GWCF President & CEO, Barbara Fields reflects on her first seven months at the Foundation and the learning, changes, challenges, and collaborations that have shaped them.

It is Sunday. Is it Sunday? These days it’s hard to know. Hunkered down at my kitchen table I’ve been working days and evenings, while watching my garden turn from late winter gray to early spring green. It is a strange new world. But I am heartened by the actions and reactions of Worcester.

A year ago, I was in the final stages of a hiring process that would bring me to Worcester as the new President and CEO of the Greater Worcester Community Foundation. When the Red Sox broke ground on a new ballpark in July, I knew that following my team up Route 146 was a great decision, and I was excited to get to Worcester and contribute to the renaissance already well underway.

Before starting the job, I visited Kelly Square and checked out the apartments then under construction above the new Worcester Public Market, then ate lunch at Birchtree Bread right next door. When I started in August, it was a thrill to see City Hall Square filled with summer time markets and lunch-time concerts. It was particularly exciting for me to visit with Liz Hamilton at the Boys and Girls Club and see their work in the neighborhood particularly the homes built by the Main Street South CDC and the community gardens filled with oversized kale at REC (Regional Environmental Council.) I had seen the beginning of this work when I visited six years earlier as Regional Administrator for HUD. The feeling of forward progress was palpable.

Inside the Foundation there was a natural mix of excitement and uncertainty about the new boss. I found a high caliber staff dedicated to the work and to the community. Knowledgeable about the critical needs of Worcester County and familiar with the generous donors that continue to build our endowment, staff showed me the “ropes” introducing me to the myriad of programs and people engaged with the our work. Youth organizations, arts & culture, health care - the list was long and the impact was clear. The Foundation was serving Worcester County by investing in the people and leaders that were expanding access and improving the quality of life for residents throughout our region.

Our Board was blessed with many dedicated members of the community - people who give generously of their time, of their wealth and of their knowledge. I began a tour of our community, meeting with corporate, government and community leaders of all backgrounds and interests. I discovered people’s passion for Worcester and offers to help me mount the proverbial steep learning curve. I met non-profit and business leaders and visited many including, the Family Community Health Center, the YWCA, the Ecotarium, City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce. It was a whirlwind. Seven months of meeting and learning and getting to know Coney Island hot dogs, Shwarma Palace hummus, judging a student competition at WPI and attending a concert at Mechanics Hall as well as the 10th Anniversary celebration for Adelante. In between, we had Board meetings where we invested grant dollars and worked to raise new funds for our community.

As I got to know the people and places that make Worcester so special, the Foundation was gearing up for a great year in 2020 including improved and enhanced scholarship programs, enhanced learning though our Nonprofit Support Center and new events for our generous donors.

Then came COVID-19.

Quickly confirming that our entire team could work remotely, I settled in to this “new world”. Like everyone around us, we began responding and taking each day as it unfolded, beginning a journey that continues today. We launched a COVID response fund, quickly merging with the United Way of Central Massachusetts’ fund to create Worcester Together: Central Mass COVID-19 Fund. Today, we’ve raised over $6.7 million and made over $2 million in grants to organizations on the front lines of response. We secured money from individuals, family foundations and the statewide MassCOVID fund. The outpouring of support and generosity of our community has been amazing. We meet daily with City Manager Ed Augustus, to discuss the deployment of resources and how to fill the many gaps. We’ve helped organizations from Worcester to Webster from Leicester to Fitchburg. Trusted longtime donors and brand new donors — all stepping up to aid in the relief efforts.

Soon we will begin to fund Recovery. We will expand our efforts to include a larger group of educational, cultural and youth-serving organizations that shape and support Worcester.

If I was impressed with the depth of loyalty and passion in my first seven months, I’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of care and generosity during the last seven weeks. The ability of all involved to realize that this pandemic was harming our community in unimaginable ways and that the response needed to be fast, flexible and innovative and not business as usual. The fault lines in our society have been exposed by this pandemic. Our rebuilding and reimagining efforts will need to be bold in order to tackle the challenges of a divided society and build a Worcester that is stronger and more inclusive and, certainly, more fair. The Foundation is ready to do the hard work — I hope you will join us!