- On February 21, 2023
From Wrestling to Ice Cream, They’ve Made a Community-wide Impact
As he talked about wrestling and how it can help shape young people, Steve Graham offered a wry smile, a cock of the head, and then a look that spoke volumes.
Indeed, it conveyed everything from the many ways the sport helps build character and provides lessons in perseverance, to just how grueling and difficult wrestling practice can be in high school. And Graham, who wrestled in high school and college, has coached the sport on many levels, and helped create the Grit & Gratitude Wrestling Academy in Springfield’s North End, backed up the look with some commentary grounded in those decades of experience.
“The sport is really nice because there are weight classes, so all sizes fit from day one,” he explained. “And that’s unusual. You don’t have to be tall, you don’t have to be big, you don’t have to be anything. But you do have to be tough mentally because wrestling is physically very taxing, and you’re literally fighting with your teammates every single day. And, inevitably, when you start, you’re getting your butt kicked as a freshman and a sophomore by the older kids. Eventually, you become more proficient and stronger and more mature.
“But wrestling also teaches you discipline, and it teaches you control,” he went on. “So when someone does beat you and throws you on your back, you can’t start punching them, you can’t start kicking them, you can’t start actually fighting with them. You have to control yourself, and you have to get back up and face them again.”
Those are great life lessons, and lessons for business as well, he noted, adding that, for anyone in business, there are days when you get knocked down and you must get back up again. And to persevere, one must be mentally tough. He and his wife, Jean, who together started Toner Plastics, now based in East Longmeadow, would know all that, too.
“You don’t have to be tall, you don’t have to be big, you don’t have to be anything. But you do have to be tough mentally because wrestling is physically very taxing, and you’re literally fighting with your teammates every single day.”
In different ways, separately in some cases, but mostly as a team, Steve and Jean Graham have been real difference makers in their community — as an employer, as a wrestling coach and indefatigable promoter of the sport, as supporters of countless nonprofits and education-related causes and organizations, and, yes, as purveyors of ice cream.
Indeed, the Grahams turned an East Longmeadow landmark, the old train depot in the center of town, into an ice-cream shop, but also much more. It has become a gathering spot in the community and a place where children and families can hear music, take in car shows, ride a miniature train, play cornhole, and get a cup or cone of sea-salt caramel. (Much more on that later).
BusinessWest talked with the Grahams about all this, and, well, it wasn’t easy. Both would much prefer to just do what they do than talk about it. Humble and unassuming, they both said, in essence, that they have been simply motivated to help others and improve quality of life in this region.
“We are happy to help out other people if they need it, and we have the means,” Jean said. “It’s nice to help other people out.”
The old train depot in the center of East Longmeadow is a small, rather non-descript structure. But it is loaded with history, much of which can now be seen in photos on its renovated walls.
Built in 1876, this was where people gathered to catch two commuter trains each day, back when the train was how people got from here to there — and there to here. One train, which originated from Hartford, left at 10:57 in the morning. The other, which started in Springfield, left the station at 3:21 in the afternoon. Meanwhile, freight trains, which also passed through the station twice a day, carried a wide range of goods in and out of the community, but especially the sandstone and brownstone that came from more than 100 quarries in town and was used to build many historic structures, including Boston’s Trinity Church; the original Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York; buildings at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton; and East Longmeadow Town Hall.
Later, after the last train came through in the late ’60s, the depot was converted into the Community Feed Store, where area residents could buy grain, coal, farming supplies, and more.
Steve and Jean Graham learned or witnessed much of this history after moving to the town in the ’90s, and that’s one of the reasons why they became determined to somehow preserve the station for future generations. Steve told BusinessWest that they decided to buy the depot from a developer who planned to create an apartment complex on the site, not knowing where they would move it if the need arose — and it probably would.
“We thought … we’ll move it to our backyard if we have to,” he noted, adding that this wasn’t necessary, as he and Jean eventually bought the property around the station as well, as those development plans failed to materialize. And they created an ice-cream shop that opened in the spring of 2021.
Its called the Depot at Graham Central Station, and has since expanded in several ways, including a café where lunch is now served and a small railroad that runs on a track around a portion of the property.
It’s a moderately successfully business, but turning a profit is not really what motivated the Grahams in this effort to not only rescue the station but transform it into something for the community.
“We wanted to create a place for families,” said Jean, who played a lead role in renovating the station and providing a new, warm, and inviting look. “Communities need places to gather, where people can come together and have a good time. That’s what we wanted to do here.”
Those sentiments effectively sum up what drives the Grahams and the many ways they have been involved in the community. There has always been a desire to help children and families through initiatives that include:
- Work with other parents to launch the East Longmeadow Educational Endowment Fund, which today stands at more $1 million and has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the town’s schools. The couple, and especially Jean, helped stage the annual dinner dance that raised money for the fund and raised awareness as well;
- Work building stronger minds and bodies through wrestling. From 2005 to 2015, Steve, who wrestled in high school in New Jersey and then at Princeton, was a volunteer and eventually head coach of the wrestling team for six years at East Longmeadow High School. In 2021, in the middle of the pandemic amid the suspension of interscholastic sports, he worked with other coaches in the area to open (and fund) the nonprofit Grit & Gratitude Wrestling Academy, where they work with young people ages 5 and up;
- The train depot, which has a become a community gathering place, with park benches, live music, and more; and
- Support to a wide range of area nonprofits, from Link to Libraries to the Ronald McDonald House; from the Springfield Jaycees to the National Epilepsy Foundation (Steve’s brother suffered from the disease, so for him it was personal).
One Word: Plastics
Meanwhile, the Grahams have been difference makers as business owners and employers as well, providing opportunities on many levels.
As for their business, Toner Plastics, it started small, as in very small — “we had one sale for $200 the first six months,” Steve noted — but eventually they garnered some regular customers, first the old Woolworth’s department store and then eventually Walmart, Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, and others.
Today, the company manufactures everything from point-of-purchase displays to radiator covers to filament for 3D printing equipment. It is still headquartered in East Longmeadow, but has other locations in Pittsfield, Rhode Island, and Florida. While growing the company, the Grahams have amassed a strong track record of providing not only job opportunities, but opportunities to thrive, personally and professionally, after being hired.
Frank Valazquez, operations manager at Toner Plastics, explains.
“I had never met a man like Steve, with a pure heart, humble, fair, quick to listen, patient, wise, consistent, and willing to help anyone willing to help themselves — and who genuinely enjoys helping others by doing good. And for me, a young kid with no sense of direction, 22 years old at the time from Springfield’s North End, he was a difference maker.
“All I needed was a chance,” Valazquez continued, “an opportunity for someone like Steve Graham to truly listen and say, ‘I believe in you, and I am here to help you through the process as long as you are patient and put in the work.’”
Steve said he and Jean have helped script many similar stories at Toner Plastics, where they provide employees more than a job and a paycheck. Often, there are other forms of support and other types of doors they’ve helped to open.
“We have a program that allows employees to borrow money for any reason without divulging why, and they set the payment schedule,” he noted. “The money is loaned interest-free; in the more than 30 years of business, I can’t recall anyone not paying the money back. We encourage employees to invest their money not just in a 401(k) but in the stock market in a conservative manner, and show them the value of compounding. Most of the people who work for us on the factory floor have been able to buy a home and send their kids to college if they so choose. It is wonderful to see.”
Added Jean, “to me, it’s like a family here. Everyone works very hard, and we appreciate everything they do. And we love to see them progress in their lives.”
As noted earlier, the Grahams don’t like to talk about themselves. They would rather let their actions and deeds do the talking for them. When prodded, Jean noted that they are motivated, primarily, to help children and families and “do the best we can.”
Most would say this is a classic understatement.
Pinning Him Down
While he doesn’t like talking about himself, Steve Graham really enjoys discussing wrestling and all that it can do to help shape the lives of young people.
In short, he said, it teaches them about much more than maneuvers like the single-leg takedown and the front quarter nelson. Indeed, it also provides important lessons in perseverance, teamwork (even though they’re on the mat themselves), and, yes, humility.
“Wrestling is special because you know that the person in the mirror is the only one responsible for success or failure,” he told BusinessWest. “It is special because, no matter how tough you think you are in street clothes, someone is going to beat you on the mat. And getting beat physically and mentally on the mat is very beneficial; it makes you humble, teaches you respect, and makes you tougher mentally.”
Speaking of special, that’s a word you would need to describe the Grahams, although they probably wouldn’t use it themselves. They put their time, their talents, their resources, and their experience to work helping others and building a stronger, better community.
And that certainly makes them Difference Makers.