News from our members

Sitka Creations welcomes Joanna Belanger to the team!

Ms. Joanna Belanger freelanced for Sitka Creations during 2020 and early 2021. Sitka Creations is pleased to announce that Ms. Belanger is now part of our in-house team, as of July 2021.

In early 2016 Ms. Belanger began working in social media while employed at a day spa in Central Massachusetts. Her commitment to working in social media became stronger when she saw the importance of these digital connections during the spring of 2020 as face-to-face connections were greatly reduced because of the pandemic. During this time, Ms. Belanger found creative ways to use social media connections to buoy sales of beauty products for the day spa while services could not be provided because of Covid-19 restrictions.

Ms. Belanger says of Sitka Creations, “I’m feeling very blessed to be working with the Sitka team! I love working with this group of strong, creative, and inspiring women! Sitka Creations has a lot to offer companies that are looking to stand out in both the physical and digital marketplace. I am excited to see what we will produce as we learn from each other and work together.”

Sitka Creations is a design studio that provides creative solutions for businesses through WP website design, graphic design, social media management, web hosting, photography, PR, and content writing. Women-owned and operated, located in Shirley, MA.

Fitchburg’s Victor Rojas Named GEAR UP Professional of the Year

Victor Rojas, Assistant Director of GEAR UP, has been named GEAR UP Professional of the Year by the National Council for Community Education Partnerships (NCCEP) at their annual conference.

The Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) initiative is one of the largest and most effective programs focused on increasing college and career readiness of low-income students in communities nationwide. GEAR UP targets entire grades of students, partnering with local organizations and business, and matching Federal Department of Education funds with local contributions, allowing projects to support large number of students. The NCCEP leadership awards honors students, family leaders, community partners, and professionals from the GEAR UP community.

The GEAR UP Professional of the Year is awarded to an individual who is committed to the GEAR UP movement and the goal of ensuring that college access and success is available to all students. Through their work with GEAR UP, the awardee demonstrates the passion and perseverance to assist low-income students in their quest to attain a college education.

“As an educator, a soldier, a husband, a father, and proud grandfather, Victor encapsulates the GEAR UP mission,” NCCEP noted in a statement.

“In the past ten years, Fitchburg High School has achieved its highest level of attendance, graduation rates, students earning dual enrollment credits, students passing Advanced Placement tests, and our lowest suspension and dropout rates,” states Fitchburg High School Principal Jeremy Roache. “Mr. Rojas dogged efforts have much to do with those results.”

Twenty co-workers and community members submitted letters of recommendation to the NCCEP in support of Rojas nomination as Professional of the Year, detailing his qualities, accomplishments, and contribution to the success of the GEAR UP students.

“Victor is always committed to making sure 100% of students are receiving the support that GEAR UP promised. His work goes above and beyond,” noted Peter Chirichiello, GEAR UP Director. “When the school day is over, he is helping everyone with their college applications and financial aid forms. Even when our students were in sixth and seventh grade, he would stay late and make home visits. GEAR UP is not a job for Victor, it is a way of life.”

Born in Puerto Rico, Rojas moved to Fitchburg when he was very young and without speaking any English. Despite this hurdle, he excelled as a student in the Fitchburg Public School system, and went on to become the first in his family to graduate from college, earning his bachelors from Fitchburg State University and his Masters of Education from Cambridge College.

He became involved in the GEAR UP Program in 1999 when it was first introduced in Fitchburg. In addition to the countless students he has impacted, he has personally trained and mentored dozens of college access staff. His experience coupled with a strong sense of duty and responsibility has helped to build an entire cadre of dedicated college access professionals who are culturally competent, willing to go the extra mile for students, and who fully understand the importance of this work to the entire community.

“I have had the pleasure of working and supervising many passionate professional educators, but Victor stands in a special place amongst his peers. I have known Mr. Rojas for over twenty years and have witnessed, firsthand, his innate ability to build strong relationships with our students and extended families,” noted Craig Chalifoux, Director of Finance and Operations for Fitchburg Public Schools. “His passion is outweighed only by his compassion for families and the incredible obstacles they face as they enter the financial aid process and try to understand how this is even a possibility for their child. Victor is kind, understanding, and presents a sense of great hopefulness for families and students as they face longstanding institutional bias and systems that are set-up to disenfranchise so many of our families.”

“Victor is known as Mr. GEAR UP. He has worked on every GEAR UP grant at our institution since the very first grant in 1999,” added Shaunti Phillips, Academic Counselor. “Having walked the same path as many of his students, Victor is able to lead and guide them to be the best that they can be and achieve their dreams.”

“For years I have heard stories about Victor Rojas’ impact with students at Fitchburg High School. I have come to know first-hand how much Victor has transformed lives over the past twenty years,” says Fagan Forhan, Assistant Dean, K-12 Partnerships & Civic Engagement at MWCC. “Every time we are at a community event former students approach him to share their successes and tell the rest of us how much he helped them.”

Visit mwcc.edu to learn more about the GEAR UP Fitchburg program.

Arena Promoted to Clinical Nurse Director Joins ASNCM Leadership Team

Julie Arena, Clinical Nurse Director

LEOMINSTER, MA—Aging Services of North Central Massachusetts (ASNCM) is pleased to announce the promotion of Julie Arena to Clinical Nurse Director.

Lori A. Richardson, Chief Executive Officer of ASCNM stated, “Julie brings extensive nursing clinical experience and proven interdisciplinary focus that will be a benefit to programs throughout the agency.  She is laser-focused on providing quality services to our consumers.  We are excited to have her in this new role.”

Ms. Arena received her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University in Boston Massachusetts.  Arena’s promotion comes after serving four years at the agency.

“I am incredibly humbled to have the opportunity to expand my role at the agency and look forward to continuing my work with the amazing ASNCM nurses.  It is exciting to be a part of an agency that is relentless in its vision, values, and mission” said Julie Arena, Clinical Nurse Director.

To learn more about the Aging Services of North Central Massachusetts—including programs and services being offered, ways you can donate or volunteer, or to learn more about this historic rebrand, please visit www.AgingServicesMA.org or contact David Ginisi, Chief Marketing Officer, at (978) 466-1571 or by email at dginisi@asncm.org.

Mount Wachusett Community College Awarded Over $1.1M to Support Adult Education

The Adult and Community Learning Services (ACLS) unit of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has awarded Mount Wachusett Community College grant monies totaling $1,108,106 to support basic skills education, occupational training, and post-secondary enrollment for adult learners in our region.

The Adult Education Services Continuation grant of $958,106 funds free access for eligible undereducated and limited English proficient adults, age sixteen and older, to highly effective adult basic education services in sixteen Workforce Investment Areas. The grant also includes $42,335 directed toward the Integrated Education and Training program HiSET/GED preparation with Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Training and an additional $37,665 is directed to the Integrated English Literacy and Civics Education program which combines ESOL instruction and CNA training. Each program is funded to support twenty students.

An additional grant of $150,000 was awarded in June for the Transition to Community College program that supports students transitioning from adult education programs to post-secondary enrollment.

The purpose of these services are to assist adult students to achieve their educational and career goal as family members, workers, and community members, and prepare them to successfully take their next steps toward those goals, in college and further training, at work, and in the community.

“The continuation of this grant funding is a testament to the hard work and dedication of our Adult Education team of advisors, and educators,” stated MWCC President James Vander Hooven. “Their work truly reflects the MWCC mission to be a lifelong learning community dedicated to excellence in education and responsive to the changing needs of the communities we serve.”

“Through this funding and your continued support, we hope to provide high quality adult education services across 16 local workforce development areas and statewide for Adult Education and Correctional Institutions,” stated the grant award letter signed by Governor Charles Baker and Lt. Governor Karyn Polito.

The grant will allow MWCC Adult Education and Training division to provide Adult Basic Education to 115 students and English as a Second Language to 154 students.

“Our adult education programs are vital to the success of our community,” notes Adam Duggan, Dean of Adult Education and Training Services. “These programs allow us to help students build the personal, social and academic skills needed to successfully complete a college program and go on to employment.”

The Adult Education and Training (AET) Center offers classes in Adult Basic Education, high school equivalency preparation, English for Speakers of Other Languages, and a variety of other programs. The AET Center is headquartered at the Leominster campus, alongside the MassHire North Central Career Center.

Fidelity Bank Introduces Strategic Innovation and Optimization Lab

First-of-its-kind lab to revolutionize banking processes and procedures

Fidelity Bank formally announced its Strategic Innovation and Optimization Lab, an internal consulting team to help the bank better serve clients through technology enhancements, process improvements, project management and data analytics to better understand and anticipate client needs.

“We make great improvements by collaborating with our colleagues who know banking inside out,” said Sheila Julien, Director, Strategic Innovation and Optimization Lab. “The lab brings expertise in some sophisticated technologies as well as systematic process improvement and project management. Together, we reimagine and reinvent our business processes.”

“The list of tools we can deploy to improve processes include data gathering and workflow, Microsoft® Excel® PowerQuery and macros, and Robotics Process Automation (RPA), which leverages trained bots to automate routine tasks through a user-friendly interface,” added Julien.

Three staff members are certified experts in RPA and have deployed nearly a dozen bots in the past year.  These include daily execution of complex tasks and large-scale repetitive tasks for major projects, such as system conversions.

“We can handle projects with significant complexity to help navigate the technology race that many industries are facing,” said Jim Notaro, Vice President and Manager, Strategic Innovation and Optimization Lab. “But you’d be surprised at how much value we’ve created with tools most businesses already have today.”

For example, Notaro developed an internal document portal for easy storage and retrieval of imaged documents. “For years, we physically moved our documents between locations via courier or email, and then we would file the documents in an array of cabinets, all of which proved very cumbersome and inefficient,” added Julien. “By utilizing the document portal Jim developed, we ensure everyone has secure, easy access from their desktops to the information they need to do their jobs more efficiently.”

Additionally, the team utilized available technology to automate ATM balancing. “The process of balancing our fleet of ATMs used to take nearly 90 minutes each day to complete,” said Julien. “By studying the process and listening to colleagues describe their experiences doing this task, we were able to import the data and write the complex formulas to process most of the data automatically. Now it can be done in less than ten minutes each day.”

The lab also supports lines of business with complex data analytics requests. To add new advanced skills to the lab, two members of the team are pursuing advanced education in Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence applications.

“Whether analyzing data, innovating processes, or managing a project for our internal clients, the lab follows the same C.A.R.E. process that our bankers use to help all our clients: We Collect information about their goals and their situation, Analyze the information, Recommend an approach, and Execute, all done with care,” added Julien.

Chamber Recognized as Finalist for National Honor

On July 20, the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce was recognized as a finalist for the prestigious 2021 Chamber of the Year award, presented by the Alexandria, VA -based Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE). The award is the most prestigious and competitive recognition presented annually in the chamber industry and recognizes the leadership role that chambers have in their communities.

The finalists for this recognition represent the best of the best. To be selected as a finalist, the chamber must have demonstrated organizational strength and made an impact on key community priorities, such as education, transportation, economic development and quality of life. The North Central Massachusetts Chamber was one of four finalists in its category – along with chambers in Cumming, GA; Leesburg, VA; and Tuscaloosa, AL.

“This year’s finalists are among the most impactful organizations within the industry,” said ACCE President & CEO Sheree Anne Kelly. “Following a tumultuous year, these chambers emerged as community champions, providing catalytic leadership to address their region’s greatest challenges and opportunities for prosperity.”

“While we are disappointed that we were not selected as the final recipient, we are very honored and humbled to have had the North Central Massachusetts Chamber recognized as a finalist for the 2021 Chamber of the Year Award. While we don’t do the important work we do for the accolades and awards, it is still very special to be recognized as one of the best chambers nationally by our peers.” said Roy M. Nascimento, President & CEO of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce. “We want to express our deep appreciation and gratitude to our Board of Directors, members, partners and communities for their contribution to our success.”

This is the second time that the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce has been honored as a finalist for the National Chamber of the Year Recognition – the first was in 2017. The North Central Massachusetts Chamber is the first chamber of commerce in Massachusetts and New England to have been named a finalist by ACCE for this prestigious and competitive recognition.

Animal Adventures at Fitchburg Youth Library

Monday, August 2 at 2:00pm

Join an Animal Adventures zookeeper and some animal friends for a wild time at the library! Children will learn some interesting facts, hear some awesome stories, and have the opportunity to pet a variety of animals. Best suited for ages 5-10.

Registration required! Call 978-829-1789 or register online: www.fitchburgpubliclibrary.org

This is a free program. For information about this or other Library programs call 978-829-1780 or visit our website: www.FitchburgPublicLibrary.org.

Golden Girl Receives First Place at Artisan Flave Awards

Golden Girl Granola’s Bluesberry granola won the “Granola” category at the 2021 Artisan Flave Awards. The annual competition is organized by International Flavor Awards, LLCand features specialty, craft-made artisan granola companies from around the world.

The International Flavor Awards works to provide small to medium sized businesses a platform to stand on and be judged against similar sized food companies. The Artisan Flave Awards competition uses a blind-judging process with a variety of food professionals, including: restaurateurs, purveyors, manufacturers, and members of the food-centric community. This was the first year that Bluesberry granola entered the competition and the third time one of Golden Girl Granola’s flavors has won an award in the “Granola” category.

“We are thrilled that Bluesberry received first place in this year’s Flave Awards!” said Deborah O’Kelly, owner of Golden Girl Granola. “To hold the distinction of having the best-tasting granola when compared to other quality artisan brands is truly special.”

The Flave Awards strive to bring value to food-based competitions and work to promote the outstanding products and companies that set themselves apart by being known as a “Flave Award Winner.” This year over 300 products from 10 different countries were placed into 29 categories, including the “Granola” category. The other categories included, but were not limited to: spicy blends, sweet treats, chutneys, jams and jellies along with other crunchy snacks.

About Golden Girl Granola: Golden Girl Granola™ is a family-owned and -operated business located in Shirley, Massachusetts and produces a branded line of gourmet granola products superior in taste and made from the highest-quality ingredients. Golden Girl Granola is a “Healthy Snack” alternative for health conscious consumers who appreciate good taste. Flavors include Forest Maple, Creative Cranberry, Bluesberry, Chocolate Decadence, Original, Home Sweet Honey, and Truly Tropical. Golden Girl Granola offers the complete line nationwide for Chain Supermarkets, Independent Supermarkets, Gourmet Food Stores, Club Stores and Convenience Stores.

Fidelity Bank, North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce join forces to assist minority business owners with critical funding during pandemic

Collaboration resulted in more than $1.3 million for small businesses in North Central Massachusetts

As the COVID-19 pandemic created several challenges for local business owners, Fidelity Bank, the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce and its economic development arm, the North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation, collaborated to process and service more than $1.3 million as part of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Of this total, more than $660,000 in PPP loans were part of the Urban Agenda Grant Program, which promotes economic vitality in urban neighborhoods and a means of supporting urban small business owners affected by COVID-19.

A survey conducted by the chamber following the launch of the federal PPP program concluded that some businesses did not fit into the federal programs, and that many underserved and minority businesses were unable to access traditional banks for PPP loans.

“We live in the communities with our clients which enables us to have a unique perspective to understand the importance of ensuring our local businesses prosper, especially when challenges occur out of their control,” said Ed Manzi, Chairman and CEO, Fidelity Bank. “By collaborating with the chamber and its development corporation, we were able to utilize our unique LifeDesign banking approach and provide assistance and clarity to get critical funding support to underserved small businesses who otherwise would not have obtained funding.”

As part of the Urban Agenda Initiative, the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce partnered with New Vue Communities, Reimagine North of Main, the Spanish American Center, and the Cities of Fitchburg and Leominster, to provide technical assistance and access to resources.  The Chamber and its partners focused outreach efforts to reach underserved and vulnerable small businesses in the community.  The average amount of the loans made was just $15,000.

“What started as emergency financing to help small businesses until the federal government responded evolved over time into providing PPP loans directly to businesses who could not secure them through other sources,” said Roy M. Nascimento, President and CEO, North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce. “We also expanded our team to respond to the urgency of the underserved businesses and we now have a multi-lingual member on the team to support outreach for our Latino businesses, which comprise the largest minority group in the region.”

The development corporation processed 72 loans in round two of the PPP loan program, with Fidelity Bank servicing 64 of those loans. All of the loans were approved.

“Fidelity Bank was part of a coalition of other financial institutions in the area, including BankHometown, Berkshire Bank, Digital Federal Credit Union, Main Street Bank and Worker’s Credit Union to serve our vulnerable business owners,” added Nascimento. “Regardless of the fact that these banks are likely competitors, they all came together to do what was right by the businesses in our communities.”

Two of the businesses that obtained critical funding support from the second round of PPP loans through this collaboration were Lucy’s Furniture in Fitchburg, and Pablo’s Paint and Remodeling in Leominster.

“As the owner of Lucy’s Furniture, I want to thank the Chamber of Commerce and Fidelity Bank for assisting me with the Small Business Association PPP application,” said Wilson Arrua, Owner, Lucy’s Furniture. “During the pandemic, the upholstery business was very slow which resulted in being late on my bills. With this loan, I was able to become current on my payments and it helped get me through the pandemic.”

Pablo Ortiz, Owner, Pablo’s Paint and Remodeling said of the loan assistance, “Thank you very much to the Chamber and Fidelity Bank for your valuable help to process the PPP loan. This funding helped us stay afloat despite the terrible situation with the pandemic.”

“The past year and a half proved that when we work together, we can survive and thrive regardless of the circumstances that surround us,” said Manzi. “Fidelity Bank was here to help, and we remain an active participant in our community to ensuring all of our clients, both individuals and businesses alike, have a caring partner to guide them through opportunities and challenges and get them where they want to be.”