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Four locals named Pynchon Award winners

Date: 9/19/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD – Four more area residents were honored for their commitment to service to the region with this year’s William Pynchon Awards.

Jean C. Caldwell, Jean E. Gailun, Joan Kagan and Sirdeaner L. Walker will officially receive their bronze medals that bear the likeness of the city’s founder at the 98th William Pynchon Awards Dinner on Nov. 21 from 6 to 9 p.m. at Chez Joseph in Agawam.

The awards have been presented since 1915 by the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts and Alta Stark, senior communications specialist with Baystate Health and a member of the Pynchon Committee, said this year nine nominations were received by the committee.

“Each of the nominees deserve our limitless respect and gratitude,” Stark said.

Stark introduced Caldwell, a long-time journalist and writer, who has spent 20 years as a volunteer in the Springfield schools working with English as a Second Language students.

Stark noted that Caldwell became well known for her advocacy for a group of Somali Bantu refugees and has working with them since 2002.

Stark said, “These were youngsters whose families had fled their country because of the war. Raised in refugee camps, they could not read or write in their own language, had no education, did not know what stairs, chairs or running water were. She quickly found allies who shared her concern, working with members of the resettlement agencies as a member of the Springfield Somali Steering Committee and the Western Massachusetts Refugee and Immigrant Consortium.”

The Pynchon Award is not Caldwell’s first recognition. The Springfield Education Association, the Council of Churches and the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Woman have honored Caldwell.

Caldwell was nominated by 1998 Pynchon Award recipient Frances Gagnon.

Caldwell said, “I’m honored to be here today with three women whose work I greatly admire.”

She said that after a number of years tutoring English, hearing a guidance counselor describe them as a “lost cause” ignited her interest in the Bantu children. She said the 100 students faced a “huge problem” being in 20 schools with just two translators.

Noting that some of the children have now graduated from high school, Caldwell said, “I’m blessed to see them being successful as the years have passed.”

Gailun was nominated by Ellen Leonard and was introduced by Pynchon Trustee Jillian Gould, who explained that Gailun is a “a wife, mother, grandmother and an extraordinary volunteer and mentor who has spent a significant portion of the past twelve years leading through reading, making a positive difference in the lives of countless Springfield children and their families.”

A resident of Longmeadow, Gailun has volunteered at the Kensington Avenue Magnet School to encourage reading skills. She started a book club in 2001 for third to fifth graders.

“Excitement and interest in the club has grown so much, there are now nine separate book clubs for each grade level. A measure of the clubs’ success is also tracked through MCAS scores, with a majority of book club members scoring proficient or improving after joining,” Gould said.

Gailun has also led efforts to raise funds for the school and most recently raised money to pay for summer camp programs for a number of the students.

In 2009, Gailun was honored with the Springfield School Volunteers’ Phyllis B. Sullivan “Unsung Hero” Award.

Gould noted that Gailun was a reluctant recipient.

“Jillian was totally right, I came this close to saying I don’t deserve this award,” Gailun said.

“I have been privileged to work at the Kensington Avenue School,” she added.

Pynchon Trustee Christopher Buendo introduced Joan Kagan, the president and CEO of Square One. Pynchon Award winner Susan Jaye Kaplan nominated her.

Kagan has been a “recognized leader in the field of early education and an advocate for the rights of children and their welfare since 1976, and is a licensed clinical social worker in Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut,” Buendo said.

He added, “‘Compassionate,’ ‘selfless’ and an ‘ability to view issues with a broader focus’ are just a few of the words peers use to describe her. She is also mission driven, passionate and works tirelessly for children and their families.”

Square One has had to deal with the destruction of two of its day care facilities, one by the 2011 tornado and another by the 2012 gas explosion, Buendo noted.

Kagan said, “I’m truly humbled and honored to be chosen.”

She added there are many people who are committed to make this area a better place to live.

Buendo also introduced Walker, who was nominated by photographer Edward Cohen.

Buendo said, “Walker’s life changed in an instant when Carl Walker-Hoover, her 11 year-old-son who was mercilessly bullied, committed suicide in 2009 in his family home. Knowing his aching loss could consume her, Walker decided to work as hard as she could to make sure no other child would suffer the way her son did, and she turned tragedy into activism, traveling the country to talk about the need for anti-bullying laws and programs in schools.”

Walker has taken her message to national television and has “testified before the Massachusetts State Legislature and assisted lawmakers in drafting the Massachusetts Anti-Bullying Bill, which was signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick in December 2011. The bill makes bullying a crime and makes schools accountable to report incidents of bullying,” Buendo said.

She also established with Gwynnetta Sneed the Carl Walker-Hoover Foundation, which raises fund for scholarships in her son’s name.

“I am so honored, honored, honored,” Walker said of the award.

She explained she is promoting federal anti-bullying legislation not just in memory of her son, but also Phoebe Prince of South Hadley and other victims of bullying.

For ticket information on the awards dinner, call the Club Administrator at 736-2582.