date back to the late 19th century.

“Throughout this journey, we have gained a great deal of visibility, and people have been able to learn about who we are, what we do, and why Girls Inc. is so important to this region. It’s been a great opportunity to tell our story and get people involved.”

Retrofitting the multi-level structure, complete with many unique spaces, has become a labor of love for those involved with Girls Inc. — and so much more.

Indeed, for many of the girls who are members, it has been a unique, hands-on learning experience, with real-life lessons in everything from marketing to fundraising to architecture. In fact, several girls worked directly with lead architect Kuhn Riddle to design one of the spaces in the new home.

The ‘thermometer’ measuring donations to the Girls Inc. campaign needs to be updated to reflect that more than 90% of the needed $5 million has been raised.

The ‘thermometer’ measuring donations to the Girls Inc. campaign needs to be updated to reflect that more than 90% of the needed $5 million has been raised.

Meanwhile, this quest for, and the building of, a new home has been a tremendous opportunity for Girls Inc. to gain exposure, make new connections, and strengthen existing ones, said Parker, adding that this work is ongoing as the nonprofit works to raise that remaining 8% of the funds needed.

“Throughout this journey, we have gained a great deal of visibility, and people have been able to learn about who we are, what we do, and why Girls Inc. is so important to this region,” she said. “It’s been a great opportunity to tell our story and get people involved.”

And, in many ways, the project has been a means to celebrate and promote women in all kinds of businesses who have been involved in this endeavor. That list includes those working in fundraising, finance, law, architecture, and construction, as we’ll see.

This has also been a study in perseverance, said Yadilette Rivera-Colón, an assistant professor of Biology at Bay Path University, BusinessWest Forty Under 40 winner, and current Girls Inc. board chair, noting that the many inherent challenges in a project like this were magnified greatly by the pandemic, which made every aspect of the work more difficult.

Summing it all up, Parker said that, while there is much to do, a celebration of all that has been accomplished — and learned — is in order. And Girls Inc. will do that in March as it marks the passing of the 90% milestone in fundraising, as well as the completion of the first phase of construction. There will be tours and an opportunity to make more connections and more friends.

It will be an occasion to celebrate what’s been done and what this new home will be — and there is much in both categories.


Home Work

As she talked about the search for a new home and the many properties she and others toured during that lengthy process, Parker paused, glanced skyward, and let out a heavy sigh, body language that pretty much told the story.

“There was a four-year period where I was visiting nearly every building in the city of Holyoke,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, while many were attractive in some respects, none could really check all the boxes she wanted to check.

One was seemingly perfect in most ways, but had little if any parking, she said. Other property makeovers into a permanent home for the agency were simply out of the agency’s price range. And a great number simply needed way too much work to fit the bill.

Eventually, some properties graduated beyond the tour stage and into the exploration, or feasibility, stage, and that further consideration meant investments in time, energy, and sometimes money, she explained. And as the vetting process continued, there were often hard decisions about if and when to let go and move on to something else.

“To have to decide not to go ahead with it is a big decision,” she explained. “You’ve invested time and energy and resources into that, but you have to make a decision … that this is not the one. But you don’t know if the one is out there. There were lots of hard decisions to make.”

The property on Hampden Street didn’t exactly check all the boxes, either. Indeed, its front door is literally a five-foot sidewalk away from a very busy street, said Parker, adding that there were infrastructure issues as well.

But those few shortcomings were all but lost in everything else the building provided — from ample parking at a lot just a few hundred feet away to a backyard; from easy access to a nearby public park to 16,000 square feet of intriguing space Parker described as a “blank canvas” that would enable Girls Inc. to accomplish its primary goal of bringing all of its staff and programing under one large roof.

The property became available somewhat unexpectedly in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, and in many respects because of it — its owners had decided it would not be viable as office space moving forward with the advent of remote work. After some due diligence, those at Girls Inc. decided their search was over.

Some of the new and innovative spaces at the new home of Girls Inc

Some of the new and innovative spaces at the new home of Girls Inc. of the Valley include a teen lounge (seen here), a maker space, and a community room.

But the laundry list of challenges certainly wasn’t, especially with the way the pandemic slowed many aspects of this broad endeavor or prompted a full pause.

First, let’s back up a bit.

Our story starts back in 2016, with the knowledge that a new home was needed, said Parker, adding that an initial fundraising campaign, with a goal of $3 million, was launched in 2018 — long before a suitable space had been found. And the campaign got off to a great start, with gifts from the Kendeda Fund and the Elaine Nicpon Marieb Charitable Foundation.

“We were doing well,” said Parker. “And then, the pandemic hit, and we had to take a pause from the campaign. But the campaign steering committee continued to meet regularly throughout that time; we figured out how to use Zoom, we met virtually, and they kept meeting month after month.

“I think some people might have pulled the plug on a campaign,” she went on. “But we kept working.”

And this work enabled Girls Inc. to push ahead after all its due diligence on the Hampden Street property and eventually commence work in the spring of 2022, bringing a long-held dream that much closer to reality.

Cynthia Medina Carson, an executive recruiter, talent consultant, and leadership coach now living in New York, is one the campaign co-chairs and a Girls Inc. alumna who grew up not far from its original home. She remembers walking into what was then a new space for Girls Inc. back in the early ’80s.

“The approach has been, ‘we’re not going to make this for you without you.’ Every part of the process involves the stakeholders; they have to be part of it, so that, in the end, this will be a building we will all be proud of.”

She also remembers thinking that setting aside space for girls was somewhat radical at the time — but very important. It gave girls a place to go, things to do, and opportunities to learn. She said that space — and the programs staged in it — was so important to her development that she signed on to get involved in finding and creating a new home.

“I know there’s a lot of afterschool programs and online stuff, but having the actual physical space where people can congregate and be who they need to be around people who advocate for them and champion them is a very unique thing to have for women,” she said. “So it was very important for me to get involved in this project.”

And like the others we spoke with, she said this has been a challenging journey, but an invaluable learning experience as well.

“It was hard and crazy, and it wasn’t the journey everyone thought it would be,” she noted. “We ended up where we needed to be, but it was hard; it was intense.”


Designs on Growth

As Parker and Rivera-Colón led BusinessWest on a tour of the facilities, they stopped in a number of the emerging spaces. In each one, they talked about how they would enable Girls Inc. to serve more girls and expand its mission.

The renovations were scheduled to enable significant amounts of program space to be ready this summer, said Parker, adding that, given the property’s prior uses as a home to lawyers, engineers, and other professionals, minimal work will be needed to prepare the space for the agency’s staff and administration.

These emerging spaces include:

• A community room, a large space suitable for both small- and large-group activities. It will be the site of healthy-living programming, including dance, active games, yoga, and meditation;

• Maker space, which will be the cornerstone of the Eureka! program, where eighth-grade girls begin a five-year journey toward possible careers in STEM fields. The space will be educational and fun, with hands-on activities; and

• A teen lounge, a space for teen girls to call their own. A relaxed and empowering environment, it will be loaded with college-readiness resources and will host a diverse range of teen-centered programs.

The renovation work at the agency’s new home — and many stages of the process that came before it — have, as noted earlier, provided learning experiences for girls involved with the agency, said Parker, noting that teens gave tours to donors and potential donors.

The red hard hats

The red hard hats at the home of Girls Inc. reflect a project that has been an adventure and a learning experience on many levels.

Meanwhile, some of the Eureka! program teens learned about architecture and design from the team at Kuhn Riddle, led by president Aelan Tierney (one of BusinessWest’s Women of Impact for 2022), and actually made one of the design decisions on one of the spaces — a lobby area outside of the teen center.

Overall, nothing about the new home for Girls Inc. has been finalized without the input of they main stakeholders: the girls themselves, said Rivera-Colon, adding that this includes the location of Parker’s office.

“The approach has been, ‘we’re not going to make this for you without you,’” she explained. “Every part of the process involves the stakeholders; they have to be part of it, so that, in the end, this will be a building we will all be proud of. Everyone has had input, from the youngest girls up to Suzanne, which I think is incredible.”

While offering tours and providing input on the new space, girls have also seen women at work on every facet of this project, which was another goal and another part of the learning experience, said Parker, adding that many area women professionals have been integral to this project.

That list includes Tierney at Kuhn Riddle; attorney Rebecca Thibault with Doherty Wallace Pillsbury & Murphy, a former Girls Inc. board member; construction managers D’Lynn Healey and Ta Karra Greene with Western Builders, the general contractor for the project; Vicky Crouse, president of Commercial Lending at PeoplesBank; and Julie Cowan, vice president of Lending for MassDevelopment.

These professionals serve as role models, said Parker, adding that, from the start, this project was to be women-led and girl-focused.

“It’s been incredible the number of women involved in leadership roles on this project,” Rivera-Colón said. “And it wasn’t by accident.”

Summing up the feelings of most people involved with this project, she added that “we’ve been so long in planning and executing all this that it doesn’t seem real that we’re finally here. But we are.”


Bottom Line

Given the words used by Parker and others to describe this long and difficult process, one can see why those involved would certainly not want to do this any time soon.

The good news is they won’t have to; the property on Hampden Street will suit the needs of Girls Inc. for decades to come.

While acknowledging that fact, all those involved also recognize that, as challenging as this journey has been, it has also been rewarding on countless levels. And it encapsulates all that this thriving agency is all about: enabling girls to learn, grow, and reach their full potential — together.

Considering all that, this has certainly been an exercise in building momentum for Girls Inc. — figuratively but also quite literally.


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]