Martin Luther King, Jr. Family Services Center Aims to Build on its Successes

It was during a Zoom meeting when Patricia Bernard found unexpected joy.

A person in the meeting was introduced as “Doctor.” Bernard perked up. She recognized Michelle McComb, a 2018 graduate of the Clemente course offered at Martin Luther King, Jr. Family Services Center in Springfield. Unbeknownst to Bernard, its vice president of finance and operations, McComb had gone on to earn her Ph.D.

Bernard reflected, “Michelle had gone to college as a youngster, but never finished because both parents were diagnosed with terminal illnesses. She had to put her studies on hold to be their caretaker. Later, after marrying and having children, Michelle came back to our Center and completed the Clemente course.”

The Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities is offered for free at the MLK Center to anyone who wants to take it. Students earn six college credits during the eight-month course of study, which aims to create a bridge to higher education. First developed in New York in 1995 by Earl Shorris, the Clemente course is now available nationwide for people earning low incomes. The MKL Center boasts many proud alumni.

For Bernard, seeing Dr. McComb on Zoom was “an inspiration” because many people served by the MLK Center are working toward greater self-sufficiency in order to lift themselves out of poverty. Elated by the chance encounter, Bernard enlisted Dr. McComb to speak at the organization’s 2022 Social Justice Awards.

2019 Clemente Course Graduation. Photo courtesy of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services

The Clemente program is one of many offered by the MLK Center to further its mission of “nurturing the skills, opportunities, and spirits of families in Greater Springfield.”

Based in the city’s Mason Square neighborhood since 1977, the agency provides after school learning activities for more than 60 students, a food pantry that serves 200-400 people weekly, a summer camp, and a family skill-building program that offers basic living skills. Parents and guardians learn things like how to navigate the health care system, fill out a job application, or help their children with homework.

And each year during in April, the MLK Center’s staff and chaperones take a busload of 30-40 Springfield young people on a tour of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). It’s one of Bernard’s favorite programs, though it takes a lot of planning and fundraising.

She said, “It’s been life changing for some of these kids to go away, to get out of Springfield and to go visit other places. Some have never traveled, never left Massachusetts. So, the HBCU tour opens up a whole different world to them. We do college readiness instruction before they go, and on the tours our youth meet college professors and students on various campuses.”

Over the years, grants from the Community Foundation have lent significant support to the MLK Center. The most recent grant is assisting the Center with its executive search. Ronn Johnson, its beloved CEO, passed away in January.

Bernard anticipates a new CEO who will build on MLK Center’s successes. She takes pride in the young people and families the Center has nurtured. But, she sees many urgent challenges facing Springfield residents with lower incomes, including the scarcity of affordable housing.

“We want to see a better community where everybody has opportunity. That’s my push. That’s the force behind me. To be able to help,” she said.