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Leadership Pioneer Valley graduates class of 35

NORTHAMPTON — Rachel Jones, an administrator at Springfield Technical Community College, was new to the Pioneer Valley last year and was looking for a way to learn about the community. She heard about Leadership Pioneer Valley (LPV) and saw it as a way to engage with the community and help develop her own skills.

She ended up volunteering with a program called Valley CABS which works with underachieving students in Hampden County.

“I think it’s an experience that teaches you that no matter what level your professional development is at, that you always need to keep your own development as a leader open and always be looking to engage and learn,” said Jones who lives in Springfield. “… Every time you meet new people and encounter new challenges professionally, you become a better person and I just want to keep growing as an individual.”

She directs the Gateway to College program at STCC, which works with students ages 16 to 21 who have dropped out of school or are at risk of dropping out. The program allows those students to earn their high school diploma and college credits simultaneously.

Jones, along with the other 34 participants in the latest 10-month LPV program, gave presentations on their projects as part of a graduation ceremony Thursday afternoon at Smith College. This is the third year of the program which focuses on leadership development and works to address issues in the Pioneer Valley, such as hunger and needs of youths.

Each class is divided into groups that work on individual projects to help the community, in addition to teaching the members to become leaders. The participants, who work for private and public employers in the Valley, work on their projects over 10 months and have day-long workshops once a month that teach them leadership skills. Their employers pay for them to attend the program, and in return the participants bring their new skills back to the workplace.

LPV began in 2011 to try to connect emerging leaders from the Valley, said its Executive Director Lora Wondolowski. The goal is to build “stronger companies, stronger organizations and stronger communities.”

Wondolowski added, “Leadership Pioneer Valley is making a huge difference both in building the leadership skills of emerging leaders, connecting them to one another, and taking those skills and giving them that spark to go back and make a difference in their communities.”

She said it already has had a huge impact, with half of the graduates after one year joining boards of directors and one-third starting new community projects — “Things that will really make a difference.”

This year the class was divided into six groups, each with a different project. Jones participated in the one focused on helping struggling high school students who are on the verge of dropping out to turn their lives around and apply to college through Valley CABS — which stands for “create, achieve, believe, succeed.”

The other five projects focused on attracting and retaining young professionals in the Pioneer Valley, youth leadership development, bringing together all of the historical sites in the Valley on one Facebook page called Pioneer Valley Site Seekers, educating college students about issues of hunger in conjunction with the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, and hosting a “Peace Jam” to help local youths become community leaders.

Wondolowski said that the projects were defined after asking area nonprofits for proposals.

Christina Casiello of Springfield, who works for the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., had the opportunity to work with the Food Bank in engaging local college students to be educated about issues of hunger in the Valley.

“Hunger is an issue for people of all ages, it doesn’t have a target market, it isn’t discriminatory, it impacts everybody… any age, any gender, any race, any socioeconomic status,” Casiello said.

Kyle Sullivan, a commercial sales specialist with John M. Glover Insurance in Holyoke, was involved with Next Generation Pioneers that worked to bring together young professionals in the Valley.

Sullivan said, “LPV helped me discover that I have always liked to help people and identify that that was my passion.”

Wondolowski addressed the graduates after each group presented their projects. “It humbles me that these teachings really did make a difference and that they were really taken to heart,” she said.

She concluded by saying that to be a great leader you have to “challenge the process and challenge yourselves.”

This year’s graduates who work for employers in Hampshire County are Amy Britt, outreach and community services program supervisor at Tapestry Health in Florence; Tammy-Lynn Chace, membership and events manager at the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce in Amherst; Meghan Godorov of Northampton, assistant director for career development and pre-law adviser at Mount Holyoke College and the owner of MLG Career in South Hadley; Laura Porter, the good green jobs coordinator at Co-op Power in West Hatfield; Todd Weir of Northampton, the pastor at First Churches in Northampton; and Christopher Whelan of Florence, a collector at Florence Savings Bank.

Other local graduates are Kerri Bohonowicz of Hadley, Kelsey Flynn of Northampton, Matthew Kullberg of Northampton and Josiah Neiderbach of Northampton.

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