Kristen McClintock G’19 Leads with Compassion at The Gray House

Kristen McClintock is dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and sneakers. She immediately apologizes for her outfit.

“I feel so under-dressed,” she says.

Why is the executive director of The Gray House sporting this particular outfit on this particular day? It’s Thursday, which means it’s Distribution Day. And on Distribution Day, McClintock—along with the rest of her staff and a cadre of volunteers—spends several hours loading 50-pound boxes of food into clients’ cars.

“We don’t like to call it a food pantry,” says McClintock. “We call it The Market. It’s one of the ways we are trying to reduce stigma. For many of the families we serve, it’s really hard for them to ask for help. We do what we can to make it a little more dignified.” The Gray House serves between 300 and 400 families on Distribution Day.

“People can drive right up, pop their trunk, show us their card, get their groceries loaded up, and go on their merry way,” McClintock shares.

Merry is a good word to describe McClintock. There is something cheerful

and fully present about the way she approaches her work—and life in general.

McClintock has been executive director of The Gray House in Springfield since March 2020, just days before the pandemic shut the world down. For almost 40 years, The Gray House has been serving local residents with a variety of social services, from The Market to after-school programming for children, adult English language classes to diaper distribution.

For McClintock, staying involved in direct service is an important part of her role at The Gray House.

“This is why we all do this work—to interact with the community,” she says. “If I was just here at my desk, behind my computer, I wouldn’t be able to connect to the people we serve. You can’t make those connections with the community if you don’t know what people’s needs are, what their hopes and dreams are.”

McClintock remembers her own childhood, and how being raised by a single mother who was reluctant to ask for help made her want to use her talents others in the same situation.

“Growing up without a lot of money made me aware that when you live on the edge financially, the smallest little incident can snowball into a catastrophe,” she says. “I wish my mom felt she could have asked for help without that stigma. She was a very proud woman. And we see that all the time here at The Gray House. It is incredibly difficult for families to take that first step, to come for food or other services. So, for me, I love when we can make someone feel respected and welcome when they come in for the first time. It’s about removing those barriers.”

Growing up without a lot of money made me aware that when you live on the edge financially, the smallest little incident can snowball into a catastrophe. - Kristen McClintock G’19

McClintock’s history with The Gray House began long before she took over as executive director. As a matter of fact, she credits Western New England University for introducing her to this important organization.

On the wall in her office is a laminated clipping from the WNE Westerner, dated Oct. 28, 2018, that features a photo of McClintock and several of the students she led during her tenure as assistant director of volunteerism at the University. That day, she and a group of students from the CARE Club spent time at The Gray House, volunteering to help with food distribution and landscaping. It’s a day McClintock will never forget.

“I had volunteered for so many great nonprofits,” she says. “But there was something different about The Gray House. I loved our experience here. We were handing out food and the clients were sharing their stories with us. It was really impactful, and so after we left that day, I said we have to come back. We have to do as much as we can for them. So, we started doing drives at WNE for [The Gray House’s] back-to-school backpack drives and food drives with Res Life.”

McClintock says she really enjoyed working with the WNE students.

“I loved WNE and working with the students in the volunteer coordinator role,” she says. “These students really are the crème de la crème. They actively sought out volunteer opportunities simply because they wanted to give back to the community.”

While working at WNE, McClintock took advantage of the free tuition benefit and obtained her MAET (Master’s of Education for Teachers). However, it took her a little longer to finish than she expected, and the 15-month program turned into a four-year journey to finish her degree.

“Some of the students I worked with at WNE knew I was on the slow track for my master’s,” says McClintock. “I was taking one class at a time, working full time, and raising a family. A lot of these students were with me through the whole process. We bonded over having to go home and study.”

When she finally received her degree, some of her students presented her with a special gift that still sits on a shelf behind her desk. It’s a nameplate that reads “Master McClintock, Master of Greatness.”

“It made me laugh,” she says. “For a while, they called me Master McClintock.”

Two brief years later, the executive director at The Gray House moved out of the area, and there was an opening for her replacement. While McClintock loved her job at WNE, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to apply.

“This was an opportunity for me to make even more of a difference,” she says.

Since then, McClintock successfully led the organization through the pandemic, coming out the other end even stronger, serving 198% more people. The pandemic also allowed them to re-imagine several programs and find new ways to reach their community.

“I wasn’t scared of failing because there was no precedent for what we were doing,” she says. “It was kind of liberating; the pandemic gave us a chance to try new things. Things that ended up being a better fit. But we kind of had to be forced into an innovative way of thinking.”

As McClintock continues making a difference every day in the lives of her clients at The Gray House, she maintains a close connection to WNE. Her husband, Dr. Sean McClintock, is a professor there, teaching organic chemistry. And her 17-year-old son was just accepted into the WNE College of Engineering.

She credits WNE for much of what she learned about volunteerism and giving back to her community.

“I’m proud knowing that when I leave work each day, I’ve helped make somebody’s life a little easier, made a difference,” Kristen McClintock says, getting a little emotional. “I know that sounds corny, but the littlest act of kindness can really change the course of someone’s day, or week, or month. That makes me feel good. Of course, there are rough days, but there are so many good things that can happen. People have come to rely on us. And they know we are here for them. This is what we should all be doing for one another.”