2020 Patriots Difference Makers of the Week
South Burlington, Vt.
Boys & Girls Club of Burlington
For more than 10 years, Dr. Abramson has served on the board of directors for the Boys and Girls Club of Burlington. She is currently serving as the board president and is a leader on the development team, managing more than 35 volunteers for fundraising initiatives.
Dr. Abramson has been actively involved with the club's early promise academic improvement program. She tutors many club members across a wide range of educational subjects, ensuring students stay on track. Dr. Abramson developed a strong relationship with six female middle school students, all of whom fled to the United States as refugees after experiencing terrible events as children. She became an incredible source of support to the students – guiding them through school assignments and enjoying lunch, shopping and other recreational activities together. She also looks forward to having them join her family for Thanksgiving each year.
Thanks to Dr. Abramson's mentorship, each of these young women have overcome obstacles in their lives and are now thriving. All six students are currently enrolled in college and receiving continued support from Dr. Abramson, who continues to offer guidance and share her network of business contacts to help the students find the right career path. She is deeply committed to ensuring that all of her mentees reach their full potential.
Windham Chamber Foundation
Back in March, as the pandemic led to business closures in the state of Connecticut, Diane was laid off as the CEO of the Windham Region Chamber of Commerce. Despite losing her job, she remained committed to the cause, volunteering tirelessly for the Windham Chamber Foundation to support businesses across the state.
Diane has provided one-on-one coaching and support to people filing for unemployment, answering questions about business loans and deciphering which programs will support self-employed and contract workers. This includes sharing information on emergency paid sick leave, the CARES Act, PPP loans, employee rights and IRS filing.
She provides daily and weekly newsletter updates on state and federal programs, including loans, resources and unemployment. Diane has hosted webinars with COVID-19 content experts, elected officials and business development specials. She has worked with individual businesses to help them develop their own customized reopening plans and provided virtual business development to individual employees and business leaders.
Diane has also communicated ways that citizens can get involved and help families in need. She has identified the needs of community kitchens, promoted volunteer opportunities and helped to funnel donations to charitable organizations. Her leadership continues to inspire other chamber volunteers and business owners alike. Together, they are developing future programs to sustain the business community in a post-COVID era.
Strong Little Souls
When Madison was 13 years old, she started using her own money to purchase toys for children battling cancer. When she ran out of money, she started collecting bottles and cans so she could help more families. Madison wanted to help as many families as she could, so she started her own nonprofit, Strong Little Souls.
The nonprofit is dedicated to supporting families battling cancer by sending care packages, granting wishes and offering financial support. As the founder of the nonprofit, Madison truly does it all. She manages the finances and coordinates all of their fundraising initiatives. She speaks at schools to promote the organization, reviews all program requests, oversees social media and has even made annual trips to Washington D.C. to advocate for more funding to support childhood cancer.
Madison visits hospitals to build long-lasting relationships with each family. She stays in touch with each of them throughout the diagnosis and treatments, offering her support along the way. Madison continues to manage all aspects of the nonprofit while completing her first year of college – in pursuit of a nursing degree.
Thanks to Madison's leadership, Strong Little Souls has sent more than 1,500 care packages all around the world, granted more than 50 wishes for children battling life-threatening illnesses and donated tens of thousands of dollars to families in need. In addition to her work with Strong Little Souls, Madison has volunteered at a local soup kitchen, raised money for a local animal shelter and supported food programs benefiting underserved families in the Dominican Republic.
United Way of Tri-County
For the past 17 years, Bob has been volunteering his time with the Call2Talk mental health, emotional support and suicide prevention program. He answers incoming calls from people who are emotionally despondent, feeling isolated or lonely and struggling with suicidal ideation. Bob engages with callers who are looking to connect with someone and feel more hopeful about their current situation. He helps callers move from a place of crisis to a calmer state.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, many mental health professionals cannot accept additional clients, day programs are at capacity and in-patient units have a reduced number of beds. The COVID-19 pandemic has created an even larger gap in services and has led to a record number of callers for the United Way. Call2Talk provides a confidential and lifesaving 24-hour service that reduces the burden on first responders. Trained call-talkers like Bob help people find their voice, listen to their struggles without judgement and offer hope.
Bob has volunteered as a shift supervisor and a shift mentor, supporting new call-talkers and teaching them how to effectively help people. He has supported training preparation for new volunteers and facilitated grief-support groups to help individuals who recently lost a loved one to suicide. Bob is also a volunteer member of Call2Talk's TeleCheck team, a peer-to-peer outgoing call service for adults age 60 and above. Through this program, he makes outgoing calls to seniors that may need additional support because of a major life transition, such as bereavement, medical diagnosis or change in mobility. Bob calls participants twice a week, giving them someone to talk to during a difficult time in their life.
Seven years ago, due to a side effect from a surgical procedure, Bob was declared legally blind. Even though he is no longer able to drive, he is always able to secure transportation to and from his volunteer shifts. In addition to his efforts at the United Way, Bob volunteers at a local hospice residence and serves as a volunteer coach for the Wayland Middle School track team. Bob inspires those around him with his infectious enthusiasm. He takes great pride in his volunteer work and remains committed to making a difference for those in need.
TeamWalk for CancerCare at Lowell General Hospital
A hair stylist by trade, Robert wanted to contribute his talents to the Cancer Center's Wig Boutique through the "Look Good, Feel Better" program. In 2012 he started volunteering his time, working with more than 50 patients annually, helping them to select and customize the perfect hair prosthesis to fit the patient's individual needs and style. Robert goes above and beyond to make each patient feel beautiful and confident during their diagnosis or recovery.
To support fundraising efforts for this program, Robert created a fashion show fundraiser known as the CatWalk for Cancer Care. During its inaugural year, the event was held in the hospital auditorium, raising $3,000. Over the next several years, Robert engaged a committee of community volunteers, forged relationships with major retailers and sponsors and turned the CatWalk for Cancer Care into the hospitals "event of the year." Serving as the auctioneer and emcee, Robert orchestrates an inspirational event for cancer survivors, patients and their family and supporters. Thanks to his dedication and leadership, the event has now raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of TeamWalk for CancerCare.
Robert has remained active as a volunteer during the pandemic, helping to coordinate virtual fundraising experiences. His enthusiasm, creativity, sense of humor and generous spirit are unmatched and his impact on patients and the Cancer Center are immeasurable.
In October of 2016, Steven "Gilly" Gillmeister lost his long battle with addiction. Within six months of Steven's passing, his parents – Barbara and David – purchased a residential home for young men in recovery. Gilly's House is a sober home for young men in the early stages of recovery. It offers a stable, structured and supportive environment to achieve personal goals while attaining the transitional life skills necessary to reintegrate into community life. With a capacity to serve 22 men, the nonprofit provides a structured environment with 24-hour staffing.
The daily structured schedule reinforces a lifestyle free of alcohol and drug use. Transitional life skills including healthy living, social services, career exploration, personal finance and self-help groups, along with an opportunity for counseling and 12 Step group meetings, is integral to the success of this program. They prepare men to reenter life with a positive step forward and with the personal skills and community connections to continue to meet individual goals and live a successful life of sobriety.
As co-founder and executive director of Gilly's House, Barbara is dedicated to making sure the men receive the proper resources to get their lives back in order. She guides them in the recovery process, helping them to connect with the community through volunteer work, seek out and secure jobs, navigate through the legal process and secure appropriate healthcare services.
Barbara hires all staff members, gathers supplies for the home, organizes fundraisers and handles administrative work. She also consults with other sober homes, speaks to local community groups and schools and attends community events and seminars to promote sober living. She does this all without receiving any compensation.
Recognizing that addiction is a family illness, Barbara has instituted Supper with Siblings, a support group for individuals who either lost a sibling or currently have a sibling that is struggling with addiction. She also created a parents network to keep all families connected and to further strengthen their support circles. Families seeking more information about the program are encouraged to visit their website www.gillyshouse.com.
Voices of Hope
Eleven years ago, Greg lost his mother to pancreatic cancer. She was passionate about theater and as a tribute, Greg put together a concert to honor his mother, while also raising money for cancer research. In just one night, Greg managed to raise $17,000 and with that performance, Voices of Hope was born.
Inspired by early success, Greg made the decision to leave his job in finance and dedicate his efforts full time to growing Voices of Hope. As president and founder, his efforts include securing sponsors, reviewing performance requests, evaluating potential performance venues, maintaining communication with the Voices of Hope members and more. The nonprofit hosts two major stage performances each year along with performance at the Boston Hatch Shell, holiday performances and singing the National Anthem at sporting events.
Since 2009, the nonprofit has donated more than $780,000 to cancer research, including the Termeer Center for Targeted Therapies at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. A pioneer in personalized cancer medicines, the Termeer Center offers a comprehensive translational research program to speed the discovery and delivery of new targeted therapies to patients with early and advanced stage cancers. Patients in the Termeer Center are matched with a small, but dynamic clinical team, whose expertise supports both advances in research and excellence in supportive patient care.
With live performances halted due to COVID-19, Greg rallied his members to record and submit video recordings of songs which were produced as a series of "virtual cabarets" which were privately shared with caregivers and patients receiving treatment at the Termeer Center. Members also wrote notes of thanks and appreciation to the frontline workers at the Termeer Center, and extended prayers and support to a member of the community who was struck down by the virus. In the spring, Greg was successful in securing a donation which allowed their rehearsal studio (the Nest) to be reconfigured with plexi-glass enclosures to allow a small number of members to safely record in an effort to continue the mission of raising funds for cancer research.
The LeBlanc Family
Sew the Masks
Back in March, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country, many businesses were forced to close their doors. One local business – AIS from Leominster, Mass. – wanted to do their part to support first responders and those most at risk. The office furniture manufacturer partnered with the United Way of North Central Massachusetts to launch the "Sew the Masks" campaign. With the support of volunteer sewers, the initiative is committed to donating one million high-quality, reusable cloth facemasks.
AIS and the United Way recruit volunteers and sends each of them a sewing kit. Each kit contains pre-cut materials for 50 facemasks. All of the materials are designed and developed on the AIS manufacturing floor in Leominster. Once the sewing is completed, the volunteers use a prepaid shipping label to return the facemasks. AIS then conducts a quality check and donates the masks to first responders and those at risk.
The LeBlanc family jumped in with both feet to support this initiative and made it a true family affair. Three generations of LeBlancs – Edith LeBlanc, Therese Packard and Skyler Packard – have been actively involved, sewing more 250 masks as a team for this campaign. But their efforts don't stop there as the family has sewn additional masks for family, friends and local frontline workers.
Since its inception, the "Sew the Masks" campaign has recruited nearly 1,000 talented sewers from 45 states. Over 250,000 facemasks have been donated to first responders and organizations in need.
Seeds of Hope
Isabel started volunteering in her hometown of Hampstead at age seven and has become a force for good, serving with multiple organizations through food drives, coat drives, crop walks and charity events. Over the past three years, Isabel has been growing the scope of her efforts and recruiting new volunteers while leading high impact service projects. On Saturday mornings, you'll find her sorting, packing food boxes and helping the NH Food Bank distribute donations. On Sunday, she volunteers at mobile or local food pantries while helping secure donations to Tag Out Hunger.
When she learned that demand at the NH Food Bank had tripled in April due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she quickly organized a virtual "Povey Power 5K" on Global Youth Service Day to raise needed funds. She recruited more than over 80 participants and raised over $4,200 in one week. Those funds helped to provide 8,400 meals for the NH Food Bank.
Beyond her work in New Hampshire, the 16-year old has also created an international nonprofit called Seeds of Hope that delivers vegetable seeds to schools, orphanages and churches in Africa, Pakistan, Haiti and Tonga. She visits Girl Scout Troops and after school programs locally to teach elementary aged students how to grow and share. She has already volunteered more than 1,300 hours in 2020 and shows no signs of slowing down.
"I am so thankful to the Kraft family and the Patriots Foundation for this recognition and for allowing me to spread even more hope with this donation," said Isabel. "The need is unprecedented right now so this will make a huge impact for local families. Most of all, I am grateful for this opportunity to show people young and old that we have the power to make a difference, because from the smallest of seeds grow the mightiest of trees."
Women's Lunch Place
Women's Lunch Place is a safe, welcoming day shelter community, providing nutritious food and individualized services for women who are experiencing homelessness or poverty. They are dedicated to meeting their guests where they are and treat them with dignity and respect.
For the past 12 years, Donna has gone above and beyond as a volunteer at the Women's Lunch Place. She was introduced through a mutual friend and instantly fell in love with the nonprofit's mission. Donna has volunteered in their kitchen, preparing and serving meals to women experiencing homelessness. She has helped in their welcome center, greeting guests and helping them find the resources they need to self-advocate. Donna has also served on various fundraising committees and recruited dozens of volunteers.
"The ability to serve the beautiful ladies of Women's Lunch Place is an ongoing gift to my heart," said Donna. "It's a blessing to witness the positive, life altering impact Women's Lunch Place makes in the lives of vulnerable women and children experiencing homelessness."
Back in March when the pandemic spread across the country, she began volunteering for the nonprofit's Back-door Meal program which brings prepared food to shelters that were unable to keep up with the demand for food. She helped with their mobile food pantry program by delivering meals and pantry items to individuals who were sheltering in place in temporary housing.
Donna also led the effort to bring the Mask Makers Group to Women's Lunch Place. She and other mask makers donated time and materials to sew and donate masks to women living on the street. Thanks to her and the other mask makers, thousands of masks have been distributed to those in need.
South Kingstown, R.I.
Southern RI Volunteers
Kevin is dedicated to making a difference in the lives of senior citizens. He provides seniors with transportation to and from their medical appointments. Regardless of the driving distance or the length of the appointment, Kevin is always available, often re-arranging his schedule to help someone in need.
He also helps with the nonprofit's grocery delivery service, delivering food each week to between 40 and 50 senior homes. Kevin has continued to provide this essential service during the pandemic, making sure that all seniors receive the proper nutrition.
"I'm lucky enough to be able to devote time to assist some of those in the community who are most in need," said Kevin. "Beyond a significant sense of personal fulfillment, it affords opportunity to meet remarkable individuals, most of whom I would not have crossed paths with otherwise. I particularly enjoy talking with the veterans I spend time with as part of my work with the SRIV and the Providence VA Medical Center."
As the chair of the board of directors, Kevin oversees all of the nonprofit's programming and manages more than 400 volunteers. He remains steadfast in his commitment to providing meals, companionship and support to those in need.
"Our SRIV services, for the most part, involve engagement with seniors," said Kevin. "They, as well as our military veterans, have a wealth of knowledge and experience that they're eager to share with those who are willing listen. I have developed true friendships among them, and have heard amazing life stories. I value the patriotism, humility, acceptance, steadfastness and optimism that the seniors exhibit."
Less than two years ago, Joanie – a firefighter in Wellesley – was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma. She was just 37 years old at the time and was shocked by the diagnosis. However, she was determined to not only beat cancer, but to serve as a tireless advocate for early detection and cancer research.
Joanie joined forces with DetecTogether – formerly known as 15-40 Connection – a nonprofit organization focused on teaching people how to detect cancer early. The organization treats healthcare as a team sport and empowers people to be active patients. Their "3 Steps Detect" initiative teaches people how to recognize cancer symptoms, gives a timeframe for action and the skills to self-advocate. The result is often less intrusive treatment, a quicker return to health and lives saved.
As a firefighter, Joanie was aware that cancer is the number one line of duty cause of death for firefighters. After her own diagnosis, she made it her mission to educate her brothers and sisters in the fire service about the importance of paying attention to symptoms and getting timely help. The delay in diagnosis is often what makes cancer deadly, and many firefighters minimize symptoms and have a hard time asking for help.
Joanie agreed to participate in a DetecTogether public service announcement for firefighters, sharing her story in person and in firehouses. She has participated in local community television programs, served on several cancer survivor panels and led discussions at local high schools.
Despite her ongoing cancer treatments and the pandemic, Joanie continued to find ways to share her story and share the importance of patient action in early detection. She wrote blogs, filmed vlogs, advocated on social media and fundraised for the nonprofit.
Joanie recently returned to work after more than a year of cancer treatment at the Wellesley Fire Department and continues to be an invaluable volunteer for DetecTogether. With her infectious enthusiasm and tireless dedication, Joanie is positively impacting countless lives.
Playwords New England
Growing up in Mattapan, Kim always understood the value of volunteering. It is something that her mother instilled in her at a very young age and she always finds time to give back to her local community.
Playworks is a national nonprofit that leverages the power of play to transform children's social, emotional and physical health. They partner with high-need elementary schools to ensure recess is an opportunity for students to learn the skills needed to thrive in and out of school. Playworks' ultimate goal is to create an educational environment free from conflict where students interact and play with their peers respectfully, develop healthy lifestyles, take on leadership roles and become successful learners.
Kim initially starting volunteering eight years ago as an assistant coach during recess, helping to engage all students in inclusive play opportunities. She now volunteers as a junior coach for the organization, serving as a positive adult role model and mentor to fourth and fifth grade students. Through this youth leadership program, Kim teaches the students how to lead recess activities for their classmates while utilizing critical skills including communication, conflict resolution, empathy and teamwork.
The students Kim serves are from low-income areas across Boston. Kim helps them to express themselves through play. She continues to engage with the students, offering words of encouragement while also ensuring they have access to tools that will make them better students. In addition to her efforts at Playworks, Kim has volunteered countless hours at Daily Table in Roxbury, where she helps to feed Boston's most vulnerable population.
The S.E.A.L. Foundation
The mission of the Specialized Education for All Learners (S.E.A.L.) Foundation is to create and fund educational and social opportunities in non-public school and camp settings for students who learn differently in order to ensure they maximize their potential. As the chairperson of the board of advisors, Heidi works closely with the founder, executive director and other board members to carry out the nonprofits mission, implement fundraising programs and strategies and introduce new schools in New England to the services they provide.
As a highly talented and motivated individual with dyslexia, Heidi has used her personal challenges with a learning difference to create awareness and greater opportunities for others who may also learn differently. She works with S.E.A.L. Foundation staff, introducing them to schools who could benenfit from simulations that allow teachers to experience what it's like to have a learning difference. Heidi works closely with parents, ensuring their children have the resources they need to reach their full potential.
Heidi works with coaches, helping them to understand the best way to communicate and instruct children with different learning abilities on and off the field. She also educates parents on the certain behaviors of students with learning differences to dispel myths and stereotypes of certain diagnoses in an effort to ensure full inclusion in all social, emotional and educational opportunities.
In addition to her community service at the S.E.A.L. Foundation, Heidi, a Middletown, R.I. resident, has volunteered for addiction and recovery organizations, coached local lacrosse teams, been an active member of parent-teacher organizations, given her time to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and advocated and fundraised for the National Brain Tumor Society.
Friends of the Blackstone School
For the past 15 years, Bill has volunteered countless hours advocating for families, students and teachers at the Blackstone School. As an inner-city public school, many of the students come from single parent families in some of the more unstable neighborhoods in the city. Frequently, English is not spoken at home, making it challenging for a young student to read in English for comprehension.
As the president and a founding member of the organization, Bill has worked with school leadership and staff to obtain funds to improve the capability and impact of the school on its students. The Blackstone School has a very high percentage of "high need" students and the current Boston Public School funding levels need to be supplemented by privately raised funds.
A stable, supportive presence at the school, teachers and students affectionately and enthusiastically refer to him as "Mr. Bill." He is well respected by the teachers and is known for fostering a sense of community between educators, students and parents. He listens and empathizes with any issues the teacher may have that can improve the teaching and learning experience and works with them to find solutions.