‘I strive to be the guy putting out the hand for other guys’: Shawn Robinson is Gazette’s Person of the Year


HATFIELD — In the 10 years since coming to work at Prospect Meadow Farm, one farmhand who began earning a paycheck for completing regular tasks at the site has graduated to become a job coach, welcoming new farmhands to the therapeutic vocational training program.

Helping to guide individuals with developmental disabilities is the kind of success that Shawn Robinson, as director of vocational services for ServiceNet, has achieved at the farm, where since 2011 people have been empowered through meaningful employment and exposed to social opportunities.

“They make friends here,” Robinson said. “This is where they come to meet their friends, and this is a huge part of their lives.”

Robinson’s job involves making sure that those with chronic mental illness and autism find a friendly, welcoming place where they can meet others and develop personal relationships. On the farm, they raise chickens, goats, alpacas and llamas, prepare 2,000 log-grown shiitake mushrooms and grow more than 5 acres of produce.

They also may develop skills in carpentry, such as building fences and raised planting beds for crops, in culinary arts, and in handling retail sales at a nearby store.

Robinson was recognized as the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s Person of the Year for his professional role, along with his involvement in myriad regional organizations and town committees in Hatfield, where he lives. He was presented the recognition during the United Way of Franklin and Hampshire Region’s awards celebration and meeting Friday afternoon.

Among those who nominated Robinson for the annual recognition was Monica Chicoine, a ServiceNet colleague who calls Prospect Meadow Farm among the most successful vocational training programs in Massachusetts.

“Shawn strives to create a welcoming, inclusive, nurturing environment for both farmhands and staff,” Chicoine wrote.

On the farm

Shawn Robinson, ServiceNet’s director of vocational services who oversees Prospect Meadow Farm in Hatfield, was recognized as the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s Person of the Year on Friday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Robinson said the program was created by a ServiceNet CEO who had a vision of establishing a place where people with developmental disabilities and an interest in agriculture could work.

“I was lucky enough to be selected for this project,” Robinson said, noting that he began with one client.

As the farm has increased in size nearly every year, 80 people are getting their first job experience there now, some in more specialized fields. There is opportunity to progress from farmhand to senior farmhand, then to job coach in training and job coach.

“Our goal is through these specialties, people will receive a level of mentorship beyond what they’ve gotten on the farm,” Robinson said.

By the seventh year, the expansion included the opening of the retail store on Routes 5 and 10 where Community Supported Agriculture shares are picked up by customers and people can shop.

Many of the clients spend about 30 hours per week at the farm, doing actual labor and other endeavors, such as social building skills. There is also time for hobbies, like one farmhand who turned a passion for photography into a photo greeting card company, and another who did illustrations for a book.

“Their personal passions are just as important and need to be pursued,” Robinson said.

Youth leadership experiencePart of what Robinson brings draws from his own experiences as a youth growing up in Pittsfield and his interest in community organizing when he was 14.

For this, he credits Jeff Harness, the community relations and communications officer at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, who at the time was running a regional public health training program focused on youth development and teen pregnancy prevention.

“He was incredibly influential to me in developing my youth leadership,” Robinson said.

At 15, Robinson was facilitating leadership.

“I’ve never stopped that level of community service since,” he said. “Now I strive to be the guy putting out the hand for other guys.”

Harness remembers Robinson as someone with a natural curiosity, reconnecting with him after a grant funding request was made to start a garden share program to be run by the farmhands. Harness then invited him to join the hospital’s Healthy Communities Committee, and eventually its ethics committee.

“Shawn brings a great combination of heart, energy, and intelligence to everything he does,” Harness said. “I am amazed by what he has created at Prospect Meadow Farm. I am not surprised, but proud of the way he contributes to our region in so many ways by serving on boards and committees, and showing up when it counts.”

Expanding scopeRobinson continued his activism while studying at Holyoke Community College, tapped to serve as the student member of the state’s Board of Higher Education, and then also at the University of Massachusetts, where he served on the Associated Students for Massachusetts, a lobbying organization on behalf of student governments.

After being a summer employee of the Department of Developmental Services, he made his entrance into ServiceNet, the nonprofit mental health and social services organization based in Northampton. He proposed internships in the community, offering vocational opportunities and finding ways for those with chronic mental illness to make money and have a livelihood, such as selling their art or doing a flea market in Northampton.

As the scope of his job increases, taking him at least one day a week back to Pittsfield to a community-based day program and to Chicopee where a home serves 30 people who have suffered brain injuries, Robinson said he hopes that Prospect Meadow Farm may eventually have a sister site in the Orange-Athol area and the Berkshires.

“We believe in replicating it because this model works,” Robinson said.

Active in communityThough he has done community service from those days as a teenager, Robinson, who is married to Jill and has two children, Jacob and Sofia, tries to limit himself.

He still serves on Cooley Dickinson’s ethics committee, where member Jyl Gentzler said Robinson’s insights and perspectives are highly valued. Gentzler noted that at the height of the pandemic, Robinson provided a perspective on the ethics of vaccine mandates for health care workers, reflecting on the history of medical exploitation of members of the Black community.

“In light of this history, he asked us to consider whether it could be just for health care workers to be punished for their resistance to the vaccine with a loss of their livelihood,” Gentzler said.

Robinson also serves on ServiceNet’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, the Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture board and Hatfield’s Comprehensive Plan Committee, where he will join residents in thinking about the future in terms of climate change and emergency planning. He also served on the town’s Finance Committee for five years before stepping away.

Even with his obligations, he recently joined the board of trustees for the Bement School, where Jacob is now enrolled. But he does leave enough time for getting to his children’s sporting events, whether a field hockey game Sofia plays or a baseball or basketball game Jacob plays. The family also enjoys traveling in a recreational vehicle, staying mostly in New England to camp at least 30 nights a season.

Earlier this spring, Robinson earned the Black Excellence on the Hill Award from the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus. He was nominated by Northampton Sen. Jo Comerford, who calls his work inspirational, citing his “unparalleled and inspired commitment to food security for all.”

Beyond that, he has also chaired the Hatfield Council on Aging. Elder issues are a particular passion as there is a need for programming, access to home care and meals on wheels.

“I believe we have made tremendous gains through strategies of patience by incremental increases,” he said about Hatfield organization, adding that a friends group has formed and he helped hire a new director.

Elders in towmare among those who need companionship, just like the clients at the farm.

“Anything to help reduce isolation, particularly in rural areas,” Robinson said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at [email protected].

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