Amid the tensions of the late 1960s, a small group of UMass students met in the Boltwood Walk Coffee Shop in Amherst with Landscape Architecture & Regional Planning Professor Merle Willmann. Willmann challenged the students to produce good in the world, and to go to Belchertown State Hospital each week to be ‘companions’ to the residents. The students accepted the challenge, and developed a ten-week schedule “with an emphasis on one-on-one companionship and interaction.” Though Belchertown State later shut down, the idea behind the Boltwood Project is still going strong. New service sites have been incorporated into the volunteer program, and have aided in expanding its reach. From the original idea in the coffee shop, to an academic course at UMass offered by the Civic Engagement & Service Learning Department, Boltwood has evolved to be a sustainable entity that fosters the transfer of leadership, and thus allows for the tradition to continue. Over its four decades in existence, the Boltwood Project has had over 11,000 student volunteers.
The Boltwood Project came to Berkshire Hills Music Academy in 2001 when the school originally opened, as a result of efforts to collaborate with the Five Colleges. The number of UMass volunteers coming to BHMA has grown, and is now around 25 individuals. When they meet each Tuesday night, the UMass students and their BHMA counterparts break off into smaller groups to do activities. Included in this are open mics, talent shows, baking, arts and crafts, and games. Holiday-themed festivities are a favorite as well, and for St. Patrick’s Day, participants made four-leaf clovers, decorated cookies, and had a dance party in honor of the March holiday. For many students, Boltwood and its lively nature is a standout part of their week, and their overall experience at BHMA. As LIVE Member Marco says, “Boltwood is my favorite thing to do on Tuesdays.”
At its core, Boltwood is a way to bring BHMA students together with their college-aged peers in a relaxed setting. As a former Boltwood volunteer writes, the weekly meetings are a reminder that “individuals with disabilities don’t always need assistance and services; sometimes they simply seek companionship and a feeling of belonging.” The experience with Boltwood is mutually beneficial for both groups, as it allows for “BHMA and UMass students to look at each other as peers,” says another former volunteer, and later staff member. "More than a few" Boltwood volunteers have joined the BHMA staff following their time volunteering, as they have seen BHMA's mission in action, and have been moved upon witnessing our students shine in music and in other areas. Boltwood reinforces the connection between BHMA and the Five College area, and it strengthens the belief that BHMA students are more similar to their peers than they are different. Together they spread Willmann's original idea of producing good in the world, one Tuesday at a time.