Suzanne Parker used all those terms and others that would be considered synonyms, usually with more than a hint of understatement in her voice, to describe the process of taking Girls Inc. of the Valley to the doorstep of opening its new headquarters facility in Holyoke.
The journey, adventure, or whatever she wants to call it is far from over. In fact, construction is still in what would be considered phase 1. But most of the really hard work — and there has been a mountain of it — is now behind Parker, executive director of this nonprofit, and countless others who have been involved.
Thus, they can focus even more of their energies on making this facility all that they hoped it could be when people first started thinking about a new home more than seven years ago.
Indeed, Parker noted that the ceremonial ‘thermometer’ erected on a sign just outside the property on Hampden Street needs to be adjusted to reflect that 92% of the stated $5 million fundraising goal has now been met. Meanwhile, work continues inside on the various spaces that will define this facility, from a community room to a maker space to a teen lounge.
The work to create a new space for Girls Inc. began in earnest out of necessity — specifically, the knowledge that a 40-year lease on property the nonprofit was leasing in downtown Holyoke was expiring and would not be renewed — and brought Parker and other leaders of Girls Inc. to countless properties in or near downtown Holyoke in search of the perfect fit, knowing that such a thing probably didn’t exist.
But they found something close in the former headquarters of the O’Connell Companies on Hampden Street, a building, or at least portions of it, that date back to the late 19th century. Retrofitting the multi-level structure, complete with many unique spaces, has become a labor of love for those involved with Girls Inc. — and so much more.
Indeed, for many of the girls who are members, it has been a unique, hands-on learning experience, with real-life lessons in everything from marketing to fundraising to architecture. In fact, several girls worked directly with lead architect Kuhn Riddle to design one of the spaces in the new home.
Meanwhile, this quest for, and the building of, a new home has been a tremendous opportunity for Girls Inc. to gain exposure, make new connections, and strengthen existing ones, said Parker, adding that this work is ongoing as the nonprofit works to raise that remaining 8% of the funds needed.
“Throughout this journey, we have gained a great deal of visibility, and people have been able to learn about who we are, what we do, and why Girls Inc. is so important to this region,” she said. “It’s been a great opportunity to tell our story and get people involved.”
And, in many ways, the project has been a means to celebrate and promote women in all kinds of businesses who have been involved in this endeavor. That list includes those working in fundraising, finance, law, architecture, and construction, as we’ll see.
This has also been a study in perseverance, said Yadilette Rivera-Colón, an assistant professor of Biology at Bay Path University, BusinessWest Forty Under 40 winner, and current Girls Inc. board chair, noting that the many inherent challenges in a project like this were magnified greatly by the pandemic, which made every aspect of the work more difficult.
Summing it all up, Parker said that, while there is much to do, a celebration of all that has been accomplished — and learned — is in order. And Girls Inc. will do that in March as it marks the passing of the 90% milestone in fundraising, as well as the completion of the first phase of construction. There will be tours and an opportunity to make more connections and more friends.
It will be an occasion to celebrate what’s been done and what this new home will be — and there is much in both categories.
As she talked about the search for a new home and the many properties she and others toured during that lengthy process, Parker paused, glanced skyward, and let out a heavy sigh, body language that pretty much told the story.
“There was a four-year period where I was visiting nearly every building in the city of Holyoke,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, while many were attractive in some respects, none could really check all the boxes she wanted to check.
One was seemingly perfect in most ways, but had little if any parking, she said. Other property makeovers into a permanent home for the agency were simply out of the agency’s price range. And a great number simply needed way too much work to fit the bill.
Eventually, some properties graduated beyond the tour stage and into the exploration, or feasibility, stage, and that further consideration meant investments in time, energy, and sometimes money, she explained. And as the vetting process continued, there were often hard decisions about if and when to let go and move on to something else.
“To have to decide not to go ahead with it is a big decision,” she explained. “You’ve invested time and energy and resources into that, but you have to make a decision … that this is not the one. But you don’t know if the one is out there. There were lots of hard decisions to make.”
The property on Hampden Street didn’t exactly check all the boxes, either. Indeed, its front door is literally a five-foot sidewalk away from a very busy street, said Parker, adding that there were infrastructure issues as well.
But those few shortcomings were all but lost in everything else the building provided — from ample parking at a lot just a few hundred feet away to a backyard; from easy access to a nearby public park to 16,000 square feet of intriguing space Parker described as a “blank canvas” that would enable Girls Inc. to accomplish its primary goal of bringing all of its staff and programing under one large roof.
The property became available somewhat unexpectedly in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, and in many respects because of it — its owners had decided it would not be viable as office space moving forward with the advent of remote work. After some due diligence, those at Girls Inc. decided their search was over.
But the laundry list of challenges certainly wasn’t, especially with the way the pandemic slowed many aspects of this broad endeavor or prompted a full pause.
First, let’s back up a bit.
Our story starts back in 2016, with the knowledge that a new home was needed, said Parker, adding that an initial fundraising campaign, with a goal of $3 million, was launched in 2018 — long before a suitable space had been found. And the campaign got off to a great start, with gifts from the Kendeda Fund and the Elaine Nicpon Marieb Charitable Foundation.
“We were doing well,” said Parker. “And then, the pandemic hit, and we had to take a pause from the campaign. But the campaign steering committee continued to meet regularly throughout that time; we figured out how to use Zoom, we met virtually, and they kept meeting month after month.
“I think some people might have pulled the plug on a campaign,” she went on. “But we kept working.”
And this work enabled Girls Inc. to push ahead after all its due diligence on the Hampden Street property and eventually commence work in the spring of 2022, bringing a long-held dream that much closer to reality.
Cynthia Medina Carson, an executive recruiter, talent consultant, and leadership coach now living in New York, is one the campaign co-chairs and a Girls Inc. alumna who grew up not far from its original home. She remembers walking into what was then a new space for Girls Inc. back in the early ’80s.
She also remembers thinking that setting aside space for girls was somewhat radical at the time — but very important. It gave girls a place to go, things to do, and opportunities to learn. She said that space — and the programs staged in it — was so important to her development that she signed on to get involved in finding and creating a new home.
“I know there’s a lot of afterschool programs and online stuff, but having the actual physical space where people can congregate and be who they need to be around people who advocate for them and champion them is a very unique thing to have for women,” she said. “So it was very important for me to get involved in this project.”
And like the others we spoke with, she said this has been a challenging journey, but an invaluable learning experience as well.
“It was hard and crazy, and it wasn’t the journey everyone thought it would be,” she noted. “We ended up where we needed to be, but it was hard; it was intense.”
Designs on Growth
As Parker and Rivera-Colón led BusinessWest on a tour of the facilities, they stopped in a number of the emerging spaces. In each one, they talked about how they would enable Girls Inc. to serve more girls and expand its mission.
The renovations were scheduled to enable significant amounts of program space to be ready this summer, said Parker, adding that, given the property’s prior uses as a home to lawyers, engineers, and other professionals, minimal work will be needed to prepare the space for the agency’s staff and administration.
These emerging spaces include:
- A community room, a large space suitable for both small- and large-group activities. It will be the site of healthy-living programming, including dance, active games, yoga, and meditation;
- Maker space, which will be the cornerstone of the Eureka! program, where eighth-grade girls begin a five-year journey toward possible careers in STEM fields. The space will be educational and fun, with hands-on activities; and
- A teen lounge, a space for teen girls to call their own. A relaxed and empowering environment, it will be loaded with college-readiness resources and will host a diverse range of teen-centered programs.
The renovation work at the agency’s new home — and many stages of the process that came before it — have, as noted earlier, provided learning experiences for girls involved with the agency, said Parker, noting that teens gave tours to donors and potential donors.
Meanwhile, some of the Eureka! program teens learned about architecture and design from the team at Kuhn Riddle, led by president Aelan Tierney (one of BusinessWest’s Women of Impact for 2022), and actually made one of the design decisions on one of the spaces — a lobby area outside of the teen center.
Overall, nothing about the new home for Girls Inc. has been finalized without the input of they main stakeholders: the girls themselves, said Rivera-Colon, adding that this includes the location of Parker’s office.
“The approach has been, ‘we’re not going to make this for you without you,’” she explained. “Every part of the process involves the stakeholders; they have to be part of it, so that, in the end, this will be a building we will all be proud of. Everyone has had input, from the youngest girls up to Suzanne, which I think is incredible.”
While offering tours and providing input on the new space, girls have also seen women at work on every facet of this project, which was another goal and another part of the learning experience, said Parker, adding that many area women professionals have been integral to this project.
That list includes Tierney at Kuhn Riddle; attorney Rebecca Thibault with Doherty Wallace Pillsbury & Murphy, a former Girls Inc. board member; construction managers D’Lynn Healey and Ta Karra Greene with Western Builders, the general contractor for the project; Vicky Crouse, president of Commercial Lending at PeoplesBank; and Julie Cowan, vice president of Lending for MassDevelopment.
These professionals serve as role models, said Parker, adding that, from the start, this project was to be women-led and girl-focused.
“It’s been incredible the number of women involved in leadership roles on this project,” Rivera-Colón said. “And it wasn’t by accident.”
Summing up the feelings of most people involved with this project, she added that “we’ve been so long in planning and executing all this that it doesn’t seem real that we’re finally here. But we are.”
Given the words used by Parker and others to describe this long and difficult process, one can see why those involved would certainly not want to do this any time soon.
The good news is they won’t have to; the property on Hampden Street will suit the needs of Girls Inc. for decades to come.
While acknowledging that fact, all those involved also recognize that, as challenging as this journey has been, it has also been rewarding on countless levels. And it encapsulates all that this thriving agency is all about: enabling girls to learn, grow, and reach their full potential — together.
Considering all that, this has certainly been an exercise in building momentum for Girls Inc. — figuratively but also quite literally.