Editorial: Award-winners committed to compassionate leadership 

  • Daily Hampshire Gazette Person of the Year Barbara Black, right, of Northampton, and Young Community Leader award-winner Allison Jenks, a Hopkins Academy senior, after a reception April 25 at the Lord Jeffery Inn in Amherst. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Friday, May 05, 2017

At the opposite ends of their careers, Barbara Black and Allison Jenks share a commitment to improving the lives of people they touch with their compassionate and spirited leadership.

The two women received the Person of the Year and Young Community Leader awards, respectively, during a reception at the Lord Jeffery Inn last week. They were presented by the Daily Hampshire Gazette in partnership with the United Way of Hampshire County.

Black, 66, has spent a lifetime as an early childhood teacher and administrator, and an activist for expanding services to low-income families and improving the quality and accessibility of public education. She plans to retire in October.

Jenks, 18, is a senior at Hopkins Academy in Hadley where she is a top student, athlete and musician, a school leader and a community volunteer. She plans to study allied health sciences at the University of Connecticut.

Black is the third recipient of the Person of the Year, which is awarded to a Hampshire County resident who has shown “a profound commitment to selflessly helping others.” She follows Jack Finn, who founded A2Z Science and Learning Store in Northampton, and Yvonne Freccero, past president of Friends of Hampshire County Homeless Individuals.

The second award was added this year to honor volunteerism by community leaders between the ages of 15 and 30.

Jim Ayres, executive director of the United Way of Hampshire County, described this year’s award-winners as “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.”

After graduating from Stony Brook University in New York in 1971, Black began her career by taking a job at a child-care center helping low-income families. In 1978, she moved to Northampton to work as a teacher at the former Hampshire Community Action Commission. She went on to direct that agency’s day care programs before moving on in 1996 to become the early childhood coordinator for the Northampton schools.

As she describes her work, “It’s really being part of the world that wants to keep letting children play, because that’s how they learn. They need to experience the world.

“Children — especially young children — don’t speak up for themselves and say what they need. And so it’s our job as grown-ups to advocate for them.”

Black has been blind for 20 years as the result of the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa. Consequently, Black says she identifies closely with many of the families whose lives she has touched. “I know about needing to be accommodated. I know about needing to ask for help. I’m pretty empathetic to parents who are juggling the details of life.”

Former Northampton Mayor Clare Higgins worked with Black at the community action commission and recalled her commitment to advocacy. “That kind of leadership grew a network of advocates for young children, some of whom are in this room today,” Higgins said at the awards ceremony. “You talk in these big, big ways about the work that needs to be done, but she did it one child, one family at a time.”

Jenks says receiving the first award for young leaders “made me realize all the stuff I do has an effect on people, and it’s a good one.”

Jenks is president of the Pro Merito Honor Society at Hopkins Academy, where she also is a member of the Student Council, a peer mentor, captain of the basketball and soccer teams and plays a variety of percussion instruments in the concert, jazz and marching bands. In February, Jenks volunteered in Nicaragua with eight other Hopkins students for the organization La Esperanza Granada.

Hopkins Academy Principal Brian Beck, in introducing Jenks, said, “As a high school principal for the last 13 years, I’ve never felt so honored to speak about a student as I am this evening. Allison’s leadership and dedication have had a remarkably positive impact on our classrooms, our students and our community.”

Black and Jenks set an inspiring example by their selfless dedication to helping others. As Ayres puts it, they demonstrate that individuals “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.”