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Strong roots, still growing: Riverside Industries turns 50

  • Hilda Garcia, left, of Indian Orchard, and Corey Jourdin and Colin Passa, both of Easthampton, sit together at Cottage Street Cafe inside Riverside Industries in Easthampton earlier this month. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kim Pietraszkiewicz, left, of Florence and Rebecca Johnson of Easthampton prep salads in the kitchen of the Cottage Street Cafe before lunchtime at Riverside Industries in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Gene Traver, an employment/Community Based Day Services (CBDS) supervisor at Riverside Industries in Easthampton, chats in the Cottage Street Café earlier this month. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kelly Pepin and Lee Gagner, both of Easthampton, chat in the Cottage Street Café inside Riverside Industries in Easthampton. The mural above them, portraying many of the regular patrons, is by former Cottage Street Studios artist Liz Solomon. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kim Pietraszkiewicz, left, of Florence and Rebecca Johnson of Easthampton do prep salads in the kitchen of the Cottage Street Cafe before lunch time at Riverside Industries in Easthampton on Tuesday, May 1, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Coralie Donohue of Northampton works the front counter at the Cottage Street Café inside Riverside Industries in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Alison Burek of Amherst assembles packages of bath salts at Riverside Industries in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Rebecca Johnson of Easthampton preps salads in the kitchen of the Cottage Street Café before lunchtime at Riverside Industries in Easthampton GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Miguel Rodriguez of Holyoke waters plants at the Riverside Gardens greenhouse in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Alison Burek of Amherst assembles packages of bath salts at Riverside Industries in Easthampton on Tuesday, May 1, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Larry LaValley of Easthampton waters plants at the Riverside Gardens greenhouse in Easthampton on Tuesday, May 1, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Joey Mongeau of West Chesterfield makes labels for plants at the Riverside Gardens greenhouse in Easthampton on Tuesday, May 1, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Plant trays at the Riverside Gardens greenhouse in Easthampton on Tuesday, May 1, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Joey Mongeau of West Chesterfield makes labels for plants at the Riverside Gardens greenhouse in Easthampton on Tuesday, May 1, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Artwork by clients at Riverside Industries decorates one wing of the building. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Riverside Industries is located at One Cottage Street, across from Nashawannuck Pond, in Easthampton. Photo taken on Tuesday, May 1, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Cottage Street Cafe inside Riverside Industries in Easthampton on Tuesday, May 1, 2018. The mural above the counter, portraying many of the regular patrons, is by former Cottage Street Studios artist Liz Solomon. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ben Lesko, an Easthampton fire fighter and paramedic, talks with Jonathon Powell during a break from washing the fire trucks. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Pamela Rewa carries in food they picked up from Target in Hadley for donation at the Northampton Survival Center. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gadrial Matos rinses a fire truck as part of his volunteer work with the Easthampton fire department. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ben Lesko, an Easthampton fire fighter/Paramedic, talks with Gadrial Mataos and Jonathon Powell during a break from washing the fire trucks. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Pamela Rewa greets Carlos Rivera, an employee at the Northampton Survival Center after carrying in food Riverside clients had picked up from Target in Hadley for donation. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Pamela Rewa carries in food she and other Riverside clients had picked up from Target in Hadley for donation at the Northampton Survival Center. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Pamela Rewa uses the phone outside the Northampton Survival Center to share some news: She and other Riverside volunteers have arrived to drop off donated food. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Corey Mizula and Paul Alward wash a fire truck at the Easthampton Fire Department. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gadrial Mataos rinses a fire truck as part of his volunteer work with the Easthampton fire department. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gadrial Mataos rinses a fire truck as part of his volunteer work with the Easthampton fire department. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Corey Mizula and Paul Alward wash a fire truck at the Easthampton Fire Department. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS



Friday, May 11, 2018

On a cool, windy Friday in mid-April, Pamela Rewa stepped out a small van parked at the Northampton Survival Center and walked briskly over to a phone that hung just outside the back door of the building, where the center stores much of its food.

Picking up the phone from its cradle and placing it against her ear, Rewa listened for a moment, then said, “Andy, we’ve got some stuff for you.”

A moment later, after the agency’s door swung open, Rewa and a few other people in the van pulled large cardboard cartons from the vehicle, all of them filled with food — bottled water, boxes of macaroni and cheese, plastic bags of vegetables, canned soup — that they’d picked up half an hour earlier from Target in Hadley. They carried them into the Survival Center as one staff member called out, “Alright, guys! Nice work.” 

Rewa, a big smile on her face, said hello to some of the staff and exchanged a high five with one man, Carlos Rivera, who asked how she was.

“Good, good,” said Bewa.

For Bewa, who lives in Florence and has been a longtime client at Riverside Industries in Easthampton, Friday is an important day. That’s when she and other clients at the agency, which for years has worked with adults with developmental disabilities, volunteer to bring groceries to the Survival Center. Bewa says she looks forward to seeing what kind of food Target donates each week and bringing it to the center, where she counts the staff as friends.

“Sometimes the boxes are heavy,” she said. “It’s hard … but I like that people there are nice to me.”

And, she added with smile, she loves being the one who gets to call in to the center and tell the staff that the food has arrived.

Bewa’s volunteerism is an apt symbol of where Riverside Industries find itself today. This year, the agency is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and much has changed in half a century. What started as a tiny manufacturing operation in two small, vacant school building in Leeds, employing a handful of adults with disabilities, now has 185 employees serving almost 270 people, from 33 towns and cities in western Massachusetts, in renovated factory space at 1 Cottage Street in Easthampton.

Over the years, Riverside has broadened its mission, creating programs dedicated to life enrichment: helping clients develop their social skills and self-expression, or teaching them how to prepare a meal, for instance, and working with those with physical disabilities to improve their fine motor skills, as another example.

There’s also the Community Based Day Services (CBDS) program, which provides clients with services such as job training and trips to museums, parks and outside events; in addition, CBDS gets people involved in volunteer activities like Pamela Rewa’s work with the Northampton Survival Center.

And the agency has long worked with state programs, local schools and chambers of commerce, career centers and other community groups to find meaningful job opportunities for its clients, including some right at the Easthampton location, such as a café and a shipping center.

But as Director Charlene “Char” Gentes notes, Riverside has revamped its focus in the last few years; that’s been part of a statewide initiative, following changes in federal law, to get people with disabilities away from jobs in what’s known as “sheltered workshops” and, as much as possible, out into the community. It’s a shift aimed at inclusion and self-advocacy for Riverside clients “so that they’re not tucked away by themselves,” said Gentes.

It’s a move similar to the one begun in the 1990s, in which children with disabilities, whenever possible, were moved out of separate educational spaces and into regular classrooms. And, says Gentes, it’s also comparable to the civil rights movement.

“The idea is to include people with disabilities more in the daily life of their communities, to have them embraced as employees and volunteers, giving them a chance to make a contribution,” she says. “It’s a way of saying, ‘We’re here, too.’”

A bustling place 

On another recent morning at Riverside, what’s known as the Cottage Street Cafe was bustling, with clients and staff occupying every table. Set a little beyond the agency’s main entrance, the café is both a meeting place for clients who are getting ready to go to various day jobs, and a place for others who might want to grab a sandwich or snack; food is prepared in the kitchen by clients and Riverside staff.

At a counter in the kitchen, Riverside client Rebecca Johnson was busy chopping strips of chicken into small bits, while next to her Kim Pietraszkiewicz sliced up tomatoes. “We’ll be making chicken salad sandwiches,” said Johnson. “We keep pretty busy.”

Around the corner, several clients wearing University of Massachusetts Amherst hats were chatting at a table, getting ready to be transported to the university, where they’d be working in the dining halls at lunch, bussing tables and doing other jobs. They’re part of a crew of about 30 agency clients who work in the dining halls at UMass, Amherst College and Westfield State College from September into May, earning minimum wage (as do agency clients at other jobs).

A few other clients work year-round at the university on landscaping crews.

Gene Traver, an employment supervisor who oversees the dining hall employees, notes that Riverside formerly employed several dozen clients in a shipping and packaging operation (called Liberty Street Packaging) in the building. When that ended a few years ago, as part of the push to get clients out of a closed workplace, “It was really critical for their self-esteem that we find other places they could work,” Traver says. “That had become part of their identity.”

“They’ve formed wonderful relationships with their coworkers at the university and the other schools,” adds Traver. “They really feel they’re contributing something to the schools — it makes their lives more meaningful.” 

Nick Isherwood, Riverside’s Director of Employment, says the agency meets with each client interested in working to gauge the person’s interests and capabilities. A client who wants to be outside, for instance, might work on Riverside’s “Lawn Crew” that cuts lawns and rakes up leaves and brush at a variety of settings. Clients who need minimal supervision have also found jobs with Big Y, CVS, UMass and other local employers, Isherwood says.

Finding those job opportunities can be a matter “of us pounding the pavement and just cold-calling places, saying ‘Hey, we’ve got some people who could help you and want to work with you, are you interested?’ ” he adds. “It’s about building a relationship with them and then delivering the services, sending them good employees from here.”

Isherwood and Kyle Schaller, the agency’s CBDS director, say they’re gratified that employers are willing to hire Riverside clients to show they can make a contribution to the workplace. “It’s not only good for clients; it’s good for their other employees to see that people here can be part of the workplace, part of the community,” notes Schaller.

About 90, or over one-third, of the agency’s clients work — generally about 15-20 hours a week — and some continue to handle jobs at the agency. Alison Burek of Amherst, in the old packaging area, was busy one recent morning making colorful, scented bath soaps; the soap is one of several items, including lip balm, that Riverside clients make for sale outside the building.

“We have a lot of scents, like Lemon Blossom and Mango Honey,” said Burek, as she talked about what she likes about the work. “I get to work with my hands, I get to mix the ingredients, and it all smells really nice.”

Behind the 1 Cottage Street building, several other clients were busy in the agency’s greenhouse, where they grow vegetables, spices and flowers for sale at different places, including the Easthampton Farmers & Makers Market on Saturdays. As Joey Mongeau of West Chesterfield wrote plant names on small plastic markers, Larry LaValley of Easthampton and Miguel Rodriguez of Holyoke took turns watering small trays of red cabbage plants and other crops.

Rodriguez gave a mock groan when he talked about the work: “I’m here every day, day after day.”

That brought a laugh from Sarah Chaplin, employment supervisor of the greenhouse and its crew. “Miguel definitely brings a sense of humor to us every day.”

Steady growth

One notable thing about Riverside is the long tenure several senior staff have had at the agency. Charlene Gentes, the director, has logged over 30 years at Riverside in different capacities, with a few breaks in between for jobs she held with other social service organizations. Gene Traver started 30 years ago at the agency in an entry-level position; Kyle Schaller has been with Riverside 25 years; Jana Moe, director of services, 26 years; Amy Barker, director of life enrichment, about 38 years.

That kind of longevity has given them a chance to trace the evolution of Riverside from its small-scale beginnings, when Leeds sold (for 50 cents) the nascent agency the two vacant schools, and parents and volunteers helped renovate the buildings, converting them to a small business in which clients made and packaged perfume, called “Flame of Hope.”

In 1976, the agency purchased the 1 Cottage Street location (for $1), with 165,000 square feet of space, from the former J.P. Stevens Corp. After it was renovated, the new space became ideal for building the kind of additional services Riverside needed to devise, Gentes notes.

“In the 1970s, there had been a big move to deinstitutionalize people with disabilities from places like the Belchertown State School and bring them back to their communities,” she says. “A lot of those folks had physical challenges, cognitive challenges, so in the early 1980s we started our Day Habilitation program” that offers physical and occupational therapy, speech pathology and other services.

The agency also started its lawncare service in 1980, and Gentes says the first Riverside client was placed in an outside job setting in 1979. Over the years, the agency has continued to build on that: One of its newer programs, offered to high school students with disabilities, provides job counseling and training and roughly month-long paid internships with local businesses to help the teens get a sense of what kind of work might appeal to them.

Highlighting these efforts is at the heart of Riverside’s 50th anniversary campaign, which includes a number of special events through the summer, including a September concert in Easthampton by the Young@Heart Chorus. The agency is also providing sunflower seeds to friends, supporters, businesses and farmers and urging them to plant them as a symbol of Riverside’s motto for the anniversary: “Strong roots. Still growing.”

Some of those roots could be seen one afternoon last month at the Easthampton Public Safety Complex, where a group of Riverside clients had come to do their weekly volunteer gig: washing and hosing down the fire trucks. One client, Corey Mizula of Greenfield, who was seated in a wheelchair, was pushing a large brush with a broom handle up the side of one truck.

It looked liked a bit of a workout, continually lifting the soapy brush above his shoulders, a reporter suggested to Mizula.

“No, not really — I don’t get tired,” Mizula said. “It’s just once a week.”

He noted that he’d first become interested in fire trucks as a kid and that he still enjoyed their size and their mission, so keeping the Easthampton trucks looking good was satisfying: “I like the situation — it fits my interest.”

Around the other side of that truck, Jen Sokolowsi, a staff member with Riverside’s CBDS program, was watching Gadrial Mataos, also in a wheelchair, as he hosed down a different fire truck. “You’re making me a little nervous,” she joked, noting that Mataos didn’t usually volunteer to rinse off the trucks. “Maybe you should lower the water pressure a little bit.”

Ben Lesko, a firefighter and paramedic with the Easthampton department, stood watching, his arms folded, as he chatted with another Riverside client, Jonathon Powell. Lesko said he’s gotten to know some of the agency’s clients well, including the weekly volunteers at the firehouse, as he once drove a van for Riverside before he became a fulltime firefighter.

“Jon, who do you like better, a policeman or a firefighter?” Sokolowski said.

“Policeman!” said Powell.

“What!?” Lesko said in mock horror. “Really,  Jon?”

Then it was time for the clients to return to Riverside, and everyone said their goodbyes. “See you all  next week,” said Lesko.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.