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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.

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.”

July / 2017

Rhode Island Releases Food Strategy

On May 17, Rhode Island released its new five-year Food Strategy Plan, which is built around five action goals:

1. alleviate food insecurity and hunger throughout the state;

2. make food production more accessible;

3. create and sustain markets for Rhode Island food products;

4. promote environmental sustainability; and

5. support an economic climate friendly to food-related businesses.

The plan has been a goal for the state since 2011, when JMF grantee the Rhode Island Food Policy Council was founded. Since then, state leaders and local innovators have developed many initiatives to support food producers and provide more opportunities for all Rhode Islanders to access healthy food.  A year ago, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo hired Susan Anderbois as Director of Food Strategy, the first position of its kind in the country.

Rhode Island’s food sector supports over 60,000 local jobs, and generated $2 billion in sales for restaurants in 2016.  However, only 1 percent of the food consumed by state residents is harvested locally and 35 percent of waste is made up of food and compostable material. Moreover, 12 percent of Rhode Islanders are considered “food insecure.”

The Rhode Island Food Policy Council is creating a series of multimedia stories to bring the reality of what it’s like to work in, and be fed by, Rhode Island’s food system day to day.  The first story features fantastic interviews with dairy farmers in the state, who are being squeezed economically, and the second features senior citizens visited by the mobile food truck Food on the Move, which makes fresh, local produce available to those facing food insecurity.

“I feel such optimism about our state’s food strategy, [and] we need everyone’s energy and ideas,” said Janet Coit, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM). “My most treasured traditions involve food; for example, summer doesn’t start for me until I go strawberry picking with my daughter, Nina. Today, I think we will look for an outcome where every Rhode Islander will have those experiences and have an opportunity to eat healthy, local food.”

July / 2017

Toxic Industrial Chemicals Found in 10 Varieties of Macaroni and Cheese Powders

On National Macaroni and Cheese Day, National Coalition Urges Kraft Heinz to Lead the Industry by Pledging to Eliminate Any and All Sources of Phthalates

July 13, 2017—Laboratory testing of 10 varieties of macaroni and cheese products has revealed toxic industrial chemicals (known as phthalates) in the cheese powders of all of them, according to the Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging, a national alliance of leading public health and food safety groups.

In recognition of National Macaroni and Cheese Day tomorrow, the coalition has issued a call to The Kraft Heinz Company—the dominant seller of boxed macaroni and cheese, with 76 percent of market share—to drive industry-wide change by eliminating any sources of phthalates that may end up in its cheese products. Detailed information and a public petition are available here.

“Serving up one of America’s favorite comfort foods shouldn’t mean exposing your children and family to harmful chemicals,” said Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, a coalition member.  Other JMF grantees, including Earthjustice, Ecology Center, Healthy Babies Bright Futures, Learning Disabilities Association of America, Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, Safer States, and Toxic-Free Future are also members.

Two million boxes of macaroni and cheese are sold every day in the United States.

July / 2017

Early Check Receives $5 Million in NIH Funding

A new program offering free elective genetic testing for newborns, developed at RTI International, will become available to North Carolina parents starting in 2018, thanks to a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The National Institutes of Health, through the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), announced earlier this year that it will provide $1 million per year over five years to launch the Early Check program (also supported by JMF) statewide in North Carolina, offering testing for one or more genetic conditions to up to 120,000 families each year. Early Check will function as a research study, helping enable research on genetic conditions and potential treatments. This project is one of seven innovation awards funded by National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

“We hope to offer to every baby born in North Carolina the opportunity to participate in this study,” said Don Bailey, PhD, Distinguished Fellow at RTI and the project’s principal investigator.

Shortly after birth, most babies in the US go through a series of screenings for genetic disorders. The tests help doctors act quickly to help babies with conditions that can be treated, but that might otherwise go unnoticed and could be deadly.

The panel of conditions currently included in standard newborn screening tests leaves out some diseases, such as Fragile X syndrome, that could be detected early. In some cases, tests are available, but expensive.

“The conditions left out of standard newborn screening do not have enough evidence that early treatment changes outcomes, something necessary for a public health program that is done universally,” said Lisa Gehtland, MD, a physician and public health analyst at RTI and the Project Director. Early Check researchers will provide information about whether some of these conditions are appropriate for newborn screening.

“Early Check is an exciting and innovative project to not only improve health outcomes, but to expand our scientific knowledge about detection and new approaches to treatment,” said Alex Kemper, MD, a pediatrician who serves as the principal investigator at Duke.

Read more about Early Check in its feature on the NIH’s NCATS website here.


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

July / 2017

ChemSec Creates New “Dating Site” for Safer Chemistry

The corporate drive to substitute hazardous chemicals in products and supply chains is increasing dramatically, but it it is difficult for those creating safer alternatives to find those seeking them. This May, JMF grantee ChemSec (the International Chemical Secretariat) announced the launch of their Marketplace. In the words of  Anne-Sofie Andersson, Executive Director at ChemSec, “The Marketplace provides both a unique market opportunity for producers of safer alternatives, as well as a one-stop shop for progressive companies looking to substitute hazardous chemicals in their products.”

On Marketplace, safer alternatives are offered in the form of ads created by companies.  Some of the most forward-thinking chemical producers, such as Clariant, Chemours, and Valspar, are already featuring products on the website. “ChemSec’s Marketplace is a unique digital forum for suppliers and purchasers to exchange interest in commercial products that represent technical alternatives that may meet their sustainability goals or other business needs. Valspar is honored to be one of the first companies to place an advertisement for the valPure® V70 food contact coating technology on the Marketplace. We hope that others share our commitment to transparency and innovation and will advertise their solutions as well,” says Flavio Marchi, Global Marketing Director for Packaging at Valspar.

Click here for a Marketplace FAQ.

July / 2017

McFadden and Associates Wins EPA 2017 Safer Choice Partner of the Year Award

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) presented McFadden and Associates with a 2017 Safer Choice Partner of the Year award on May 15 in an awards ceremony held at the Gaylord Convention Center near Washington, DC. The professional consulting firm specializing in green chemistry applications and sustainable business practices was recognized by EPA Safer Choice “for its efforts to proactively advance and advocate for the importance of green chemistry and sustainable business practices.”

“We are honored to receive this distinguished EPA award. The recognition from the EPA is an important validation of our commitment to assist companies to innovate and formulate safer and more sustainable products ” said Roger McFadden, Senior Scientist and President of McFadden and Associates and member of the JMF Board of Trustees.

McFadden says, “A growing number of our business clients are selecting EPA Safer Choice because of its rigorous evaluation of the environmental and health impacts of every chemical ingredient in a product as well as its high credibility among consumers.”

If you would like more information about this topic, please contact Roger McFadden (503) 915-4640 or email at