Page 34 - BusinessWest 40 Under Forty 2024
P. 34

     It’s difficult enough to start a new business or nonprofit at any time and under any cir- cumstances. But to do so at the height of a
pandemic ... well, that’s another story.
But that’s what Vilenti Tulloch did with the
Academic Leadership Assoc. (ALA), a program with a mission to empower young people to make positive changes within themselves and in the community through mentoring literacy and self-advocacy while addressing their social and emotional needs. ALA has also developed a professional-development component called Equity in Action.
It was a step Tulloch thought he needed to take at that time in his career and with that much need within the community, and he has never looked back, capitalizing on an ability
to relate to young people and, even more importantly, inspire them to set goals and then reach them.
As he explains how he started, Tulloch — who earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Westfield State University and then a master’s degree in educational psychology at American International College — flashed back to when he was a teacher at an elementary school in Southbridge. “One of the administrators came to me and said, “the kids really like you; they gravitate toward you. I think it would be great if you started a mentoring program.’
“That wasn’t even on my radar back then — I was just trying to learn how to be a
teacher,” he said, adding that his mentoring efforts turned into something called the Young Gentlemen’s Club. The students had to wear ties once a week, and there both check-ins and follow-ups that helped keep young people on the right path.
Tulloch would later become an adjustment counselor and then an administrator at the school before deciding to also launch his own initiative. He credits his wife, Yeselie, with coming up with the name, while
he finalized a mission and a strategy for fulfilling it.
In his role, Tulloch trains mentors, leads school-based mentoring, and provides professional-development programs to
nearly a dozen schools in four districts
across Western Mass., including Springfield, Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, and Holyoke.
“We’re growing, and we’re building systems that are really having an impact on the students and staff in the schools we’re working with,” he said, noting that, in 2021, he decided to devote all his time to the ALA.
Tulloch has earned several awards and accolades over the years, from a Game Changer award from the Springfield Thunderbirds to an NAACP award for community service. And now, he has another one: Forty Under 40. BW
—George O’Brien
Yhidda Ocasio knows struggle. So she knows how to connect with those who are strug- gling.
She arrived in the U.S. as a young girl, after her family decided to escape the rampant crime and crushing poverty of Colombia to pursue the American dream. As a young teen, she sought employment at a McDonald’s because she could bring extra food home after her shifts, and her family didn’t have to go to bed hungry.
So, in her 17 years working at the YWCA of Western Massachusetts in Springfield, she’s been able to bring deep empathy to three roles — a young-parent support counselor and case manager, assistant program director of the domestic-violence shelter, and, currently, director of Youth, Violence Prevention, and Court Support Programs. She has also worked part-time as a Human Rights officer at the Department of Developmental Services (DDS).
“The YWCA has been a rewarding opportunity for me to give back to the community, and
I’ve been able to apply the challenges I
went through, not just in Colombia, but the barriers here as an immigrant,” Ocasio told BusinessWest. “My mom became a single mom several years after I arrived here, and she was working two to three jobs. Seeing my mom go through that struggle changed the outlook I had in regard to other women — single moms who
Vilenti Tulloch
CEO, Academic Leadership Assoc.: Age 36
were struggling.”
Over the years, Ocasio has earned bachelor’s
and master’s degrees in psychology from Westfield State University and Northcentral University, respectively, earning induction into the National Society of Leadership and Success at the latter — all this with English as her second language.
But that’s to be expected from someone who lives by the words in Matthew 19:26: “with God, all things are possible.” And she’s quick
to express gratitude for everyone who has supported her along the way, from her mother and brother to her husband, Juan Ocasio; from the leaders at DDS to YWCA CEO Elizabeth Dineen “for her relentless mentorship.”
Ocasio has spoken at statewide trainings for nonprofits on topics like sexual assault, domestic violence, and healthy relationships, as well as addressing community events on immigration issues and refugee challenges. When she became a U.S. citizen in 2019, her colleagues threw her a huge party.
“It was a great day at the YWCA and a wonderful day to be an American,” Dineen said. “This is still the land of opportunity, and as a country, we are most fortunate to have humans like Yhidda Ocasio want to become a citizen.” BW
—Joseph Bednar
  A34 2024
Yhidda Ocasio
Director of Youth, Violence Prevention, and Court Support Programs, YWCA of Western Massachusetts: Age 38

   32   33   34   35   36