Last month, Mya Gary and Fhrynée Lambert had the pleasure of chatting with the director of community engagement and the director of RSVP of Community Action Pioneer Valley– Jess Thompson and Lindsay Bennett-Jacob. Community Action of the Pioneer Valley aims to assist those with low incomes in achieving economic stability and security while working to build communities that invest in access for everyone. Here’s some of what we talked about:

  • Introductions 

Jess: I’m Jess Thomspon. I’m the Director of Community Engagement here at Community Action Pioneer Valley. Lindsay, you want to go next?

Lindsay: Sure! I’m Lindsay Bennett-Jacobs. I’m the director of RSVP of the Pioneer Valley which is the volunteer connector for people who are 55 and over. We run a program in all three counties in western Mass, and we do volunteering for the community but also volunteering in house at Community Action. 

Jess: We should mention a tidbit of information– both Lindsay and I are Smithies! 

Mya and Fhrynée: Oh my gosh! [laughs] 

Jess: We have like…what? A nine person department-

Lindsay: –and like five of us are Smithies!  

Fhrynée: This is so cool! 

Mya: Make sense!

Lindsay: Small world around here. Always fun to make that connection.

  • What were your majors when you were Smith students?

Mya: Just out of curiosity, what were you guys’ majors when you were at Smith?

Jess: Mine was so practical given that I didn’t actually want to live outside of western Massachusetts– I was a theatre major. [laughs] So if you’re going into development work, you can raise money with that. [laughs]

Lindsay: I did government and women’s studies and then went on and got a Masters of Divinity, so you just never know where life leads you.

Fhrynée: I’m actually really interested, Jess, in the relationship between theatre and performance and the work that you do now because I see the connection! A lot of work with community engagement on different levels is definitely a performance in that you’re putting yourself in different spaces and characters.

Jess: You know, what’s kind of interesting is the thing that drew me to the theatre is I like stories and I’m interested in what makes people tick. And I often say that if I could go back, I would’ve been a therapist because I could listen to people’s stories all day. I don’t know how familiar you all are with the concept of “yes, and…?”

Fhrynée: [laughs] Yeah, we were both theatre brats. 

Jess: So my executive director actually said to me– I was very frustrated the other day with how slow things were happening. And she was like “you’re really just feeling this way because you’re a “yes and” person, and there are several people on this team that are “yes but” people. So again, theatre comes into play. [laughs]

Lindsay: Yes, the thing I love about volunteer engagement is that it’s about helping people unlock their potential.


*“Yes and…” is a foundational principle in improvisational theatre circles; it encourages performers to think on their feet, be an active listener to their peers, and expand on their lines of thinking. It is also commonly used in organizations and businesses to encourage effective communication and collaborative brainstorming.

  • What brought you both to this kind of work? 

Fhrynée: As former Smithies, how did you come to work at this organization specifically? 

Jess: So my journey was weird. [laughs] I thought I wanted to teach, so when I first left Smith, I was a preschool teacher. I realized that was not my journey pretty quickly and ended up doing sales. I also worked for a Smithie at a not-for-profit– the Chamber of Commerce in Northampton. That was a really good fit for that moment in time. I had my kids and did other sales things that allowed me to be home in the morning and pick them up off the bus because that was my priority at that time. And then, I worked as the director of community and investor engagement at the Chamber. This position opened up, and I ended up at Community Action. While my trajectory wasn’t typical of a development director, part of the reason why Community Action was interested in working with me was because I had a lot of connections within the small business community. And what was interesting to me about Community Action was the ability to do work that had a greater impact.

Lindsay: My process has been very conveniently Smithie-led at various points. The Smith connection world is powerful— it really is. It has worked in my life in some very interesting ways. After I graduated, I ended up moving back to Florida for a minute and then went to Vanderbilt Divinity school. The admissions director was both a Smithie and a Unitarian Universalist, so she was like “Come on!” So I had an interesting time there, got my Masters of Divinity, and realized that youth ministry isn’t exactly a full-time job except for a couple of places. And I wanted to be here. I’ve always felt drawn to this area, loved it, and wanted to come back. My wife’s from Miami, but she was game. She was like “Winter? Sure, let’s do that.” So we got up here 17 years ago. 

I kind of wandered into this through AmeriCorps programs up in Greenfield, and then, through that, I met Pat who is our volunteer manager. When the previous director left, she was like, “You should come take this job.” I was working in volunteer area stuff, but I never thought about working with seniors in that way. But it turns out that, because it’s a federal program, I do a lot of spreadsheet-y and admin things, and I love a good spreadsheet. I also enjoy the sort of cyclical nature of things where I’m collecting data, surveying people, running a variety of programs, and working with a team. And the thing that’s really driven me this whole time is that way in which we get to indirectly– through the admin side of things– help a whole lot of organizations and a whole lot of people.

For example, we run one program called Healthy Bones & Balance; it’s a senior exercise program that runs at 27 different senior centers in the area. We serve somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 people a year through that program. We have 50 trained volunteer leaders between the ages of 55 and 90. They’re amazing! Oh my goodness, we’ve got 90-year-olds that could totally outlift me, let me tell you. And I always joke that this is my favorite time of year because it’s survey time. The members of those classes talk about the power that the program has had in their lives, how it’s connected them to people, and how it’s made them stronger and more capable of living independently. We have folks that say, “Now I can stand up to put my pants on again” or “I can turn my head so that I can back out of my driveways safely.” Just little things! As an introvert who likes the behind-the-scenes stuff, it’s really fun to get to help make that stuff happen and be a piece of it. 

It’s just really interesting work, and I get to be in a place I like. My 10-year-old goes to the campus school, and that’s a really cool thing to have. He’s in fourth grade now and has all his lovely teachers and Smith students he knows. He’s really comfortable on campus, and what a cool thing to get to give to him. That’s a treat too, but I just love this area. So I happened to be driven by location and found something that I really like doing.

  • How can students get involved with Community Action Pioneer Valley?

Lindsay: Our department is still new. It’s still in its infancy. So for students looking for opportunities, it presents some really interesting ways we can be worked with. And if somebody has an idea, then we can work with folks and figure that out. So we’re hoping that, within another year or so, we’ll have a dedicated volunteer coordinator in house for Community Action itself. In the meantime, we have RSVP that does that work and can kind of cover the gaps. 

Still, we’ve been loving developing partnerships with different schools, different programs, and different people because we’re such a big organization. We’re in a lot of different places doing a lot of different things which is both a benefit and a challenge. For instance, our VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program– that’s one that’s very volunteer forward. They’re deep in it right now, doing taxes for people. It’s a really cool program, clearly structured, and we know exactly what those volunteers are doing. And that’s great! So that one’s easy! Our food pantry up in Greenfield– that one’s also pretty straightforward. We’ve got some really good systems in place for that. And then we have a million other little programs doing a million different things. So when folks come to us and say “we’re interested in helping,” we’re having to tailor and develop things as we go. 

  • How has volunteer work changed in the past few years? How has the pandemic affected the work you do?

Fhrynée: I’m really curious about the effect of the pandemic on a larger organization like yours. Have you seen any effects in terms of the work that you guys do?

Lindsay: Yeah, from a volunteering perspective, things have changed really drastically. Things pulled so far back at the beginning of the pandemic. Things have really shifted. And, for one, if you look at generations of volunteers and what the age cohorts were like when I came into this work– I’ve been in this role for 13 years– we still had a lot of Greatest Generation* volunteers who would come, do their thing, didn’t need a lot of recognition, and would be there on a regular basis; it was just a very traditional volunteer model. And then Boomers on down are very different. They’re much more interested in something that’s very rewarding, there’s some flexibility, and they need more time to think about whether it’s the right fit for them. So I would say that, now, engaging volunteers is a much longer process than it used to be because folks just have so many things pulling at them. So in terms of volume, we’ve had to really shift how we work. 

And we used to have a really robust program that sent folks out to support things like the Hot Chocolate Run and other community events. And we don’t do as much of it as we used to because people are a little more tentative than they used to be about, “Hey, I’m going to do this event with all these people.” Or they’re thinking really carefully about whether something fits with what they’re passionate about. It’s just been a really interesting time of generational shift but also how we approach things. 

And at Community Action, it was interesting because so much of our work was so essential during the pandemic– feeding people, housing people, and making sure they had heat. We have Head Start*– making sure that kids have a place to go that’s safe so their parents can work. We were helping families with WIC* – all those different things that needed to happen. There were different staff members doing all sorts of things– helping with the food pantries, getting food out to families and out to the schools. We partnered with people in really different ways than we had before. The other thing that happened is that there was a lot of federal pandemic money that flooded into the marketplace for a couple of years and changed things a lot. But as that’s receded, it’s been really challenging.

Jess: Really challenging!

Lindsay: Yes, really challenging. Part of it was trying to make sure we were able to support our staff with living wages, and we’ve had to restructure various programs. A lot of things have shifted in that time. I think, from a volunteer engagement perspective, what we’re seeing with ourselves and our partners is we’re still trying to figure out what volunteers do now. And some of them have really pivoted in awesome ways like if you want a really great example, Amherst Survival Center is the one! They basically were like, “Oh, we need to deliver food! Okay!” And they built an entire food delivery system from scratch during the pandemic. What they do now is massive compared to what they were doing before. Same in Northampton. Each organization responded in such different ways. There’s just so many circumstances that affect what they can do, but we’re going to continue to see the effects as we go forward. And for Community Action, it gave us this opportunity to rethink how we structured some things, and say, “Okay, we want to have a community engagement department, we want to do this kind of work, this is important to us.” So in this way, we’ve tried to find the silver lining. But it’s been… exhausting, I think is a good word. [laughs]

Jess: And hard for our staff. You know, people don’t generally get into this kind of work because financially it’s going to be taking them to the next level. They get into it because they have good hearts, and they want to impact their communities. When we got the major influx of funding during COVID and right after, it changed some of the expectations of what could be available in the community. For instance, we have a fuel assistance program where people who meet certain income criteria can apply for additional funds to help pay their heating bills during the winter months. During the pandemic and immediately after, there was a lot of funding there– a lot, a lot of funding. And so, for some folks, all of their heating bills were paid for. Now, we’re going back to pre-pandemic levels, so we might have been able to give some folks $2000 last year, but now they’re only approved for $500. Well, pre-pandemic, the feeling of appreciation was one thing, but the expectations have changed. Now, for our teams, they would love to be able to allocate those same pandemic-level funds to people in need, but what’s available is just not the same. 

As human beings, it’s really challenging. You’re here, you want to help people as much as you possibly can, but because the vast majority of Community Action’s budgets comes from state and federal funders, there are very specific regulations about who can get what. There’s not a lot of human decision making on the ground. So if the box is this, and you’re over here on the line just outside that box, we as human beings would love to be able to say, “You count, its fine, we’ll be able to help you,” but that’s not the way it works when you’re getting funding from those kinds of programs. So those are some of the challenges that we’ve seen. 

Lindsay: That’s where development comes in, so we can get some flexible funding. [laughs] 

Jess: Find someone with a theatre major who’s not afraid to ask people for money. [everyone laughs] 


*The Greatest Generation is composed of individuals born between the years 1901 and 1927, preceding the Silent Generation.  

*Head Start is a program run by Community Action, offering “quality early education and care and services to support expectant parents and children birth to five in Franklin, Hampshire, and Western Hampden Counties at low or no cost to families.” – Community Action Pioneer Valley website

*WIC is an acronym for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children; it is a USDA-funded program that provides healthy food, healthcare referrals, and nutrition education to low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum individuals. 

  • What would you like Smith students to know about your organization?

Jess: Lindsay might have a different answer, but I think what I would like Smith students to know is that there are many people who live with low-incomes in the immediate vicinity of Smith. It’s a beautiful school up on the hill with the gorgeous campus, and many of the neighbors surrounding Smith are filled with those beautiful Victorians. I mean, it is picturesque and lovely. But when we look at who needs our support, when we look at that data, the income discrepancy in Northampton and Amherst is significant. There are many, many people living with low-incomes, but there are also lots of ways to help make people’s lives a little bit easier who may be living in crisis day-to-day because of what’s available to them financially.

The Community Actions in general came out of the Johnson era and the War on Poverty*, so a lot of the rhetoric surrounding Community Actions is about ending poverty. And that can feel like a tsunami– the need is great. But there are many ways that organizations like Community Actions are able to provide a real impact in a relatively immediate period of time. It’s not going to fix it, and we don’t have the magic wand, but there are programs that we can connect people to that help them and their families stay fed, warm, connected, learning, and stable. And to be able to participate in programs like that is an incredibly meaningful and rewarding opportunity.

Lindsay: I would also say that we’re somewhat of a unique organization to be able to work with. There aren’t a ton of big nonprofits in the area, and we’re relatively large as these things go in Hampshire County. We do a lot of different things, and we’re being pretty creative with that. So for a student to say, “Hey, this is my skill set, this is the time I have, this is the impact I’d like to have,” we can work with somebody and figure out what that looks like. They can come to our little department of Smithies, and we’ll be like “Oh, new Smithie. Come here and let us help you figure out what will be meaningful to you.” That’s something that’s kind of fun. And if somebody’s thinking that they’d like to understand what the nonprofit landscape looks like in a small town in a more rural area– not like a New York City nonprofit or the big international ones– this could be a great opportunity to learn about what it’s like on the ground. 

Jess: Absolutely! And if someone were interested in building up their social media management portfolio or they were looking to do art direction, we have so many opportunities. We could really bring someone in in a really collaborative way that could be meaningful to their heart, mind, and their resume. [everyone laughs] All three! 

Lindsay: I think that’s what having a department like this affords us! We can help bridge the gap. That’s what we do in RSVP, and that’s what we do in Community Action– help people think creatively. I would just say to anybody who’s thinking about giving up their time: think about what you’re excited about, think about where you’re energy is, what’s missing from your day-to-day, what would you like to add to it, and then talk with us about it. And maybe there’s something we can figure out that would be a good match. Obviously doing a sort of “create your own” isn’t going to be for everybody, but we’d be happy to welcome somebody who wants to do that. 

Fhrynée: That’s amazing!


*The War on Poverty was an endeavor spearheaded by president Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration in the 1960’s, characterized by the expansion of social welfare legislation to improve living conditions for low-income individuals. This was one aspect of the larger “Great Society” program– its end goal being to increase federal involvement in healthcare and education as poverty reduction strategies.

We’d like to extend a warm thank you to Jess and Lindsay for this wonderful conversation, and we hope to see many of you become volunteers for this lovely organization. To learn more about Community Action volunteer placements, head to the Community Action Pioneer Valley page, and if you have any further questions for Jess or Lindsay, please email them at and

Our vision is a community that celebrates our shared humanity as well as our diversity. We strive to build a community that invests in access for everyone to healthy food; safe, affordable housing; living wage work; high quality, affordable education from birth; and full participation in the democratic process. In service to that vision, Community Action Pioneer Valley relies on the leadership of people who have low incomes to define how we approach our work. We advocate for policies and resources that protect the vulnerable and disenfranchised, and open opportunity to all. Working with many partners, we create a community where children and youth are nurtured and protected, and everyone achieves their potential and prospers in the fullness of life.

-Community Action Pioneer Valley, 2024