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Posted by Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism

Sharing Cultural Treasures

Noreen McMahon is Senior Director of Programs at Highland Street Foundation, a family-run philanthropic foundation based in Newton, Massachusetts.  Among its popular initiatives – a variety of free cultural, outdoors and sports-related activities for children and families each summer and during school vacation weeks.  We spoke to Noreen about her work with museums, sports teams and her favorite places to take visitors. 

Tell us about your marketing background and how you came to work at the Highland Street Foundation. 

I’ve served as the Program Director for the Highland Street Foundation for ten years.  Prior to that, I spent ten years working in the public affairs department at Citizens Bank, where my team and I handled external relations for the bank, including charitable giving.  I became deeply interested in the role that nonprofit organizations play in the community and the enormous impact that can be made through partnerships with individuals, corporations, and foundations.  When an opportunity arose to join the team of a private, family foundation, solely focused on this type of work, I jumped at the chance. I feel fortunate to work for a family committed to making a difference by investing in those who are providing critical services to improve the lives of so many people in our community every day. 

Since 1989, the Foundation has contributed more than $200 million to hundreds of non-profit organizations in Massachusetts. Tell us about the Foundation’s work in the community. 

The Trustees of the Highland Street Foundation are committed to addressing the needs and concerns for children and families in Greater Boston by partnering with organizations that focus on education, housing, mentorship, health care, environment, and the arts.  In addition to making hundreds of grants annually to nonprofit organizations, Highland Street is unique because we also invest heavily in programs to provide access and opportunities to enrich the lives of those in our community.

Whether it is visiting a museum, going to a Red Sox game, or touring a Boston Harbor Island, we believe it’s important for children to be able to experience the treasures that exist in their own backyard.  Additionally, Highland Street works to strengthen the capacity of our nonprofit partners by awarding consulting services to organizations at pivotal moments in their lifecycle.  Perhaps most importantly, our Trustees and team understand the dynamic nature of the community, witnessed most recently by the pandemic, and adapt accordingly to changing needs.  I believe this flexibility allows us to increase the impact we have in the community. 

Tell us about the Foundation’s program offering free museum passes each summer and during winter and spring school vacation weeks.  

Our Free Fun Fridays program was created in 2009 when Highland Street Foundation was celebrating its 20th anniversary.  Our Trustees wanted to provide a gift to the community, something open to everyone.  We decided to provide funding for ten museums to open for free on one day and to everyone’s surprise, 60,000 people showed up, many of them first-time visitors.  Having witnessed that incredible success, we continued to build upon that type of programming, partnering with hundreds of cultural institutions, not only during the summer months but now during school vacation weeks.  I think the most important take away from these endeavors for us is that if you invite people to come, they will.  Our museum partners care very much about bringing new and diverse audiences through their doors, and these initiatives are one way we can accomplish that goal together.  We often hear that our “free days” are the best days of the year because people feel welcome and part of something special. 

This month Highland Street is offering its August Adventures program for free museum visits.  How many museums are involved, and how do people sign up! 

We created August Adventures in collaboration with many of our museum and recreational partners after hearing that people are eager to start enjoying all that Massachusetts has to offer again, now that the pandemic is under control, and we can gather safely.  Every day in August, there will be one museum, zoo, or nature preserve open for free to the public so there are 31 unique opportunities.  The calendar also includes our annual Out of the Park free event on August 28 where we partner with the City of Boston and the Red Sox to bring the joy and excitement of Fenway Park to all on the Boston Common.  There will be a huge screen airing the Red Sox vs. Cleveland game, entertainment, baseball challenges, and refreshments.  Some of the venues still have capacity limitations and require advance registration.  All information and links to register for August Adventure can be found on our website. 

When you have out-of-state visitors, where do you take them in Massachusetts?

I love it when people come to visit because there is so much to do in Massachusetts.  Where we visit depends on the season.  If it’s winter, we’ll often head to Nashoba Valley or Wachusett for a day of skiing and tubing.  In the summer, I usually go south to Cape Cod, with a stop at Plimoth Patuxet.  If they are first-time visitors, I have to bring them into Boston to hit the Freedom Trail and all the historic sites and if we have kids with us, the Boston Children’s Museum is a must-do.  Fall is my personal favorite time of year in Massachusetts because the weather and foliage are always spectacular, and I love to go out Central Mass to pick apples.  And although I grew up in upstate New York and was a fan of teams that I won’t mention here, a visit to historic Fenway Park, TD Garden, or Patriot Place is always on the agenda!

Thank you, Noreen!