Columnist Jim Ayres: Inspiring nominees for Person of Year

  • Barbara Black, shown here in a class at the Bridge Street School in Northampton on Monday, is the 2017 Person of the Year. CAROL LOLLIS

  • Allison Jenks, the recipient of the Gazette's Young Community Leader Award, at Hopkins Academy in Hadley. CAROL LOLLIS

Monday, March 06, 2017

There’s no better way, it seems, to feel pride in one’s community, and one’s neighbors within it, than to review nominations for the Person of the Year.

I discovered this, once again, as I, along with Sarah Buttenwieser, Laura Dintino, Yvonne Freccero, Molly Keegan, Ellie Lash, Rus Peotter and Chuong Son, read more than 65 nominations for this annual award offered by Daily Hampshire Gazette and United Way of Hampshire County. In letter after letter, we learned of people stepping forward in ways uniquely their own to make our community a better place.

These gestures underscore the values we at United Way believe in — that to make a difference we simply need a sense of commitment to advancing the common good in ways that are possible for each of us, and that reflect our own passions and values. It is about knowing and trusting that when we do our part, we will be joined shoulder-to-shoulder by others willing to give and act in ways that are uniquely their own, yet complementary.

This year’s Person of the Year nominations, more often than not, came from co-workers, friends, children and parents of the nominees who recognized unwavering generosity, compassion and commitment in people they know intimately well.

In other cases, it was neighbors, customers and recipients of unexpected kindness, who wrote of those who had reached out to them or stood up on their behalf. Such gestures are perennially powerful, yet never more so than now.

We learned of musicians, from South Hadley and Northampton, who use the power of song to build community connections; coaches, from throughout the county, who use sports to build the esteem of youth; and numerous mentors who serve as friends and role models to those who need them.

We heard of an Easthampton husband who, in spite of back pain, steps out in each snowstorm to shovel the drives of his neighbors. There was an Amherst woman who nurses the sick back to health, as well as a Northampton man who, day after day, offers solace to those at life’s end.

This year we read of several steadfast advocates with the courage to stand up and fight, in the face of injustice, persecution and marginalization— action needed now more than ever.

With the introduction of the Young Community Leader Award this year, we were offered a window into the lives, not only of those who have committed a lifetime of services, but also those just beginning to hone their own way of giving back.

Our two winners, Barbara Black and Allison Jenks, are the perfect bookends. Barbara’s decades-long personal and professional commitment to children has touched the lives of thousands of youngsters and their families, in spite of a disability that would have slowed, if not sidelined, most of us. Allison astonishingly manages to balance her time, energy and talent to be an ace student, top athlete and above all, an exemplary community volunteer.

We hope that as you read about Barbara and Allison that you will consider the role that you might play in improving lives here where we live. Reflect on your strengths, your passion, your ideals and consider what your role will be. What do you care about? Where are your connections? What resources and expertise can you share?

The nominees show us, again and again, that we can make a difference. We can inspire, we can build opportunity, we can change our neighbor’s lives for the better, and in doing so improve our own.

So please choose your role and step forward. We will be reading your nomination next year and reflecting with pride on the inspiration you bring.

Jim Ayres is executive director of the United Way of Hampshire County.