Guest columnist Geoff Naunheim: Inspiring leaders in troubled times

  •  Geoff Naunheim

Published: 6/2/2022 2:15:27 PM
Modified: 6/2/2022 2:13:28 PM

Indisputably, it has been an exceedingly difficult month, in a series of hard years. We are reeling from a national formula shortage, soaring inflation, an ongoing pandemic, increases in food insecurity and a series of senseless shootings.

But, believe it or not, this nonprofit employee is not writing you today to reflect on the world’s woes or to ask you to donate your time or money to the community. At least not directly. Today I get to reflect on two people, Robin Bialecki and Lilly Fellows. Two people nominated by the Franklin and Hampshire communities — and carefully reviewed by representatives of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, the Greenfield Recorder, The Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, and your local United Way — for their outstanding contributions to the Pioneer Valley.

The winner of the 2022 Person of the Year is Robin Bialecki, the executive director of the Easthampton Community Center. Hired 16 years ago for a temporary position, she is the organization’s only employee and the glue that holds this community of volunteers and the neighbors they serve together.

Before the pandemic, the former German culture hall and prohibition speakeasy was the kind of place where it would have been normal to find retirees drinking coffee and playing cards midweek. Now, under Bialecki’s leadership, the 1879 ballroom has been converted into a warehouse to store all of the food needed to feed about 10,000 people per month. The small parking lot has become an outdoor distribution center for the pantry that distributes over three times as much food as it did two years ago. (That is close to 3 million pounds per year, in case you were wondering.)

Bialecki is the kind of person who drives an hour each way to Connecticut to buy Halal meat for Afghan refugees and who continued to deliver food to the homes of people sick with COVID-19 even after the public health departments ran out of funding for the program. I have been very fortunate to know Robin for the past five years though my work with United Way and I am in no way surprised by the overwhelming number of nominations forms we received for her.

With the 2022 Young Community Leader award, we celebrate a resident of Franklin County who has contributed to the Pioneer Valley through their community involvement and volunteerism. Lilly Fellows of Orange came to the attention of this nominating committee through her work with a program under the umbrella of Quabbin Mediation called Training Active Bystanders (TAB). According to program organizers, TAB “empowers bystanders and gives them the competencies they need if they decide to take action when they witness something they feel is unfair, or wrong or troubling.”

After getting involved with the program while attending Mahar Regional High School, Lilly worked with fellow students to discuss difficult situations and encouraged them to examine their own bias and power. She taught program participants how to make safe choices and to positively intervene in ways that reduce harm, harassment, and hate. Now, a member of Smith College Class of 2023, Lilly trains the trainers! Lilly is teaching people to help their neighbors. To do the work of making the Valley a better place from the ground up.

Geoff Naunheim is the interim executive director of United Way of the Franklin & Hampshire Region which celebrates its 100th year of serving our community in 2022.

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