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A Legacy of Caring
Joan Kagan Reflects on 45 Years in Human-services Administration
By George O’Brien
Joan Kagan has simple advice for those managers of the myriad nonprofits strug- gling during this pandemic to make ends meet, keep people on the payroll, and simply carry out their mission.
“My attitude toward problems and challenges is that there’s always a solution,” she said. “It may not be the most enticing or attractive solution, but there’s always a solution. You always have to be thinking, being creative, and thinking differ- ently ... there is always an answer.”
One can certainly say Kagan has considerable experience — more than she would want, no doubt — when it comes to coping with challeng- es, being creative, and finding those often-elusive answers.
Indeed, during her tenure with Square One as its president and CEO, the now-137-year-old agency formerly known as Springfield Day Nurs- ery has seen its headquarters building destroyed by the June 2011 tornado that tore a path across Western Mass., one of its facilities rendered unusable by the natural-gas blast 17 months later, and all of its various operations shut down and then forced to make serious adjustments due to the pandemic.
Through all of that, Kagan, who will retire from Square One at the end of this month and “move on to the next phase of my life,” as she
“My attitude toward problems and challenges is that there’s always a solution. It may not be the most enticing or attractive solution, but there’s always a solution.”
put it, said she has relied on her experience, her team, her instincts, and that belief that there is always a solution.
But Kagan is known for far more than leading one agency through an incredible series of natu- ral and man-made disasters.
Indeed, she spent 45 years in the broad realm of human services, during which she became a leader on both the regional and national stages, and a champion for the education and well- being of children and the support of families.
And at Square One, she has broadly expanded the agency’s offerings, from providing childcare exclusively to a full menu of family-support ser- vices, from nutrition and exercise programs to
a mental-health services — a holistic approach that embodies how this field has evolved over the years.
For all of that and more, she was named a Dif- ference Maker by BusinessWest in 2017, a phrase that all those who have worked with her — at Square One, Brightside for Families and Chil- dren, one of her other previous stops, or within the community — would use to describe her.
It is appropriate that Kagan is being spotlight- ed in this final 2020 edition of BusinessWest. She
has been giving back to this region in a number of ways for decades now, and has become a role model and mentor to many in her field of human services, and especially those devoted to the care and well-being of children and families.
On the occasion of her retirement from full- time duty — she will remain with Square One in a consulting role, assisting in the transition for several more months — we talked with her about her lengthy career, the state of early-childhood education and Square One in particular, and the challenges facing all nonprofits today, from not only COVID-19, but several other factors as well.
Making a Career of Giving Back
By now, most know at least some of the Joan Kagan story. But we’ll recap quickly.
Raised in Pittsfield by parents who instilled
in her at very early age the need to get involved and give back to the community, Kagan earned
a master’s degree in social work at Columbia University in 1975 and was eager to start a career working with children and families. Unable
to find work in New York, which was suffering through a deep fiscal crisis, she returned home and eventually took a job in a related field — at Berkshire Home Care, tending to the needs of the elderly.
Later, after a short stay as a social worker at Child & Family Services of Springfield Inc., she became supervisor of Social Services at Bright- side for Families and Children in 1979, an orga- nization she served for 17 years, in 12 positions, ranging from program manager for the Family Services Unit to vice president of Community Development. And in 1996, she took on a new challenge, as administrator of the Western Mass. region for the Massachusetts Society for the Pre-
vention of Cruelty to Children, a position she would keep for seven years before moving on to Springfield Day Nursery, an iconic agency then at a crossroads.
Indeed, SDN was in need of restructuring and fiscal stabilization after several tumultuous years, and Kagan provided both through a series of consolidation measures and, later, expansion — of both its footprint (into Holyoke, for example), and its primary mission.
As mentioned, Kagan guided the agency
DECEMBER, 2020 39
not going to be able to learn.”
If children aren’t well, they are
  renamed Square One through an expansion of services, one grounded in the mindset that such agencies cannot work with just the child — they must also work with the family.
“When I came to Springfield Day Nursery, the only service they offered was early education and care,” she explained. “And I came with the vision that I wanted to integrate family services into
the early-education and care program. I came with the idea of integrating early education and care with child welfare and mental-health ser- vices. And to get there, we needed to diversify our funding and look for funding that supported pro- grams other than just early education and care.”
Over the next 18 months, she was able to secure grants to offer social-work services and hire a social worker, she went on, adding that the
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