2017’s People to Watch

As 2017 begins, now is the time to reflect on the past while planning new goals for the next year. The individuals in this year’s People to Watch issue come from richly diverse backgrounds and fields; however, they are united by the fact that they all followed their dreams. Through passion and persistence, these up-and-comers from Central Massachusetts are sure to make a difference – not just in their own lives, but in the communities around them.

Melanie Bonsu
Fund Development Manager of Girl Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts

Melanie Bonsu, 35, is proof that although difficult, it is it possible to raise a family as a single mother and maintain a successful career.

A Worcester resident, Bonsu is the fund development manager for the Girl Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts, where she has worked since 2004. As a mother of two sons, Bonsu understands the importance of reaching out to youth in the city.

“Working to benefit kids benefits me. I am a mom,” she said

Bonsu said that of all the charitable giving that is donated nationally, only 7 percent of these funds benefit girls-only programs such as the Girl Scouts. As a result, Bonsu’s role is crucial to the success of the organization.

“Building girl leaders is important to the community, and my role is securing the funding to do that.”

In order to encourage more young girls to join, in 2013, the Girl Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts started using a community-based model. Many mothers now are outside the home working and therefore do not have the extra time to volunteer and lead Girl Scout troops. In order to solve this problem, the community-based model sends staff members to area programs and organizations where the girls are already going. While the standard troop model is still used in most of the 187 towns that comprise Central and Western Massachusetts, the community-based model gives young women more accessibility to the program and is currently being implemented in five cities and towns, including Worcester.

For Bonsu, one of the greatest aspects of working with the Girl Scouts is eliminating stereotypes. “Most people think Girl Scouts are campfires and crafts, but it is so much more.” The Girl Scouts focuses on the importance of reading, financial literacy, positive body image, good nutrition, building healthy relationships and science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Recently, the Girl Scouts of Worcester held a STEM conference at WPI.

Bonsu’s parents are her greatest inspiration because they always have her back through good and bad times. They also have greatly helped with Bonsu’s sons, who are now 13 and 5. Finding the delicate balance between motherhood and work life is something that Bonsu has perfected. She joked about having to bring her youngest son to work sometimes: “For the longest time, my littlest one thought I just made cookies because every time he came I gave him a box of cookies.”

Bonsu said she feels that happiness is at the heart of success and believes that everyone has the ability to achieve their own level of success.

“If happiness is around you, you are successful.”


Irvi Stefo

Artist and Student

At 18, Irvi Stefo’s art is not just personal expression, it is part of his family heritage. When Stefo was 5, his family emigrated from Albania to the United States and settled.

in Worcester. As a child, Stefo felt out of place in this new environment and, as a result, did not have many friends. Instead, he would watch cartoons and draw them. Stefo’s grandfather, Vaske Melka, was an artist. He spent two hours a day teaching Stefo about art and perfecting his drawing skills.

As a student at Bancroft School, Stefo toyed with the idea of becoming an animator but realized, “I felt in the back of my mind I always wanted to be an artist and be in the art field.” During his junior year, Stefo was awarded a medal for his art during a scholastic competition. This recognition solidified Stefo’s decision to become an artist, and today, he is studying at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Stefo believes that the goal of any piece of art should be “to catch people’s eye and be captivating.”

As a college art student, Stefo has been encouraged to let go of the methodical way he used to draw and become more expressive and free with his work. He is even trying his hand at sculpture and jewelry making at RISD.

“It’s not about anyone else. It is about you. It can be a beautiful thing. It can be cathartic. You can use it to communicate with the world.”

In 2017, Stefo is looking forward to his time as a student at RISD and wants to keep growing as both an artist and as a person.

“I don’t believe in the phrase ‘found yourself,’ but I do want to connect more with who I am.”


Ryan Richard

Chef at 435 bar & grille

Ryan Richard has been cooking since the age of 15, and as the head chef of 435 Bar and Grille in Leominster, this 26-year-old has no plans of stopping anytime soon.

At 19, Richard graduated from culinary school and worked in restaurants throughout Boston, Vermont, Philadelphia and New York before returning home to Leominster. He has been with 435 Bar and Grille since the gastropub opened its doors in January 2016. Starting as a prep cook and becoming head chef, Richard described working at 435 Bar and Grille: “It’s like a small family.”

Richard described his unique cooking style as “a lot of classical French dishes with a modern twist.” Throughout his career, Richard has been inspired by Thomas Kellar, a California chef. Each day presents itself with a new opportunity to experiment in the kitchen and create a new dish. This aspect is Richard’s favorite part of the business.

“It’s all about being different in this field,” he said.

In the next five years, Richard would like to achieve his goal of opening his own high-end restaurant. In the meantime, Richard gave some advice to those interested in a culinary career: “Don’t do it!” he joked.

But he described the real key to becoming a chef is hard work and dedication.

“Don’t be afraid to try new things.”


Joy Rachelle Murrieta

Main Idea

Ever since she was a child, Joy Rachelle Murrieta’s parents instilled a passion and appreciation for music in their little girl. Today, the 30-year-old Holden resident shares her love of music with her students at the Worcester Music Academy and through the nonprofit that she co-founded, Main Idea.

As a bi-racial woman whose mother is Caucasian and whose father in Mexican, Murrieta described her family as “racially diverse.” This respect for diversity and love of the arts soon culminated into an idea for a nonprofit when Murrieta, along with other musicians who lived in Main South, saw a need for artistic expression.

“We wanted to combine social work with art,” Murrieta said.

According to Murrieta, Main South is one of the most diverse communities in the city, but it has the highest crime rate and lowest income. This means that children in Main South are not usually given the opportunity to attend music classes or art camps, since the families cannot afford the extra expenses.

Main Idea created a week-long day program during the summer in which children, mostly from the Main South area, are exposed to all aspects of art such as music, dancing, singing and visual arts. Main Idea has been serving Main South children for six years and has become an official nonprofit organization that is entirely run through volunteers and donations. Each year, the program gets bigger and bigger, with 2016 serving 55 children. Clark University has even become part of the program by allowing Main Idea to use one of its halls as a venue for the week-long event.

For Murrieta, the goal of Main Idea is to empower students through art and expression. “It is really cool watching a shy kid at the beginning of the week become the most outgoing kid by the end.”

Ideally, Murrieta would like Main Idea to be more self-sustaining in the future. Financial stability for the program, a permanent staff, a facility and the ability to offer more programs and classes are goals that the members of Main Idea strive to accomplish in the long-term.

Describing herself as passionate, outspoken and feisty, Murrieta believes in the power of helping people.

“I want to be someone who advocates as much as I possibly can for the community around me,” she said. “I don’t want to settle for less.”


Nate Erskine

UMass and Worcester Tech

Nate Erskine, 28, of Shrewsbury, knew as a very young man that medicine was his calling. In high school and college, Erskine was interested in becoming a chemist for medicinal development, but an internship at a pharmaceutical group helped Erksine discover his passion was the clinical side of medicine. After working in Singapore as a medical chemist, Erskine started the next chapter of his career by becoming a Ph.D. candidate who is currently studying epidemiology at UMass.

As a former Bancroft student, Erskine described how the school’s resources and support assisted him during the arduous process of applying for college. As a result, he went back to Bancroft and established a program that would allow the Bancroft students to experience a week at UMass.

Inspired to reach out to students who may not have access to such support, Erskine – along with other coordinators, including Johanna Vanderspek, head of the Biotechnology Department at Worcester Technical High School – reached out to Worcester Tech students interested in the medical field. In the summer of 2014, the program linked Worcester Tech students enrolled in biotechnology with laboratories at UMass. According to Erskine, the first year was a huge success that “really ended up empowering those students.”

Today, the program has grown and now incorporates stipends for students, many of whom will be the first in their families to attend college. This program also gives students the opportunity to participate in a learning experience that looks impressive on their resumes while meeting mentors in the field.

As far as his personal goals for 2017, Erskine is looking forward to following up with the Worcester Tech students about their future career prospects while he continues his own education.

“I will be in a much better place to help people than I was a year ago,” he said.

While he is happy to be recognized for his work with Worcester Tech students, he wanted to share the credit with coordinators from both Worcester Tech and UMass who worked hard to make the program a success, “Medicine is a team sport.”


Jessica Walsh

Owner of Worcester Wares

Jessica Walsh, 34, loves Worcester, and she is not afraid to show it! Originally from Bellingham, Walsh and her husband moved to Worcester nearly 10 years ago to shorten their work commutes. However, one random interaction turned into a very unique and unexpectedly successful business venture for Walsh.

One day, Walsh bought an “I <3 Worcester” pin at a store. She wanted another pin, but could not find it anywhere, so she started to make her own. She started selling the pins and soon began making totes. Fourteen months ago, Walsh opened Worcester Wares in the DCU Center. This unique shop features work from more than 50 artists and has a wide variety of products such as glassware, totes, mugs, jewelry, condiments, T-shirts and artwork. These diverse products are all tied together by one theme: They must demonstrate an appreciation of the city of Worcester.

“We don’t buy kitschy knick-knacks. Everything in my store is handmade, high-quality and hand-selected.”

The store is also symbolic of how Walsh and her husband have made the city their new home. “It sounds dramatic, but the day that I bought that pin, the day I bought that ‘I <3 Worcester’ pin, is when I decided I wanted to stay here,” she said. “It’s got its bumps and grittiness, but it’s ours. I love it. I am in a relationship with Worcester.”

For Walsh, one of her biggest inspirations was her father, who passed away five years ago. She described him as a hard-working woodworker who lived his life with honesty. Every six months, Walsh invites a local artist to paint a large mural in her store. They are free to create whatever they want, with one caveat: The painting must include Walsh’s father in some way.

“He still inspires me every day,” she said.


John & Tom Vo

Owners of Nine Dot Gallery

Growing up in Worcester, John Vo, 29, felt that the community “did not have a space that facilitated creative learning.” After graduating from the College of the Holy Cross and becoming an artist in his own right, John and his brother, Tom, opened Nine Dot Gallery to meet this need.

Located at 763 Main St., John describes Nine Dot Gallery as “locally based. It’s a gallery for everybody.” Artists are encouraged to use the gallery’s studio space while the public is welcome to attend events and engage in dialogue. The gallery seems to be part of a movement among young artists as Worcester becomes an increasingly growing hub for creative expression.

Along with providing a space for artists to work and express themselves, the Vos said Nine Dot Gallery has other positive impacts.

“It’s a facelift to have a young person as a business owner. It’s empowerment to young people,” John said.

John had no prior business before opening the gallery. Instead, he has learns everything as he goes and through communicating with other young, local entrepreneurs, such as Jessica Walsh. He considers her not only a friend but also an inspiration.

“I really appreciate her model for the way she works with the community,” he said.

In 2017, the Vos are looking forward to a year of collaboration. They want to collaborate with more artists and businesses. Artists in Montreal, Austin and Providence are all currently interested in doing an art trade with Worcester artists from Nine Dot Gallery. John is also excited about creating and showing more of his own pieces, as well.


Kyla Pacheco

Action! Worcester Co-Founder

A few years ago, if you told Kyla Pacheco that she would co-found one of the most influential non-profits and think tanks in the city, she probably would not have believed you. Now, the 30-year-old Leicester resident, along with fellow co-founder Joshua Croke, has created Action! Worcester, an organization that reaches out to the community in order to foster urban growth, reach out to young entrepreneurs and professionals and provide resources to engage residents.

In order to facilitate economic development in Worcester, Action! Worcester looks at the aspect of lifestyle development which pertains to, “connecting people, retaining people and attracting people.” While looking at studies and reports, the staff at Action! Worcester realized that Worcester attracted many professionals and students. However, these individuals did not stay in the city to spend their paychecks, but instead just went home after work. Through collaboration with other nonprofits, Action! Worcester seeks to retain these young professionals and students within the city. Pacheco said Action! Worcester is just one of the up-and-coming organizations that is redefining and revitalizing Worcester.

“I think there are so many people doing amazing things, and it is part of an overall movement to reclaim a sense of pride in Worcester,” she said.

Pacheco loves going to work each day, “I get to go work with people who are super energized and are doing good things and no one is telling us to stop.” Although working at a nonprofit was never Pacheco’s goal, she enjoys working with young people who are making a difference in the community and who are actively seeking creative solutions rather than just complaining. She credits her relationship with Croke for forming the basis for a healthy and productive team.

“We sometimes fight like brother and sister, sometimes we act like husband and wife, but we are best friends.”

With programs like Pow!Wow! Worcester, a mural festival that focuses on the arts, think tanks and Action! Community Scholars, which allows high school juniors and seniors to engage in social enterprise, the year has been very busy for this local nonprofit. In 2017, Action! Worcester will introduce three new events and programs, including the organization’s first fundraiser Feb. 11 at Bull Mansion, which will benefit the Action! Community Scholars program.


Curtis Kariuki

Filmmaker

At 18, Curtis Kariuki, a Worcester native, has already established himself as a force in the filmmaking and music industries. Kariuki’s filmmaking career began when he was young teen videotaping his own skateboard tricks and uploading them on YouTube in order to get free merchandise from sponsors.

Kariuki’s skateboarding career came to an end after an injury. However, when a skateboarding friend – who was also a rapper – asked Kariuki to record a music video, Kariuki took the opportunity and created his first official music video.

Now, Kariuki has created more than 300 music videos and received publicity for his drone video, which highlighted many notable Worcester landmarks. Completely self-taught, Kariuki has come to understand the importance of trial and error.

Kariuki has a no-holds-barred attitude and is not afraid to take risks. In fact, most of his greatest accomplishments have been the result of not being afraid and taking a chance. This is demonstrated by Kariuki’s recent tour as the personal videographer for rapper Lil Yachty. Prior to the tour, Kariuki snuck into one of the rapper’s shows and videotaped the performance. He then created a film and sent it to the Lil Yachty’s manager. The singer was so impressed by the footage that he hired Kariuki to come on tour with him.

“Success is, like, making yourself more vulnerable, and by doing that, taking it to the next level.” He added, “No success without risk. The greater the risk, the bigger the reward.”

He described his style as a filmmaker: “I break a lot of rules.”

And that’s paying off. Recently, Kariuki returned from Atlanta after shooting his biggest commercial yet – a commercial for Adidas. During this venture, he got to be the boss, shoot the commercial the way he wanted and convey his vision to those on set.

As a young artist himself, Kariuki recognizes the positive impact that the new art movement has overall on the city. He said because the young people in Worcester are channeling their energy into art and other forms of expression, gang violence in the city has decreased.

In 2017, Kariuki will be releasing the documentary The Rare, which captures the heartbeat of this new art movement in Worcester that is redefining the youth in the city.


Angelique Webster

N-CITE Community Media

As the co-founder of N-CITE Community Media, Angelique Webster, 44, believes in the healing power of stories.

A resident of Worcester, Webster co-founded N-CITE five years ago, when Webster and her fellow co-founder wanted to combine Worcester youth, social justice and documentary filmmaking. Webster developed a 16-week curriculum for high school students.

Throughout the course, students are responsible for coming up with story ideas, selecting topics, shooting footage and editing the movie. Webster believes that the completely youth-generated content is very important to N-CITE, as well as the community.

“Young folks have a lot to say, and sometimes, as adults, we don’t listen to them,” she said. “Basically, the whole idea of N-CITE was to amplify young people’s voices through media.”

Each year, the cohort creates a film that premieres at Clark University. Dialogue and the exchange of perspectives are key to members of N-CITE. As a result, each screening is accompanied by a Q&A with the student filmmakers.

Providing youth with a voice, older generations with hope and adults with a new perspective of their children are all ways that Webster believes that N-CITE Community Media positively impacts the community. One of Webster’s favorite student videos was “Black Beauty,” which took a look at colorism and how society views young people based on how they look.

Along with “sparking conversation,” Webster believes that through these talented young people going to screenings and being honored at the Statehouse, a sense of pride is shared among the residents of Worcester.

“I think people are happy and hopeful and are wondering what is next.”

In 2017, Webster plans to focus on developing her own work more. Currently, she is attending the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpellier. Instead of just focusing on high school students, Webster wants to incorporate more adults.

“I think the high school students’ parents have stories, too,” she said. “My dream role would be to teach community members filmmaking skills.”


By Sloane M. Perron | Photography by Matt Wright | Location provided by The Edge at Union Station