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September / 2020

Sparkplug Award, 2020 Recipients

Maria Elena Letona (pictured on top receiving the award via Zoom) and Lena Entin (pictured below), both formerly of Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts Education Fund, were awarded $50,000 Frank Hatch “Sparkplug” Awards for Enlightened Public Service by The John Merck Fund on September 29, 2020. This award is granted annually to an outstanding leader or leaders whose work embodies extraordinary creativity, dedication, and foresight.

Serving as executive director and campaign director at Neighbor to Neighbor (N2N) respectively, Maria Elena and Lena were organizers for the successful Mt. Tom Coal Plant Campaign. With 15,000 members, N2N builds power among communities of color and low-income communities in Massachusetts to confront inequality, environmental degradation, and racism.

Once known as “Paper City” because of its thriving paper mills, Holyoke has always been a city of working-class immigrants. Today, Holyoke has a large Latinx community, with asthma rates that are twice as high as the state average. It is also home to an active environmental justice community.

Launched in 2010, N2N’s Mt. Tom Coal Plant Campaign had four goals: close the Mt. Tom coal plant, ensure a just transition for workers, clean up the site, and redevelop the area. With community members playing a leading role, N2N coordinated a campaign with state and local groups to engage local residents and workers at the plant in a highly effective and innovative campaign that achieved all four goals. The plant is now closed, workers at the site received transition assistance, and the state supported cleanup of the site, which now serves as a solar facility.

Beyond the initial success, the campaign left community organizers stronger, with more skills and capacity to continue their organizing and outreach to clean up their community. With its focus on putting local leaders at the core of the campaign, it also served as a model for coal plant campaigns in Massachusetts and Connecticut. N2N used the experience and momentum from that campaign to work with chapters on other community climate initiatives. As Lena Entin put it, “The Mt. Tom campaign helped Neighbor to Neighbor begin to see itself as a climate justice and just transition organization. That has been a major transition for us.”

Maria Elena recently retired from Neighbor to Neighbor (N2N), where she served as executive director. Ms. Letona has devoted her career to promoting racial and environmental justice through community organizing. She has spent more than 30 years working with grassroots organizations, with experience ranging from public policy to fundraising, finance, and organizational development. Prior to working with N2N, Maria Elena served as executive director of Centro Presente, a Boston-based immigrant rights organization. Maria Elena holds a Master’s degree and a PhD in Public Policy from the University of Massachusetts. She is author and co-author of numerous articles and reports on topics related to organizational and community capacity building.

Lena Entin served as N2N campaign director for the Mt. Tom coal campaign. Under Lena’s leadership over sixteen years, N2N doubled in size as she founded chapters in Fitchburg, Holyoke, and Springfield, Massachusetts. She also led the organization’s fundraising work for two years. Lena got her training as an organizer in El Salvador, where she worked with US-El Salvador Sister Cities. Lena now serves as deputy director of Community Action Works (formerly Toxics Action Center), where she continues to help local communities engage in successful environmental justice campaigns.

In 2011, The John Merck Fund made a commitment to fund efforts to close all seven remaining coal plants in New England. At this juncture, four have closed, two remain open at limited capacity in New Hampshire, and a third in Connecticut is slated to close in 2021. In presenting the award, JMF Chair Whitney Hatch said, “With our goal to close all the remaining coal plants in New England, the Mt. Tom coal plant became the model for all those fights. We’ve learned a lot from your example about what it means to do true community organizing with lasting impact. We’ve been so proud to support this effort.”

At an emotional meeting on September 29, both Lena and Maria Elena recounted the work on the coal plant campaign and the lessons it inspired for their ongoing organizing.

“JMF was the first funder that was willing to bet on us to run this campaign. That made it possible to get all the support that followed. I’m not sure we could have launched ourselves without that help,” said Lena. “I learned how to be an organizer in El Salvador, where organizers taught me that you have to work from the ground up to build power in the community. The Mt. Tom campaign not only did just that but helped me apply that approach in all my work going forward.”

“This award is such an inspiration for me,” said Maria Elena, who has devoted her career to racial justice, environmental justice, and community organizing. “To know that you all honor this work and this approach is deeply meaningful for me. My gratitude goes way beyond the award; I feel a deep well of gratitude for what it seeded at N2N.”

The John Merck Fund, a longtime funder of climate and clean energy solutions in New England, created the Frank Hatch Sparkplug award in 2006 to honor its former chair, Frank Hatch. Maria Elena and Lena are the sixteenth recipients of the award.

September / 2019

Sparkplug Award, 2019 Recipient

Tim Storrow of Gill, Massachusetts, was awarded the $50,000 Frank Hatch “Sparkplug” Award for Enlightened Public Service by The John Merck Fund on Tuesday, September 24, 2019. The award is granted annually to an outstanding leader whose work embodies extraordinary creativity, dedication, and foresight.  Mr. Storrow is the fifteenth Sparkplug Award recipient.

Over a career spanning nearly forty years, Tim Storrow dedicated himself to the protection of the natural environment and agriculture.  He retired earlier this year after serving as Executive Director of the Vermont-based Castanea Foundation, Inc. from 2006 to 2019.  Under Mr. Storrow’s stewardship, and in collaboration with social entrepreneurs engaged with the region’s farm and food system, the Castanea Foundation supported over 150 farmland conservation and rural economic development projects in Vermont and New York State with patient, risk-tolerant capital.  The John Merck Fund partnered with Castanea Foundation on numerous projects in Vermont during Storrow’s impressive tenure.

Prior to joining Castanea, he was President of Legacy Partners, LLC, a conservation real estate advisory firm in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and a founding Board Member of the Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust based in Athol, Massachusetts.  He also served as Deputy Director for the New England Forestry Foundation, Director of Land Protection for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, American Farmland Trust, and in the early 1980s, Chief of the Bureau of Land Use, Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.  Altogether, Mr. Storrow’s activities have helped protect about 400,000 acres of land in New England and the United States.

Mr. Storrow served on the original Board of Managers for the Vermont Flexible Capital Fund, a social impact investment fund; as Manager of Evergreen Conservation Partners, LLC, a conservation partnership that included The John Merck Fund; and as Manager of Taproot Capital Fund, L3C, a joint venture between Castanea Foundation and High Meadows Fund focused on investing in farm, food, and forest-related enterprises in Vermont.

In his remarks as he conferred the Sparkplug award on Mr. Storrow, Frank Hatch’s son, George Hatch, noted, “In his years of working in Vermont, Tim was a great on-the-ground partner for The John Merck Fund, alerting us to important opportunities to preserve the working landscape that continue to reap dividends for the state’s agricultural economy and serve as models for the rest of New England and beyond.  Without exception, Tim could always be counted on to give JMF sound advice about where our investment could catalyze a change for the good.  That’s what makes him a quintessential Sparkplug.”

In response to the news he’d been chosen as the 2019 recipient, Mr. Storrow said, “I was surprised and overwhelmed to receive the Sparkplug Award.  It’s a real honor to have an association with Frank Hatch, one of America’s leading environmentalists and philanthropists, whom I admired and respected greatly.”

Mr. Storrow is a graduate of the University of Vermont with a degree in Agriculture and Environmental Studies, and a Master’s Degree in Environmental Law from Vermont Law School.  He grew up in Jericho, Vermont, and currently operates a small farm in Gill, Massachusetts, with his wife, Dorothy.  They have two children and a granddaughter.

April / 2019

David R. Hessl, PhD, MIND Institute, University of California, Davis

In 2012, The John Merck Fund awarded a $1 million, four-year grant to the University of California, Davis, for Principal Investigator David Hessl’s research project, “Cognitive Training for Fragile X Syndrome.”

Fragile X syndrome (FXS) is the most common inherited cause of autism.  Prevalence estimates are 1 in 4,000 to 8,000.  The phenotype associated with FXS includes both behavioral and cognitive deficits in addition to physical features.  The behavioral phenotype typically includes attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and intermittent aggression, which can cause significant difficulties for families.  Individuals with Fragile X Syndrome demonstrate profound executive function deficits that interfere with learning, socialization, and emotion regulation.

Dr. Hessl’s study, the first non-pharmacological controlled trial for FXS, evaluated the efficacy of Cogmed, a cognitive training program that enhances working memory and executive function.  The study provided evidence that children and adolescents with FXS can engage and make progress in an intensive web-based working memory training program, over a period of 5-6 weeks.  The primary hypothesis that participants completing the publicly available adaptive training versions of the program will make significantly greater gains in standardized measures of working memory than those completing a non-adaptive “control” version was not confirmed.  However, both groups improved on a variety of metrics.  The John Merck Fund has made an additional $181,500 grant to enable Dr. Hessl to mine data from the original study to glean more insight about what factors contribute to improved working memory and executive function in study participants.

The Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders published a paper on Dr. Hessl’s research.

JMF’s grant to Dr. Hessl is part of our Developmental Disabilities Program’s Translational Research Program – supporting research with the potential for near-term positive impact on people with developmental disabilities and their families.

September / 2018

Sparkplug Award, 2018 Recipient

Sylvia Broude, Executive Director of the Toxics Action Center, was awarded the $50,000 Frank Hatch “Sparkplug” Award for Enlightened Public Service by The John Merck Fund on September 20, 2018. The award is granted annually to an outstanding leader whose work embodies extraordinary creativity, dedication, and foresight.

Sylvia oversees Toxics Action Center’s six New England offices and supervises a team that organizes with nearly 100 communities each year.  Sylvia has spent much of her career at Toxics Action Center, joining the team as a community organizer in 2006 after working with Sierra Club, MoveOn PAC, and the Fund for the Public Interest. She took over as Executive Director in 2012 and has directed Toxics Action Center’s work in recent years to prevent a wave of new incinerator proposals across the region and win progress towards zero waste as well as to transition New England away from coal-fired power plants and to clear the way for clean energy.

John Merck Fund Chair Whitney Hatch said, “Under Sylvia’s direction, the Toxics Action Center has been instrumental in helping local communities and residents become active leaders in closing down the remaining coal-fired power plants in New England and in fighting to stop a major buildout of natural gas in the region.”

Toxics Action Center was inspired by mothers of Woburn, Massachusetts, who took action in the mid-1980s to protect the health of their children when the chemical company W.R. Grace contaminated their drinking water. The Woburn leukemia cluster eventually claimed the lives of 14 children. In 1987, a group of public health and environmental advocates created the Massachusetts Campaign to Clean Up Hazardous Waste—now known as Toxics Action Center—to help residents who faced their own Woburn-like situations. Since those early days, Toxics Action Center has expanded into every New England state, has organized with more than 1,000 neighborhood groups, and directly trained more than 20,000 frontline activists in the skills needed to address local environmental threats.

Today, Toxics Action Center trains activists who are fighting dirty energy in their own communities to become clean energy champions for their states, and works to ensure that the communities hardest hit by pollution have a seat at the table to advocate for clean energy and climate justice.

Mr. Hatch noted, “Toxics Action Center does not aspire to be the leaders in the room. They work behind the scenes to make sure that those most affected by dirty fuels become leaders in promoting a better future for their communities. The goal is not to win one small battle in a single place, but to build lasting capacity in communities throughout the region. Toxics Action Center is steadfast in promoting its organizing model while remaining nimble in applying that model to an ever-changing landscape.”

The John Merck Fund, a longtime funder of Toxics Action Center, created the Frank Hatch Sparkplug award in 2006 to honor its longtime former chairman, Frank Hatch.  Whitney Hatch is Frank Hatch’s son.

Broude said, “I couldn’t be more thankful for the lifetime of critical support The John Merck Fund has provided to Toxics Action Center, first under the leadership of Frank Hatch and now, in his legacy. From our early days working alongside community members to address to drinking water pollution in Woburn to our expansion into each New England state, The John Merck Fund has been there with us as partners and investors in our vision of clean air, clean water, healthy, just and vibrant communities, and a stronger people-powered environmental movement.”

Mr. Hatch added, “Sylvia has brought her considerable energy, enthusiasm, and a deep intelligence to shepherding Toxics Action Center as it has grown into a sophisticated, dynamic, and effective organization.”

September / 2018

Xinyu Zhao Receives 2018 National Fragile X Foundation Research Award

Xinyu Zhao, PhD, a grantee in The John Merck Fund’s Developmental Disabilities Program (along with her colleague Anita Bhattacharyya), received the 2018 National Fragile X Foundation (NFXF) Research Award for outstanding contributions to the understanding of Fragile X syndrome. Zhao is a professor of neuroscience and Waisman Center investigator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The award was presented at the 2018 national conference held in Cincinnati, Ohio, in July. Zhao also presented, “Bridging the Gap: How Human Stem Cells May Help Us to Find Treatments for Fragile X Syndrome” as a featured speaker at the conference.

Fragile X syndrome is the leading inherited cause of intellectual disability, as well as the source of many cases of learning disabilities and autism. Fragile X is caused by a repetitive genetic error on the long arm of the X chromosome. The mutation is in a single gene called FMR1. A small set of nucleotides (the building blocks of DNA) are repeated excessively, disrupting the structure of the gene and preventing the production of its normally encoded protein (FMRP). The mutation is passed through families and can occur more frequently or severely in future generations.

Zhao’s research focuses on the function of FMRP in neuronal development—the process important for learning, memory, cognition, and adaptation. She is also exploring reactivation of the silenced FMRI gene as a potential treatment option.

“I am honored to receive this award and be included among the previous recipients who have made such significant contributions to Fragile X research” says Zhao. “We share a commitment to expand and advance this research with the goal of improving the lives of individuals and families impacted by Fragile X syndrome.”

September / 2017

Sparkplug Award, 2017 Recipient

Ruth G. Hennig stepped down after 29 years as Executive Director of The John Merck Fund in September 2017. She has worked in the environmental field for over 30 years, first at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston and then at The John Merck Fund, where she oversaw program-related special initiatives, including Healthy Babies Bright Futures.

Ruth currently serves as a board member of League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, which promotes civic engagement and education on environmental issues, and was a founding board member of Issue One, which seeks to end the corrosive impact of special interest money on politics and policymaking. She has also served as chair at SmartPower and the New England Grassroots Environment Fund, two organizations that she helped create.

In service to the philanthropic community, Ruth was Beldon Fund Trustee, served in management roles at Environmental Grantmakers Association, the Consultative Group on Biological Diversity, and the Health and Environmental Funders Network, and continues her service to JMF as a Trustee. She currently also serves as a board member for Baraka Community Wellness, a nonprofit organization which is changing lives in Boston’s low-income communities with evidence-based fitness and nutrition programs.

Ruth lives in Boston, where she spends as much time outside with her Labradoodle as possible. Photography, movies, travel and politics are her special interests.

September / 2017

Sparkplug Award, 2017 Recipient

Brian F. Keane is President of SmartPower and author of Green Is Good: Save Money, Make Money, and Help Your Community Profit From Clean Energy (Lyons Press, 2012). He is a leading voice on clean energy, energy efficiency, and the environment. As President of SmartPower, a Washington, DC-based marketing agency dedicated to promoting clean, renewable energy, and energy efficiency, Keane has helped shape the energy debate in the United States and brought clean energy and energy efficiency to the American consumer. Hailed as Mad Men for an eco-conscious generation, SmartPower’s award-winning marketing campaigns have engaged hundreds of thousands of people across the country, drawing credit for inspiring our nation’s renewed interested in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

For their efforts, Keane and SmartPower have been recognized with numerous awards, including a 2010 Clean Air Excellence Award from the Environmental Protection Agency, recognizing SmartPower’s “America’s Greenest Campus” energy efficiency campaign. Other accolades include the coveted Green Power Pilot Award presented by the EPA and the US Department of Energy; four Gold Awards from the Service Industry Advertising Awards (SIAA); and the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Circle Award. In 2005 Keane was recognized as one of Connecticut’s “Outstanding Forty Under 40.”

A former advisor to the late Senator Paul Tsongas (D-MA) and congressional aide to Representative Les Aspin (D-WI), Keane has an extensive and cutting-edge background in nonprofit management, political organizing and communications. He has used this experience to create organizations that challenge conventional wisdom and help to set the national agenda. To be sure, before there was a “Tea Party,” Keane was one of the architects of The Concord Coalition, a nationwide non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating the federal budget deficit.
Keane combines his passion for major policy issues with a marketer’s commitment to creating compelling messages that resonate with the general public, not just the converted. As such, Keane is a much sought-after interview subject and presenter on a host of issues – including clean energy and energy efficiency. He has spoken extensively across the nation, internationally and with local and national media.

July / 2017

JMF Announces Leadership Changes

The John Merck Fund Trustees announce that after twenty-nine years of exemplary leadership, Executive Director Ruth Hennig is stepping down effective September 29, 2017.

Ruth was the foundation’s first staff person when she joined in 1988 to work with longtime Board Chair Frank Hatch. During her tenure, she has helped shape and implement JMF’s grantmaking programs, facilitated the next generation’s increasing involvement and eventual leadership succession, and managed the foundation’s ten-year spendout, which will conclude in 2022.

JMF Board Chair Serena H. Whitridge remembers that “my father, Frank Hatch, had an uncanny ability to surround himself with good people. In Ruth, he found an incredible ally with a laser-like focus to help JMF fulfill its mission.” Almost thirty years later, Ms. Whitridge continued, “Unflappable, Ruth has always been steady at the helm for the Board, the staff, and her peers.”

“It has been the honor of a lifetime to contribute to the positive and often hard-fought changes that JMF has made in the world,” said Ruth. “I leave JMF with mixed emotions but know that this is the right time to begin my next chapter.  I also know that JMF is strongly positioned to continue having impacts in protecting human health and the environment during its final five years.”

JMF is also pleased to announce that the foundation’s Director of Programs, Christine James, will become its second Executive Director.

If there are questions during this transition period, please do not hesitate to reach out to Christine at

June / 2016

Sparkplug Award, 2016 Recipient

Elizabeth M. Berry-Kravis, MD, PhD, is a Professor of Pediatrics, Neurology, and Biochemistry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago  She has a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Notre Dame, a PhD in biochemistry and MD from the University of Chicago.  She has been at Rush University Medical Center since 1992.

Dr. Berry-Kravis established the comprehensive Fragile X Clinic and Research Program at Rush in 1992, through which she provides care and support to over 400 patients with Fragile X syndrome (FXS) for management of neurological, medical, and behavioral and genetic issues.  Her clinical research projects involve studies of epilepsy and psychopharmacology in Fragile X, clinical trials of new promising medications in FXS and development of outcome measures and biomarkers for such trials in the FXS population.  She is also involved in research to characterize neurological problems in Fragile X-associated tremor/ataxia syndrome (FXTAS) and relate clinical and radiological findings to molecular measures in Fragile X carriers.  Her laboratory research involves studies of effects of Fragile X mental retardation protein (FMRP) on signal transduction mechanisms in neural cells as well as molecular studies aimed at identifying genetic risks and genotype-phenotype relationships in neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, vascular dementia, congenital central hypoventilation syndrome, and SIDS.

At Rush and other Chicago institutions, Liz lectures in biochemistry, pathology, genetics, neurobiology and genetic counseling courses.  She co-directs the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at Rush, which runs molecular tests for diagnosis of numerous genetic conditions including Fragile X syndrome.  She is on the advisory board for both the FRAXA Research Foundation and the National Fragile X Foundation and received the Jarrett Cole Award for clinical work with individuals with Fragile X in 2002 and The Hagerman Award for FXTAS research in 2004.