Every year, the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women asks every state legislator to nominate someone from their district as an “Unsung Heroine.” For State Representative Aaron Vega, this year’s pick was easy: Debbie Flynn-Gonzalez, program director at the Gándara Center’s Hope for Holyoke peer recovery support center. They are both pictured above.
Flynn-Gonzalez was honored with more than 100 other women on June 20 at the Massachusetts State House’s Great Hall. Each Unsung Heroine received a citation signed by Governor Charlie Baker and had her bio read aloud at the event.
“I am so impressed with Deb’s leadership among our most vulnerable and the supportive community she’s created,” said Rep. Vega, pictured above with the honoree. “I’m proud that she has been able to do this work in my hometown, and we’re all the richer for it.”
Flynn-Gonzalez began her career in social work as a mental health clinician performing outreach work in Holyoke 24 years ago before her personal background in recovery led her to work with the recovery community. She launched the first peer recovery program for pregnant and parenting women in Holyoke and led that program for eight years. She has been program director at Hope for Holyoke for three years.
“Recovery is different for women,” she says. “For a mother in recovery, your children are your greatest source of motivation. I always understood that as someone who has walked in their shoes.”
Hope for Holyoke has 300 active members, with an average of 50 people accessing the center daily. One of the grateful members, Kaitlyn, who leads a spiritual journey group there, has high praise for Flynn-Gonzalez. “People walk through these doors broken,” she said. “Starting our day feeling loved is difficult. Deb always makes me feel cared for. She brings out the best in me.”
Flynn-Gonzalez said that at the event she couldn’t help but think of the many people in recovery she had meet throughout the years. “For me, it is just such an honor to be part of their journeys,” she said. “For some of them it is very brief, and they move on. But for others, they remain a part of my life as they continue to grow. Some of them even work in the field now, and they are the new generation of women who will be carrying on this all so important peer recovery work.”
According to the Commonwealth’s website, Unsung Heroines “use their time, talent and enthusiasm to enrich the lives of others and make a difference in their neighborhoods, cities, and towns. They are mentors, volunteers, and innovators who do what needs to be done, without expectations of recognition, or gratitude.” However, they did receive much appreciation and thanks at the State House on June 20. “It was awesome hearing all the stories from all the women who were honored,” says Flynn-Gonzalez. “I was so humbled to be among them.”
Flynn-Gonzalez earned her bachelor’s degree in social work at UMass Amherst and her master’s degree in counseling and psychology from Cambridge College. She is fluent in Spanish and said she learned the language on the streets of Holyoke and from the mothers she worked with early in her career.
Debbie Flynn-Gonzalez and her husband Dennis Gonzalez, a recovery coach at Hope for Holyoke
Lt. Governor Karyn Polito tells the honorees how much their service means to their legislators and their communities.
State Rep. Jose Tosado, Dennis Gonzalez, and State Rep. Aaron Vega
Each honoree was given a yellow rose.