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Leading the Next Generation of Dreamers and Doers: Carolyn Casey ’87 Lights Leadership Spark Across Massachusetts

Casey's Project 351 enlists one eighth grader from each of the state's 351 cities and towns to partake in a year of leadership training
April 19th, 2018 by 
Carolyn Casey ’87 welcomes Project 351 ambassadors at the organization’s annual launch day.

After eight years in a corporate job, Carolyn Casey ’87 needed some time. Time to observe. Time to reflect on social justice. Time to think about how best to serve. So she decided to drive cross-country, west to east, visiting civil rights monuments, doing volunteer work and gaining inspiration from those on the front lines.

Casey spent time on a Native American reservation in Arizona, visiting new mothers with her sister, Kathleen Casey, M.D., ’84; helped build a home with Habitat for Humanity in Mississippi; pulled 24-hour shifts in a domestic violence shelter and worked in a food bank in Alabama; and pitched in on a playground project in Georgia.

“It was a really beautiful experience of seeing our country and loving America with all its bumps and faults and challenges,” she recalls.

It was on that road trip that Casey had an idea: tapping the energy and potential of young people to promote service and unity in their communities and across Massachusetts. That idea became Project 351, a nonprofit that enlists one eighth-grader from each of the state’s 351 cities and towns for a year of leadership training and service.

Now in its eighth year, Project 351 has trained more than 3,000 eighth-graders — called “ambassadors” — who have tackled issues from hunger to hurricane relief and, in all likelihood, put them on a lifelong path of helping others.

“We’re building this generation of dreamers and doers who put community and compassion and courage first, and who respect and celebrate the differences around them,” says Casey, founder and executive director.

Mount St. James Roots Run Deep

Since graduating from Holy Cross in 1987 with a degree in English and earning a master’s in public administration at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Casey has held positions in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

She worked as an aide to a Massachusetts legislator, promoting the state’s Education Reform Act, served as director of national affairs for the educational nonprofit City Year and was senior director of corporate responsibility at outdoor lifestyle brand Timberland, in addition to lending her expertise as a consultant to Boston nonprofits and corporations.

The common thread in each organization has been that they are driven to make positive change, and Casey attributes her commitment to such work to her family and her Holy Cross roots.

 Portraits of Casey's father William '52 and Casey show a long family history at Holy Cross

The Casey family has a long history at Holy Cross, from father William ’52 (left) to his children Kathleen ’84, Joseph ’85, Carolyn ’87 (right) and Michael ’90.

Growing up in Taunton, Massachusetts, her family station wagon was known around town for the license plate HC ’52, in recognition of her dad’s loyalty to his alma mater. The Casey family was often on campus for her dad’s homecoming weekends and football and basketball games.

She says it’s impossible to separate her family from the College. Her late father, Bill ’52; sister, Kathleen ’84; brothers, Joe ’85 and Mike ’90; and late sister-in-law, Neilie ’90, all graduated from Holy Cross, as did a number of cousins. And although a graduate of Newton College of the Sacred Heart, her mother Maryjane’s love for Holy Cross and the Jesuit tradition reinforced Casey’s every instinct.

When the time arrived to select a college, her school of choice was never really in doubt.

“I just kept coming back to Holy Cross,” Casey says. “The college, the campus, the community and the mission spoke to me.”

The Jesuit emphasis on values, responsibility for others and a rigorous liberal arts education proved the perfect combination. “I knew I would be challenged and nurtured and enriched academically,” Casey says.

She calls the community of friends she made at Holy Cross the school’s greatest gift. A large, loyal group with diverse pursuits in life, the friends have stayed in touch and remain there for each other after three decades. And that’s something not unique to her circle of friends or her class, as Casey would learn when tragedy struck her family.

Developing Unsung Heroes

 Members of the Alumni Leadership Council introduce their Service Hero teams.

Members of the Alumni Leadership Council introduce their Service Hero teams. Photo by Dan Vaillancourt

Project 351 was supposed to be a one-day event to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2011 and mark the second inauguration of former Gov. Deval Patrick, who liked the idea of instilling a love of community and service in young people.

On what has since become known as Launch Day, eighth-graders from across the state gathered in Boston to discuss issues important to their communities, fanned out across the city for high-impact service work and reflected on what they had learned and the value of service.

As Casey tells it, Patrick sensed right away that Project 351 would not be one-and-done.

“‘You know, this isn’t going to end at the end of the day,'” she recalls him saying during that inaugural Launch Day. Patrick was right. Upon returning from the community projects, the eighth-graders wondered what would be next now that they had been called to serve.

Their passion and enthusiasm turned Project 351 into a yearlong annual initiative. “We have a 12-month program, which is about developing the courage, the compassion and the capability to lead change as a community builder and civic leader,” Casey says.

The ambassadors are chosen by their school districts, drawing on Project 351 guidelines. Casey says the program seeks diverse, unsung heroes and quiet leaders, students who demonstrate kindness, volunteer at their house of worship, serve as a Scout or in 4-H or, perhaps, act as head of household. The goal is to elevate the young person’s innate goodness by teaching them “when you serve, you lead.”

Patrick says the ambassadors are a deserving bunch: “The athletes, the scholars, the artists, the student government types — they all get recognized in middle schools. The ones who make acts of kindness a centerpiece of their lives don’t so much. Project 351 is about honoring them and their service leadership.”

 Ambassadors serve at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School in Dorchester

Ambassadors serve at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School in Dorchester. Photo by Dan Vaillancourt

Students participate in the program from the last half of eighth grade through the first half of ninth grade, though many stay on as alumni leaders, mentoring those who follow. According to Casey, the program focuses on eighth-graders because they are young enough to be open and idealistic, but old enough to embrace the skills and confidence to carry out the Project 351 mission. At this critical stage in the ambassadors’ development of identity and priorities, Project 351 strengthens the values of civic responsibility and compassionate leadership.

Over the year, ambassadors attend two unity events. The first is January’s Launch Day, convened first by Patrick and now by Gov. Charlie Baker, which celebrates the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and includes service at Boston area organizations followed by a youth town meeting. The second is a Leadership Reunion in the spring with leadership workshops, speakers, service, mentorship by Project 351 alumni and a Peace and Unity Walk for the Martin W. Richard Foundation, which honors the 8-year-old Dorchester boy killed in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

With training and mentorship by Project 351, ambassadors lead three statewide service initiatives: a spring clothing drive to benefit children served by the nonprofit Cradles to Crayons; a “9.11 Tribute Service” to honor and remember those lost in the terrorist attacks and Fallen Heroes, which includes writing letters of gratitude and creating 1,000 “care packages” for troops overseas and veterans served by the New England Center for Homeless Veterans; and a fall campaign to end hunger, which raises awareness and collects food and donations for hometown food pantries.

George Fox and Denelis Acosta were Project 351 ambassadors who now serve on the organization’s Alumni Leadership Council. Both say the program, and Casey, have inspired them to step up and help others.

Fox, a junior at Beverly High School, has organized a number of projects in his school and community, most recently one to benefit victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

“I’m just trying to make a little bit of a dent,” he says of the need on the island, which struggles to recover months after the September 2017 storm. “My ambassador year was really the first stepping stone in developing myself as a leader in so many different ways — in the community, building the confidence to be a leader in sports and in my school, really helping me to shape the rest of my life.”

Acosta is a Lynn English High School senior who has started a discussion group at Girls Inc. called Woke Women, which brings women together to talk about issues and topics including gender identity and black history.

As of February, she was still deciding upon her choice for college and long-term career goals, “but I do know I want to make a difference. I want to be someone like Carolyn Casey,” Acosta says.

Fox also praised Casey for her leadership by example, availability for texts or calls and treatment of ambassadors as peers: “Whatever I choose to do in my future, I can hopefully take the same dedication Carolyn has for 351.”

In Service To Children

 New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Gov. Baker join Casey to recognize outstanding alumni.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Gov. Baker join Casey to recognize outstanding alumni at the 2017 Leadership Reunion at Gillette Stadium. Photo by Dan Vaillancourt

Many partnering organizations benefit from Project 351, including Wonderfund, a tiny nonprofit that helps kids served by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF).

Last year, Massachusetts first lady Lauren Baker began making Wonderfund her priority project, using her skills and the visibility of the governor’s office to improve the lives of children facing traumatic situations, abuse and neglect. (At Launch Day 2018, Project 351 honored her as one of 45 Service Heroes — a designation that elevates diverse role models of service through a named team of ambassadors. Teams learn leadership lessons from their “service hero” and dedicate their year of service to them.)

Wonderfund’s precursor began 20 years ago with the goals of raising money and buying holiday gifts for foster children, but has since been broadened and relaunched to serve more children involved with DCF. At times, children in emergency situations are removed from their homes and transported to a safe place, taking nothing with them but the clothes they are wearing.

Project 351 ambassadors help outfit and comfort these traumatized children by assembling emergency packs that contain a teddy bear or stuffed animal, pajamas, socks, underwear and other necessary items. At this year’s Launch Day, Baker served alongside ambassadors as they created more than 1,000 packs and messages of hope and welcome for families relocating to Massachusetts after the devastating hurricanes in Puerto Rico.

Baker says she draws inspiration from Casey and Project 351 in her work at Wonderfund: “She’s a force. I learn from her every time we speak. Everything that Carolyn does and everything that Project 351 does oozes their core values of gratitude, humility and compassion.”

Says Patrick, “Carolyn Casey not only runs the program, but embodies its spirit.”

Baker calls Project 351 a unique effort that could serve as a model for the nation, helping build stronger communities and states. “It will snowball into something really valuable for our country,” she says.

The first lady half-jokes that one way to get the ball rolling is to capitalize on Holy Cross’ vast network of talented alumni.

“Holy Cross could save the world,” she laughs.

The Holy Cross Connection

 Ambassadors form a circle while team building, sparking friendships and understanding.

Launch Day team building sparks friendships and understanding. Photo by Dan Vaillancourt

Holy Cross has hosted several Project 351 events over the years, and a number of the school’s alumni, including Casey’s siblings, have been involved with the organization. The school’s mission and that of the nonprofit dovetail nicely.

“Holy Cross is about service,” says Jamie Hoag ’98, the College’s director of government and community relations. “It’s a strong part of our mission statement. That’s what Project 351 is about.”

Former deputy chief legal counsel and ethics adviser to Patrick, Hoag chairs a committee that annually nominates exemplary Project 351 alumni to the Kraft family (of New England Patriots fame) for selection as a $20,000 Myra H. Kraft Giving Back Scholarship honoree. The scholarship highlights the scale and scope of alumni who have used Project 351 as a liftoff for creating and leading their own service and community initiatives. Casey, with her knowledge of the ambassadors and enthusiasm for their efforts, does not make the job any easier, Hoag jokes.

“She’s like a loving mother to all of the ambassadors,” he says. “They benefit by her example. I can’t think of a better role model for them.”

Ellie Miller Hall ’11, a member of Patrick’s staff who recently took a position with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, volunteered at the first Project 351 Launch Day and has been involved ever since, most recently in charge of the organization’s Alumni Leadership Council.

“Project 351 is the closest thing for me to be able to connect to our mission of men and women for others,” Hall says. “There’s no greater example than Carolyn. So much of what Project 351 is today is because of her hard work and her vision and her leadership, but she really just shares her gratitude with everyone else. She always thanks everyone for making it happen.”

Reflection and Inspiration

 Carolyn Casey '87 welcomes Project 351 ambassadors at the organization's annual launch day.

Carolyn Casey ’87 welcomes Project 351 ambassadors, alumni and guests at the organization’s annual Launch Day kickoff at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in January 2018. Photo by Dan Vaillancourt

As all-consuming as running Project 351 might be, Casey makes time for other pursuits. She co-founded a monthly gathering of women who lead nonprofits, meetings that she calls “a learning lab” for listening and working together on common goals. She’s a runner who has completed three marathons (two Boston, one New York), but is quick to add she sticks to shorter distances these days. Other passions include yoga, traveling, reading, mentoring and volunteering, politics, and supporting the local sports teams.

“My greatest joy is time with my friends and family, especially my three nieces — Riley, Leighton and Tatum — and nephew, Dylan,” she says. “They are the heart of my hearts and consistently teach me about what/who matters most and to find joy in every moment.”

Casey draws strength and inspiration from her family and from the Holy Cross community. Initially, she was reluctant to share a personal story that demonstrates the power of support from her alma mater and how it figured in the conception of Project 351.

Casey’s sister-in-law, Neilie (Heffernan) Casey ’90, wife of her brother Mike, was among those killed in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Neilie Casey was aboard one of the hijacked Boston planes flown into the World Trade Center and was one of seven Holy Cross alumni killed that day.

It was a devastating loss for the Casey and Heffernan families, and she says the Holy Cross faith leaders and community responded with love, compassion and messages of hope.

“What an overwhelming demonstration of love and community that was,” Casey says, still emotional about its impact more than 16 years later.

Her family’s experience helped shape her decision to form Project 351.

“Part of Project 351 is born from that recognition that community is enduring and is a source of hope and courage and strength,” she says. “And that’s what we try to instill in our eighth-graders — you are hope and courage and strength.”

Written by Dave Greenslit for the Spring 2018 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

About Holy Cross Magazine

Holy Cross Magazine (HCM) is the quarterly alumni publication of the College of the Holy Cross. The award-winning publication is mailed to alumni and friends of the College and includes intriguing profiles, make-you-think features, alumni news, exclusive photos and more. Visit magazine.holycross.edu/about to contact HCM, submit alumni class notes, milestones, or letters to the editor.

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