Gina Kos ’88/G’95 and Christine Pollender ’99/G’09 Give and Grow at Sunshine Village

When Gina Kos thought of life after graduation from Western New England University, she had one thing in mind: banking. She was ready to don her business suit and embark on the world of financial administration and management. But as time went on, Kos found herself searching for more.

“Something was missing in my life,” Kos recalled. Seeking to fill the void she felt, Kos decided to explore new experiences beyond her banking career. This exploration led her to volunteer at a golf tournament benefiting Sunshine Village, a nonprofit organization based in Chicopee, MA.

Founded in 1967, Sunshine Village serves 400 adult clients with developmental disabilities across three campuses in the Greater Springfield area. The organization provides therapeutic and life skills development programming along with work and volunteer opportunities that help clients achieve independent lifestyles.

After learning more about Sunshine Village through her experience at the tournament, Kos decided to return the following year. Though she didn’t know it at the time, her simple act of giving back would eventually lead to a career with the organization. Kos joined Sunshine Village in 1991 as its director of marketing and development. Five years later, she was promoted to executive director.

Even in those first years, Kos knew she had found her calling. “Two weeks after I started at Sunshine Village, I felt like I was home,” Kos said. “It’s an incredibly special place … I saw how the organization was doing great things and [thought] how I, myself, would then be able to do great things.”

Though more than 30 years have passed since that first golf outing, an experience from early in her career gave Kos the perspective that she has carried with her ever since.

“One of my first couple of weeks here, I was bringing a client to her job,” Kos said. “She started talking to me about all of these things that she does at the job and how she loves it, and she asked, ‘Can you drive a little faster? I can’t wait to get there!’ … It really inspired me that we have individuals who want to be productive members of society and are so grateful for the opportunities that they receive.”

Kos recalls that when Sunshine Village was originally founded, there weren’t many opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities to continue to learn and achieve independent lifestyles beyond their school-age years. Now, through the organization and partnerships with companies including Sanderson MacLeod and Westover Air Reserve Base, clients can pursue work and community involvement well into adulthood.

“What we’ve learned is that people can have wonderful and meaningful lives,” Kos said. “It might be a very different life than what the “traditional” track is. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be wonderful and meaningful.”

Just as Kos discovered a fulfilling career path at Sunshine Village, the organization attracted another Western New England University alumna, Christine (Chris) Pollender. After more than a decade in the healthcare industry, Pollender was drawn to the nonprofit sector, finding a new sense of purpose at Sunshine Village in 2018. Her decision to switch sectors was not just a career change but a step toward a deeper connection with her community and work.

Sometimes, people think that community is everyone working together. But I think it’s also [about people] giving what they can, giving what their abilities are. And we can be fulfilled by giving to others. - Christine Pollender ’99/G’09

The impacts of the switch, according to Pollender, were almost immediate: “I said [to myself], this is where I belong. This is where I should be. All of my experiences in corporate and healthcare, I think, have led me here.”

The effects Sunshine Village has on its clients further cemented Pollender’s belief in the organization and the work that she achieves as part of it. “Nothing could have  prepared me for how connected I would feel to the work that [our staff] does on a daily basis with the people that they serve,” Pollender said.

Both Kos and Pollender, natives of Springfield, MA, returned to their alma mater to join the University’s graduate MBA programs. Kos graduated from the weekend MBA program, while Pollender earned her degree through an early hybrid format. Both Kos and Pollender described the value of being able to complete their courses while maintaining their careers.

“I learned not only from the course descriptions, but really from the people in my cohorts who were working at other local organizations,” Kos said. “It was a great way to learn from each other.”

Kos credited her collegiate experiences with not only helping her to keep a pulse on conversations that were going on in her work community, but also helping her develop the leadership skills that she would need for the nonprofit world. These skills allowed her to build, as she described, the internal and external networks necessary to make Sunshine Village successful. Building these communities, Kos said, creates more opportunities for clients “to work and learn and to give and grow.”

“We like to give back to the community that has been so supportive of us,” said Kos. She listed several partnerships with local organizations such as The Gray House and the Dakin Human Society, both located in Springfield.

Pollender reflected on the reciprocal relationship among different facets of the community. “We are an organization that serves people,” Pollender said. “But the people that we serve also serve in the community with our assistance. I think that has opened my eyes to the fact that there can be less limitations.”

For Gina Kos and Chris Pollender, both long-standing members of the communities where they live and work, their everyday experiences at Sunshine Village, with the clients they serve, and the partnerships they’ve formed instill a broader understanding of what “community” means and what its possibilities are.

“Sometimes, people think that community is everyone working together,” Pollender said. “But I think it’s also [about people] giving what they can, giving what their abilities are. And we can be fulfilled by giving to others.”