Gazette’s people of the year: Broad-scope activist, prolific teen volunteer

  • Marty Nathan at her home in Northampton. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marty Nathan at her home in Northampton. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marty Nathan, seen at her home in Northampton, worked with Frances Crowe for many years. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hopkins Academy freshman Christian Ciolkos has an extensive volunteering resume. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Christian Ciolkos is a freshman at Hopkins Academy. Photographed at his home in Hadley on Friday, May 28, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 6/8/2021 9:34:44 AM

In a year largely defined by a global pandemic and its formidable challenges, two local residents remained undeterred in their commitment to selfless acts that uplifted their fellow community members.

This year’s recipients of the Daily Hampshire Gazette and United Way of Hampshire County Frances Crowe and Young Person of the Year awards were exemplary for their tenacity and determination to improve the lives of others during a tumultuous and uncertain time.

Marty Nathan’s lifelong commitment towards anti-war, anti-racism and environmental activism has earned her this year’s Frances Crowe Award. The award is in honor of the legendary Northampton peace, anti-war and anti-nuclear activist who died in 2019 at the age of 100. Nathan is a prominent figure in the local environmental movement and a consistent presence at anti-war rallies in Northampton, where she has lived for over 25 years.

This year’s Young Person of the Year recipient is 15-year-old Hadley resident Christian Ciolkos, known throughout his community for contributions to various food pantries and volunteer work in Latin American countries. He is nearing the end of his freshman year at Hopkins Academy, where he is on track to earn honor roll credits, plays golf for the varsity team, and serves as secretary for the student council.

A committee of Gazette, United Way and community leaders review all nominations for the awards in order to select a winner. The Young Community Leader will receive a $250 prize, half of which is donated to a charity of choice (Ciolkos is donating the entire prize). And the Frances Crowe recipient’s $500 prize is donated to a cause of their choice.

Frances Crowe Award

“I knew Frances Crowe well for almost 25 years,” Nathan said. “On several levels, (the award) is really meaningful to me.”

Nathan said her origins in anti-war activism began 50 years ago during the Vietnam War. From there, she became active in the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

“I went on to get into the climate movement because I was horrified by the impact of war and the military on the environment. That was my entry into fighting climate change,” said Nathan said, who worked alongside Crowe on anti-war activism during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“We were inhabiting the same ideological and political territory, and it was good to see her at Saturday morning vigils in front of the courthouse and be there to discuss what was going on in the world and how we could respond,” Nathan said.

Last year, Nathan retired from Baystate Brightwood Health Center in Springfield, where she worked as a family physician. She retired due to health reasons, she said, and has been “dealing with decisions over what I can and cannot do” in regards to her activism work.

Nathan has continued her work with La Cliniquita, an evening health clinic she helped start for undocumented and uninsured immigrants. Nathan said the clinic helps support the health and nutrition of immigrant workers in Springfield. She also has continued working with the Markham Nathan Fund and Climate Action Now, as well as organizing stand-outs in front of the office of U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern’s office in opposition to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and violence in Venezuela.

“The pandemic has made life even more difficult for undocumented immigrants,” Nathan said. “They are front-line workers and so they have been forced to be exposed to the virus and are more likely to be made sick.”

Undocumented immigrants are more likely to work in farms and restaurants where they often do not have benefits to support them, she noted, and are likely to be fired if they do not show up. Nathan said many undocumented immigrants experienced a difficult winter because many are seasonally laid off. With the economy in recession and amid the fears of the pandemic, she said conditions made for a “hungry time if undocumented.”

“We’ve pitched in with a food program working with the Pioneer Valley Worker’s Center to offer to people as they need it, and we’ve also at times offered people rent back up if they are about to be kicked out of their homes,” Nathan said. Summed up, La Cliniquita does “whatever we need to do to help people survive.”

The clinic has funded operations for ankles and eyes, and has provided medical supplies to people who need it.

“As the country and government deals with the horror show of immigration policy, or as long as it doesn’t, La Cliniquita will have to be there,” she said. “Undocumented immigrants can’t get Medicaid or MassHealth, welfare, or food stamps — they have no social safety net.”

The Markham Nathan Fund has continued to give grants to small organizations fighting for social justice. The fund was founded in 2009 in honor of Michael Nathan and George Markham by their widows, Nathan and Arky Markham. Nathan’s husband was one of five labor organizers shot and killed by neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members during a rally in Greensboro, North Carolina on Nov. 3, 1979, an event that later became known as the Greensboro Massacre.

Last year, during the pandemic, they made an exception to the fund’s rule of giving only to organizations with operating budgets smaller than $175,000. Funds went out to organizations that were supporting people who were in danger of eviction due to troubles making rent payments, and to help organizations get wireless access.

On recent Friday evenings, rallies outside McGovern’s office on Pleasant Street in Northampton have sought to bring attention to the U.S. government’s roles in violence abroad.

“Having been a part of the movement for Palestinian rights for many years, my husband and I are really relieved to see that shift in public opinion so there is recognition that to be opposed to the Israeli occupation is not anti-Semitism,” Nathan said. “We worked with Jewish Work for Peace and many groups that are saying this bombing of Gaza, evictions, and oppression on the West Bank are human rights violations, and to oppose them means fighting for human rights.”

Nathan said Climate Action Now worked very hard on getting Gov. Charlie Baker’s signature on an environmental law that commits Massachusetts to achieving net-zero carbon emissions buy 2050, among other goals, which he signed this past March. “I think we had a real victory with the climate change bill,” Nathan said.

A big issue for Climate Action Now in the next month will be Eversource’s plans to go ahead with building a metering station in Longmeadow and a high-pressure pipeline that runs from Longmeadow Country Club to downtown Springfield. Eversource is taking over the project after the company purchased Columbia Gas, and they are picking back up on a project that some residents and climate activists have long opposed.

“In a climate emergency, we should not be drilling, burning or leaking more gas. It will become a stranded asset. What’s going to happen to all this massive gas and oil infrastructure when we are completely off fossil fuels? It’s going to be worthless, and we call that a stranded asset.”

Young Person of the Year

A few weeks ago, Christian Ciolkos learned from his mother when he was picked up from school that he won the Young Person of the Year Award, which is given out to a Hampshire County resident 15-30 years old.

“I got the news, and I was pretty surprised, honored and grateful,” Ciolkos said.

He volunteers with various organizations, including the Take and Eat monthly meals program at Most Holy Redeemer and First Congregational Church of Hadley; Meghan’s Light, a nonprofit in honor of Meghan Zoll, who died of cystic fibrosis at the age of 39; and the Hadley Parks and Rec Department.

When the pandemic struck and the Amherst Survival Center had to temporarily stop accepting food donations, Ciolkos recognized there would still be a need to feed the houseless population. He took it upon himself to gather donations from neighbors using large bags, helping to ensure the survival center could still stock its shelves. He arranged with the food pantry to bring a large donation of food at a time of great need.

“It’s nice to give back,” Ciolkos said. “I’m lucky enough to be able to donate to people who need it.”

With the Young Person of the Year award comes a cash prize of $250 that Ciolkos is planning to contribute entirely towards Meghan’s Light, which helps fund what the organization calls the “wellness wishes” of recipients, such as gym memberships, salt treatments, dance classes or Taekwondo lessons. Ciolkos also has volunteered at several events.

In recent years, Ciolkos has taken trips with his family and with Hopkins Academy’s Spanish club to Latin American and Caribbean countries where he has done everything from reading to young children, to helping build walls for schools, to rescuing canines to bring back to Massachusetts.

Last year, Ciolkos went to Costa Rica in February for several volunteer projects. He painted walls for a local senior center, worked on a garden at a church, and went to a wildlife sanctuary where he helped build an irrigation system. In 2017, Ciolkos went to Nicaragua with the Hopkins Academy Spanish club where he helped build walls outside of a local school.

Ciolkos’ mother, Diane Kieras-Ciolkos, works as a travel agent, and last Thanksgiving, their family went to Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean with a unique goal in mind. Animal shelters last fall were experiencing spikes in adoption rates, Kieras-Ciolkos said, and the family went down to the islands to bring back a young pup for a family in Boston.

As for Ciolkos’ plans for the future, “I hope to keep giving back,” he said.

“It’s enjoyable, and it feels really good being lucky like this and going everywhere. I just want to give back to the world,” Ciolkos said.

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