New Mary Lyon Foundation executive director hopes to ‘continue legacy’ of founder

  • Kristen Tillona-Baker, the new executive director of the Mary Lyon Foundation, in her office at Mohawk Trail Regional School in Buckland. Staff photo/MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer
Published: 1/28/2021 5:02:16 PM
Modified: 1/28/2021 5:01:51 PM

BUCKLAND — After seven years of commuting each week between South Deerfield and The Knox School on Long Island, Kristen Tillona-Baker is home to stay.

“When the pandemic hit and all of a sudden I was working from home, it really hit me how much I missed my family,” said Tillona-Baker. “I never had enough time at home to let it sink in.”

Earlier this month, Tillona-Baker was named the new executive director of the Mary Lyon Foundation, stepping into the role held for 30 years by Susan Samoriski.

The foundation, which Samoriski established in 1990, was incorporated in 1991 in the name of Mary Lyon, a “19th-century pioneer in women’s education and advocate for opportunity and quality education for all,” according to the foundation’s website. The nonprofit, keeping an office at Mohawk Trail Regional School, supports education in Ashfield, Buckland, Charlemont, Colrain, Hawley, Heath, Plainfield, Rowe and Shelburne.

“Kristen’s vast experience in educational leadership, fundraising and program development will be strong assets to the foundation,” Samoriski said in a statement. “Under her direction, the foundation’s future will be bright and prosperous.”

Tillona-Baker, a graduate of Frontier Regional School and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has spent the last seven years as head of school at The Knox School in St. James, N.Y.

“When the world shut down in March, we went completely remote,” she said. “For the first time in seven years, I was home full-time.”

The time at home, she said, forced her to “re-evaluate” her priorities.

“I wanted to be home with my husband, who I realized how much I missed when I was away,” Tillona-Baker said. “My children, my parents, my sisters, my in-laws — they were all in South Deerfield together. So I … said I wanted to start looking for a job and transition back home.”

It was also important to her that wherever she ended up next, she was able to make a difference.

“I thought of it as — I’m in the last leg of my career before I retire, and I want to leave a legacy somewhere that I know I impacted people,” she said. “And I wanted to do it where it was home.”

Tillona-Baker began her career after college working with the after-school programs at the Deerfield and Sunderland elementary schools. She then took a position as a teacher of math and science at The Knox School, where she also started a summer school program.

In 2007, she served for two years as director of admissions at Topeka Collegiate School in Kansas. Tillona-Baker returned to Western Massachusetts in 2009 to serve as director of admissions at Berkshire Hills Music Academy in South Hadley.

In 2014, Tillona-Baker was offered a position as head of school at The Knox School, where she said she’ll continue to work part-time through the end of the academic year.

“When I saw the advertisement for (The Mary Lyon Foundation) job come up on my LinkedIn page, I said, ‘This is the perfect fit for me,’” Tillona-Baker recalled. “I’m able to take my leadership skills, my educational background and my experience in fundraising, and apply it to a place where I feel like I’m really going to make an impact.”

As for the different challenges faced by students in a rural environment compared to an urban one, Tillona-Baker said she plans to “listen and learn.”

“Being able to experience and hear and understand what’s happening in these communities, and how we can best support them — I think that’s really important,” she said.

In her role as executive director of the Mary Lyon Foundation, Tillona-Baker, who assumed the position on Jan. 1, said she hopes to build on the educational programs in the region, in particular those that prepare students for “readiness outside of school.”

“I think that’s something that’s going to be the focus once COVID lifts — to have more in-person events so we can run college readiness programs, really helping children and families prepare for the college application process,” she said.

Additionally, she wants to build on student advocacy programs — which teach students how to advocate for themselves — and make sure the foundation is providing for students and families in the early years of education.

In the long-term, Tillona-Baker said, she wants the foundation to be “so well-funded” that it can branch out from the communities it already serves to help others.

“Sue has made a tremendous impact already,” she said of her predecessor. “And I’m going to be able to continue her legacy.”

Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 263. Twitter: @MaryEByrne


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