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.