Advocate for teens Lilly Fellows of Orange nets Young Community Leader award


Staff Writer

Published: 06-02-2022 8:19 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A dedication to making sure area residents are fed, clothed and supported in myriad ways is earning Robin Bialecki the Person of the Year award for 2022.

“I’m just incredibly honored. It really is amazing,” said Bialecki, executive director of the Easthampton Community Center, who was presented the recognition during the United Way of Franklin & Hampshire Region’s virtual Year-End Celebration and Awards Thursday afternoon.

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

Also receiving an award was Lilly Fellows, a Smith College student from Orange, who earned the Young Community Leader Award, recognizing her work to improve the school climate that began while Fellows was attending Mahar Regional High School.

“I was very surprised to be picked,” said Fellows, whose advocacy for teens has come through the Quabbin Mediation’s training active bystanders program and which has continued during recent visits to schools including Mahar, Pioneer Valley Regional and Ware High School.

Though surprised, Fellows said the award is meaningful because the program ensures students have the ability to care for themselves and others, and helps them negotiate social and emotional challenges inherent in being a teenager.

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

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

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At the presentation, Gazette and Recorder Publisher Shawn Palmer spoke about the service Bialecki has provided to Easthampton residents and people in 22 surrounding communities. Palmer noted that many of those who nominated Bialecki cited her hard work.

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

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

“Her commitment has been profound,” Reneris said.

Though the recipient of the award, Bialecki credits both her family and more than 200 individuals in the community who help out. “This is a really huge tribute to volunteers,” Bialecki said.

The pressure on the Easthampton Community Center has been demonstrated by the increased demand on its services. Where once it was serving 1,100 families from its food pantry before the pandemic, it is currently meeting the needs of 3,400 families, or close to 10,000 people.

Bialecki’s interest in helping out started 24 years ago when she was involved with a Girl Scouts troop that met there, though it wasn’t until 2007 that she was appointed executive director, on a temporary basis, following the previous director’s retirement.

COVID has allowed for growth in programs and Bialecki has launched gluten-free offerings that draw people from North Adams and Orange.

Among unique endeavors have been the backpack program for children and a birthday program, also for kids, that give them toys and puzzles and a meal they choose, along with the birthday cake mix and frosting they want.

Bialecki also has seen a need to help the numerous Afghan refugees settling in the area, making sure they are able to get the Halal meat they depend on, and has also been active in getting food and clothing for the Ukrainian community.

The mobile pantry, too, has been vital to go into the community, setting up outside the Our Lady of the Valley Church in Easthampton on Thursday afternoons, with people lining up well in advance.

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

A psychology major, Fellows is also pursuing a concentration in community engagement and social change.

The mediation allows students to solve problems on their own.

“I’m really passionate about that because that program taught me to stand up for myself and others,” Fellows said. “I want every student to be as empowered as I have been.”

Bialecki said she appreciates United Way’s support for agencies in the region, some of which she has called on for assistance, and making sure the Easthampton Community Center is doing as well as it can.

“We can’t fill the needs for everyone, but we certainly are giving it a good try,” Bialecki said.