Editorial: Valley Tees will be missed

  • Pathlight Executive Director Ruth Banta talks with Manager Tracy Romeo and Program Manager Cathy Flower at Valley Tees in Greenfield, which is closing after 24 years. Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 1/8/2019 9:38:01 AM

The Greenfield storefront at the corner of Federal and Ames streets looked like your typical downtown business filling a niche for its customers. For 24 years, Valley Tees filled orders for custom, screen-printed T-shirts for local schools, sports teams, businesses and individuals.

To its customers, Valley Tees was a trusted supplier. That it was — and much more. As the sole vocational shop for Pathlight, a Springfield nonprofit that supports people with developmental disabilities, Valley Tees had a dual mission: To satisfy its customers and at the same time to train and support its special workforce.

Manager Cathy Flowers described her role like this: “I am a vocational trainer for people with developmental disabilities, and I taught them how to work. They learned how to do the job and for their work they got paid a true wage, along with benefits.”

That’s workplace gold for a group of people who need different kinds of support to hold down a job.

The wonder of it was that most customers weren’t even aware of the shop’s dual mission.

“What I loved about the way Cathy worked is most people knew us as a T-shirt shop,” Pathlight Executive Director Ruth Banta recently said. “Some knew us as a group that employed people with mental disabilities and autism, but that wasn’t the first thing they knew. That’s very normalizing. That’s the way we wanted it.”

The business model depended on orders, of course, and relied on a grant-funded contract with the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Disabilities.

But it was the internet that came between Valley Tees and its customers. Apparently, it’s easier to type “custom T-shirts” into Google and find a slew of competitors online, ready to ship your order direct to your door at rock-bottom prices, than to visit a downtown storefront. As a result, Valley Tees says it can no longer break even.

There are a lot of reasons to shop local. Every small business has its own back story of inspiration, struggle and hard work, but few combined the challenges of entrepreneurship with the calling of a social service agency like Valley Tees did. Its manager changed the lives of employees over the years, giving them a paycheck and a history of employment to take with them. “It really was a great experience,” said Flowers. “There’s so much good stuff here.”

Something indefinable has been lost with the closing of Valley Tees. “As an organization, we’re still very much a part of the community, but we’re just going to miss this particular aspect of it, which was more accessible,” said Banta. “It made us and the community interact a lot, which we will miss.”

We salute Flowers, Banta and the hard-working employees of Valley Tees and we’ll miss their presence on the corner of Federal and Ames.


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