A rendering of the new Square One building under construction at 947 Main St.
Reminder Publishing submitted photo

SPRINGFIELD — The tornado that tore through the Connecticut River Valley on June 1, 2011, devastated homes and businesses throughout Springfield and destroyed the 947 Main St. Campus of Square One, an early education and childcare organization.

Families in the South End and across the Greater Springfield area were abruptly forced to find other early learning and childcare arrangements. Square One was left in debt and had to reduce its services and locations. On June 17, just over 13 years later, the organization broke ground on a new facility at the same location it occupied more than a decade ago.

“We are returning to our roots in the South End,” said Square One President and CEO Dawn Forbes DiStefano, and “addressing the wounds caused by a lack of resources for children.”

Founded in 1883 as the Springfield Day Nursery, Square One’s has worked to deliver vital services that focus on education, health, safety, holistic development and self-reliance, to the under-resourced community. The nonprofit organization provides services to 1,500 people per year, 500 of whom are children receiving early childhood education and care services. Parents of Square One children at Square One are overwhelmingly working single heads of household that are living at or below the poverty line.

Forbes DiStefano brought Joan Kagan, her former mentor and the former president and CEO of Square One, to the podium. When the tornado swept through Springfield that day, Forbes DiStefano said, it was Kagan who brought Square One’s children to safety and later reunited them with their parents. Forbes DiStefano said, “Mix courage with compassion and you’ll find Square One.”

The new building will be a 26,000-square-foot, two floor Butler-style building from general contractor One Development and site plan architect R. Levesque Associates. The campus will have four early learning classrooms and an outdoor play space for up to 80 children between the ages of 2 and 6, a family engagement area and office space. Square One will offer trauma-sensitive therapeutics, workforce development programs for up to 60 youth or adults, social emotional support services for children and family support to reduce child abuse and neglect among caregivers.

Alluding to the tornado, Forbes DiStefano joked that Square One had purchased a good building risk insurance plan for the new facility.

The groundbreaking was three years in the making, Forbes DiStefano said. She explained that in late 2021, the organization’s leadership team knew the lease for the space it was renting in the area would expire in the future and it would need to find a new home for the programs. Meanwhile, funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act began to be allocated.

Forbes DiStefano said Sarno was enthusiastic in his support and did not hesitate to commit $1 million.

“From the ashes rises a phoenix,” said Sarno. Drawing a parallel between investments and education, Sarno said it is important to “put money on the front end, and that’s what Square One does.” He said parents can trust that their children are in a “safe, nurturing environment” at Square One.

Similarly, Gonzalez and Gomez sponsored the $2 million legislative earmark that will help the building become a reality. Gomez is a product of Square One. He said, “Square One absolutely embraces every child.” He spoke about the organization as a part of Springfield’s “renaissance” and said, “the sun is shining on the Springfield.”

Gonzalez called preschool education a “gamechanger” for Springfield. Recognizing the role educators play, he noted the state legislature is pushing through higher pay for teachers. Referring to Gomez, Gonzalez said preschool and early education “can make the difference between going down a different path or becoming a senator.”

With a price tag of $13 million to purchase the land and construct the new facility, funding has come from a patchwork of sources, from the state and local government to $4.4 million worth of new market tax credits and $1 million from the Early Education and Out of School Time Capital Fund, which helps fund industry facility construction and building improvements.

Private donations and grants have also made up a large part of the project’s funding. People’s Bank has been a “steadfast partner” for Square One. Balise Auto donated $1 million to the project, an act that Forbes DiStefano said shocked her. “We all broke down in tears,” she said. Other donors include the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation and the Beveridge Foundation.

However, Square One is seeking an additional $3 million to go toward the project. That would allow the organization to ensure all operational government monies are spent on education and services, rather than the building. To learn more about how to donate, visit startatsquareone.org.