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Meet Suzanne La Rochelle

Suzanne is a mother, a social worker, an educator, an activist, an organizer, and a proud Progressive Democrat. She believes that Black Lives Matter, members of the LGBTQ+ community deserve equal rights, and in woman’s right to autonomy over her body.

Suzanne La Rochelle’s story began on Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Her father was enlisted in the United States Air Force and retired as a  Master Sergeant after serving for twenty-five years.  He served two tours overseas during the Vietnam War. Although her mother received a four-year scholarship to go to college, she married and became a full-time mother to four children. After retirement, her mother went to work during school hours at Ames Department Store to support the family while her father went to college on the GI Bill. 

Suzanne became a helper at a very early age when her first-grade teacher, Mrs. Sockom asked her to be a special helper to Rene, a peer with physical disabilities. She continued in a similar role throughout her public education.

Suzanne truly did not understand the impact of racism and classism until she became immersed in civilian life. She explained that while living on base she shared the playground, pool, and commissary with a multiethnic and racial community be it in Washington State, Texas, Delaware, or New Jersey. When her father retired in 1976 he relocated to Wareham, MA to live closer to his parents. 

Suzanne was introduced to a new world upon the transition off of the military bases and entering public school and residing in a segregated community. Her very first friend, Sherri Lima, was Cape Verdean. Sherri introduced her to her other friends that were also Cape Verdean. A few months into the school year, her parents were invited to a parent-teacher conference because the White staff was concerned about her friend group, not her grades or behavior. Fortunately, neither she nor her parents were concerned. She later was critiqued by the white kids in her neighborhood when her very first boyfriend, Nicky Fernandez, rode his bicycle to her home. She was told to be careful because they would have black and white children. Obviously, Suzanne was not thinking about having kids!  Suzanne shared how these examples of blatant racism fueled her passion as an eighth-grader to fight for equality for all. 

In high school, she wanted to run for Class President to make a difference at her school, however, she was told by her peers that a boy should be the president. Suzanne was elected vice-president.

Upon high school graduation, Suzanne pursued a teaching degree in social studies and special education. While in college she took multiple courses in racial justice and women studies. It was at this time that Suzanne chose to be a democrat. It was clear to her that the Democratic Party platform of equal rights resonated strongly with her values. She volunteered with the Geraldine A. Ferraro and Ted Kennedy campaigns.  

Suzanne also wanted to serve her country as her father had. John F. Kennedy’s quote, “Ask what you can do for your country not what your country can do for you” remained in Suzanne’s mind after her eleventh grade US History class.  Upon college graduation, In 1985 she applied to be a volunteer in the United States Peace Corps. She was accepted and assigned to Villa Del Rosario, Paraguay, South America. At the time the country was governed by the dictator, Alfredo Stroessner. She served as a special education teacher in a community without running water, electricity, or paved roads. It was here that Suzanne began to truly appreciate her country’s imperfect democracy. She witnessed the indoctrination of children in the school system and the oppression and violence of dissenting adults. Suzanne became fluent in Spanish and maintains lifelong friendships through social media with the Paraguayan community she served.

Suzanne returned to Massachusetts in 1989 and was immediately recruited to be a bilingual adoption social worker for the Department of Social Service in Springfield MA. She had over one hundred children in need of adoption on her caseload. It was at this time Suzanne decided that when the time was right that she would adopt as many children as she could take care of. After holding that excruciating sad position for a year Suzanne was asked to become the lead bilingual teacher in a residential program for adolescent males with special needs. After two years teaching, Suzanne was asked to become the Director of the program. She loved this position until the contracting agency told her to cut positions from her on line staff and require more of who remained. Suzanne refused and resigned when her staff were terminated.

Suzanne applied and was accepted to the Smith College School of Social Work. During these years she worked as a waitress and crisis team member at night. Today, twenty five years later, she still is paying her student debt although she has never missed a payment. 

Suzanne graduated from Smith College in 1996. Once again she was immediately recruited to be a bilingual Juvenile Court Clinician. The justices relied on Suzanne to evaluate and make recommendations to the court on how to address the clinical needs of the children. A few years later, Suzanne was recruited to be the Clinical Director of a private day school for children with special needs. To recognize Suzanne’s commitment to the community, the City of Holyoke named a day after her! 

Suzane entered private practice after receiving her independent social work license. She testified in family court as a clinical and parenting expert.  She served as a Guardian Ad Litem and Education Advocate for children with disabilities.

In 2004 Suzanne was married to Dr. Shawn Charest and their only biological son was born. He is a senior at the Governor’s School and National Merit Finalist. In 2005 and in 2006 they adopted siblings from the Department of Social Services. Neither had prenatal care, were born premature and with disabilities. In 2006 Suzanne became a full time mother and has spent the last fourteen  years, eight as a resident of SC,  advocating for her children’s needs to be met under the Individual With Disabilities Act and Free Appropriate Public Education law. This has been a full time heart wrenching job. 

Finally, Suzanne’s devotion and dedication to get the best services her children need is coming to fruition. Her sixteen year old son is in an out of state placement because the State of South Carolina does not have adequate services to meet his needs and her daughter is slowly adjusting to high school.