‘The spirit of service’: Family, friends remember Northampton Parents Center co-founder Alice Allen

  • Alice Allen works with students in 1965.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/JANE ALLEN

  • Alice Allen at age 15.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/JANE ALLEN

  • Alice Allen with her granddaughter, Hannah Levy, outside of the Northampton Parents Center.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/JANE ALLEN

  • Alice Allen with her husband, Dean Allen.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/JANE ALLEN

  • Alice Allen working with a student at the Community Clinical Nursery School.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/JANE ALLEN

  • Alice Allen working with a student at the Community Clinical Nursery School. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/JANE ALLEN

  • Alice Allen with Swansea Benham Bleicher, current director of the Northampton Parents Center, at the center’s 30th anniversary celebration in November 2016. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/SWANSEA BENHAM BLEICHER

  • Alice Allen and Linda Stone blow out the candles on a cake at the Northampton Parents Center's 25th anniversary celebration in November 2011.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/SWANSEA BENHAM BLEICHER

Staff Writer
Published: 7/12/2019 5:42:46 PM
Modified: 7/12/2019 5:42:34 PM

AMHERST — Growing up, Northampton Parents Center co-founder Alice Allen witnessed a lack of services available for children with developmental disabilities as she acted as a caretaker for her younger sister, Mary.

But Allen, who died on June 28 at age 95, went on to help reshape this reality as an adult — for decades. Allen played an influential and pioneering role in the lives of children of all abilities and their families through her work with the Parents Center at Edwards Church, and other local organizations.  

“She was a very thoughtful person, but she was also a person of action,” said Rebecca Phelps, one of Allen’s daughters. “She didn’t just sit around and talk. She was a busy person … and she was interested in the world. She wanted to know how to make our world a better place.”

Allen, who graduated from Smith College in 1945 with a degree in music and later moved to Amherst, was passionate about improving life for children and families in general, Phelps said. She leaves behind a beloved family of her own, which includes three children, seven grandchildren, four step-grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and a large network of nieces and nephews. She was predeceased by her husband of almost 60 years, Dean Allen, who died in 2005.

But in her professional life, Allen was particularly focused on families of children with special needs, and her relationship with her sister Mary had a “profound influence” on Allen’s eventual decision to work with children as a teacher and occupational therapist, according to Allen’s daughters. 

Allen’s professional work with children and their families began in the early 1960s in Amherst, where she became an influential force in expanding services available for children with developmental disabilities, said Allen’s youngest daughter, Jane Allen.

“Before this time people would have a child who had a disability, and there really wasn’t a program set up for services for that family,” Jane said. 

But Allen began to change that through founding the Community Clinical Nursery School, which was part of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In this role, Allen helped to pioneer the integrated preschool model, which places children with developmental disabilities in mainstream classrooms. This model is now practiced in public schools across the state.

Allen went on to work at the People’s Institute and REACH early intervention program, both in Northampton, before co-founding the Northampton Parents Center.

Cultivating a community

Following her retirement, Allen was not ready to step back from working with children and their families. In mid-1980s, she co-founded the Northampton Parents Center, which still exists today in its original location at Edwards Church on Main Street in Northampton. 

For over 30 years, the drop-in center has provided a space for parents to bring their children to play and learn. But an equally important and enduring mission at the center is to provide a space for parents to socialize with each other and connect with other resources, said Swansea Benham Bleicher, the current director of the Northampton Parents Center.

Allen “recognized the need for community around child-rearing in the early years,” Benham Bleicher said. “There’s this cliche that it takes a village to raise a child, but it truly does … and she saw that need and acted on it with other parents who saw the same need.”

“It’s a huge life change to become a parent,” she added, “and the thing that helps people the most to get through it is being able to talk to people going through it at the same time.”

Benham Bleicher noted a particular need for a resource such as the Parents Center in western Massachusetts, where people tend to live relatively spread apart from each other and may feel isolated in their homes as they raise a new baby.

Allen was just the person to cultivate the sense of community that families needed, friends and family recalled, noting that Allen’s affinity with children made her ideal for her field. 

“She got down at their level,” Linda Stone, a former director of the Northampton Parents Center, said of Allen’s interactions with children. “She was never standing up over the children. She was always sitting at one of the tiny chairs or kneeling at the sandbox, and really looking face-to-face with the kids and talking with them, and playing side by side.”

Allen eventually stepped back in her role with the Parents Center as she aged, but Stone recalled that Allen was “still going strong as a volunteer” when Stone left the center in the mid-to-late 90s. 

Jane Allen said that her mother had a talent for “cutting through all the medical stuff” and getting through to children themselves when working with students with special needs, and recalled that she witnessed a parent of one of her mother’s former students approach Allen in the community to thank her for helping their child decades ago. 

Allen was also “spry” and had been characterized as “frisky,” said Phelps, Allen's older daughter, which “was a big part of why she was so great with little kids.”

“She would get on the floor, do a lot of movement, do singing,” she added. “She was physically engaged a lot with everything she did.”

Benham Bleicher also noted this liveliness in Allen. 

“She had more energy at 95 than a lot of young people I know,” Benham Bleicher said. “It was just in her core, the spirit of service and community, so she was never a person to just sit back on her laurels. She just followed her passion.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com. 

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