Mary Ellen Wessell is a force of nature.
“I’m one of these people who has to stay busy all the time,” the founder of the Children’s Smile Coalition says.
For Wessell, busy goes like this: as its unpaid executive director, she’s running a not-for-profit organization she established to help economically disadvantaged children and promote community service. She’s also running her own business, working part-time, and raising a teenage daughter. Where does she get the energy? “I don’t know,” she says. “I have always been like that.”
What’s certain is that Wessell’s efforts — assuring underprivileged teenagers aren’t forgotten at the holidays, providing students in need with healthcare products, and honoring kids who show an early interest in community service — are making a difference and getting noticed.
The New England Patriots Charitable Foundation thought so, honoring Wessell with the Myra Kraft Community MVP award this past summer at Gillette Stadium.
Wessell is proud of that honor because the late Myra Kraft, a committed philanthropist, was born Myra Hiatt, the daughter of Worcester industrialist Jacob Hiatt, and was raised in Wessell’s hometown of Worcester.
“I was always a fan of [Kraft],” Wessell says. “It was such a great honor to get an award that bears her name. She was so philanthropic, and what I admired about her was that she was hands-on.”
Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Worcester Boys and Girls Club, sees a similar direct involvement and engagement in Wessell. “What impresses me most about Mary Ellen is that she really tries to get to know the people she serves,” Hamilton says. “She asks our Club kids questions, finds out about their lives, and then finds ways to help them. She doesn’t see them as ‘those kids,’ she sees them as her kids.”
Meet Wessell in person and it doesn’t take long to sense the energy that keeps her running. Her warm smile and piercing green eyes connect and disarm simultaneously. When telling story after story about her work and the hardships she’s trying to help children overcome, she leans in closer to make an important point.
She doesn’t do it on her own and is quick to credit her board members and volunteers for going the extra mile in achieving the group’s goal of putting smiles on children’s faces.
It’s no accident that people are willing to help her, Hamilton says.
“It really is inspiring to witness the impact Mary Ellen and her CSC volunteers have made on the community in just five years,” she notes. “People support the work she does for kids because of her passion and commitment.”
The Worcester native attended parochial schools in the city, graduating from St. Peter-Marian High School. She recently earned her degree in human resources this past summer from Bay Path University, at age 55, and has a full-time job as a self-employed HR consultant. She’s married with two daughters — Julie, 24, and Shelby, 13.
After Shelby was born, Wessell took a break from working and started taking on volunteer opportunities. During the 2010 winter holidays, Wessell was volunteering for a social service agency in Worcester, helping to deliver gifts to the children in their programs a few days before Christmas.
That was when a painful emotional moment unfolded before her eyes and sparked the concept that would become the Children’s Smile Coalition .
“I was dropping off all these gifts and there was a mom standing there with a social worker crying because they weren’t letting her son get any gifts that year,” she explains. “He was 14 or 15 and she had changed the date on the birth certificate to make it look like he was 12…and they caught her.
“The mother was desperate. She did what she thought she had to to get her kid — her teenager — Christmas gifts. And she left with no gifts for her kid.
“I was mad at the social worker that she couldn’t make the exception for this one kid. I felt horrible for the mom. Picture this poor kid waking up on Christmas morning with no gifts. I’m an adult, and if there were no gifts for me on Christmas morning I’d feel bad. So I was mad…and my heart was breaking for this poor woman.”
The next morning, Wessell asked a social worker, “‘Why didn’t you refer her to someone who gets gifts for teenagers?’ She said, ‘There is no one.’”
There was the opportunity.
A year later — it took time to raise seed funding and secure the nonprofit status — the Children’s Smile Coalition was born. Wessell’s initial idea -— providing gifts for older children who aren’t the traditional focus of charity efforts at the holidays — was launched and named “Santa’s Big League.”
Last year, about 100 teens who live in poverty received Christmas gifts from the group. Wessell puts out the call on social media in early November (the call for donors is up now at facebook.com/ChildrensSmileCoalition), and those who are interested can message Wessell that they want to sponsor a teen. Donors get a first name, age, size, and a list, and shop for these kids as if they were their own.
“[Donors] love to show me each gift they got for them, and I feel that they get more out of their good deed than the recipients do,” Wessell says.
If a teen’s gift bag is “a little light” or the child is not sponsored, she takes money from the group’s general fund and goes shopping for them. Any donations made to the general fund go directly to supporting its programs; Wessell doesn’t pay herself a salary.
Young Heroes Night
The second component of CSC is Young Heroes Night, an evening honoring children who have gotten the message about community service at an early age and are making a difference. The event outgrew its original home at the Worcester Boys and Girls Club and was held in September at The Hanover Theatre in Worcester, with Liam Fitzgerald — The Fist Bump Kid you’ve seen at Bruins games — as the honored guest.
Youngsters are nominated for the award, and winners get the royal treatment — a key to the City of Worcester, citations from Gov. Charlie Baker and U.S. Rep. James McGovern, and a gift.
Wessell’s thought process was that kids sometimes make the news for making mistakes and poor decisions — and that kids who do the right thing deserve their moment of recognition and the encouragement to keep serving their community.
“Some kids can go out and do this and not care what people think,” she said. But for others: “If no one’s paying attention, are they going to keep doing it?”
“Mary Ellen is always working 24/7 to find ways to help the children,” says Vanessa Costa of Worcester, who is among the financial supporters of Young Heroes Night. “There is always a special project in the works, and she consistently finds new ways to better the lives of children.”
Costa says the example set by the award-winners is making a difference: “It’s a lesson all of us can learn from, and it has encouraged my daughter to get involved as well.”
The coalition’s newest initiative, Project KIN, started at the end of the 2015-16 school year when Wessell, having heard from teachers in Worcester that there were older kids who quietly needed a way to get needed health and hygiene supplies, decided to act.
“Teachers know which kids are hungry. Teachers know which kids are coming in without coats or with torn-up shoes. And the teachers I know take money out of their pockets to help these kids,” Wessell says. “If I can get them to keep a bin or a couple of bins in their schools with food, healthy snacks, toiletries, winter coats, dental supplies...if I can do that and they can give them out as they need them, then middle and high school-aged kids will get what they need without having to broadcast their need to their friends and peers.”
Currently, CSC has KIN bins in three Worcester schools, “which may not sound like a lot, but the numbers are overwhelming,” notes Wessell, who is growing the program as time and supplies allow. “I have over 1,000 students in the schools I am helping, with poverty rates in two of those schools over 95%, and the third has a poverty rate of 75%.
“I am fine-tuning the process and hope to be in 10 schools next school year, depending upon grant funding” she adds, noting that the Staples Foundation recently donated $3,500, which will be spent specifically on Project KIN bins. “For now, I do it with my daughter and we do OK. However, I really need to expand this project. These poor kids are hungry.”
Children’s Smile Coalition Names 2016 Young Heroes
The latest recipients of Children’s Smile Coalition’s Young Heroes Awards were honored this fall at The Hanover Theatre in Worcester.Honorees included:
Julie Dougherty founded The Bernadette Project (thebernadetteproject.weebly.com) named after her late friend. Dougherty collects and distributes Christmas gifts to pediatric patients at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Hollyann Edwards led a student team to inform students about depression, healthy strategies for coping, and how to recognize signs of suicide ideation in a peer.
Lauren Eppinger raises money for Achilles International (achillesinternational.org), an organization that provided prosthetic limbs to survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing.
Liam Fitzgerald has raised over $150,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Better-known as mega Bruins fan “The Fist Bump Kid,” Fitzgerald was also the evening’s guest of honor.
Jill Folger, a volunteer coach for younger kids at Greenwood Swimming; Folger also organizes activities for the elderly, volunteers at the Breast Cancer Walk in Boston; and mentors younger students at school.
Zachary Lavoie was raised in foster care under difficult circumstances, yet always volunteered many hours each week at the Boys & Girls Club. Now attending college, he still volunteers at the club.
Zeke Lemieux founded “High Fives for Soldiers, Nickels for a Higher Cause.” Money raised is used to help soldiers with PTSD who are in need of service dogs.
Martha, Mabel, Agnes, and Jack McDonald spend months training to compete in Fitness for a Cure, raising money for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital over the past 6 years.
Anna Murphy founded Warming Families Makes Cents (warmingfamiliesmakescents.com) and has raised $35,000 to help those in need heat their homes.