ThisWeekinWorcester.com’s Person of the Week
WORCESTER – Mary Ellen Wessell has mastered the balancing act.
And in doing so, she has managed to bring smiles to the faces of hundreds of children in Worcester.
Wessell is a small business owner, a mother of two daughters, has a part-time job, and is the director of Children’s Smile Coalition — a nonprofit located in Worcester.
Founded in 2012, the Children’s Smile Coalition’s mission is to meet the social and economic needs of underprivileged children and teenagers and, in turn, encourage children to give back to their community.
As the founder and executive director of Children’s Smile Coalition [CSC], Wessell runs two prominent programs — Santa’s Big League and Project KIN – each year aimed at addressing the basic needs of teenagers and kids living in poverty.
A third program, Young Heroes Night — an event honoring children that do exceptional charity work in their respective community — will be held on Saturday, Sept. 30 at The Hanover Theatre in downtown Worcester.
“You see stories in the news about these kids doing amazing things and I think that a lot of times these kids aren’t getting enough attention,” Wessell said in an interview on Wednesday, Sept. 20.
“All of us — me included sometimes — we put our energy where it doesn’t belong. This where I choose to put my energy – making sure these kids get the credit that they should be getting,” she added.
The event, which is in its fifth year, celebrates nine young leaders in the Worcester community — including ThisWeekinWorcester’s Person of the Week last week Simon Eber — and one guest of honor. This year’s guest of honor is Worcester police officer and cancer survivor Jonathan Daige.
Wessell, 56, of Leicester, is originally from the West Tatnuck area of Worcester, and is the mother of two daughters — Julie, 25, of Worcester and Shelby, 14, a freshman at St. Peter-Marian. She is married to her husband, Jim – who owns a company that provides services for Dell EMC data storage.
Wessell attended St. Peter-Marian and Bay Path University where she earned her degree in human resources last year at the age of 55.
Wessell is also the owner of Bay State Business Solutions, LLC – a consulting business that handles human resources and business services – including bookkeeping and administrative support. Additionally, Wessell works part-time at Tufts University doing payroll administration.
Since Julie and Shelby were born, Wessell has always tried to volunteer. In one volunteer effort, where Wessell was helping a social service agency around Christmas time get gifts for children that were undergoing counseling for behavioral problems and abuse issues.
“There were about 50 kids that needed gifts. When I was delivering all of the gifts, I witnessed one mom was speaking to her social worker and she was crying,” Wessell said.
Being curious, Wessell had to find out what was going on and why the mother was upset. According to Wessell, the mom said that her son was 14-years-old and the age cut-off to receive gifts from the social service agency was 12.
Wessell said, “I asked the agency why they didn’t refer the family somewhere that handles gifts for 13 to 18-year-olds. The social worker said there wasn’t a service that provided gifts for children in that age group. I made some phone calls, went online and did some research and I couldn’t find any agencies or organizations that gave gifts to teenagers.”
“So I started my own. And that’s how [CSC] started,” Wessel continued. “And I knew I wanted to do more than just delivering Christmas gifts, so I called it Children’s Smile Coalition because we are a group of people that puts smiles on kids’ faces.”
Last year, CSC sponsored more than 125 kids living in poverty. Over the course of five years, Wessell estimates that at least 500 children from the Boys & Girls Club have received gifts from the CSC.
“A six-month-old doesn’t know when they’re receiving a gift, but a 13 to 18-year-old kid growing up in the world truly appreciates it,” Wessell said.
Wessell requests shirt and jacket sizes of the kids that receive gifts from the CSC from the Boys & Girls Club and asks for a wishlist from each child so they receive the gifts that they want. Many gifts on the wishlists – especially clothing — are brand-name items that the teens request because they want to fit in with their peers, Wessell said.
Wessell said, “On the lists you will see Under Armour or Nike apparel, but I was always tell the sponsors that they don’t have to get name-brand items in order to fulfill the wishlist. If they want to great, but they shouldn’t ever feel like they have to.”
The wishlists are fulfilled through monetary donations that CSC receives from individual donors and corporate sponsors, as well as individual sponsors that take a wishlist and go out and do the shopping for the items a child wants.
“Every single person never fails to get every single thing on a child’s list, and more. Every single time,” Wessell added.
Although Wessell handles 90 percent of the work that needs to be done for CSC on her own, she does receive help from her daughters, her childhood friend Nancy Barrett [a CSC board member] and other volunteers in distributing the gifts for Santa’s Big League.
Wessell’s other program, Project KIN [Kids in Need], is designed to give school-aged children and teenagers personal hygiene products such as dental kits, deodorant, toiletries, shoes, and gloves.
Bins are placed in several Worcester schools for public school students to help themselves. The bins are put with the guidance counselor or in the nurse’s’ office for students to access the products in private.
The funding for CSC to obtain these products has come primarily through grants, Wessell said. Other funding comes from a surplus from money raised at the Young Heroes event.
Although CSC is only its fifth year, Wessell sees her organization growing year after year and helping more and more kids and teens. Ultimately, Wessell hopes that CSC starts helping other nonprofits in the future.
Wessell said, “I see this organization morphing into an organization that helps other people start up and run nonprofits or I may even start another nonprofit up to do that. Inevitably, every year there’s at least one of the Young Heroes that I deal with that say ‘We’re not a 501c3 yet, will you help me?’”
No matter what she takes on in the future, or who Wessell helps, the children, teenagers and philanthropists in Worcester will have Wessell as a resource and guide toward success and an inspiration to finding a balance in life between work, family and helping those in need.
To make a donation to the Children’s Smile Coalition, click here.