Pictured from left to right: David Griffin Jr., John E. Dowd, Jr., and Melissa Salois-Blood.
The Dowd Insurance Agency first started working with the United Way 40 years ago when both organizations had offices in downtown Holyoke.
“When I started with the agency in the early 1980s, it was a different time back then,” said John E. Dowd Jr., the president and CEO of the company. His great grandfather founded the business in 1898. “Downtown was a bustling business community. Lawyers and accountants and other business people were all within walking distance of one another. We’d see them at the local lunch counter every day.”
As such, news travelled fast. When disaster struck a family or a business, people could react quickly to support the survivors.
“And if someone needed members for a new organization or committee,” Dowd said. “All they’d have to do is ask you when they saw you.”
Since then, of course, things have changed. While the city has struggled economically, Dowd Insurance has grown and their business now has five branch offices, serving clients across the region. Dowd’s headquarters have also expanded into a more convenient office park a few miles from their old location.
In many ways, the United Way has become the new commons where local leaders and volunteers can connect to address community needs.
“We’ve always been strong believers in being part of the community,” Dowd said. “It’s written into our mission statement. We’ve tried over the years to always increase the amount we donate to the United Way by a little bit, but we don’t think it stops there. You need to be involved, giving your time and talents, making sure that the organization remains viable, because they’re so critical to our community.”
“Working with the United Way has been a nice fit,” David Griffin Jr. agreed. Griffin works as an account executive for the agency, and his father is the executive vice president and treasurer. “As we’ve grown, it’s been great to be able to grow with the United Way and what they’ve been doing in the communities we serve.”
Griffin likes that in working with the United Way, “you can pinpoint where you want your resources to go, whether it’s through volunteering or giving financially.”
Griffin enjoys his long-term commitment of working with area youth, helping to support “after School programs or boys and girls clubs.” But he points out “the United Way can take care of lots of people’s interests, abilities and time constraints.”
Each year, the United Way of Pioneer Valley organizes Days of Caring, an opportunity for companies and teams of people to offer their services to the community, volunteering to take on tasks that will improve their neighborhoods.
“I’m on the board of directors over at the Wistariahurst museum in Holyoke,” Griffin said. “They do a Day of Service with the United Way there every year, and just hearing what’s been accomplished—just in one day around the facility—it’s been unbelievable. They had a team of 40 to 50 volunteers from People’s Bank. The team repainted the fence, moved plants around, and just did a general cleanup of the grounds. The director was beyond thrilled. She said how surprised she was that everyone seemed so happy. The museum supplied coffee and donuts, but they got so much more back. And this was just one location that day.”
“A personal connection is critical,” Melissa Salois-Blood agrees. As Dowd’s staff accountant and manager of the workplace fundraising campaign, she says it’s the personal connections that United Way inspires that matter the most.
“You can’t do this through email,” she said. “You need to create excitement. During the campaign each year, I visit each of the offices. Sometimes the satellite offices can feel a little left out or disconnected from the home office.” The campaign offers everyone at Dowd an opportunity to work together, doing something that “benefits themselves as well as the whole community.”
Asked whether being a family-run business had influenced their long-time collaboration with the United Way, Dowd was unequivocal.
“My family history in Holyoke goes back to the mid-1800s,” John Dowd Jr. said. “My great-great grandfather first came over from Ireland with his parents. They were part of a very different immigrant city where there wasn’t a lot of social organizations or safety nets around. It was very much survival of the fittest. People today often don’t understand the extent of the prejudice in those days, but it was beyond belief. There was nothing to protect them, so much so that people were openly hanging signs in their doors, “Irish need not apply.” If you were Irish, you were considered the lowest of the low on the social ladder.
“So, to overcome those prejudices and become a viable part of your community, contributing in positive ways—you didn’t come up through the ranks alone. You did that with other people,” Dowd said. “It’s people coming together to help each other rise up and overcome challenges society has presented them. Social organizations, like the United Way, evolved from these experiences. They were formed so that immigrants coming to the city from wherever didn’t have to encounter the same challenges and prejudices. And when one of these organizations helps you, you don’t forget.”
Being part of a family and a community, Dowd said, reminds you that no one succeeds alone.
“As human beings, we need to help each other,” he said. “Give more than you get, because at the end of the day, it all comes back. It’s a credo some people don’t understand until they experience it.”