Catherine Yamamoto, seen leading an Affordable Housing Committee meeting, has been selected as Volunteer of the Year.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Ever since nature's wrath tore through Williamstown, Catherine Yamamoto has been a force of nature.
As the chairman of the town's Affordable Housing Committee, Yamamoto has been one of its leading advocates for low- and moderate-income residents — especially the dozens of senior citizens who lost their homes when Tropical Storm Irene decimated the Spruces Mobile Home Park.
She seldom misses an opportunity to speak out on behalf of those who need subsidized housing in the Village Beautiful, and she is a constant presence at countless public meetings.
But as visible as Yamamoto has been since August 2011, her work on the affordable housing issue predates Irene. And it is her years of dedication to the cause that made her a natural selection as the 2013 recipient of the Williamstown Community Chest's Volunteer of the Year Award.
"She has a perspective and a commitment to the issue that predates the current crisis that has allowed her to remain grounded," said Stanley Parese, who serves with Yamamoto on the Affordable Housing Trust's board of trustees and was himself a 1999 honoree of the Community Chest, which called its award the Good Citizen Award from 1985 to 2003.
Parese said he became actively involved in housing issues in the wake of Irene, and he has been glad to have Yamamoto's institutional memory as a guide.
"It has been very humbling to me to realize the amount of complexity involved in the issue of affordable housing generally," he said. "I can't overstate how important and valuable it's been to have someone like Cathy who has broader knowledge of the issue.
"Whether you agree with her or not, she's undeniably a valuable resource to the town. And she's only able to be the resource she is because she was willing to put years into the issue. It's not unlike an athlete. You don't just show up and play in the World Series. It takes years and years of learning and preparation."
This week, Yamamoto's years of dedication will be recognized by the Community Chest at its annual meeting.
"In general, when we do the Volunteer of the Year Award, it's to recognize someone who has made Williamstown a better place or the world a better place," WCC Executive Director Anne Singleton said. "It isn't necessarily for one specific thing someone has done, though people may come to the forefront of our minds for one specific thing.
"In general, we try to recognize a long-term volunteers. ... In the last year, her work has become more visible."
In addition to her work on the town's Affordable Housing Committee and Affordable Housing Trust, Yamamoto is one of the officers of Higher Ground, a non-profit formed shortly after Irene specifically to address the needs of residents at the Spruces and those who have been displaced from the park.
One of the residents who continues to call the Spruces home said she admires and respects Yamamoto and appreciates the courage she has shown in the face of opposition encountered by proponents of the town's plan to acquire the park, close it and develop housing similar to what park residents have enjoyed on a town-owned parcel known as the Lowry property.
"I'm just thankful that we have someone like [Yamamoto] and some of the other ones on the Affordable Housing Trust and Affordable Housing Committee and Selectmen," Charlene Blood said. "We're thankful we have those people who keep plugging away for us.
"I know sometimes they can get discouraged because this issue is tearing the town apart. But they don't give up. They just keep going and going, and Catherine is one of those. I know it can't be easy to be under the eye of some of the people who are so critical of her. I'm thankful she doesn't give up."
Susan Puddester works with Yamamoto on Higher Ground and said her fair-mindedness helps Yamamoto work through an often contentious issue.
"She's very positive about things," Puddester said. "I think she's a person who can see both sides of a situation. That's a great skill to have."
"In a small town, it's hard for feathers not to be ruffled and feelings not to be hurt," he said. "I like the way she interacts with everybody, including those who disagree with her.
"Something she has consistently said is we need to look at all the options. That was consistent for her prior to Irene."
Good Citizen Award
1985 John E. Stovel
1986 Robert Kean Davis
1987 Katharine S. Wyckoff
1988 Edward Bryant Briggs
1989 H. William Oliver
1990 Carolyn Parks Behr
1991 The students of Williams College
1992 Charlotte and James Meacham
1993 Colette and Herbert Armitt
1994 All our volunteers
1995 Betsy H. Debevoise
1996 Phil Hart
1997 Mary and Hank Flynt
1998 Marilyn and Carl Faulkner
1999 Judy Fraser and Stan Parese
2000 Liz Costley
2001 Anita and Francis Barker
2002 The Rev. Sinclair Danforth Hart
2003 Suki and Wayne Wilkins
Volunteer of the Year Award
2005 Ronald L. Gallagher
2006 Deborah Dane
2007 John M. Hyde
2008 Carol DeMayo
2009 Lisa Hiley
2010 Peter Mehlin
2011 Paula Consolini
2012 Jill Strawbridge