ValleyCreates: Kicking off 2020 with new funding and trainings

We can’t believe it’s been two years since the launch of Creative Commonwealth and ValleyCreates!

Kicking off 2020, two new happenings with ValleyCreates:

Community Engaged Artist Training

Yara Liceaga-Rojas, workshop leader

On January 23rd and 24th, twenty-one artists from throughout the Valley convened at the Northampton Center for the Arts  for a highly interactive workshop that explored ways to more deeply engage their communities through their artistic practice. Led by Yara Liceaga-Rojas and Shey Rivera, working multi-genre artists, the workshop was an opportunity to learn new approaches and to enhance the vibrancy of the arts community by establishing new or strengthening relationships. The participating artists represented a broad range of disciplines such as spoken word, painting, sewing, graffiti art, and theater, and came from a diverse range of communities in the region. Assets for Artists, a program of MASS MoCA, partnered with the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts to create this exciting opportunity.

Collaborative Arts Grants Awarded
In early January, $150,000 of grants were awarded to five collaborations comprised of arts organizations and artists. These projects, along with four others, received planning grants in early 2019 to explore and test ideas to create meaningful change in the Valley through the arts. Some of these ideas were seeded during an event we hosted in January 2019 where organizations and artists were invited to spend a day dreaming up new and big ways to impact change through the arts.

Throughout this grant process, we piloted new ways of grantmaking, beginning with applicants submitting video applications, rather than traditional text-based applications. Each collaborative project submitted a planning and implementation video where all partners discussed their roles in the project, and what they hoped to achieve. We also piloted an online platform featuring the projects to engage with and seek co-investment from selected donor advised fund holders.

The projects and their lead agencies are:

The Collaborative Community Art Response Team (CCART), Art Garden
Charles Neville Legacy Project, Blues to Green
The Dignity Project, Center for Design Engagement
Our Grandmothers Project, Holyoke Community Media
ENSEMBLE: Seeding the Future, Ko Theater Works
Valley Arts Mentors, Piti Theatre Company

Please join us in congratulating these grantees, and stay tuned for more news about how these collaborations progress!


Food and Shelter Grantees Serve Up Dignity, Respect

How to Feed the Hungry? Grantees Serve up Dignity, Respect

Lee Anderson from MANNA Soup Kitchen.

Insecurity nagged Lee Anderson, the new volunteer cook at MANNA Soup Kitchen in Northampton.

Five days per week, Anderson and other volunteers provided free, hot meals at St. John’s Episcopal Church to people (guests) without enough to eat.

He wondered…were his meals as good as those of his predecessor, Joan?

Anderson asked the guests what they missed most about Joan. Her raviolis? Her salads?

Their answer: “Joan always sat and talked with us.”

“That was a real wake-up call for me,” said Anderson. “It wasn’t even the food! Isolation is a core problem when someone has lost their job, becomes homeless or has a catastrophic expense that pushes them to the edge of society. When you’re alone, your world and options get smaller and you start living in a bubble. And you stop dreaming.”

MANNA tries to break down that isolation while providing nutritious meals. During daily “community meals,” guests, volunteers and donors eat together. The buzz of conversation is music to Anderson’s ears.

A $7,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts (CFWM) made MANNA’s welcoming space even better. By outfitting a renovated kitchen at St. John’s with new countertops, stainless steel tables, two sinks and a convection oven, visitors to the soup kitchen will soon eat in a sunlit, sparkling clean space where food cooks 30% faster thanks to the new oven (“It makes a big difference when we’re trying to serve 100 people at once,” Anderson said).

The grantees gathered together on October 18, 2019.

In 2019, MANNA was among 14 grantee organizations awarded a total of $90,000 to fund items including flooring, stoves, freezers, shelving, and refrigerators—thanks to an anonymous organization that contributed the dollars through the CFWM to benefit Western Massachusetts nonprofits.

After receiving the extraordinary gift, CFWM set out to re-grant the dollars to organizations providing food and shelter to area residents.

According to Senior Program Officer Sheila Toto, CFWM sought to meet some of the most immediate needs of local “unsung heroes” that provide vital human services. And, in a new twist to their grantmaking, CFWM asked area residents to nominate a deserving nonprofit. It was a way to hear directly from the community and engage people less familiar with the work of their local community foundation, said Toto.

A call for nominations in mid-2019 yielded an astounding 1,100 online submissions.

Lee Anderson, who also serves as MANNA’s treasurer, stated, “The nomination process was really rewarding since it opened up the opportunity for people to help us who usually didn’t have the means to give money—our guests and volunteers. They felt respected to be asked to go to the website and nominate us. The whole process brought us together.”

Another grantee, Rachel’s Table, a program of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, received $7,300.

Serving Hampden, Franklin and Hampshire counties, the organization marshals a small army of volunteers to regularly pick up food from 60 food donors and deliver it to 45 area agencies. Wherever food is still good but might go to waste—at supermarkets, restaurants, bakeries caterers, farmer’s markets and farms—it is picked up and delivered to agencies who nourish people who are food insecure.

Jodi Falk, Ph.D., director of Rachel’s Table.

According to Jodi Falk, Ph.D., director of Rachel’s Table, food insecurity refers to a lack of consistent access to food–people who are unsure of where they will get their next meal. About 10% of residents in our three-county Western Massachusetts region are food insecure, she said.

Thanks to food deliveries by Rachel’s Table, agencies provide food to older people on fixed incomes, people recovering from addiction, victims of domestic violence, families without stable homes, and many others.

Through Jewish Family Services, Rachel’s Table even provides kosher food for people who practice the Jewish dietary laws of kashrut (kosher). Falk noted that kosher food tends to be more expensive, an added burden for people facing hunger.

She explained, “Being kosher becomes a matter of identity—it’s one of the ways that you can live your religion. And if you can’t do that because of your finances, it’s kind of a double pain. You really can’t be who you are.”

Grant funds from CFWM covered the cost of freezer blankets, food thermometers, scales, and a convertible hand truck—allowing volunteers to drive further distances to pick up larger quantities of food and guarantee its safety.

CFWM brought the grantees together in October to share ideas and information. Reflecting on the group, Sheila Toto said, “Just as important as the services they provide is how they provide them. And treating their clients with dignity and respect is central to what they do.”

The grantees are:


Photos courtesy of Erin Long Photography.

3 Ways to Give This Year

3 Tax-Smart Ways to Give Back this Year

By: Jenny Papageorge, Director of Development


1). Bundle Your Gifts to Reach the Itemization Threshold

Have you talked to your advisor about bunching, or “bundling,” gifts to nonprofits? The ripple effects of tax reform have meant that just 10% of taxpayers now itemize deductions, down from 30%. A smart strategy to help you maximize deductions under the new tax laws is to make two or more years’ worth of charitable contributions in a single year. A Donor Advised Fund is an effective tool to achieve this goal. It allows you to set aside enough to bring you over the itemizing threshold. You receive an immediate tax deduction and can distribute gifts to nonprofits over time.

2). Donate your IRA Required Minimum Distribution to Reduce Income Tax

If you are over 70 ½, the IRA charitable rollover allows you to use your IRA to make tax-free charitable gifts directly from the account to eligible charities. Currently, the provision allows you to make qualified charitable IRA distributions at $100,000 per person per year. The provision excludes the funding of gift annuities and similar life income plans, as well as Donor Advised Funds.


3.) Give Appreciated Securities to Avoid Capital Gains

If you have long-term appreciated assets, such as stocks and mutual fund shares, you have an opportunity to maximize your deduction. When you donate these types of assets directly to a nonprofit, you may not have to pay capital gains and you may take an income tax deduction in the amount of the full fair-market value. You can give directly to organizations, or you can set up a Donor Advised Fund, allowing your donation to grow and providing you with the flexibility as to the timing of your gifts.

As we launch into the season of giving, we hope these tips help you get in the spirit of giving and giving more!

The Community Foundation does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice. You should consult your own tax, legal and accounting advisors.


In Their Words: Paradigm Shift

Paradigm Shift participants and faculty at June 2019 orientation. Photo courtesy of Ben Barnhart.

At Paradigm Shift, we’re working to help Black and Latinx para-educators in Springfield, Holyoke, and Amherst become licensed teachers. When I think about what’s important to me about Paradigm Shift, I think of my own kids. They are Black people and I’m white. Growing up, it was clear that being connected to a Black community was important to their sense of well-being. Without their relationships with others who love them and look like them–their dad, their aunts and uncles and cousins, parents of Black friends–there would be something missing. And making these kinds of connections is what Paradigm Shift is about. The stories of two Paradigm Shift participants, both now teachers, are great examples of this.

Jazebel Bermudez Vera is a 33-year-old ELL Educator at the Dean Campus of Holyoke High School (HHS) who was born and raised in a Holyoke family that had come here from New York and Puerto Rico. Things were tough in her family: her mom had an abusive boyfriend and she describes her siblings as falling through the cracks in the public school system. But teachers connected with Jazebel. From elementary school to when she graduated with high honors from Putnam Vocational-Technical Academy in Springfield, her teachers all “made sure my mind was not on home.”

Jazebel Bermudez Vera, on right, in her classroom at Dean Technical High School. Photo courtesy of Ben Barnhart.

Jazebel’s connection with her grandmother, who raised her after her primary family broke apart, has also been extremely important to her. At times when she wanted to quit her pursuit of her bachelor’s degree or teaching license, her grandma would say, “You’ve got to be the first. You’re going to save someone the same way you were saved.”

Connections have been key in Jazebel’s process of preparing to be a teacher. She started working as a para-educator at Mary Walsh Elementary School in Springfield in 2012. “Those kids changed my life and I changed theirs.” Her connection with them cemented her desire to become a teacher. In 2016, she was hired as a teacher on waiver at Dean Tech High School, Holyoke, and began the Mount Holyoke College licensure program, a Paradigm Shift partner, in 2018. Paradigm Shift helped her pay test fees and stay the course. Jazebel will complete her master of arts in teaching with licensure in June 2020.

Ashley Leger, photo courtesy of Ashley Leger.

For Ashley Leger, an African-American woman and 5th grade special education teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Springfield, her first connection was with her mother. “I was raised by a very southern Black woman, who stressed the importance of having an education, of having a voice, of making sure that I did everything that was given to me because at one point in time, these things were not available to people like me.”

After completing high school in Mississippi, Leger obtained a bachelor’s degree in political science and then went on to earn her Master’s degree in adult education. But her first job in adult education, with a program helping parents understand why they should read to their kids, sparked her interest in working directly with children. “I saw that kids are the way they are because of the challenges their families face. I thought, maybe we can help the babies in the beginning. If we can give them what they need, teach them, and be there for them when they need it, maybe they won’t be so far off in the end, maybe they won’t go from elementary school to prison.”

She became a 3rd grade para-educator at Lincoln Elementary School, and in her second year there, Principal Mark McCann “saw me, saw what I was doing,” Leger recounts, “and he said to me, ‘What do I have to do to make you a teacher in my school?’” That December, she was hired as a teacher on waiver. But financial barriers were keeping her from registering for and taking her licensure tests. Principal McCann told her to come to his office, “and that day he paid for my first set of tests.”

Through the Springfield College teacher licensure program, she got connected to Paradigm Shift, which enabled her to keep going, take more tests, and complete the program. Leger obtained a license in teaching students with moderate disabilities in June 2019, one of the first Paradigm Shift completers.

Jazebel Bermudez Vera, in center, at Dean Technical High School with her students. Photo courtesy of Ben Barnhart.

“This program is a necessity, not only for the school administrators but for the students,” Leger says. “To get teachers into the schools who truly care about the students and who may have faced adversities and now are on an alternate route to getting a degree or their teaching license, this program makes it real for people who may have felt like it was out of their reach.”

Paradigm Shift started when a group of committed individuals in schools and colleges came together to articulate a vision for a more diverse teacher workforce in western Massachusetts. Three years and many plans later, our Coalition’s leadership group meets every month, with teams working together in between, because without each other, we could not achieve the systems change needed to reach our goal. Like Leger and Jazebel, we are stronger because we are connected.

About the Author: Marla Solomon is the Director of Partnership Programs for the Five College Consortium and project director for Paradigm Shift. Five College Partnership Programs bring together the resources of the Five Colleges — Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst — for the benefit of public K-12 education.

Since 2017, the Five College Consortium has received CFWM Innovation Grant funding, which encourages nonprofits to develop and execute novel ideas, to convene and support the Diverse Teacher Workforce Coalition of Western Massachusetts, a network of 25 colleges, school districts, educator unions, workforce development agencies and community organizations working together to diversify the teacher workforce in western Massachusetts. Paradigm Shift is an initiative of the Diverse Teacher Workforce Coalition that provides MTEL test support, financial help, and mentoring to para-educators of color and teachers of color on waivers in Springfield, Holyoke and Amherst public schools who are studying to complete teacher licensure. Through this effort, 20 new Black and Latinx teachers will join the region’s teacher ranks by 2021, forging a strong pathway to teaching for para-educators of color and a regional collaborative model we plan to share with other communities with the same goal. Paradigm Shift is also supported by the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation and the Beveridge Family Foundation. For more information, please visit: or contact Marla at or Danielle Phillips, Paradigm Shift Coordinator, at

In Their Words: Food Bank of Western Massachusetts

Damaris Arroyo, Food Assistance Referral Coordinator, giving a phone referral to a patient who screened positive for food insecurity.

My role as the Food Assistance Referral Coordinator for The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts is to ensure that patients at Holyoke and Chicopee Health Centers who “screen positive” for food insecurity receive a referral that will connect them with the Food Bank’s emergency food network and other kinds of help such as finding housing, employment opportunities, English classes, fuel assistance, and healthy living programs just to name a few!

My typical day begins with connecting with referral specialists from three departments at the Holyoke Health Center beginning with Pediatrics, followed by Adult Medicine, and finishing with Family Practice. After I receive each referral, I add them to the Oasis Insight, which is a software program we use to create cases and connect patients to other partner organizations for services they might need other than emergency food access.  

At both centers, every patient is asked the following two questions: 

  1. In the last 12 months have you worried whether food would run out before you had money to buy more?
  2. Did the food that you bought actually run out and you didn’t have money to buy more?

Every patient who answers “true” or “sometimes true” to either of the questions is immediately offered a referral to The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts to be connected to our emergency food network.  The emergency food network consists of food pantries, meal programs, mobile food banks and food for the elderly programs, all of which are a starting point to establishing food security for these patients. Once a person is connected to the network, they can begin to receive food on a regular basis.  Pantries provide a combination of fresh and shelf stable items and can be accessed at least on a monthly basis. The four Mobile locations in Holyoke and Chicopee make it possible for one to receive fresh vegetables on a weekly basis! 

After I create a case, I call each patient via telephone to offer services. When I initially make contact, I introduce myself and verify their information to make sure I’m speaking with the right person. I tell them why I’m calling, and then let them know what services we can offer. As a Holyoke native and Spanish speaker, I am able to build trust and make a connection with our Spanish speaking patients. I ask questions about their home life and the people living there, if they receive SNAP benefits, and then offer to mail them a list of all food pantries, meal programs and mobile food banks in their area.  By gaining trust and making the patients comfortable, I am able to ask other questions such as:

  • Does anyone need help looking for work? 
  • Would anyone benefit from taking an English class?
  • Are there any small children in the home who have a working parent/guardian that needs help with child care?
  • Do they know how to apply for fuel assistance and/or utility assistance in their area?
  • Are they at risk of homelessness?
  • Does anyone in the home have diabetes?
  • Are there any smokers who need help to quit smoking? 
  • Are they interested in nutrition services?

I end the call on a positive note with an open invitation to the patient and their family for a fun and free community dinner held twice a month in Holyoke. 

Damaris Arroyo, Food Assistance Referral Coordinator, with Alan Dallmann, Hunger Solutions Innovator of the Food Bank

After each conversation has ended, I submit the referral to each organization outside of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. Our partner organizations receive the referral via email notification, and they are then responsible for contacting the patient or family to offer services and/or update the status of each referral based on the conversation they have with the patient or family. Sometimes I experience bumps in the road when trying to contact patients such as inaccurate phone numbers, patients not returning calls, and patients who turn down the referrals even after screening positive for food insecurity, but overall we have been successful in helping 2,910 people and families affected by this program.

Although the job has some pressing barriers, the work is so rewarding because I can personally see how these referrals can create positive and lasting change in people’s lives. I specifically recall a referral involving a young woman who was homeless at the time. She was staying anywhere she could find shelter, from sleeping at friend’s houses, with family, park benches and even in a car. I immediately connected her with our emergency food network, Wayfinders, for homelessness prevention and a housing assessment, and MassHire for resume building. Through these services, she was assisted in finding shelter placement and hired by a local barber shop thanks to the help on building a resume. This is what I call a true success story of the work that I do—helping members of the community, many of whom had no idea on how to access much needed assistance, or even know about these services. Since I began working here, I have received 1,431 patients who screened positive for food insecurity from both centers. 936 of them were referred for food services and beyond, and due to multiple referrals for a patient, there have been a total of 2,383 referrals made. The outcomes of a successful referral have a significant impact on all parties in the work and makes me proud to be a part of such an incredible program.

About the Author: Damaris Arroyo has worked in social service many years prior to her time at the Food Bank. She previously worked as a family partner with the Behavioral Health Network and was employeed by the Center for Human Development as a secure residential treatment counselor working with incarcerated youth aged 14 to 21. She enjoys using her skills to help others in need. 

The Food Bank is a CFWM Innovation Grant Awardeewhich encourages nonprofits to develop and execute novel ideas. The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts is a hunger-relief non-profit organization serving 250,000 individuals at risk of, or facing, hunger in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties. Their mission is to feed, lead, and strengthen our communities to end hunger. They distribute over 10 million pounds of food from state government, federal government, local farms, our Food Bank farm, retail and wholesale businesses, community organizations and individual donations to our member agencies in Western Massachusetts. In 2017, we piloted a Food Insecurity Screening Referral Initiative in Holyoke in collaboration with the pediatrics department at Holyoke Health Center and other partners through the Coalition To End Hunger.  In 2018, we have expanded that initiative to include all patients at the center and look towards bringing this collaborative model to other parts of Western Massachusetts in the years to come.

A Tribute to David Starr

Dear Friends of CFWM,

Last week we were all deeply saddened with the passing of David Starr. David was a founding member and Charter Trustee of our Foundation, as well as staunch champion of the Springfield community for over 40 years. As you can read here, the path David forged in his life—and the legacy he leaves behind—are nothing short of extraordinary. His focused devotion profoundly benefitted the many people, organizations, and causes he supported.

David’s early vision of the vital role that CFWM would play in our region was central to establishing our organization. Before 1990, the community foundation model was essentially unknown in Western Massachusetts. David, along with fellow Charter Trustee John Gallup, promoted donor advised funds (DAFs) to local philanthropists, emphasizing their authentic local connection, and unique ability to support our region for the long term. They invested many hours in deep discussions with area nonprofits, creating trust and building excitement around this new funding model for the region. In 1990, he and John signed the original trust to establish the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts. Our Foundation would not exist if it were not for David and John’s perseverance and tireless work to build it from the ground up.

David served on our first Distribution Committee for nine years and chaired the Marketing Committee for many more. During his years of active service to CFWM, David demonstrated, year in and year out, that even with a demanding career, making time for the community was an obligation he took very seriously. At our 2008 Annual Meeting, we honored him and his beloved wife, Peggy, for their remarkable generosity and volunteerism. David’s words from that evening simply and beautifully capture his and Peggy’s spirit of philanthropy, values woven into our core here at CFWM:

Peggy and David, 2008

“Peggy and I are just examples of all the good people who give to the causes of their choice. We’re not ashamed to say that we’re do-gooders. We think everybody should be do-gooders. But do-good is not just a way to feel-good. We believe that it’s an obligation of those who have, to give to those who need. It’s our obligation to give back to the community in which we have prospered. It’s not just about money. It’s giving time and energy too, going to meetings, stuffing envelopes, speaking up. It’s volunteering for work. Peggy and I chose this Community Foundation as the conduit for our giving because it’s better equipped than any other organization to know the community’s needs and the best ways to meet them… We don’t do it by reading applications. We go out into the field. In my day, I’ve checked rotting windows and leaky roofs and day-care centers for cute little kids. I know how carefully, how tenderly every request for money is treated.  Organizations come and organizations go, but the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts will be here forever. That’s why Peggy and I are so certain that the Community Foundation is the best care-taker of whatever money we’re lucky enough to give away.”

David and Peggy celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary last August, and David would have turned 97 next month. We know you join us in sympathy and share condolences with David’s children, grandchildren, the Newhouse family, the entire staff at The Republican and all the many organizations he championed. We are very sad, but also enormously grateful for the legacy that will endure because of David’s unusual dedication, generosity of spirit, and outstanding service.

With kind regards from all of us at CFWM,




Memorial donations to support David and Peggy’s funds at CFWM may be directed to Jenny Papageorge, Director of Development, at

ValleyCreates – Equalizing Arts Access: Infusing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Into Our Arts Community

Those of us who work in the arts believe it to be a catalyst that offers people from diverse, and often disparate backgrounds, a shared space that can create a common ground experience that then serves to further enrich those lives touched by the song, painting, performance, exhibition, etc.

Today, this country is divided between those who desire to drag us back to a mythic isolated past, and those who envision a more inclusive future grounded in the belief that all communities and cultures have intrinsic value. This future includes an arts arena that serves as a beloved community, establishing a culture of generosity based on principles of inclusion and equity, while rejecting the politics of scarcity and fear.

With changing demographics and cultural norms, newer versions of our old challenges (a country deeply divided by issues of race, homophobia, immigration/migration, Islamophobia, and class) makes equity and inclusion in the arts even more critical than ever. Nevertheless, only recently has the question of real equity visibly entered into mainstream arts funding discussions. Over the past decades, funders have responded with initiatives aimed to motivate largely white well-funded arts organizations to diversify which, when translated, almost always means that non-white arts organizations must “assimilate” in order to fit the paradigm.

These initiatives usually consist of “community development” or “community engagement” initiatives. These “solutions” tend not to work for the simple reason that marginalized communities – especially those involving people of color – are in the midst of trying to highlight and elevate their own stories and cultures which are not serviced by the existing mainstream organizations. Meanwhile, organizations that primarily serve marginalized artists and communities have not been the recipient of the necessary support to foster their own cultural work in their own communities.

Understanding the need to first address and then attempt to remedy this dilemma, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts (CFWM) launched its ValleyCreates two-year initiative, designed to strengthen and enliven inclusivity in the arts across the entire spectrum of its arts funding process. The core mission of ValleyCreates is to strengthen and connect arts organizations and artists that may otherwise be segregated by race, class, geography or discipline. ValleyCreates has convened the leaders of cultural organizations from across the region in order to seed partnership development between previously funded organizations and smaller community-based organizations. In this way, ValleyCreates will improve local networks, thereby providing better opportunities for resource sharing, collaborative programming, shared spaces and equipment, etc.

To ensure representation in the planning of initiatives/agendas, ValleyCreates has begun building relationships with local communities that have not traditionally been served by CFWM’s past funding and/or programming practices. To accomplish this, ValleyCreates has contracted three local Community Advisors, as well as a local Equity and Inclusion Advisor of color, to assist and support this important mission.

From left to right: Vanessa Pabon-Hernandez, Kent Alexander, Rosemary Tracy Woods, and Matthew Glassman.

The Community Advisors – each representing either a community of color or a rural community– serve core roles by providing valuable input on strategies to help ValleyCreates connect to both arts organizations and artists that have been historically underserved and underfunded. The Equity and Inclusion Advisor works to ensure that the ValleyCreates framework is both equitable and inclusive of all local arts communities.

ValleyCreates believes that by utilizing the authentic voices and concerns of its Advisors, its framework will become the connective tissue between the historically-funded and the currently underfunded. To further its goal of equitable partnerships and practices, ValleyCreates included a training series focused specifically on DEI strategies for organizations to ensure that each partnership has a clear understanding of the various steps to equity and inclusion.

Will such a transformation be easy? No.

In fact, it will be difficult, and the conversations can be hard and often noisy. But, achieving lasting diversity and inclusion is a journey worth embarking on. Through this process, ValleyCreates hopes to foster an arts environment that is a true mosaic of our region, reaching across all neighborhoods and cultures, ensuring that the arts in Western Massachusetts thrives today and well into the future. We encourage you to follow our progress and bear witness to how inclusion enhances and uplifts our interconnected and ever-changing communities.

About the Author: Kent Alexander is a writer/performer whose work, grounded in jazz music, utilizes Somatic practices to explore power and powerlessness. Kent is also an anti-racism and workplace culture consultant. Clients include the Blueprint Project, TerraCorps, Mount Grace Land Trust, Communities That Care of Franklin County, Cooley Dickinson Health Center, United Way of Hampshire County, and the Center for Community Resilience after Trauma, among others. Currently, he also serves as the Equity and Inclusion Advisor for the ValleyCreates initiative of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

Thanks to a partnership between CFWM and the Barr Foundation’s Creative Commonwealth  this can be possible. The Creative Commonwealth Initiative is a partnership between the Barr Foundation and five community foundations in Massachusetts. Rooted in the belief that investments in arts and creativity build thriving communities, Creative Commonwealth aims to promote the vital leadership role community foundations can play to advance the arts. Photos courtesy of Erin Long Photography

In Their Words: Valley Eye Radio

It’s 8 a.m. on Monday morning in the Valley Eye Radio studios at WGBY in Springfield. The Springfield Republican, and other local newspapers that we read live every morning have not yet arrived. There’s breaking news on MassLive that must be printed. One of our volunteer readers has just called to say she is ill and can’t read live at 9 a.m. To make matters worse, there is a storm brewing that could affect our operations for the rest of the day.

Like most newsrooms, deadlines and challenges are part of our daily existence. We thrive on it. We know that the news must go on the air somehow, someway! The difference for Valley Eye Radio, broadcasting throughout our Valley on the sidebands of NEPR, WTCC, WHAI, and WJDF is that it is even more critical for our listeners that we stay on the air. Why? They rely solely on us to bring them their local news in many accessible ways due to their reading challenges. Our listeners are dealing with macular degeneration, suffer from Parkinson’s, or the after effects of strokes and brain injuries, among other disabilities.

Without us, our listeners—many of whom are seniors and veterans—would be at risk for social isolation and decreasing quality of life and health. We must stay on the air to keep them informed and connected to their communities and the world around them.  Many start their day at the breakfast table listening to our broadcast of the Springfield Republican at 9 a.m. on Valley Eye Radio’s special radios. Our radios are special for several reasons, including that they are easy to use—the have on, off and volume buttons only—and they are specially programed for listeners’ locations.

The “awesome threesome” of Tom, Mary, and Bill reading local news on Tuesday mornings.

How are we able to do what we do with a small budget and limited resources? After many years in the human services field, my role as director of this organization has brought me the closest to what Margaret Mead expressed years ago: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

And, in fact, that is what happened here in our Valley about 40 years. Valley Eye Radio began when a local group of individuals realized that people suffering from vision loss needed accessible ways to get their local news and information because they could not read on their own. Local news is a crucial way to stay connected. Since then, our job has been to keep anyone in the Valley unable to read independently on equal footing with everyone else, helping them navigate an increasingly complex 21st century world by providing them with up-to date, detailed local news and information.

In addition to reading and broadcasting the local newspapers, we also produce and broadcast our own local programming in addition to information specifically geared to their needs that may not be available from the mainstream media. For instance, we have a Senior Center program called “I Remember When” where people can talk about their memories. We also conduct interviews with local professionals and legislators. From a small group dedicated to providing the only service of its kind in our area, we have grown to over 50 dedicated volunteers and three paid staff members.

Volunteer Diane Hirtle reads the news live on air.

On Mondays we feature long time readers John and Marilyn; on Tuesdays the trio of Tom, Mary and Bill provide the local news and a lot of laughs. On Wednesdays, Pat and Maria make sure everyone gets the latest on Cookie the Shih Tzu from Garry Brown’s column “Hitting to All Fields.” Upbeat Sue and Mary keep everyone in the loop on Thursdays, and Chicopee cousins Jeanne and John are at the news desk on Fridays with their familiar banter. In fact, our listeners tell us that these familiar human voices that they rely on every day make a big difference in their lives. We are clearly more than just a non-profit broadcasting service to many!

In addition to reading, our volunteers also deliver radios to our newest listeners. Here is what one volunteer had to say recently:

“I just wanted to let you know that I delivered a radio to our newest listener in Agawam.  I was able to go right over to bring the radio. I spent two hours talking to her.  She was pleased with the reception and the ease of use of the radio. Barbara, I think this visit, and I am sure all our radio delivery visits, shows how important our service is to help form a connection to the listener with their community. Loneliness is truly an issue. Thanks to everyone who helped to make Ann’s life more full!”

It’s not just our volunteers who see the impact. A friend of a longtime listener, after she passed away, said of Valley Eye Radio: “In loving memory of a wonderful friend. Thank you for making her life so much better with your programming.”

Those grateful words clearly tell us all in the Valley why our Valley Eye Radio organization will, despite a small budget and staff, and the many constraints and challenges we face everyday, continue to carry on and live the words and legacy of Margaret Mead, and that small local group almost 40 years ago.

Barbara Loh, MSW, has acted as Executive Director of Valley Eye Radio for five years after many years in non-profit management and journalism locally. Valley Eye Radio has benefited from several CFWM grants over the years, including a 2018 Capital Grant to upgrade hardware and broadcasting software to reach more listeners in a variety of residential settings. Valley Eye Radio’s mission is to bring local news and information to Pioneer Valley residents who can no longer read independently using both special radios and, if available, other technologies. Visit us at or contact at (413)747-7337 if you or someone you know is interested in our services, our radios, or volunteering. Photos courtesy of Valley Eye Radio staff.

In Their Words

I’m just a kid from Springfield, Massachusetts.

Cliché? Maybe, but it’s still 100% true. I’ve lived on College Street, Kensington Ave, and Boyer Street. No matter where I’ve lived in Springfield, I’ve always had grand plans to change the world. Who knew that I’d get the chance to do it someday?

I count myself lucky to have such a wonderful family, who instilled several critical values in me since I was young. These values have been reinforced throughout my life by my wife, great mentors, teachers, and role models. Growing up, my mother worked multiple jobs to support my older sister, younger brother, and I, so hard work is an assumed value. Another instilled value is the sense of responsibility to others; an obligation “to leave people, places, and things better than you find them.” Above all else, my family always stressed the value of education. Our conversations weren’t centered around if I’d go to college, but rather where I’d be going to college.

Since graduating from UMass Dartmouth, I’ve worked in the field of education. The value of education has not diminished to me. I’ve maintained careers related to education primarily in Connecticut, but my newest adventure has called me back home to Springfield: I am the Program Manager for The Literacy Lab.

Tom and the Literacy Lab tutor team in Springfield, MA.

The Literacy Lab is a Washington D.C. based non-profit that serves over 5,000 students in six states. We partner with school communities to drive student achievement and close the literacy gap. We do this by providing rigorously trained, full-time tutors to build capacity where it’s needed the most and support young learners on their path to reading fluency. Our tutors deliver evidence-based literacy intervention daily to students in pre-K through third grade.

With the support of CFWM and other foundations, The Literacy Lab launched in Western Massachusetts with 25 full-time tutors who work in 13 sites in Springfield and Holyoke.

There is so much untapped potential in our schools. Our students’ ability to communicate their own needs is often a barrier. As adults, it is our responsibility to provide the support, the instruction, the resources, and the guidance to ensure our children have ample opportunities to succeed. The Literacy Lab strives to increase capacity for our school and early education partners. Our hope and our goal is that by providing these resources, more students will be successful and read proficiently by fourth grade.

Before third grade students are learning how to read, but from fourth grade on, students are reading to learn. Students who do not reach reading proficiency by this critical milestone are set up for a lifetime of potential roadblocks and negative consequences. Students who are not on track by fourth grade are less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to graduate from a four-year university, and more likely to be incarcerated. Do you see where this is going?

The Literacy Lab team helps community on Build Day 2018.

Here’s the crazy part—this problem is solvable! We know that students need evidence-based early literacy intervention. We know that the best time to make an investment in our students is when they are in the early years of their education. We know how to effectively teach students how to read. We know that students who receive tutoring in kindergarten are more likely to achieve grade-level growth and stay on track. We know that all it takes is a well-trained, caring adult. This is the work we do every day at The Literacy Lab.

I have the absolute pleasure of working with passionate and dedicated individuals. From our tutors, to our master literacy coaches, school principals, all the way up to district partners, here in Western Massachusetts, our community has taken this issue very seriously. We couldn’t be happier to partner with these leaders in this critical work!

So, what exactly do we do at The Literacy Lab every day? The answer depends on the day! Broadly, we secure resources and support the systems that enable us to provide students with what they need. We fundraise, recruit, collaborate with partners and directly support our tutors.  Supporting our tutors is the best part of the job, because our tutors are the heart and soul of the whole operation. Their life-changing work and their impact is invaluable. At a training this year one of tutors, Tanita Council shared this motivating thought “I’ve been working every single day with a student teaching them how to write their name. They have learned how to write their name, they’ll be writing their name for the rest of their life, and I’m proud because I taught them how to do that.”

Not bad for a kid from Springfield, right? But I’m a kid who sees himself in every kid we serve, because not long ago I was that kid.

My son is in the Springfield Public School system along with my nephews, nieces, and little cousins. I’ve sat in the classrooms at the schools we now serve. I’ve had friends who didn’t have the same support I did, and I know what happens in high school when students don’t enter with basic skills. Though I’ve seen the downsides with my own eyes, I know our students can be the learners they’re meant to be! Our school leaders are as passionate about making literacy gaps a thing of the past as we are at The Literacy Lab.

I’m just glad I can do my part to leave Western Massachusetts better than I found it.

About the author: Thomas Oakley is Program Manager for The Literacy Lab in Springfield, MA. Born and raised in Springfield, Tom was a recipient of a Community Foundation of Western Mass scholarship in 2006, and will serve as a CFWM Scholarship Reviewer in 2019. Thomas is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth where he earned his B.A. in Economics. He has over 10 years of educational and non-profit experience. Photos courtesy of the author.

The Literacy Lab’s work is supported in part by The Funder Collaborative for Reading Success, via the CFWM fund Reading Success by 4th Grade.

In Their Words

Habitat homeowner, Ruth and one of her daughters.

“The run is done, we don’t have to run anymore.”

This is the first thing Ruth said when we asked her how it felt to have been selected as the future homeowner for a home in Pioneer Valley Habitat’s development on Glendale Road in Northampton, Massachusetts. What being a future Habitat homeowner means for Ruth is that she’ll spend a year or so building her own home, and then assuming an affordable mortgage to pay for it.

Ruth emigrated to the US from Honduras with her American husband and two daughters in 2014. When her domestic life was upended, she encountered unexpected hardship and instability. Ruth found herself adrift with her children, far from her family and support system. She and her family spent months moving through a series of shelters and temporary living situations in the Boston area.

There were few opportunities for Ruth’s family in Boston. Ruth and her daughters relocated to Western Massachusetts where they found a shelter apartment. Ruth secured regular work in the food service industry and began to take college classes, studying mathematics. “Math is a way to find answers—you can always find answers,” Ruth says.  For Ruth, finding the answers she needs to forge a life of stability and self-reliance for herself and her children is the hallmark of this remarkable and resilient young woman.

Ruth’s future home arrived on a flatbed truck in two pieces, built in a factory in Vermont. Her home, and a second home for another family next to it, represent Pioneer Valley Habitat’s first foray into modular homebuilding, a new effort supported by an Innovation Grant from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts (CFWM). Ruth is helping Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity pilot a novel approach to constructing affordable houses to discover if it’s a model suitable for further adaptation within Habitat’s volunteer-driven construction arena.

Habitat homeowner Denis and his mom working on his home site.

Across town, future homeowner Denis is also helping to pilot an innovation in affordable homebuilding: Pioneer Valley Habitat’s first truly “small home” building project! Denis is working alongside dozens of community volunteers to build his 650-square-foot house. During the pre-construction phase, CFWM funding supported research and conversations with stakeholders, including future homeowners with low incomes, to create a blueprint for building a “just big enough” house.

The goal was to “right-size” a housing opportunity for someone earning minimum wage, or slightly more—someone who is otherwise priced out of the local home buying market. The results of a year’s worth of research and development are now coming to fruition with the construction of Denis’ home. Like Ruth, Denis embraces a future characterized by self-sufficiency. “I want to get out in the world on my own,” he says, “Learn new things, start a new chapter in the book, see how life can be. It’s a great feeling, to get a home and start building it from bottom to top.”

Volunteers working on a Denis’s small home in Northampton.

Through inquiry, innovation and experimentation, Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity, along with our partner families and supporters, are expanding opportunities for affordable homeownership in this region. Together we are building strength, stability and self-reliance with our families, in our neighborhoods, for our communities.

Amy Landry is the Director of Resource Development at Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity. Since 1989, Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity has built affordable homes with low income families in Hampshire and Franklin Counties. A CFWM Innovation Grant awardee, which encourages nonprofits to develop and execute novel ideas, Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity is working to make homeownership possible for families in our community. Learn more about Ruth, Denis and Habitat homeownership, here: Photos courtesy of Erin Long Photography, and Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity.