Homework humming along again thanks to hospital’s computer donation

Homework humming along again thanks to hospital’s computer donation

HealthAlliance gives 10 computers to Boys and Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster
By Peter Jasinski


Tyler Bedard, 15, of Leominster completes his math homework at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster on Monday using a computer donated byTyler Bedard, 15, of Leominster completes his math homework at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster on Monday using a computer donated by UMass Memorial HealthAlliance-Clinton Hospital. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE PHOTOS / JEFF PORTER

LEOMINSTER – It’ll be less of a headache for some local students trying to get their homework done thanks to a recent donation of 10 computers from HealthAlliance Hospital to the Boys & Girls Club. The computers, which have been operational since last week, were given to the club after many of the club’s older machines started breaking down in rapid succession.

The club’s teen center, where high school students usually do homework after school, went from five computers to just one in less than a year.

“Before this, there was only one computer that everyone was using and everyone was waiting for it,” said Fitchburg High School sophomore Damien Vilavong. Catherine Burgess, an instructor in the club who works in the teen center, said having enough computers is important as most homework assignments require internet access. “A lot of kids have no computer at home, no printer, no tablet. They either have this or have to work off their phones,” she said. “The hospital has no idea how much this meant to us.” Burgess said the six computers in the teen center will likely be used by 80 to 100 students every day. Four more computers from the hospital will be used for the homework rooms that children between the ages of eight and 12 use. Prior to the donation, club Executive Director Donata Martin said she hopes the new computers will make it easier for children to complete assignments from school.

“A lot of the teens weren’t able to do the research they needed to be doing before,” she said. “They were going to the tech lab or even asking to go in our offices in the staff area to use the computers because there was nowhere else to go.”

UMass Memorial HealthAlliance-Clinton Hospital s President and CEO Deborah Weymouth speaks to kids inside the homework room at the Boys & Girls Club ofUMass Memorial HealthAlliance-Clinton Hospital s President and CEO Deborah Weymouth speaks to kids inside the homework room at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster, which is filled with students using computers donated by the hospital. She is joined by Donata Martin, the executive director of the B& G Club of Fitchburg and Leominster.

Martin, who serves on the hospital’s board of trustees, said she approached HealthAlliance’s administration with the idea of donating computers when she learned the hospital was upgrading its computer system and replacing many of its machines. 

“We wanted to help because the club is local and they’re doing all the right things for the community,” said Deborah Weymouth, president and CEO of UMass Memorial HealthAlliance-Clinton Hospital. “We want to continue to connect youth with the community and improve health and wellness.”


Building a robotic dynasty

Building a robotic dynasty

By Peter Jasinski

Members of the Terror Bots robotics club at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster won the "FIRST Robotics" competion over the

Members of the Terror Bots robotics club at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster won the “FIRST Robotics” competion over the weekend, topping programs from all over New England. Kneeling, from left, are Brett Houck and J.C. Oquendo. Standing, from left, are coach Jon Blodgett, students Hanna Barriero, Eric Jenny, Jonathan Arel, Max Shepherd, Brandon Forten, and coaches Jacob Janssens and Cameron Cardwell. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE/JOHN LOVE

LEOMINSTER — Calling them scrappy underdogs would almost be too appropriate.

Despite fewer resources and less money than much larger teams, members of the Terror Bots robotics team designed a machine that outpaced the competition of 41 other schools and communities at last weekend’s FIRST Robotics district competition held in Worcester.

This is the second year in a row that they’ve claimed the prize.

“There are a lot of teams that don’t even win once so getting it twice in a row is really exciting,” said Jonathan Arel, a Fitchburg High School sophomore and member of the Terror Bots.

The team is comprised of 10 students from Leominster High School, Fitchburg High School, Monty Tech, the Sizer School, and Chelmsford’s Lighthouse School.

Students in the robotics club at the Boys and Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster won the recent "First Robotics Competition" beating schools

Students in the robotics club at the Boys and Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster won the recent “First Robotics Competition” beating schools from all over New England. The students show how the robot works at the club on Tuesday afternoon. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE/JOHN LOVE

They’re based out of the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster.”Being an after-school program, our budget is a little smaller. We’re a Boys & Girls Club competing against high-level high schools and tech schools,” explained team coach Jon Blodgett. “You could spend up to $4,000 on your robot and we spent the most we’ve ever had, which was $1,400. We were well under the limit.”

This year’s task was building a robot in six weeks that could pick up milk crate-sized boxes and navigate them across an obstacle-laden playing field. All teams are given some standard equipment to build controls for the robot, but beyond that, they’re responsible for finding parts and designing a machine that can get the job done.

Having less money puts the Terror Bots at a disadvantage from the start, meaning students have to be that much more creative in finding solutions that will work even better than the ideas of their opponents.

As Leominster High School junior Eric Jenny explained, one such innovation was the team’s decision to use a wheel in their robot’s drive train that was comparatively cheaper than what was used by other teams yet more efficient after some careful tinkering.

“We just use Omni wheels with straight rollers, but we put them at an angle,” he said. “It does the same thing, but it’s a lot cheaper and it is actually slightly faster moving side to side.”

Jenny was responsible for driving the robot across the course while fellow LHS junior Max Shepard operated the arm that picks up, and sometimes throws, the boxes used during the competition.

“It was intense, but I honestly only noticed our bot,” he said. “You’re really just zoned in on doing one thing, and one thing only, the whole time.”

Though the team has been in existence since 2011, the last two years mark the Terror Bots’ first ever competition wins.

According to team mentor, and former member, Jacob Janssens, the most recent win was especially impressive because of the stiff competition they faced in teams from Bridgewater and Newport, Rhode Island.

“We proceeded through the finals undefeated and against two powerhouse teams,” he said. “They’re both extremely high-level teams that have seen the world championship endgames, and we beat them on the field.”

The team’s robot will soon be packed up and shipped to the next stage of competition, which will be held at Bryant University in three weeks. Until then, the team is not just preparing, but also looking ahead to a spot in the national level competition being held in Detroit later this year.

Robotics team will compete for world championship

Robotics team will compete for world championship

By Peter Jasinski
Students in the robotics club at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster demonstrate how their robot works at the club in February.

Students in the robotics club at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster demonstrate how their robot works at the club in February.


LEOMINSTER — The Terror Bots will continue their march toward global robotic domination next week as they travel to Detroit for the FIRST Robotics world championship competition.

The 10-member team based out of the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster will be facing off against more than 400 other groups of high school and middle school students from around the U.S., Canada, Taiwan, the Netherlands, and Japan.

This is the second year in a row the local students have made it to the international competition and its members are confident that they’ll do even better this year.

“This team is super. We started this eight years ago and we didn’t have a clue,” said Jerry Westwood, one of the team’s volunteer instructors. “Last year we really had a great year and we built on that this year. I’m really proud of the team.”

Seven of the team’s 10 members will be leaving for the competition on Tuesday, but the club is still raising
funds for their travel and lodging expenses. So far $10,000 has been donated by the U.S. Department of Defense
and the medical devices manufacturer Boston Scientific. Donations are still being accepted at the club in the
days leading up to the team’s departure.

Team member JC Oquenda said he was feeling confident and excited to be returning to the competition.
“It was a really cool experience last time because it was my first year on the team and to see the team go that far
was really cool,” he said.

Leominster High School senior Brett Houck is also confident that the Terror Bots will do well in Detroit.
“I’m hoping we do pretty well,” he said. “I’m excited to be going back because this is my last year as a team
member. I didn’t think we’d make it this far, but we did.”

Fitchburg’s ‘Yeast of Eden’ exhibit a savory blend of bread and art

Fitchburg’s ‘Yeast of Eden’ exhibit a savory blend of bread and art

Sentinel & Enterprise


FITCHBURG — Flour, salt, and yeast. Together they make a staple seen around the world: bread.

At the Revolving Museum in downtown, bread has been transformed into art that celebrates its cultural significance.

The “Yeast of Eden — Bread Art Project” exhibit opened Saturday. Dough, pretzels, crackers and other bread products went into the painted figurines, crumb pictures, and silhouettes that are display at the museum.

“Every culture has bread, and food is often an art form,” said Jerry Beck, founder and director of the museum.
“The smell of bread and baking is a universal experience.

Jerry Beck talks about one of the pieces in the exhibit. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE / JOHN LOVESentinel and Enterprise staff photos can be ordered by visiting

Jerry Beck talks about one of the pieces in the exhibit.

The focal point of the exhibit are seven shapes that relate to bread. One is a boot with a farmer on it, which represents the people who grow the wheat used in bread. There’s also a salt shaker, donut, coffee cup, rolling
pin and a house.

On the artwork, pretzels, crackers, matzo, croutons and stale bread are grouped together and resemble a mosaic.

The bread shapes, which are a few feet large, are glued onto plywood and sealed with several layers of urethane
to prevent molding.

More than 200 people helped make the silhouettes at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum.
Jerry’s 11-year-old daughter, Georgie, added flourishes to the piece shaped like a rolling pin and dough.

Using pretzels and a salt glue mixture, she added a peace sign and 17 stick figurines to honor the victims of the
school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

About 20 years ago, Beck had a studio in Boston. There was a bakery nearby that threw out old bread, causing a
rat problem. To prevent the rodents from coming, he took the bread and began to use it for art.

“It went from a scary scenario to a breakthrough,” he said.
Bread and community involvement have been part of Beck’s work.

He collaborated with students, bakers and artists through the Crumbs Company on bread art projects, which
include a toast mural. At the Jewish Museum of Florida, students helped Beck create a house featuring breads
from around the world.

That involvement has continued in Fitchburg through the Bread Project exhibit.

Beck worked with kids from the Boys & Girls of Club of Fitchburg and Leominster to make a toast mural that was on display at the Visionary Art Museum.

Catherine Judge, an art teacher at Sizer School, attended the opening to see her students’ work on display.

They made the painted figures mounted on baking sheets hanging in the museum’s window front.

Beck introduced her to Country Pizza owner Steve Loukanaris, who donated the dough used for the figurines.
Students liked throwing and kneading it and had to think about how their art would change when the dough

“It’s a natural type of material that wants to become something,” she said.

Rivera giving Girls Who Code the skills to succeed

Sentinel and Enterprise

By Peter Jasinski

Local Girls Who Code chapter founder Josie Rivera assists Abby Muller, 11, of Leominster, at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster on SaturdayLEOMINSTER — As a computer science student at Fitchburg State University, one of the most striking things Josie Rivera noticed about her classes was how many more men were enrolled in them compared to women.

“The male-to-female ratio was a pretty big difference,” she said. “In the computer field, you don’t see as many women involved. I don’t really know why, they just don’t seem to lean toward it as much.”

It was because of her studies at FSU that Rivera was hired to work at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster as a computer science programming instructor. During the year she worked there, she also helped found the local chapter of Girls Who Code, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching young women about programming.

Rivera has since gotten a new job with DRS Technologies, but has remained on at the club as instructor for Girls Who Code.

“She absolutely loves it and she’s recruiting girls all the time,” said club Executive Director Donata Martin. “I think she’s a good example of another woman, and a younger one, who is successful. She’s a role model for them.”

Josie Rivera is the instructor of the Girls Who Code program at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster. After seeing few female computer scienceThe club works mainly as an eight-month training course that teaches young women how to do web design, coding, edit photos and video, and even create video games. As Rivera explained, it serves as an early introduction to many of the skills that would likely be encountered in college or a computer science-related workplace.

“I love working with the kids, and when you see them learn something and get excited,” she said.

“They get to the point where they can do things by themselves and then want to show their friends.”Abby Muller, an 11-year-old from Leominster, has been in the club for almost two years and said she initially wanted to join because her father is a computer coder. She said it’s a field she’d want to someday enter, too, but she’s also considering a career in ice skating or dancing.

“I don’t really know what I’d be doing without this,” she said. “I don’t think I would have ever known about a lot of what I’ve learned, or that I could actually code something.”

Thus far, Muller has made a computer game that she modeled after the classic arcade game “Frogger” and is in the middle of developing a website.

The club meets once a week and is open to girls in grades 6 through 12. It is also planning upcoming field trips to Becker College and Google so that members can see the practical applications of what they’re learning.

“When I was their age, I really didn’t know that much about this. I didn’t really learn until I was in college,” Rivera said. “It’s an important field because it’s growing, but to get a job you really need these skills.”

Progress That Matters

Local leaders share lessons for Black History Month

Andrew Mansfield



GARDNER  African-Americans with prominent roles in the local community took the stage at Mount Wachusett Com­munity College on Monday to speak about their successes, challenges and belief that everyone, regardless of their differences, should be given the same opportunities.News staff photos by Andrew MansfieldIn celebration of Black History Month, Mount Wachusett Community College held a panel discussion featuring African-Americans who are in leadership roles in the local community. Gardner native Dana Heath is president of Central Mass Flag Football and Gardner Biddy Basketball.

The event was part of the college’s Tea Time Speaker series which is organized by Sharmese Gunn, a resource specialist for Gateway to College, a dual-enrollment program for students who have struggled in traditional high school settings.

“Today, we are celebrating Black History Month by celebrating the leadership of African Americans in North Central Massachusetts,” Gunn said. “African-Americans are trailblazers. … We bring such an important perspective to society. African-American history is American history.”

The event featured seven African-American panelists from the area and was moderated by Irene Hernandez, who is president of Three Pyramids Inc. and The Minority Coalition.

The college’s multipurpose room was packed for the event with students, staff and members of the public.

Hernandez began by going over the history of Africans being enslaved beginning in the 1500s, saying that created “institutional and instructional racism.”

She said even before there were Africans brought over as slaves to America, there were people of African descent who were living in the Americas, a fact that is largely unnoticed historically.

When the discussion turned to the panel, one of the focuses was discussing their road to success and the positive difference they seek to make in others’ lives.

Panelist Dana Heath said he was born in 1979 and is from Gardner. Growing up, he was surrounded by alcoholism and drug addiction in his family.

“I never had a mentor,” he said. “I didn’t even know where my food was coming from the next day.”

He now is raising his own children and has become involved in youth sports over the last several years.

He founded the Central Mass Flag Football League which he said has grown to having almost 700 local children play in last year. He also runs the Gardner Biddy Basketball program.

By coaching local youth, Heath has been able to provide to children the guidance he didn’t have as a child.

“I love watching the kids smile and have fun, be active, rather than running the streets like I was,” he said. “Playing sports, staying out of the courts; that’s what it’s all about.”

Panelist Leona Early spoke about her 30-year career at the nonprofit Montachusett Op­­portunity Council, an anti-poverty agency that serves 30 cities and towns in the region.

She said in current her role as vice president of community programs she is responsible for 75 percent of the programs the agency runs. By staying with the agency over the years and working hard, she was able to show the value she brings and rise to a leadership position where she provides help and advocacy for vulnerable populations.

“I want to be a voice and my job allows me to do that,” she said. “I’m here on this earth to make a difference, make a change.”

The panelists also spoke about some examples of racism and negative stereotyping they have faced over the course of their lives, with multiple panelists saying their intelligence has been doubted by others before simply because of their skin color.

Panelist Donata Martin, who is the executive director for the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster, recalled that she went to a high school where she was one of the few minorities and she did quite well academically.

But when she applied for colleges, her guidance counselor submitted a very poor recommendation letter that was filled with falsities and led to colleges turning her down.

Martin said there was one school that took her side though, saying an admissions director at Boston University realized the letter couldn’t be true and made sure she was accepted there.

Now that she leads the Boys & Girls Club, Martin said, “I want to make sure the children who come to our club have the same advantages many children with money have.”

The Boys & Girls Club Martin leads also runs a program in Gardner. In addition to her role there, she serves on the board of directors for the Mount.

In general, the panelists spoke about the importance of ensuring all people, regardless of race, income level or other factors, be given an equal opportunity to succeed.

Panelists were asked about race relations and the overall issues they currently see with the country.

“We need to be able to have difficult conversations. We need to challenge the status quo,” Candace Shivers said, who is an associate professor for sociology and human services at the college.

Panelist Angele Goss is director of the Upward Bound Math Science & North Central Mass Talent Search program for the college.


Shivers spoke about the importance of advocacy and social activism. She said she served as the student body president while attending American International College in Springfield.

Currently, she is a leader for the union representing Mount staff and is also on the board of directors for the National Education Association which represents education professionals in Washington, D.C.

Panelist Kathy Lewis, who is president of the Tiana Angelique Notice Foundation that focuses on domestic violence and is named after her daughter who was killed by an ex-boyfriend, spoke about how discouraged she is with the political strife and inability to work together that is seen in Washington, D.C.

“I am really concerned about the climate in our nation nowadays to the point where I spend sleepless nights,” she said. “We’re in a state now in this country that we’re the disgrace of the world now.”

Lewis concluded by paraphrasing a quote by Martin Luther King Jr.
“We better learn how to get along together as brothers and sisters or we’re all going to perish together as fools,” she said.

The other panelists at the event were Angele Goss, director of the Upward Bound Math Science & North Central Mass Talent Search program at the college, and Lamont Hicks, a senior officer specialist for the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the president and founder of the Future Hoops AAU basketball program headquartered in Gardner.


Black leadership panelists say strong identity is central to achieving dreams

GARDNER – Moderator Irene Hernandez started a Black History Month panel discussion Monday by telling the diverse audience in the packed lecture room that they are all indigenous people originating from Alkebulan – the real name of Africa – here in the Americas long before Native Americans.

African-American history in the U.S. started well before slavery, going back centuries, said Ms. Hernandez, who is project coordinator at Fitchburg Community Connections Coalition. People of color living here are not displaced, she said.

“Go see ‘Black Panther,’ ” she said. “It is not stereotypical or superficial. It talks about colonization, fatherless children, oppression, subjugation and loss of identity as displaced people.”

To fight against institutional and structural racism, “you have to know who you are and where you come from,” Ms. Hernandez said, and work toward changing social constructs so there is equity, freedom and prosperity for all to allow everyone to live side by side.

“In ‘Black Panther,’ the different tribes of the world show how great we are – intelligent and fierce, with wisdom, loyalty and honor … Our people were here in the Americas long before the Natives were. We are not black and we are not white. We are indigenous people. We are the tribes of Alkebulan – ‘mother of mankind,’ ‘garden of Eden’. Do your history and research. They were called ‘copper tones’ or ‘cinnamon’ people. Colonizers said they looked like Ethiopians because they were the darkest and thought of as ugly.”

The event was part of Mount Wachusett Community College’s Tea Time Speaker Series, held to celebrate Black History Month with a panel discussion titled “African American Leadership in North Central Massachusetts.”

Panelists included: Leona Early, vice president of community programs at Montachusett Opportunity Council; Angele B. Goss, director of Upward Bound Math Science & North Central Mass Talent Search; Dana Heath, president of Central Mass Flag Football and Gardner Biddy Basketball and assistant coach of Gardner High School football; Lamont Hicks, senior officer specialist of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and president and founder of the Future Hoops and AAU Basketball Program; Kathy Lewis, president of the Tiana Angelique Notice Memorial Foundation; Donata Martin, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg, Leominster and Gardner; and Candace Shivers, associate professor of sociology and human services at MWCC.

Each panelist shared their journeys to success and stories of challenges and obstacles they overcame, including poverty, racism and feeling marginalized.

Leadership from people of color can add a level of depth and diversity that can address marginalized populations who don’t always have a voice at the table, the panelists said. Disadvantaged children need mentors, they said, and those who feel marginalized need to find people who they comfortable with to ask questions and not feel intimidated to take a chance and step outside their comfort zone to do something different. Everyone has a responsibility to stand up and speak for those whose voices may not be heard.

Ms. Shivers said when she was hired years ago at MWCC it was “very light,” with only a handful of black faculty and staff. She said she is fortunate that at her place of employment she is able to engage in difficult conversations that may make people uncomfortable about race and may challenge the status quo.

Often, when a person of color enters a room, they have to overcome negative stereotypes just to get to “zero” and then have to work to show who they are, she said.

“People already made up their minds what and who you are,” Ms. Shivers said. “You have to overcome ‘what you’re not’ to get to zero and start from there. That is a heavy carry, especially for someone in school, overcoming things they had nothing to do with to change minds, show who they are, and, by the way, they also have to study.”

Ms. Lewis told the audience she was concerned about the climate in the nation and has spent sleepless nights over it. She called on the youth in the room to live with purpose and become leaders for a better future, citing the student activists in Parkland, Florida, who survived a school shooting Feb. 14 and are fighting for change.

“Learn who you are, fortify and enrich yourself in your history and past sacrifices and losses made for you to be here,” Ms. Lewis said. “Learn to be strong people of culture and innovations and strength and endurance and role models to children. The state of this country, we are actually the disgrace of the world now. I can’t believe what is going on in Washington, school shootings, in the news with (homicides) … It is totally out of control. The younger generations have the power to grab ahold of this mess and change it.”

She quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “We better learn how to get along as brothers and sisters or we’re all going to perish together as fools.”

Ms. Martin said “so many children don’t dream anymore” and they need to be encouraged to pursue their passions and become scientists and engineers, for example.

“We have to start talking to them about that at an early age,” Ms. Martin said. “Their minds are open. Talk and be with them and the world is theirs.”

Laryssa M. Truesdale, 18, a senior in the Gateway program at MWCC from Gardner, is a student leader in the school’s center for civic engagement that helped organize the event.

“There were a few panelists from my hometown, so it was interesting to see their views and struggles,” Ms. Truesdale said. “All the speakers had very powerful stories of how they bounced back and kept dreaming. It really opened my eyes.”

Bouchards donate passenger van to Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster

Sentinel & Enterprise

LEOMINSTER — Paula and Chad Bouchard of Ron Bouchard Auto Stores visited the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster recently to present the club with a new van they donated to the club.

Paula and Chad Bouchard of Bouchard Auto Stores stand beside the van they donated to the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster through the RB

The donation was made through the Bouchard family’s RB Racing Charity.

The van, a 2017 Nissan NV worth $35,000, can seat up to 12 children and will be used to transport club members to and from events.

Club Executive Director Donata Martin said the van has already been used for a field trip and will be especially helpful in bringing kids home from the Boys & Girls Club.

She’s working to help empower young women

Sentinel & Enterprise
By Peter Jasinski


LEOMINSTER — Charisse Murphy’s human services career has always seen her going to where the demand to help young women is high.

By working with organizations like YOU, Inc. or LUK, she’s been able to help girls in and around Worcester and Fitchburg, but it wasn’t until she started to consider what resources were available in her own community that she decided to do something completely new.

“I had all this training, all this education, and I live in Ayer, where, in that particular part of the state, there really aren’t that many human services,” she said. “I felt like I was helping all these young people, but not the young people I was living near.”

The solution she came up with was EmPOWER ME, a free two month curriculum for building self-confidence in girls in middle and high school. It’s been two years since Murphy came up with the idea and it’s grown to the point that she’s now partnering with the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster to offer her program to kids in the Twin Cities area.

“It’s actually cool to see that this has now become a thing,” Murphy said. “I’ll drive down a street in Ayer or Shirley now and I’ll see girls wearing EmPOWER ME shirts and I’ll be saying ‘Oh, look! Those girls are wearing our shirts. It’s a thing!'”

When she started out two years ago, Murphy was just working with a handful of fifth grade girls at Page Hilltop Elementary School in Ayer. Since then, the program has seen roughly 65 girls complete the curriculum and expanded into multiple schools.

The course tends to last eight to 10 weeks, featuring activities and conversations that are built around overarching themes like team building, self-acceptance, or healthy life style choices, depending on the age group being worked with.

Above all, Murphy explained that she hopes to create a safe space where girls can feel comfortable sharing details about their lives.

The success of EmPOWER ME in Ayer has since attracted the attention of the Boys & Girls Club in Leominster, where Murphy held her first official meeting last week.

“The difficult thing with it is there are just so many girls,” she said. “There must have been 75 or 80 the other night and they were from 5th grade to senior in high school.”

Which is why Murphy hopes her volunteer work will inspire other area residents to want to get involved. Though they’d need to be trained in how the program’s curriculum works, Murphy said she would hope that other volunteers would be able to facilitate at the Boys & Girls Club or in local schools in the future.

Given the current prevalence of sexual assault in the media and the dialogues it has prompted, Murphy admits that the work has taken on more importance.

“At the Boys & Girls Club the other night, we might not have gotten into what we’re seeing on the news, but the girls did start talking about their experiences and feeling shunned for being a girl and I think that does filter into what we’re seeing now,” she said. “If you’re faced with this, how do you handle it? I think having this safe space is where we have that conversation.”

Defying gravity: Fitchburg native Tara Sweeney shares experiences of flight with area youths

The Worcester Telegram


By Paula J. Owen, Correspondent


FITCHBURG — In between flying in zero gravity conditions 35,000 feet up and heading to NASA to help conduct experiments in zero gravity, Tara L. Sweeney took time out last week (Nov. 6-9) to visit with area kids.

Ms. Sweeney, 44, a Fitchburg High School graduate and retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant who now lives in Las Vegas, works as flight director for Zero Gravity Corp. based in Arlington, Virginia. Her roles with the company include flight attendant, weightless laboratory scientist and flight team coach. The company specializes in parabolic flight operations that produce a microgravity environment in a Boeing 727B for private citizens, commercial customers, advanced-learning teams and government entities including NASA.

“I work on a parabolic flight crew,” she said on the phone Saturday while preparing for her flight Sunday to Orlando. “We fly a Boeing 727, 20,000 to 35,000 feet in a parabolic flight pattern. It’s like a big roller coaster in the sky. We get to a point in the parabola where we go weightless just like astronauts do by descending really fast at a 45-degree angle. At 35,000 feet, we nose the plane over and we’re diving back to earth really fast at several hundred miles an hour and experience free-fall and microgravity conditions.”

Those on board experience microgravity for 25 to 30 seconds at a time. Zero Gravity Corp. is the only provider of the service in the country, she says, and the company publishes its flight schedule on its website. People from around the world fly with the crew on adventure flights every weekend throughout the U.S. and the crew also does Hollywood movies, commercials and YouTube videos, she said.

“It’s fun,” Ms. Sweeney said. “We accomplish amazing things. Our next stop is Orlando to do NASA research with our teammates. We have flown astronauts in the past for training and for a nice joy ride.”

NASA, she said, used to fly a similar aircraft and run experiments, but the agency doesn’t do it anymore. Instead, it provides funding and flies with the Zero Gravity crew who help facilitate research.

While visiting Fitchburg schools — where she excelled as a youth in academics and sports — and the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster, Ms. Sweeney said she thanked them for the success in her life and hoped her visit inspired kids to continue on their quest and for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teachers to stay in the community.

“When I was 10 years old in fifth grade at Crocker School, I set a goal to become an astronaut,” she said. “The school district has a new hashtag it is promoting to dream what you can’t do, yet. When I walk around in a flight suit, I’m often asked, ‘Are you an astronaut?’ I told the kids, I’m not an astronaut, yet, but I’m still working really hard toward that goal. I think that resonated with the kids that I’m 44 and still working towards the goal I set at 10.

“They have a robust STEM system here in the community,” she added. “I offered to help create a STEM mentor program to bring together a cadre of scientists as a resource to continue to play an interactive role in STEM development.”

She said she was also impressed with the kids she met at the Boys & Girls Club.

“I am so thoroughly impressed with Boys & Girls Club in general and specifically the caliber of the STEM program they have created there,” she said. “I feel like I answered 100 questions from a gymnasium full of kids, and every one was thoughtful about STEM and flight and space exploration. It was such a gift. Clearly the kids spend time at the club taking STEM to heart and educating themselves and setting themselves up for success.”

She said she is planning to return in February for a STEM event there.

Boys & Girls Club Executive Director Donata J. Martin, said that after Ms. Sweeney’s presentation, several high school juniors talked to her about applying to the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Topics she covered included how global warming can be seen from outer space and if there is time change in space, Ms. Martin said.

“She returns in February during vacation week to participate in our Space Camp,” Ms. Martin said. “We found out that we have many members interested in becoming astronauts or pursuing STEM careers in the myriad of fields affiliated with the space industry. … We have adopted Tara as one of our own.”

Translate »