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Editorial: Amherst women who made a difference

GORDON DANIELS

Cheryl Zoll, director of the Amherst Survival Center, right, speaks in 2010 with Jen Moyston, supervisor of the program's food pantry.

GORDON DANIELS Cheryl Zoll, director of the Amherst Survival Center, right, speaks in 2010 with Jen Moyston, supervisor of the program's food pantry. Purchase photo reprints »

The multi-talented Cheryl Zoll is closing the latest chapter in her varied career, stepping down as executive director of the Amherst Survival Center. Zoll, who is 50, has planted trees in rural Senegal as a Peace Corps member, taught linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, wrote a book on African language, ran a literacy program and led the effort to turn the Survival Center into a vibrant hub of community and social services.

Oh, and she oversaw a fundraising effort that netted $2.5 million to construct a stunning new building that opened in December. Pretty impressive.

Whatever her personal or professional reasons for moving on after six years at the center, one thing is clear: She is a woman who gets things done. She says simply that she is seeking new challenges. She is married to Eric Sawyer, who teaches at Amherst College. The couple have a teenage daughter.

Zoll has done remarkable work at the center, with a strong supporting cast.

When she came on board in April 2007, the 34-year-old center, then located in the basement of the old North Amherst School, was in disarray. There were complaints about management, how donations were being handled, how guests were being treated. A consultant was called in to suggest changes.

Zoll was hired and the center’s board of directors also got a makeover. Soon after, Tracy Levy joined as program director and coordinator of volunteers. In addition, there are now seven part-time employees and 170 volunteers at work there.

Before taking over, Zoll had little experience in management or social services. She called her desire to take a crack at a new field her “midlife epiphany.” She proved to be a quick study.

Under her stewardship, the center has been humming along, serving a buffet lunch most weekdays, handing out groceries, running a free store of clothing and small appliances, steering guests toward appropriate services, providing social activities such as musical performances and offering medical care. She is credited with expanding partnerships with Health Care for the Homeless, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and Elliot Homeless Services.

Zoll said at the outset that she wanted to broaden the center’s mission to make it a hub that meets a variety of needs for those down on their luck. Apparently she has succeeded.

Hwei-Ling Greeney, a former Select Board member who volunteers at the center and now runs an agency that helps homeless people find housing, praised Zoll’s results in a recent Gazette article: “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,” she told reporter Scott Merzbach last week. She also noted the professional yet welcoming atmosphere Zoll created.

There are big shoes to fill, and we hope the board of directors is able to find someone up to the task. Zoll says she is confident the house is in good order to carry on. We hope she is right as we wish her well in her next endeavor.

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