New Year’s has always been a time for new beginnings, resolutions and hope. Our annual People to Watch list seeks out examples of diligence, strength and drive that can inspire us all. Whether your own interests are in business, academics, the arts, public service or athletics, be sure to keep an eye on all of these outstanding folks from Central Massachusetts and see what happens in 2015!
Owner, Sterling Royal Clothing
Where other people are content with being discontent, Elizabeth Silverberg, 25, wanted a change and took action.
Silverberg, owner and creator of Sterling Royal Clothing Company, experienced great difficulty finding casual athletic clothing and often felt unwelcome shopping in the men’s department. With this in mind, she set out to create a business that makes comfortable clothes for everyone, and, as stated on the website: “We do not sell Men’s or Women’s styles, we just sell clothes.”
Silverberg was influenced by her positive experiences with Safe Homes, a weekly outreach program for LGBT youth on Chandler Street that provides a safe haven from bullying and a shared community. She continues to promote her clothing line as a unisex, all-inclusive brand that gives people the opportunity to feel like they’re a part of something.
As the business grows, Silverberg wants to open a store where people can have the same experience she did at Safe Homes every day of the week.
“I just want to be able to help all the kids I can; to open the store and have a place for the kids to go,” she said.
Of all the things she has accomplished, she is most proud of her family. She spends most of her free time with her partner, Gabi, raising their daughter, Brooke, in her hometown of Shrewsbury.
“Nothing in my life would matter without her,” Silverberg said. “I can’t believe I raised such a good kid.”
For more information, visit sterlingroyal.com
Coordinator of Chronic Disease Prevention and Partnership for the city of Worcester
It won’t be easy, and some would call it “overambitious,” but Zach Dyer, 25, wants to make Worcester the healthiest city in New England by 2020.
With his help, the Worcester Public Health Department has developed a comprehensive plan to provide services for Worcester and its surrounding communities. This includes forays into the domains of healthy eating and active living, behavioral health, primary care and wellness, violence and injury prevention and health equity and disparity.
Dyer, who taught biology and English at Holy Name Junior-Senior High School in Worcester while getting his master’s in public health administration at Boston University, has previous work experience in public health from his time at Trendline Assessment and Planning LLC in Worcester.
“The community health improvement plan is something we’re very proud of,” Dyer said. “Ours is particularly interesting because it focuses so much on health disparity.”
Dyer also wants to focus on policy change to make a more equitable system, combat institutional racism in large organizations and maintain community partnerships. He’s also worked to cultivate a unique relationship with higher-learning institutions, including Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Worcester State University and Clark University. In the spring, he will teach Clark’s first Intro to Public Health class.
These colleges, according to Dyer, have also played a big role in implementing the community health plan. “They have students who are interested in helping in public health and have the capacity to work, so they learn with us and help with the ambitious goal of becoming healthy city.”
When he isn’t helping fight the various health maladies in Worcester, Dyer spends his time outdoors ~ hiking, biking and kayaking.
“I can’t think of many places I’d rather live,” he said.
For more information, visit worcesterma.gov/ocm/public-health/greater-worcester-chip
Singer/Songwriter and Musical Therapist
For Cara Brindisi, 26, music is a constant part of life and a way to spread joy to others. When she isn’t playing gigs in bars or restaurants across New England, she works as a music therapist in hospice for Visiting Nursing Assistants. It’s a job she’s held for three years and takes her “from Barre to Boston.”
Brindisi, a native of Shrewsbury now living in Westborough, started playing at 20 when she received her first guitar as a Christmas present. It started as just another requirement for her degree at Berklee School of Music, but Brindisi quickly realized she had a knack for the instrument.
“I always dabbled in songwriting as a way to sing,” she said. After years of formulating ideas, Brindisi recently finished a six-song EP, Until Tomorrow.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into recording,” she said, adding that after years of saying “I’ll do it tomorrow,” she “finally made tomorrow happen.”
Throughout her work and performances, she reminds herself and others to enjoy the moment. “It’s easy to feel like you’re not doing enough, that you have to be in a certain place by a certain date and time,” she said, but she feels that being a therapist helps to cultivate the notion of knowing how to enjoy the present, since “all we have is now.”
In 2015, Cara hopes to continue performing in Central Massachusetts, as well as booking regular shows in other New England states.
For more information, visit carabrindisimusic.com
Jessie Chris, 17, has a career musicians twice her age would envy. Before even finishing high school, the Southborough-based country musician has already performed in two tours: the Allstar Nation Tour and the Stand Up Anti-Bullying Campaign.
Chris, who has played guitar and sung since she was 9, got her break when her family contacted Indian Ranch in Webster to inquire about performance opportunities. There, Chris opened for country musician Chris Young, which she said, “opened the door for a lot of future gigs.”
She later recorded a full-length album, Wildfire, at Dark Horse Studios in Franklin, Tenn., where mega-stars like Taylor Swift and Tim McGraw have recorded.
Chris started songwriting in middle school as an outlet for her feelings when she was bullied in school and wrote her single, “Chameleon,” as a way of coping with the experience. “Being the new girl and a musician made me an easy target for bullying,” she said.
Now she’s working to promote her album and hopes to be picked up by a label. Her advice to other artists is to be true to yourself and to persevere. “You should be the artist that you want to be. Don’t let negative people bring you down! Keep practicing and working hard and getting better at it.”
For more information, contact Chris’s promoter, Jeff Gulko, at firstname.lastname@example.org
CEO and Creative Director of Origin Designers
Shortly after graduating from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 2014, Joshua Croke, 24, set out to start his own business. His journey to that point, however, was very different from the “traditional” college career.
Croke, who earned a degree in creative design, technology and business, moved from his hometown of Sturbridge to New York after graduating high school to join the New York Musical Conservatory in Manhattan as a singer and performer. After a year there, he moved to California and worked in marketing, where he realized his passion for branding.
“I like to use the term brand architecture,” Croke said. “It is synonymous with what architects do; not just designing a viable product, but a foundation for people to come in and construct something.”
Croke returned to Massachusetts to attend college and spent a year at UMass Amherst, but ultimately found what he was searching for at WPI. He cites Professor Sharon Wulf as a mentor that gave him “that kick that I needed” to go and start Origin Designers.
He now lives in Worcester and helps companies identify their particular brand and develop research-driven creative media to position themselves competitively in the marketplace. Recently, Croke has started Action Worcester, a non-profit organization focused on branding and promoting the city of Worcester.
“What Worcester needs most is interconnectivity between different demographics,” said Croke, who is focused on bringing college students, business owners and city officials together.
“I am very passionate about promoting, enhancing and developing the culture of Worcester,” Croke added.
In 2015, Croke hopes to do more front-end brand development work for startup companies to “really help develop their branding, positioning strategy and develop extraordinary aesthetic design.” He also wants to change the company name to Origin Consulting to reflect the advisory function of his business.
For more information, visit origindesigners.com
It’s been a long road, but through hard work and dedication to the game he loves, Naadir Tharpe, 23, is moving up in the world of professional basketball.
Tharpe, a native of Worcester, played for St. Peter Marian Junior-Senior High School from the eighth grade to his sophomore year of high school, by which time he had already hit 1,000 points. He then played for Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., before heading to Kansas University to play for the Jayhawks.
During his college basketball career, Tharpe received many accolades, including All-Big 12 Honorable Mention, and finished the Big 12 season ranked third in Assists Per Game and Assist To Turnover Ratio his junior year.
Tharpe cites his brother, Tishaun Jenkins, as being instrumental to his success. According to Tharpe, Jenkins first taught him basketball when he was 2. Tharpe’s first big break came when he played in a local league around Worcester and made the All-Star team his first year.
Nowadays, Tharpe is playing for the Los Angeles D-fenders, the minor league team for the Los Angeles Lakers. It seems to be a welcome change for Tharpe, who tweeted in November: “My whole life I’ve always wanted to be a Laker.”
Fulbright Scholar/Student Researcher
In the realm of academia, Martha Walters, 22, has distinguished herself in her studies, achievements and research work.
Currently, the North Grafton native is taking a three-month language course in Bahasa, Indonesia, through a Critical Language Enhancement Award (CLEA) she received in conjunction with the coveted 2014-15 Fulbright research grant she was awarded.
“My studies at Holy Cross have essentially built a strong foundation for me in Indonesia and whatever I do after,” Walters said. She will be in West Sumatra for eight months and in Bali for two months studying organic farming, a growing international trend.
Walters said that just like in the United States, there are problems with social and health care inequality in Indonesia. She noted that the problems “play out in different contexts and to a different extent, but the problems are still similar.”
Walters first went to Indonesia during the summer of 2012 with Professor Susan Rodgers and two other students to study the commercialization of “ikat” textile and learn traditional dying and manufacturing techniques. Walters cited Rodgers as being especially instrumental to her successes, along with her family.
For most of 2015, she will be Indonesia conducting research and will return to the U.S. in the fall of 2015. She hopes to find an entry-level position either working for the government or an NGO and to attend graduate school.
Worcester resident Cesar Rodrigues, 27, brings the wild thoughts and vibrant images of the mind to life with his artwork. His abstract paintings not only offer a glimpse into his own eye for aesthetics but also demand viewers to look deeply within themselves as they find objects, faces and memories in his paintings.
The Brockton native originally used art as an outlet to cope during his time in and out of hospitals. “It’s like therapy to me,” said Rodrigues, who has spinal muscular atrophy Type II.
In the past, he enjoyed drawing still-life pictures and landscapes, but a loss of strength in his drawing hand forced him to find a new medium. In 2008, he took an abstract painting lesson with his teacher, Kate Richardson, at Massachusetts Hospital School in Canton, where he lived from 9-18.
“I felt like it was part of God’s plan,” he said of learning abstract painting. “That it was the next stepping stone.”
According to Rodrigues, both Richardson and his family have been instrumental in motivating him and keeping him positive. He is also thankful for support from Artists Beyond Challenges in Boston and David Papazian from Dzian Gallery in Natick.
“If you love something, you gotta stay with it. It’s a gift from God,” Rodrigues said. “That’s what I enjoy most: to see people enjoying art as a gift.”
In 2015, Rodrigues hopes to sell enough paintings to buy more art supplies and keep doing what he loves.
For more information, email email@example.com
District Representative for Jim McGovern
Nicolas Guerra, 22, has been involved in government since high school, from his tenure as the Student Government Association president at Ralph C. Mahar Regional High School in his hometown of Orange to running for town selectman at 17.
Guerra also served as the Student Government Association president at Assumption College, which he cites as valuable experience for the road ahead.
Guerra worked as an operations intern at Jamie Oil Company in Ashland with company president Tom Carey, an Assumption alum.
“Small business is like a political campaign,” said Guerra. “It’s about word-of-mouth, performance and best value.”
Nowadays, Guerra lives in Worcester and works for the office of Rep. Jim McGovern, handling written correspondence, community outreach and data management.
Guerra first heard about the job through one of his political science professors, Mary Beth Burk, who Guerra cited as being another one of his many mentors. Burk suggested Guerra contact McGovern’s office regarding work opportunities, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Next year, Guerra wants to get out into community more. Part of his efforts will include advocating for public transportation improvements in the downtown area and, ultimately, making Worcester “the college city that it is.”
“I could sit back and complain about the political system or I could get involved,” Guerra said. “Government can work when the right people are running it.”
Owner of Birch Tree Bread Co.
After cooking and baking for 15 years, Robert Fecteau, 35, decided to strike out on his own. In the past, the Spencer native apprenticed at the Castle Restaurant in Leicester, worked in The Four Seasons’ Ajourd’hui in Boston and was the head chef at The Duck in Sturbridge.
His bakery, Birch Tree Bread Co. on Green Street, boasts quality, all-natural ingredients and a superior product.
“You can whip flour and water together and have bread in two hours, but it’s not as good,” Fecteau said. For this reason, he’s a big advocate of farm-to-table cooking and promoting local business cooperatives. “There’s just a depth of flavor that you don’t get when you take the faster route.”
Fecteau now lives in Worcester and works with his wife, Avra Hoggman, while his niece Erin runs the front end and coffee program. Local roaster and owner of Acoustic Java, David Fullerton, trained Erin and contributes his coffee to Birch Tree Bread Co.
Along with fresh, all-natural bread, Fecteau also makes croissants, pastries, muffins and cookies.
In the next year, he’d like to see the business continue producing “a nice, consistent product that people want to come back for.”
“You have to have a dream and a vision,” he said. “Let it be as vast as you really want it to be, but underneath it all, you have to have the experience and the knowledge to hold that up.”
For more information, visit birchtreebreadcompany.com
Owner of Africa Forever Clothing
Weah Wisner, aka “WeAhfrica,” has been in Worcester since 2002, when his parents moved from his hometown of Monrovia, Liberia.
Since then, Wisner graduated from Burncoat High School in 2005 and began writing music. Although Wisner enjoys modern rap, he wanted to write inspirational songs in the style of Lucky Dube.
He has since been featured on MTV2’s Sucker Freestyle and his songs have also been listed on iTunes, including “Somebody Help Me Out,” featuring John Andrews.
Throughout his various successes and struggles, Wisner ultimately wanted do more to help the community. So he created Africa Forever Clothing.
According to Wisner, the goal of Africa Forever Clothing is “to strengthen African culture in the Worcester area and to support the local community through charitable donations and events.”
With the backing of comedian Michael Blackson, most noted for his “Angry African” character in the film Next Friday, Wisner continues to promote the brand. More recently, Africa Forever sold apparel with logos and slogans to raise awareness about Ebola, with 50 percent of the proceeds donated to developing a cure.
“Set the stage, and people will follow,” he said.
In 2015, he plans to take a cross-country road trip to target different cities and promote his company. He also hopes offer new products and activities geared toward youth in the community.
“The future is in them,” Wisner said. “They can be taught and influenced positively.”
For more information, visit africaforeveronline.com
Public Relations Officer of the Miss Pink Pageant
Heather Erickson, 26, got an early start in pageantry, where she cultivated the ability to be poised, well-spoken and personable. Years later, the Millbury native is using these skills to promote the Miss Pink Pageant, a charity to promote breast cancer awareness and provide support to families.
Erickson, who now lives in Shrewsbury, first met the pageant’s founder and president, Ashley Herron Shultz, on the pageant circuit. The two bonded over the years, and Schultz later brought Erickson on to represent Miss Pink as the organization’s public relations officer.
Along with the pageant, Miss Pink is responsible for fundraising and education, contributing to medical organizations and even delivering baked goods to families.
“Everyone is different, but they all have the same common bond,” Erickson said. She said hearing different survivors’ testimonials is especially important. “We have the same plot, but you hear how everyone’s story is different.”
Of all the influences in her life, Erickson cites Schultz and other members of Miss Pink as the biggest ones, along with her family. “I had two great parents as role models,” she said.
In 2015, she hopes to expand Miss Pink throughout Massachusetts through her “gift of gab” and social media.
Lastly, Erickson emphasized the importance of being active in charities. “Definitely get involved in a cause that you’re passionate about and have confidence!”
For more information, visit misspinkpageant.com
At the age of 15, Topher Mira, now 33, dropped out of high school to become a woodcutter, but ended up walking off the job because he couldn’t bring himself to fell trees carelessly.
Since then, he’s been to the Alaskan wilderness as a landscape guide, removed trees from homes in the hurricane-addled streets of New Orleans and built a biodiesel community in Nairobi, Kenya. Mira was born in Boston, grew up in Charlton and splits his time between Worcester and New Orleans.
He works as The Eco Arborist, spreading a message of responsible tree-cutting and caring for the ecosystem.
According to Mira, “A tree-cutter sees dollar signs. An arborist will see how a tree can be trimmed to provide shade in the summer and light in the winter and, ultimately, to give trees the longest and healthiest lives possible.”
Mira said he emphasizes the importance of benefiting both the customer and the plant life. “Trees regenerate property. It’s actually a renewable resource.” Mira also noted that of all the places he’s worked, New England does particularly well maintaining its forests.
This year, Mira hopes to build another biodiesel community in Cuba. He also hopes to convince more people in Worcester to cable trees with noninvasive cables, a common practice in Europe.
“The most important thing an arborist will see is the relationship between the humans and trees.”
For more information, visit eco-arborist.com
Owners/Chefs of Two Chefs Restaurant
Rafael and Cassandra Guzman are a couple with a unique story.
The pair first met at the New England Culinary School in Montpelier, Vt., where they were partnered during their studies. One day, while cleaning the floor, Cassandra, now 29, fell on a table and Rafael, now 34, reached out to help her. The two remembered that even though they didn’t get together then, there was chemistry between them.
Years later, the two have started a business together ~ Two Chefs Restaurant in Spencer ~ and recently catered their own wedding reception. “It was funny,” Cassandra said. “Everyone thought it was a surprise birthday party.”
The “two chefs” try to “take simple food and make it really well.” According to Rafael, a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, his calling card is his braised short ribs. He prides himself on extracting and concentrating flavors, rather than using powdered gravy.
Cassandra, a native of New Braintree and the restaurant’s pastry chef, enjoys making crème brûlée, which must be baked meticulously. “It’s simple, but if you under or over cook it, it’s not as good.”
Ultimately, the Guzmans pride themselves in the amount of care that goes into their cooking.
In the next year, Rafael hopes to win Worcester’s Best Chef, while Cassandra wants to add more ambiance to the restaurant and expand its menu, particularly incorporating Puerto Rican dishes into their current New England-centric offerings.
For more information, visit two-chefs.com
Neema Hakim was one of Pulse Magazine’s 14 to Watch in 2014. Over the past year, Worcester native Hakim, 22, has been working in the District of Columbia, researching people, places and organizations for events with President Barrack Obama. He also does media monitoring and keeps the communications staff updated on breaking news and coverage of their events. Hakim personally believes his graduation from Holy Cross College, where he majored in political science and philosophy, was his biggest accomplishment.
“I had the experience of a lifetime on College Hill, and I couldn’t be more thankful for all the friends and mentors who prepared me to lead a life of purpose,” he said. Among other things, Hakim enjoys the purpose in his work the most. “Working here, you never question whether your work is meaningful. You’re part of a team of people who are excellent at what they do and passionate about making a difference. “
Story by Sean Haley
Photography by Justin Mayotte
Photo Assistance by Ross Kavanagh
Special thanks to the Worcester Art Museum for hosting the shoot