Robin Bialecki of the Easthampton Community Center named Personality of the Year; Smith College Student Lilly Fellows Receives Young Community Leader Award

NORTHAMPTON — His dedication to ensuring area residents are fed, clothed and supported in countless ways earns Robin Bialecki the Person of the Year award for 2022.

“I’m just incredibly honoured. It’s truly amazing,” said Bialecki, executive director of the Easthampton Community Center, who was presented with the recognition during the United Way’s virtual year-end celebration and awards. the Franklin and Hampshire area Thursday afternoon.

The Daily Hampshire Gazette has partnered with United Way for the Person of the Year award for the past eight years, receiving more than 75 submissions this year which were then reviewed by an awards committee.

Lilly Fellows, a student at Smith College in Orange, also received an award, which won the Young Community Leader Award, recognizing her work to improve the school climate that began when Fellows attended Mahar Regional High School.

“I was very surprised to be chosen,” said Fellows, whose advocacy for teens came through Quabbin Mediation’s active bystander training program and continued on recent visits to schools such as as Mahar, Pioneer Valley Regional and Ware High School.

Although surprised, the scholarship recipients said the award was significant because the program ensures students have the ability to care for themselves and others, and helps them negotiate the social and emotional challenges inherent in adolescence.

Fellows were selected from more than 15 applicants in the first year the award was open to people from Hampshire and Franklin counties, and also involved the Greenfield Recorder, the Gazette’s sister publication.

Both awards come with cash prizes, with Person of the Year receiving $500, half of which will be donated to a charity of the winner’s choice, and Young Community Leader receiving $250, half of which will be donated to a winner’s charity. choice.

During the presentation, Gazette Editor Shawn Palmer spoke about the service Bialecki has provided to Easthampton residents and residents of 22 surrounding communities. Palmer noted that many who named Bialecki cited his hard work.

“Robin has been described as a one-woman dynamo among the multiple nominations we’ve received,” Palmer said.

United Way board member Melanie Reneris said the work done by the fellows has contributed to a substantial reduction in detentions and less bullying at Mahar.

“His commitment has been deep,” Reneris said.

Although a recipient of the award, Bialecki thanks both his family and the more than 200 people in the community who helped him. “It’s a huge tribute to the volunteers,” Bialecki said.

The pressure on the Easthampton Community Center has been demonstrated by the increased demand for its services. While it once served 1,100 families from its pantry before the pandemic, it currently serves the needs of 3,400 families, or nearly 10,000 people.

Bialecki’s interest in helping began 24 years ago when she was involved with a Girl Scout troop that met there, but it wasn’t until 2007 that she was named executive director, on on a temporary basis, following the retirement of the previous director.

COVID has allowed programs to grow, and Bialecki has launched gluten-free offerings that appeal to people in North Adams and Orange.

Unique efforts include the backpacking program for kids and a birthday program, also for kids, which gives them toys and puzzles and a meal they choose, as well as cake mix. birthday party and whatever frosting they want.

Bialecki has also felt the need to help the many Afghan refugees settling in the area, ensuring they can obtain the halal meat they depend on, and has also been active in the supply of food and clothing for the Ukrainian community.

The mobile pantry has also been key to getting into the community, setting up outside the Church of Our Lady of the Valley in Easthampton on Thursday afternoon, with people lining up well in advance.

At Smith College, Fellows was captain of the field hockey team and a member of its Diversity and Inclusion Council for Athletics. Fellows pursued social justice topics and, as a low-income athlete, understands the community support needed to keep children safe and happy.

Majoring in psychology, Fellows also pursues a focus on community engagement and social change.

Mediation allows students to solve problems on their own.

“I’m really passionate about it because this program taught me how to stand up for myself and others,” Fellows said. “I want every student to be as independent as I am.”

Bialecki said she appreciates United Way’s support of agencies in the area, some of which have appealed for help, and is making sure the Easthampton Community Center is doing as well as possible.

“We can’t meet everyone’s needs, but we’re definitely giving it a good try,” Bialecki said.

Jill E. Washington