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Non-profit Leader Suzanne Parker L'03 Fosters Success at Girls Inc. of the Valley

By Kenneth Stratton '19 TUESDAY, MAY 21, 2019 - 12:00 PM Alumni , WNE100

Growing up in a blue-collar family from Belchertown, Massachusetts, law school never even seemed like a possibility. With a dad that enlisted into the Marines as a teenager and later earned his GED, and neither a mom nor dad that attended college.

It’s no surprise then that a girl from this background never thought of attending law school. But for Suzanne Parker L’03, that is exactly what happened.

“We weren’t exactly living high on the hog,” Parker chuckled, remembering her family. Her parents worked tirelessly while she grew up, and it was enough of an accomplishment that she would attend University of Massachusetts Amherst in the fall of 1983. But Parker was destined for more.

Graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education, Parker started her professional career as a middle school instrumental music teacher in Cohasset, Massachusetts. Moving back to western Massachusetts, Parker joined Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start Inc., becoming a substitute pre-school teacher in 1990.

“Throughout my 16 years there, I moved up the ladder,” Parker said. “All during this time I continued to enhance my education. I took social work and other relevant courses, including Spanish,” she said. Parker began to consider a graduate degree, and it was at this time that she became aware of Western New England University School of Law.

The moment she stepped on campus in 1998, Parker realized: “this is where I belong.” Over the next few years, Parker would work 50+ hours a week in a senior-level position with Head Start, while studying the law at Western New England part-time.

“Needless to say there were many tearful rides home when I doubted whether I could [get] it all done. But I had a very supportive spouse which helped,” Parker explained. She recalls amazing people at the School of Law, and enjoying the rigors of study. During her time as a student, Parker even became involved with the Law Review.

Upon the completion of her Juris Doctor, Parker would stay with Head Start for a few more years before making the move to Girls Inc. of the Valley. She believes her JD, combined with her years of experience in non-profit work, primed her well for the role of Executive Director.

“As Executive Director, we deal with things relating to personnel issues, contracts, real estate transactions, and administrative law. So much of the coursework has been a great foundation of knowledge that has been helpful in running a non-profit,” Parker explained.

Parker says that the mission of Girls Inc. focuses on building safe spaces and creating long-term mentoring relationships with girls to help foster their future success. Many of the girls the organization works with live in poverty or are girls of color, and in a culture that Parker says already undermines the ability of all girls, it becomes particularly difficult for them to succeed.

“Due to the current national climate, more people are becoming aware of the issues that girls and women face. Women and girls themselves are speaking up and out and hopefully as a result we will begin to see change towards a more equitable society,” Parker said.

Adding that Girls Inc. is committed to building a pro-girl model that works, Parker believes their work is integral to the future of Holyoke, Massachusetts, which she believes is full of progress and promise.

“I have been working in the Holyoke community for close to 30 years and I love this city. And while Holyoke often seems like two cities divided along the lines of race, ethnicity, and class, there have been a lot of positive changes in the past several years,” Parker said.

Civic leaders in Holyoke are more diverse, and development continues downtown, according to Parker. She praises the city for its resources, including the newly renovated Lyman Terrace housing complex.

“I am committed to making sure that girls and their families are a part of this positive development,” the School of Law graduate said. “Despite all of the progress, 78% of the students in the Holyoke School District are categorized as economically disadvantaged and far too many struggle to succeed academically. It’s critical that we continue to offer programs in places like Holyoke, Springfield, and Chicopee, to support the girls throughout the Valley who need us most,” Parker added.

Growing up, law school seemed far out of the realm of possibility for Parker. But today, she is using that education to help support a new generation of girls who, as they grow up, might not find the possibility of law school too unrealistic, thanks to her work.