Wilbraham proves flexible, excels during tough year

Dec. 31, 2020 | Sarah Heinonen

WILBRAHAM – Wilbraham has been nothing if not flexible during 2020. Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, people managed to open new businesses, distinguish themselves in their field and voice conflicting views on the world around them. Residents also gave their all in charity events, most of which looked nothing like they had in years past.

 New businesses

When the pandemic shut down entertainment venues, Interskate 91 South found a way to pivot their business model and use the large, open space for Monitored Remote Studies. Owner Rob Gould obtained a licensed exemption from the state to offer a place for students to remotely attend classes while their parents work. Interskate 91 South follows all state guidelines for masks, sanitizing, distancing, and group sizes.

The switch was easier than one might think since the employees who monitor the students were already background-checked due to the nature of the skating rink’s business. Gould managed to keep his business afloat, while providing a solution for families.

Resident Sue Burke, who had always loved baking, went all in and opened a home bakery, Susie B’s Sweets-n-Treats. She specializes in cookies and creates her own recipes, heavily influenced by her grandmother’s baking. Burke previously told Reminder Publishing that the pandemic had actually helped her business, because her baked goods come individually wrapped and she delivers to the local area, meaning fewer trips out in public for customers.

One long-established business at the Wilbraham Shops, Common Grounds, has new owners in the form of mother-daughter partners Kristen Procon and Hayley Procon. The pair had been longtime customers of the business and, with the younger of the two about to graduate business school, jumped at the chance to purchase the coffee shop when it came up for sale late in 2020. It has since become a family business with Procon’s two younger children joining their sister in the shop when not in school.

Conflicting Views

This year also saw the country gripped by racial justice protests and civil unrest over the ways in which law enforcement interact with people of color. The conflict hit home in Wilbraham and led to rallies supporting different sides of the issue.

 In June, about 150 people turned out at the Wilbraham United Church for a rally organized by Alyssa Toomey, a biracial former Minnechaug Regional High School (MRHS) students. The purpose, she said at the time, was to “open your ears, your minds and your hearts,” not to place blame. Toomey and several other people who had grown up in the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional school District (HWRSD) recounted instances of microaggressions and overt racism that they have experienced in the town. Other speakers shared ways that white allies can help promote antiracism.

In early August, a similarly-sized group of people demonstrated at a “Back the Blue” rally which was set up at Crane Park, before moving on to do the same at the mini–mall on the corner of Allen and East Longmeadow Streets in Hampden. Their stated purpose was to show support for the towns’ police departments. State Reps. Angelo Puppolo and Brian Ashe attended the rally, as did the towns’ respective police chiefs.


With most traditional charity events canceled or altered to be done individually, people in Wilbraham found new ways to help out. Bill Wells aimed to run 100 miles over the course of 24 hours to raise money for Rick’s Place, a charity that helps the children and families of September 11 victims. A running enthusiast, Wells made it 83 miles and earned more that $6,400 for the charity.

Six Wilbraham residents joined in the Jimmy Fund’s “Walk Your Way” fundraiser. The Jimmy Fund, which raises money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, switched up its traditional walk due to the pandemic. Instead of walking the 26.2 Boston Marathon route, walkers mapped out a route of their choosing and raised money while keeping close to home.

Shelley Mutti and Keri Lee took it upon themselves to become “elves” and start a campaign to match families in need with children in the HWRSD with those who wanted to donate for the holidays. The two sent out the call through Facebook and soon found about 35 people who were willing to help 17 families with their children’s wish list and help give the kids a special holiday season.

Making Their Mark

One local woman became a first-time children’s author when she observed an unlikely friendship. Mary Stacy wrote “Lily and Chip Chip” about her dog’s fascination with a squirrel living in her Wilbraham backyard. She wrote the book primarily for her two grandsons and found they loved it, so she decided to have it published.

Jen Stephenson, a MRHS alumna, realized her dream this past spring when she was named Director of Opera at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Stephenson is passionate about helping young people to succeed in a music career, a path that she blazed for herself.

Two Wilbraham residents were recognized for their success in sports, in very different ways. Craig Poisson, athletic director of Springfield College, was awarded the Under Armour Athletic Director of the Year award from the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA). The award is given to those who the NACDA said exemplify “commitment and positive contributions to student-athletes, campuses and their surrounding communities.”

A student-athlete from Wilbraham-Monson Academy (WMA), Karsten Nyarady, excelled at the Under Armour All-American Lacrosse games in Indiana in August and moved on to the semifinals in October. Nyardy’s coach Mike MacDonald praised his performance at the time and noted that he had a variety of options for playing lacrosse in college in 2021.

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