Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce

BusinessWest Difference Makers


SPRINGFIELDBusinessWest magazine, the bimonthly business journal covering Western Mass., will honor its Difference Makers for 2016 on March 31 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke.

The Difference Makers program was established in 2009 to recognize individuals and groups that are, as the name suggests, making a difference in the Western Mass. region. This year’s honorees are:]• Michael J. Ashe Jr., Hampden County sheriff. Since taking office in 1975, Sheriff Ashe says he’s been committed to one thing: “embracing the challenge.” That challenge — and a broad one at that — has been to move well beyond the practice of warehousing inmates that dominated corrections when he assumed office to rehabilitating such individuals and preparing them to not simply re-enter society, but become productive members of it. Ashe’s programs have been called groundbreaking, and his 20 “guiding principles of best correctional policy” have become a model for facilities across the country and around the world.

• Mike Balise, Balise Motor Sales, philanthropist (1965-2015). It became known simply as the “coat thing.” This is an initiative conceptualized by Mike Balise to provide winter coats to students at Springfield’s Homer Street School who otherwise would go without. The effort was launched in 2013, roughly a year before Balise was diagnosed with incurable stomach cancer, and it is just one example of how his legacy of giving back to the community will live on long after he succumbed to the disease last December. Indeed, Balise pledged funding to continue the program at Homer Street for at least the next five years. Meanwhile, other contributions to agencies and institutions, ranging from the Sr. Caritas Cancer Center to Community Resources for People with Autism, will have an impact for decades to come.

]• Big Brothers Big Sisters. Since 1904, Big Brothers Big Sisters has been creating matches between ‘bigs’ and ‘littles’ that have changed lives in a number of ways. And to make those matches, individual chapters have had to overcome countless hurdles, including funding challenges, logistical problems, and simply convincing young professionals that they have the time to be a ‘big.’ Matches come about through persistence and imagination, and the three local chapters — Franklin County, Hampden County, and Hampshire County — exemplify both traits. Their success in changing the lives of all those involved in this program make them worthy of the title Difference Maker.

• Carol Leary, president of Bay Path University. Since arriving at Bay Path’s Longmeadow campus in late 1994, Carol Leary has orchestrated a stunning turnaround at the institution, transforming it from a junior college into a university, growing enrollment from 500 to more than 3,000, and introducing the Bay Path-produced Professional Women’s Conference, which draws nearly 2,000 attendees every year. She attributes this profound growth to hiring talented, committed individuals, as well as effective relationship building. Her success in both realms helps explain why she is Difference Maker, but there is more to the story, especially a deep commitment to the region that takes many forms. One colleague summed it all up by saying Leary is not “in the community; she’s of the community.”

• John Robison, president of J.E. Robison Service. Growing up, Robison said he was called ‘lazy,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘retarded,’ ‘defective,’ and ‘no good.’ In reality, he was none of those things. Rather, he was an individual with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. Discovering this, he said, was both liberating and empowering, and he has devoted much of his time and energy over the past several years to helping others experience those same feelings. He’s done this through three books on the subject of Asperger’s, countless speaking engagements to a host of audiences, and participation on a number of panels assigned the tasks of defining autism, treating it, and gaining benefits for those who suffer from it. In recent years, his work has taken on a new focus — as a leader of a movement called neurological diversity, or neurodiversity, the idea that such diversity, just like ethnic or racial diversity, is part of humanity.

“This year’s honorees provide more direct evidence that there are many ways for an individual or group to make a difference in this region,” said BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti, “and all of them are important to overall quality of life.”

The Difference Makers Gala on March 31 will begin at 5 p.m. with networking and opportunities to meet this year’s honorees. There will be live entertainment, butlered hors d’oeuvres, a buffet, and more networking opportunities.

Tickets cost $60 each, with reserved tables of 10 available. For more information or to order tickets, call Melissa Hallock at (413) 781-8600, ext. 100, or e-mail


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