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How the pandemic pushed a party mom, a nature lover and a gardener to reinvent their Berkshire work lives

PITTSFIELD — Mary Stucklen says she loves teaching middle school. But, since the pandemic hit, and since she had her baby, Tommy, a year ago, she’s been wondering: Is teaching what she’ll do her whole life?

I doubt I would have met Mary, a 30-year-old single mom from Hinsdale, if work habits weren’t coming loose in this time of pandemic.

When the coronavirus arrived, Stucklen started a garden. Things changed that year in her job at school. Routines broke down. New ones began.

“I started stopping to breathe fresh air,” she told me. “We weren’t doing the normal grind anymore. It just hit me. I needed to be knocked out of my normal grind.”

Stucklen still is teaching, but she now spends one weekend day making rounds in her truck through Pittsfield and Dalton, calling on customers of Tommy’s Compost Service. I caught up with her Sunday, on Second Street in Pittsfield, where she picked up a full plastic bin and left an empty one.

Tommy doesn’t know it yet. His future is compost. His mom might, in time, leave teaching to run this new business, which she launched in August. On Tuesday, she and others graduate from EforAll Berkshire County’s latest training program for entrepreneurs. They’ll log on that evening for a virtual celebration, hear from former Gov. Deval Patrick and find out who will land up to $3,500 in backing for a new business.

Tommy wasn’t yet born when his mom came up with the business idea that would bear his name. As an expecting mother, Stucklen found herself thinking about the planet her child would inherit.

“I said to myself, ‘We have a need for people to access composting here in the Berkshires.’ But, some people don’t have the time and knowledge to do it themselves,” she said Friday, on a day off from teaching in Williamsburg.

“I really want him to have a sustainable future,” she said. And, perhaps, a path into a family business — with all the freedom, and duty, that comes with that. The business has a dozen customers so far, who pay $10 to $28 a month, depending on the frequency of pickups.

Stucken hopes to have 1,000 to 5,000 customers in five years and be turning food waste into what she likes to call “black gold” full time, perhaps with a small fleet of electric trucks.

On a massive scale,” she told me. “I really want this to explode.”

“He’s not working for me,” she said of Tommy, who sat in his car seat, a floppy Mickey Mouse within reach. “Yet.”

Cue the entrepreneurs

For two years, EforAll has been running an “accelerator” program for people who want to refine business ideas and start their own companies. The pandemic arrived half a year into its work, but the fourth group of entrepreneurs in training is wrapping up work now.

We’ve touched on this in Project Paycheck. It’s likely that some of those who drifted out of the Berkshire workforce decided that now is the time to take charge of their lives. Entrepreneurs swap paychecks for a different kind of payday, as owners of their own firms.