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Amherst Survival Center director set to leave in June

Cheryl Zoll

BULLETIN FILE PHOTO Cheryl Zoll Purchase photo reprints »

After overseeing the move of the Amherst Survival Center from its longtime quarters in the old North Amherst School to a new, larger building less than a mile away, its executive director is preparing to depart.

Cheryl Zoll, 50, will leave her position in June after serving at the nonprofit for just over six years. Zoll didn’t give a reason for her departure, other than to say she is looking forward to new challenges.

“The organization is, I feel, in such a strong position and we’re settled into the new building,” Zoll said. “This is the perfect moment to attract new leadership for the next decade.”

“It is a truly bittersweet moment,” Jan Eidelson, president of the board, said in a statement. “The Survival Center would not have achieved all that it has without Cheryl’s leadership.”

She said the board hopes to have a replacement hired by the time Zoll leaves.

Zoll said she came in April 2007 with the objective of strengthening the center and its services at a time when the organization was in crisis. Zoll compared the center then to a capsized ship.

“It needed someone who could recognize the strengths and build on the weaknesses. I was very excited to be the person to lead that,” Zoll said.

Zoll took over in the midst of complaints about the center’s operations and a report by the former human rights director that staff members were hostile toward guests and ineffective.

Zoll praised the current staff, which includes program director Tracey Levy, seven-part time employees, 170 volunteers and the Survival Center board for ensuring the 4,000 people who come to the center each year are served.

The center operates on a $400,000 annual budget, but demand for services has been growing, as illustrated by the fact that 1,000 lunches were served in January 2012 while 1,500 were provided in January 2013.

Zoll is credited with expanding the center’s food, clothing and health care operations.

“I feel like in terms of leadership I’ve tried to create a culture here that’s very open,” Zoll said.

During her tenure, Zoll expanded partnerships with Health Care for the Homeless, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and Elliot Homeless Services. She oversaw the capital campaign that raised the $2.5 million needed to build the new center at 138 Sunderland Road. She also helped create new fundraising initiatives, the annual Empty Bowls dinner and last year’s Cider Doughnut Run.

Hwei-Ling Greeney, a former Select Board member who now runs an agency that helps connect homeless residents with housing opportunities, said Zoll’s tenure has been marked by a professionalization of services to clients.

“She instills a sense of fairness and accountability within the center,” Greeney said. “The one-stop delivery service combining free lunch, with food stamp application, medical clinic, fuel assistance and social service is one of the bright spots at the center.”

Greeney notes that the center has come a long way during Zoll’s years.

“The complaints in the past which have plagued the center, such as accusation of favoritism, mistreatment of clients and misuse of donations, are no longer there,” Greeney said.

A former professor who taught at the Massachusetts Institute Technology and Amherst and Hampshire colleges, Zoll said she isn’t sure what’s next for her, though she expects to remain in Amherst, as her husband, Eric Sawyer, teaches at Amherst College.

“I’m definitely looking for new challenges,” said Zoll, who has a degree in biology from Harvard University and a doctorate in linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley. “I’m fortunate I’m able to leave with the organization in such a strong state.”

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