Monday, December 10, 2018

Why mindfulness matters in the classroom

I felt a sense of peacefulness as I walked across the Kripalu grounds to the main entrance. 
I was going to see Kripalu’s RISE Program in action - a professional development program for Berkshire County Educators, that’s supported by Berkshire United Way. I took my shoes off and entered the space where the session was taking place, noticing that I was surrounded by dozens of teachers, guidance counselors, and other school staff.

The RISE Program gives educators simple, yet effective, tools to manage their classrooms. The Program instructors are Kripalu-trained in yoga, mindfulness, and meditation and offer another important strength – they were once educators themselves. They understand the pressure educators are under and offer insight into ways they can infuse mindfulness and “grounding” techniques into their classrooms. A grounding technique may be as simple as taking a “mindful minute,” or a deep breath in times of stress.

By helping teachers manage their stress in the classroom, we’re able to create a more positive learning environment for students. When a teacher leads a “mindful minute,” in the beginning of their class, both students and teacher can take a moment to regulate their breathing, which helps everyone transition into learning with a clearer mind and better focus. The change from a chaotic learning environment to a positive, mindful one can make a real difference in a student’s ability to learn.

This program is just one way that Berkshire United Way helps meet the needs of young people. If you’re a youth worker or educator, Berkshire United Way offers a range of professional development opportunities to support your work. If you’re interested in learning more, please reach out to me via the contact information listed below. I look forward to hearing from you!

Kat Toomey
Coordinator of Positive Youth Development
p: 413.442.6948 x15

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Give back to your community through VITA!

Six years ago, the Internal Revenue Service asked us to partner with them and our local community to expand the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, together. VITA is free tax preparation and filing for individuals or families making less than $55k a year. The goal is to maximize tax credits and refunds, to put more money back in the pockets of low-income working families. 

This is truly life changing for some residents, like Maria. Maria, the divorced mother of a nine-year old child, tried to do her taxes herself and discovered she owed money to the IRS. She had made an appointment to have her taxes done in South County through the VITA program and almost didn't show up, because she couldn't afford to pay what she thought she owed.

With the help of a VITA volunteer, Maria actually wound up with a refund of $4,160. Maria was overwhelmed with emotion upon receiving this life-changing news. Her car was in disrepair and this refund enabled her to get her car back on the road, with money left over to pay some bills! 

Berkshire United Way will be offering VITA services at three locations this coming tax season—Berkshire South Regional Community Center and Berkshire Community College, South Campus in Great Barrington, and October Mountain Financial Advisors in Lee. We are currently looking for volunteers to fill several roles, so we can serve as many people as possible.

If you do not know much about taxes, don’t fret! Berkshire United Way offers training for tax preparers and reviewers; there are also other positions, which don’t require tax certification, such as greeting clients and serving as an interpreter. The hours are flexible, the training is free, and the time commitment is entirely up to you.

I invite you to email me at or give me a call at 413.442.6948 x36 if you are interested in giving back to your community as a VITA volunteer. If you are interested in helping, but don’t live or work in south county, we can connect you with our VITA partners at additional sites throughout the county, including the Hilltown Community Development Corporation, Berkshire Community Action Council, Williams College, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (in conjunction with their Business Department), and Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity.

I look forward to hearing from you!

James Swinchoski
Economic Prosperity VISTA

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Help give 11,000 kids the magic of words!

#GivingTuesday is less than a week away.  Our goal is to raise $2,500 in one day to help give 11,000 Berkshire County kids the magic of words and we need your help!  The literacy programs we support play an important role in children's lives, as reflected in these stories from real people right here in our community.

My shy, speech delayed son is now a confident, social and happy child and I don’t think we could have gotten there without the help and services received by us from both the Pediatric Development Center and Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center. - Parent/Early Childhood Education and Early Intervention Client at Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center

Thanks to generous support from CompuWorks and the TriMix Foundation, your #GivingTuesday donation to Berkshire United Way will be tripled, increasing your impact!  Together, we can help more kids like Charlie.

In Lee, The Department of Children and Families referred a preschooler we’ll call Charlie to one of the programs we support (Lee Youth Association’s Busy Bee Preschool). He arrived with absolutely no verbal skills, some motor issues and found it difficult to form attachments with adults. Connecting this program with another of our funded partners, Pediatric Development Center, provided Charlie with specific intervention—both in therapy and in the classroom. As a result, Charlie is beginning to talk in 2-3 word sentences, has begun running and has become attached to all of his teachers. In short, he has turned a corner thanks to these organizations and gifts from people like you.

We really need your help to make #GivingTuesday a success, here’s what you can do!
  •        Save the date on your calendar
  •         Give whatever you can – any amount makes a difference and the impact
        is lifelong.
  •        Spread the word by telling your friends, family, and sharing our posts on social
        media.  You can even post a #UNselfie telling everyone why you gave!
Local children participate in a pop-up story time at the West Side Community Day event.
The Parent-Child Home Program helped me grow and flourish as a parent and as a result I am now a teacher to my child.  Now I know that I have that ability and that it’s important for me to make time for that. - CHP Parent/Child Home Program Client

On behalf of the children and families who will be impacted by your generosity, thank you for giving the magic of words.

Duffy Judge
Development Manager

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Through the eyes of an intern

Hello, my name is Mere - I live in Adams, Massachusetts and I’m a junior at Miss Hall’s School. As a Miss Hall’s student, I’ve been given the opportunity to intern at Berkshire United Way through the Horizons program. Horizons is a unique program that gives students an opportunity for career exploration through experiential learning at a variety of off-campus organizations.

Outside of classes, I am really interested in snowboarding and managing behind the scenes aspects of my school’s drama club productions, where I’ve learned about the amount of work that goes into making a show come to life!  Here at Berkshire United Way, I’m learning about the work that’s required to make lasting changes in our community.

For nearly 95 years, Berkshire United Way has been making lasting, positive changes, right here in Berkshire County—by strengthening families and promoting education as the path to children’s success. This includes giving young people the tools they need to make healthy decisions and graduate high school with a college or career plan.

Recently, I’ve been helping to coordinate the 411 in the 413 Youth Development Conference.  The “411 in the 413” is a collaboration between youth interns and staff from Berkshire United Way, Northern Berkshire Community Coalition and Railroad Street Youth Project, as part of the Berkshire Youth Development Project. The objective of this annual conference is to give local high school students an opportunity to connect with their peers throughout the county, and attend workshops designed to help young people navigate life.

Local students participate in a workshop titled "Ophelia Rising - Exploring the Power of Spoken Word” at a past 411 in the 413 Conference held at Hancock Shaker Village. 2019 marks the 13th year of this annual Conference.

This year’s conference will take place at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield on Thursday, April 11th, 2019. If you are passionate about helping young people and are willing to share your expertise and experience with local teens, please consider facilitating a workshop. Sharing your knowledge and passion with young people helps them develop new skills that are critical for life in high school and beyond!

I'm so excited to be working at Berkshire United Way this year and can’t wait to see the results of our hard work. To learn more about facilitating a workshop at the 411 in the 413 Youth Conference, please contact Kat Toomey, Coordinator of Positive Youth Development at 413.442.6948 x15 or

I look forward to seeing some of you there!

Horizons Intern at Berkshire United Way

Thursday, November 8, 2018

School Readiness Begins at Birth

When people talk about children preparing for kindergarten, reading, writing and reciting the ABC’s are among the first things that come to mind. While the development of these skills plays an important role in kindergarten readiness, there are additional things we can do to help our children succeed.

This includes helping them develop the skills necessary to plan, focus their attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. While we aren’t born with these skills, we are born with the potential to develop them through interactions and practice.

Berkshire United Way, in collaboration with our partners at Childcare of the Berkshires, South Berkshire Kids and Kidzone Child Care Educational Centers, has created a “school readiness” Growth Chart. The chart is designed to help families support their child in developing these skills from birth right up to age five. Our goal…to help our children arrive at school ready to learn!

Easton and his parents love using their Growth Chart to measure his growth, both physically and developmentally!

Our Growth Chart includes multiple activities you can do with your children to develop fine and gross motor skills, language and literacy, problem-solving, and social-emotional skills. It also highlights the importance of community building skills, which include visiting our local library, museum, and attending playgroups and early childhood preschool programs.
The colors and photos in the growth chart design were carefully selected to engage children and their caregivers. One local grandmother recently shared the following story with us.

Imagine my delight as my 5-year old granddaughter, Anna exclaimed, "Thanks for the growth chart Mimi!” Anna is 46" tall and her younger brother, Maverick, is 29" (it was a challenge getting his height because he likes to be on his tippy toes).

Anna can do most of the things she should be able to in year 5 (she can't quite take care of her own hair), however, Maverick can do the 1st year things and a few 2nd year things. Anna and I had a great time talking about it!   -  A local grandmother, aka Mimi

Anna measures her younger brother, Maverick, using the Growth Chart.

To obtain your FREE growth chart, please email me at

I look forward to hearing from you!

Coordinator of Early Childhood Development

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

#GivingTuesday, what’s it all about?

We are so excited to be participating in #GivingTuesday for the first time! What's it all about? #GivingTuesday is a global movement that encourages people to donate to their favorite charities, become involved in a new one, or start giving for the first time. Falling right on the heels of Thanksgiving, the start of a holiday season that includes caring for our community, #GivingTuesday takes place on Tuesday, November 27, 2018.

So, please save the date! On November 27th, we’ll need your help in two ways. First, please give - whatever amount feels good to you. And second, please help spread the word via text, social media, email and word of mouth. Ask your family, friends, neighbors, to join us in this special day of giving.

Your donation will help give 11,000 kids the magic of words and every single gift counts! The ability to read proficiently by third grade is a proven indicator of a child’s future academic success.

Currently, early childhood programs funded by Berkshire United Way are serving 1,100 kids, that's one out of every 10 Berkshire County children under the age of nine. We need to reach more of our children to ensure they experience the magic of words.

We’ll share more information about #GivingTuesday on this blog, our Facebook page and our website as we get closer to November 27th, so be on the lookout. What better way to begin the season of giving than to provide a brighter future for the kids in our community?

On behalf of our county's youngest residents, thank you.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

You're invited to see your investment in action!

Did you know that a team of Berkshire United Way staff, board members, and community volunteers visit every program we fund, each year, to observe that program in action?  These monitoring visits help ensure our donors’ gifts are making a real impact! Those who participate find the experience incredibly rewarding as reflected in the stories below.

“I think I have been doing monitoring visits for about 10 years.  I love getting to see all the wonderful local programs Berkshire United Way partners with. Seeing the passion the program staff and volunteers have for what they do and their commitment is amazing.  I also review Requests for Proposal (RFPs), so it is great for me to read about the programs early on and then see them in action.  Every time I visit I get emotional about the stories they share.  Sometimes it's hard to leave them!” 
 - Jaime Campbell, Financial Analyst, Controller's Office, Williams College

“I have been monitoring human services programs in Pittsfield since 2013. It has been valuable for me to partner with Berkshire United Way on the programs that are also City funded, and collaborate on the expectations, results and goals for these programs.  I am always amazed at the good work being done in Pittsfield, every day. I have found that everyone doing this work is passionate about what they do and about how to make Pittsfield a thriving community. I am always in awe of the stories staff members share about the progress they make and the impact their services have on people’s lives. Site visits bring the program and services to life for me and I am able to bring that information back to our Human Service Advisory Council, the 11-member board that reviews City proposals. Berkshire United Way has always had a staff member on this Council, this partnership means that common funders can work together for agencies’ benefit.” 
- Justine Dodds, Program Manager, Community Development, City of Pittsfield

Local students were observed during a recent monitoring visit at The Mastheads. The Mastheads Fireside Poets program is funded by Berkshire United Way.  
These are just two stories from monitoring visit volunteers. There are many more like them and we couldn’t do this work without community members like you! If you’d like to participate in upcoming monitoring visits, or learn more about what’s involved, please contact Rae Langsdale at or 413-442-6948, ext. 35.

We look forward to hearing from you!
Julie Singley
Program Manager, Community Impact