Leading lights: Four Hampshire County women receive state honor as ‘heroines’

Mildred Lefebvre, at Pulaski Park in Holyoke, is a staunch advocate for Holyoke schools.

Mildred Lefebvre, at Pulaski Park in Holyoke, is a staunch advocate for Holyoke schools. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Mildred Lefebvre on Wednesday afternoon at Pulaski Park in Holyoke.

Mildred Lefebvre on Wednesday afternoon at Pulaski Park in Holyoke. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Mildred Lefebvre on Wednesday afternoon at Pulaski Park in Holyoke.

Mildred Lefebvre on Wednesday afternoon at Pulaski Park in Holyoke. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Small Oven Bakery owner Amanda Milazzo, in Easthampton, has made Bread for Friends a community staple.

Small Oven Bakery owner Amanda Milazzo, in Easthampton, has made Bread for Friends a community staple. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Small Oven Bakery owner Amanda Milazzo on Wednesday afternoon in Easthampton.

Small Oven Bakery owner Amanda Milazzo on Wednesday afternoon in Easthampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Henia Lewin at Childs Park.

Henia Lewin at Childs Park. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Small Oven Bakery owner Amanda Milazzo on Wednesday afternoon in Easthampton.

Small Oven Bakery owner Amanda Milazzo on Wednesday afternoon in Easthampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Small Oven Bakery owner Amanda Milazzo on Wednesday afternoon in Easthampton.

Small Oven Bakery owner Amanda Milazzo on Wednesday afternoon in Easthampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

—STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Henia Lewin, at Childs Park in Northampton, turned to Holocaust education after retiring from teaching.

Henia Lewin, at Childs Park in Northampton, turned to Holocaust education after retiring from teaching. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Alisa Klein, executive director of Grow Food Northampton, in the Community Gardens off Spring Street in Florence.

Alisa Klein, executive director of Grow Food Northampton, in the Community Gardens off Spring Street in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Alisa Klein, executive director of Grow Food Northampton, in the Community Gardens off Spring Street in Florence.

Alisa Klein, executive director of Grow Food Northampton, in the Community Gardens off Spring Street in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By ALEXA LEWIS

Staff Writer

Published: 06-14-2024 5:48 PM

Four Hampshire County women are being recognized for the remarkable work they have done to support their communities throughout the years. Alisa Klein, Henia Lewin, Mildred Lefebvre and Amanda Milazzo have each been nominated by their respective state House representatives to be part of the Commonwealth Heroines Class of 2024 for their exceptional service to their communities.

The Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women partners with state legislators each year to award women who do exemplary local work with this designation. Each representative is encouraged to nominate one woman for her extraordinary service and commitment to her fellow community members. The goal of the award is to elevate women who “are making a big difference in their communities but not necessarily making the news,” according to the commission.

Klein, Lewin, Lefebvre and Milazzo are part of a class of over 125 women across the state who were recognized for the positive impacts they continue to make at a celebration on Friday at the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston. State Sen. Jo Comerford, meanwhile, nominated Greenfield resident Pamela Adams as a Commonwealth Heroine.

Alisa Klein: Steward of environment, community

Alisa Klein, a longtime advocate for food and climate justice, is passionate about feeding her community while maintaining a sustainable relationship with the land. As the executive director of Grow Food Northampton for the past 4½ years, Klein has thoughtfully led the organization and remained true to its three core pillars: food access, education, and land access and stewardship.

Grow Food Northampton is a “food and farming justice organization,” said Klein. One of the organization’s primary focuses is providing healthy, nutrient-rich foods to those facing food insecurity in the community. The organization owns and stewards the largest community farm in Massachusetts, a sprawling 121-acre property in Florence where they sustainably grow large batches of produce.

Grow Food Northampton also leases low-cost farmland to 10 small farms, runs a 320-plot organic community garden, spearheads local education efforts surrounding nutrition and growing one’s own food, and much more.

Before her job as Grow Food Northampton’s executive director, Klein served on the Northampton City Council for six years, during which she led efforts to write and pass legislation to “prohibit pesticide use in municipal areas,” and limit harmful pesticide use more generally, she said.

Since taking on a leadership role with Grow Food Northampton, Klein has had opportunities to continue her work protecting the environment and the people that rely on it. Specifically, she said she is proud of the 20 community gardens that Grow Food Northampton has established at low-income housing communities.

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“It’s a real cornerstone of what we call ‘food sovereignty,’ which is people’s ability to choose their own food,” said Klein, emphasizing that this improves access to nutritious food for those who are food insecure.

Grow Food Northampton also feeds communities with year-round farmers markets, as well as free mobile farmers markets that Klein expressed particular pride in.

These mobile markets support over 65 local farms by purchasing pounds upon pounds of produce for local distribution, and have “provided food to over 3,200 households which were experiencing food insecurity” over the past four years, said Klein.

Klein was nominated by Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton not only for her overall work in recent years, but also for her incredible resilience when the community faced unprecedented flooding.

“Last July, when historic flooding threatened local farmers’ livelihoods, Alisa rose to the occasion, working double-time to mobilize resources,” said Sabadosa. “She spearheaded the effort to set up a recovery relief fund to support food-insecure gardeners who lost all the plants they grew, help farmers rebuild, and make future farms more climate-resilient.”

Sabadosa emphasized that Klein was “there day in and day out with constant compassion in the face of true disaster.”

“I’m so grateful to Representative Sabadosa for recognizing me,” said Klein. “I feel like the award is for Grow Food Northampton as much as it is for me.”

Klein expressed enormous gratitude for her colleagues at Grow Food Northampton, without whom she said “none of this would be possible.”

Henia Lewin: “Every human life is a world”

Henia Lewin has come face to face with the forces of good and evil in ways that few people do in their lives. Lewin survived the Holocaust due to the immense kindness of individuals willing to risk their lives for hers in the face of great violence, and she now works to spread that kindness to others through community education aimed at making sure this painful history never repeats itself.

Lewin taught Hebrew at the University of Vermont for 19 years, during which time she was also instrumental in developing a Holocaust Studies program and the university’s Center for Holocaust Studies. When her teaching career came to a close, she was far from ready to stop her efforts of positively influencing the hearts and minds of students.

“After retiring from teaching, I was able to devote my time to Holocaust education,” she said.

And that’s exactly what she did. Lewin began traveling to various communities to educate people of all ages on that dark time in history, encouraging them to be active perpetrators of goodness in the face of injustice. One of the things that struck her most, regardless of the people she was speaking to, was the lack of knowledge about the Holocaust and the sheer scale of its violence.

“Even adults who lived through that period were not aware,” said Lewin. “It started with antisemitism. You start by just hating a certain group … I thought, I must speak to kids. Especially middle school and high school kids, because you hear about bullying a lot — and this is how it starts.”

Lewin began speaking to middle and high school students about the hate that is fostered by bullying individuals for things like their religion, skin color, sexual orientation and more. Moving forward, she said she “felt that the next step should actually be Holocaust education,” which she noticed wasn’t offered at many of the schools she spoke at.

When conversations began in the Massachusetts Statehouse about adopting Holocaust education into school curricula, Rep. Mindy Domb of Amherst, who nominated Lewin for this award, invited her to come speak about the subject’s importance.

Lewin “has shared her personal story with civic organizations, college campus communities, high schoolers and with state legislators when, in 2019, she came to the State House to testify in support of the Genocide Education Act, which has since been passed into law,” said Domb.

Lewin also speaks to college groups several times a year, to whom she emphasizes the harm caused by inaction and turning a blind eye to violence.

“The people I’m most angry with are the bystanders who looked the other way and let the evil happen,” she said. “I try to stress to the college students not to be a bystander.”

Lewin said that she feels “blessed” to still be able to go to schools at the age of 84 and deliver her message, but doing so isn’t always easy.

“It’s like reopening a wound every time … but I really feel like I have to do it,” she said. “It’s so rewarding that the kids want to come up to me and shake my hand, and tell me that they’ll remember what I said forever … that makes it worth it.”

Domb’s nomination of Lewin for the Commonwealth Heroines award reflects the gratitude of the many people Lewin’s story has impacted.

“Lewin has dedicated much of her life to making herself available as a Holocaust educator, combating antisemitism and responding to hate,” Domb said about her nomination. “As a child survivor of the Holocaust, her presentations are powerful and have significant impact with audiences of all ages across the commonwealth.”

Lewin said that she is “so honored” to receive the award. “It came as such an incredible surprise,” she said.

Lewin plans to continue her work, reminding people that “every human life has value, every human life is a world.”

Mildred Lefebvre: Champion of schools

Mildred Lefebvre’s commitment to school advocacy is visible on many levels. From her work on the Holyoke School Committee, to becoming the first Latina president for the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and chair of the National Hispanic Council for the National School Boards Association, Lefebvre strives to create the best educational experience for all students.

Lefebvre has been on the School Committee in Holyoke for over 10 years, but decided to move some of her advocacy to the state level when she noticed that “the challenges we face in Holyoke, we also face across the country,” she said. She also noted that the importance of this kind of work lies in “really setting [students] up for success in whatever they choose.”

However, it was Lefebvre’s dedication and thoughtfulness on the local level that motivated Rep. Patricia Duffy of Holyoke to nominate her for this award.

“Mildred is just a terrific, exemplary woman,” said Duffy, noting Lefebvre’s “tremendous work for Holyoke Public Schools, and bringing that to a public level.”

What impressed Duffy most was Lefebvre’s consistent work to get Holyoke Public Schools out of receivership after the state took control of them around 2015.

“She would challenge us to think about why this happened,” said Duffy, who noted that Lefebvre has remained a “huge advocate” for Holyoke’s public schools and School Committee throughout the process. “The kids always come first. That’s her motto,” she said.

“First, we needed to identify what put us in that position, and acknowledge it,” Lefebvre said of the receivership status. “We needed to determine the steps to get out of it and not go back into it.”

Lefebvre has continued to meet with the Local Control Subcommittee throughout the receivership period to examine the steps that need to be taken. Now, Holyoke Public Schools are poised to shed their receivership status after years of facing hard truths and coordinating improvements.

“By August, we should have the full transition plan to get us out of receivership,” said Lefebvre. “There are goals and measures in there, and steps that we have to take.”

Once the transition plan is finalized, Holyoke Public Schools can begin that work. Among the first steps will be training the School Committee to search for and evaluate a new superintendent.

Lefebvre’s work is far from over as she continues to work toward the improvement of schools in Holyoke and beyond. She continues to advocate for Holyoke Public Schools as they journey towards exiting receivership, while also bringing the knowledge and problem-solving skills she has exemplified in her district to the state level and beyond.

“A transition should be done gradually,” she said. “It shouldn’t be from one day to another.”

Lefevbre emphasized that these accomplishments have all been made possible by broader group efforts, and that the feedback and perspectives of her various colleagues have been invaluable in solving every problem that arises.

“We all work together to make it happen,” she said.

She has humbly accepted this award, which signifies the thankfulness of her community for her commitment to quality schooling, stating that “I’m not one to really enjoy getting recognized, because I feel like it’s just my duty.”

“I’m really humbled that Representative Duffy thought of me,” she said. “But I always say, it’s not just me, we do it together.”

Amanda Milazzo: Breaking bread

Amanda Milazzo’s Small Oven Bakery is a colorful and delicious part of Easthampton’s culture, but what many patrons might not know is that Small Oven plays a big role in providing relief for those experiencing food insecurity.

Milazzo started Bread for Friends, an initiative to share quality baked bread at no cost to hungry community members, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past four years, Bread for Friends has been a continued success that spreads the warmth of fresh bread and compassion to those who need it most.

“Amanda is always giving back to the community,” said Rep. Daniel Carey of Easthampton, who nominated Milazzo for this award. “Every other Monday, for over four years, Amanda has offered free freshly baked bread to anyone in need of it. Amanda has also coordinated donations to the Easthampton Community Center and regularly raises funds for organizations locally and globally.”

Community members come for fresh-baked bread each Monday that Bread for Friends operates, and are never required to provide an explanation for why they need the bread. It isn’t a transaction, but a judgment-free act of kindness with the slogan “a loaf of bread for whoever is in need of it.”

“It’s a donation from us to the community,” said Milazzo. “We want to feed the community and help out in the community however we can.”

In March 2022, Bread for Friends donated 200 loaves of bread to the Easthampton Community Center through a program by King Arthur Flour called “For Goodness Bakes.” Milazzo said that this effort was “really a nice thank-you to our community.”

Milazzo’s love of food has been a constant throughout her life, even taking her to culinary school to study pastry making. When she brought her appreciation and skills for all things decadent to the Pioneer Valley in 2005, she fell in love with the “locavore” movement, which emphasizes sourcing food locally. The Valley’s bountiful array of local farms, orchards and dairies provided ample opportunities to prioritize local produce in her baking, which she continues to focus on as she crafts creative delicacies for all to enjoy.

Bread for Friends has become a “regular part” of Small Oven’s production since the pandemic, she said.

“It started initially when, in food service especially, people started losing their jobs,” said Milazzo. But since then, it has become an integral part of Small Oven and the broader Easthampton community.

As Easthampton continues to rapidly expand with new housing developments, businesses, and transportation infrastructure, Milazzo is preparing to expand her culinary ventures as well. While Small Oven and Bread For Friends continue to stand as beloved aspects of Easthampton culture, Milazzo is looking to open up a new entrepreneurial endeavor: a bar called Darlings on Holyoke Street, which she hopes will open this September.

Milazzo’s commitments to philanthropic and entrepreneurial efforts are part of what makes her growing community continue to feel vibrant and close-knit.

“It’s really sweet to be recognized,” she said of the award. “I don’t do it to be recognized, I literally do it just for the community… to keep moving people forward during tough times.”

Alexa Lewis can be reached at alewis@gazettenet.com or on Instagram and Twitter at @alexamlewis.