Shay Croteau

Shay Croteau poses for a portrait at New Hope New Horizons in Keene.

You might say Shay Croteau’s career destiny was forged decades ago at Keene Middle School, in the resource room, through simple acts of kindness. “People with disabilities were there. Sometimes they needed help. I’ve always been a person who kind of likes to help people, so that’s what I would do,” she says.

As a young teen, Croteau couldn’t know that helping people would become her life’s calling, yet in hindsight she believes it was the first block in that foundation. Today, it defines her. Croteau, 61, is director of New Life New Horizons, which is under the auspices of Southwestern Community Services. New Hope New Horizons provides employment services, community outreach and community support to people with special needs.

She has been part of the agency’s infrastructure since 1986, vowing to continue the mission established by founder Jim Haddock some 20 years earlier. Haddock, who died in 2011, is the son of renowned local activist Doris Granny D Haddock and was a tireless advocate for the developmentally disabled. In the mid-1960s Haddock taught at and expanded the New Hope Center in Keene into New Hope New Horizons, and Croteau has followed in his footsteps. She dived, hands-on, into all facets of the agency before being elevated to director of the 11-person staff in 2018.

Shay Croteau is the winner of a 2021 Extraordinary Women award. Video by Hannah Schroeder / Sentinel Staff. 

“This is not a job for Shay but is her life!” writes Becky Lydon, who nominated Croteau as an Extraordinary Woman and also works at New Hope New Horizons. “She supports not only the consumers whom her program serves but families and caregivers as well. … She assists them with everything from employment to everyday needs, whatever may arise, Shay is there to advocate for these folks who she holds so dear.”

Croteau, of Winchester, is equally grounded outside of the agency. She and husband Kevin, a parts counter supervisor for The Granite Group, have been married for 42 years and have two children, Jamie and Casey, and four grandchildren. Kayaking and camping are their favorite pastimes, the simplicities of life all they need. She has been on a plane only once, having won a trip in 1986 to Cancun, Mexico, at a sock hop. She has little desire to take to the air again.

Shay and Kevin were a formidable candlepin bowling tandem in winter, and in summer you may have caught Shay’s name more than a few times in The Sentinel’s sports pages. She was a standout modified softball pitcher, locally, regionally and competing nationally. Croteau pitched for several elite local women’s softball teams including Indian Head Bank, Melanson’s Roofing and 176 Main, when the sport was at its heyday in Keene.

Her approach wasn’t complicated. “I threw hard,” Croteau says with a smile.

Softball runs deep in her family, as her sister, Karen — a community employment specialist with New Hope New Horizons — is married to Jim Starkey, a longtime youth and adult softball coach in Keene. When Karen and Jim’s daughter Kerry (another softball standout), announced she was getting married in 2018, Kerry asked Croteau to perform the ceremony because of her public speaking prowess. Sort of.

“I gave the eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral,” Croteau says, chuckling, of her public speaking credentials. But she became a justice of the peace so she could perform Kerry’s ceremony and has found a new passion. “I couldn’t even stand up and do a book report in school,” she says. “I was never a public speaker and now here I am.”

Being a JP has been more fulfilling than she ever imagined, she says, and she’s pretty much open to whatever nuptials come her way — even presiding over a “zombie” wedding. The couple and their guests were dressed in blood, guts and gore, “the ceremony written in zombie,” she says. And everyone had a blast.

Croteau was born in Keene, the middle child of an older sister (Karen) and younger brother (Bobby), who lives in Dorchester, Mass. She played field hockey and softball at Keene High School (class of 1978), taking “secretary stuff” classes and bypassing college. She went to work after high school at National Grange Insurance Mutual Insurance Co. in Keene, followed by stints at Concord Labs and Peerless Insurance.

Her sister-in-law, Kim Croteau, introduced her to New Hope New Horizons in 1986 and she quickly found her calling. “We dealt with a lot of challenging folks back then,” she says. “It wasn’t always a pleasant day, but times have changed.” Though she never formally attended college, she says “I probably graduated college with all the training I had.”

Croteau was a longtime job coach at New Hope New Horizons, working with local businesses to place disabled people in functioning roles. Timken Precision, Hannaford Supermarket and the Keene Parks and Recreation Departments are among some of the more prominent local companies that regularly hire New Hope New Horizon clients, and many employees have enjoyed decades-long careers thanks to that support.

“You try to find the right person for the right job,” she says, breaking it down into simple terms.

Finding housing is another function of New Hope New Horizons; Croteau and her family have been quietly hosting people in transit for years. Their daughters would give up their bedrooms, she says, acknowledging their willingness to occasionally sacrifice for a few weeks so those in need can get on their feet. And she’s lost count of the number of field trips they take, many in collaboration with Antioch University New England in Keene.

Retirement after 35 years at New Hope New Horizon isn’t on the horizon, nor is any lifestyle change. “I wouldn’t work for any other company. I love it here,” she says. And travel isn’t in the cards. She can’t think of a better time than kayaking on Silver Lake or Thorndike Pond in Jaffrey, and their annual kayaking excursions down the Saco River in Maine.

Home is where she’s happiest, and she says she’s had the perfect job for 35 years.

Lydon writes: “She is that once-in-a-lifetime person that one is fortunate enough to know that impacts so many lives each and every day.”

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