Tuesday, November 21, 2017

VITA volunteers make a difference!

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program offers free tax help to people with individual/household incomes of less than $54,000 a year, who need assistance in preparing their own tax returns.  

Through this free service, volunteers help qualified individuals obtain refunds up to $6,044.  In 2017, the VITA program in Berkshire County resulted in over $1.7 million of additional funds circulating in our community!

Berkshire United Way will offer VITA services at two new South County locations this coming tax season - Berkshire South Regional Community Center and Community Health Programs (CHP) in Great Barrington.  We are currently seeking volunteers for a number of roles, so that we can serve as many people in South County as possible through this program.

Volunteering for the VITA program can be a rewarding experience. Don’t know that much about taxes? Don’t worry — you’ll receive specialized training if you’d like to be a tax preparer or reviewer OR you can choose a volunteer role that doesn’t require tax certification. There are many opportunities to help, ranging from greeting everyone who visits the site, to providing language interpreter services.  The hours are flexible, the training is free and the time commitment is up to you.

I invite you to email me at jsingley@berkshireunitedway.org or give me a call at 413.442.6948 x32, if you are interested in sharing your time and talent to build a stronger community here in the Berkshires by helping hard working families.

If you’re interested in helping, but don’t live or work in South County, our community partners are coordinating additional VITA sites throughout the county and are looking for volunteers: Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, Hilltown CDC, Northern Berkshire United Way, Berkshire Community Action Council, and Williams College.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Program Manager, Community Impact

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Building strong, healthy families

Have you seen Berkshire United Way’s social media campaign, Humans of the Berkshires?
If not, I encourage you to check it out on Facebook and Instagram.

 Humans of the Berkshires is a community of celebration and support of the aspirations, challenges, and achievements of the young people in our community.  As part of the interview process, a young person can choose from different questions, including, “Who is a role model or influential figure in your life?”  Sometimes interviewees will answer that one of their parents/caregivers fit this description.  One young woman, in particular, spoke about how her mom sometimes has challenges and makes mistakes, but is absolutely the most important person in her life. She went on to say that her mom loves and supports her and always tries to understand what she is going through, even if they don’t always agree. With her mom’s support, this young woman is pursuing her dreams of becoming a social worker.

Every teen needs a caring adult to help guide them and build a foundation to make healthy decisions. That is why Berkshire United Way invests in programs that promote protective factors. Protective factors are characteristics associated with a lower likelihood of youth engaging in risky behaviors with negative outcomes. Think of them as ingredients, that when combined with a caring bond between parents and child, result in a strong, healthy family.

Examples of protective factors include:
·         Social and Emotional Competence of Children = Children learn to talk about and handle feelings.
·         Knowledge of Parenting and Child Development = Parents know how children grow and learn.
·         Social Connections = Parents have friends.
·         Parental Resilience = Parents can overcome hard times and rebound.
·         Concrete Support in Times of Need = Parents know where to turn for help

We all want our youth to make good decisions, which means lowering risk factors and raising protective factors. 

For more information and ideas, visit Strengthening Families and The Search Institute.

Kat Toomey
Coordinator of Positive Youth Development

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Learn to read, read to learn!

On a sunny, Saturday morning, in the First Street Common, I had the privilege of meeting a local kindergartner.  This enthusiastic young lady spent over 30 minutes creating a crown with a pattern of colors and star stickers as her dad patiently waited; acknowledging her love of both the arts and reading new books every day.

A local early childhood educator reads to a young girl as she decorates her crown at a Berkshire United Way
pop up party.

This is just one of many scenarios I could share with you from our summer pop up reading parties.

What’s a pop up reading party you might ask? It’s a fun event where children and parents meet outside—often at Berkshire United Way Book House sites—to spend time reading together in the warm sunshine.

Through the generous support of  AVANGRID, parent company of Berkshire Gas and the Avangrid Foundation, Berkshire United Way purchased four large screened tents to provide shelter from the wind and sun, and puffy pillows for young children and their families to sit on. Throughout the summer, we used them at nine pop up reading parties here in Berkshire County. At each party, children listened as a local pre-school teacher read a story then provided a FREE art project to go along with it.  After they completed their works of art, children had the opportunity to explore different books to read with a family member, and the fun and learning didn’t stop there!  Young attendees received a cute, complimentary stuffed animal to serve as a reading buddy at home, along with a free book to take with them.

A young child intently studies a book about kindergarten at a Berkshire United Way pop up party.

Our last reading party, which was held at the Harvest Festival Farmers Market at the First Street Common in Pittsfield, drew over 52 children and their families!  One child commented as she made her reading crown and received her small, stuffed animal book buddy, “Thank you so much, bear and I are going to read this book when I get home.”

Berkshire United Way’s early childhood goal is for 90% of Berkshire County kids to read proficiently by 3rd grade at which point they move from learning to read to reading to learn, and this impacts every subject they are taught.  Reading to your child every day, beginning at birth, helps build school readiness skills so children arrive at school ready to learn.  To learn about future family-friendly reading events, be sure to follow us on Facebook.  I hope to see you soon!

Coordinator of Early Childhood Development

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

When Giving is Receiving

When I was asked to join Berkshire United Way as a Workplace Campaign Executive I was both excited and honored.  I have always believed in the work that Berkshire United Way does through their funded programs, but I was blown away by the changes that have taken place since I was an Employee Campaign Coordinator at my former job many years ago.

Berkshire United Way now has a very clear purpose and non-profits who apply for grants need to show measurable results and have a positive impact in the community in one of three areas of focus. I was immediately moved to tell this story to all the workplace volunteers I work with.

Amy Chin heads out the door of Berkshire United Way to deliver campaign supplies 
for a workplace campaign. 

When I talk to people out and about in the community, so much of the focus is on the children and youth of this county and on helping them succeed in school and preparing them to be productive citizens. That’s why it is so important to me to speak face-to-face with employees in workplace campaigns, giving specific examples of the programs funded and initiatives led by Berkshire United Way and letting them know that we are partners with the same goal - helping children and families thrive. There is nothing more gratifying when speaking to an audience than to see heads nodding in agreement when I talk about a preschooler who has come to kindergarten ready to learn thanks to Childcare of the Berkshires’ Parent Child Home Program or a girl who is empowered after participating in the Flying Cloud Young Women in Science program.

My career has centered around helping people and my position as a Workplace Campaign Executive has been enriching and inspiring. It has been easy to give a presentation to large groups because I speak from the heart and I have a deep desire to assist in strengthening my community and the people who live in it. It is why I’ve made a gift of my time, talent and treasure to the Berkshire United Way.  I am fortunate that Greylock Federal Credit Union is sponsoring my position, as yet another way of giving back to our community.

To find out how you can help build a stronger community, I encourage you to contact Berkshire United Way and learn about the volunteer opportunities that are available.  You can reach them at info@berkshireunitedway.org or give them a call at 442-6948. 

I hope to see you there!

Amy Chin

Workplace Campaign Executive

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

It’s EPIC!

If you attended BerkshireWork’s recent Job Fair, you may have noticed the Berkshire United Way table and wondered what we were doing there. My colleagues, members of our Economic Prosperity Impact Council (EPIC) and I were surveying employers and job seekers to gather data that will inform our Economic Prosperity work.

One young woman spoke with us about the barriers she is facing in finding a job, because she doesn’t have a college degree.  We know there are many people in our community just like her.

Julie Singley, Program Manager of Community Impact at Berkshire United Way attends BerkshireWorks’ annual job fair on Wednesday, October 18, 2017.  

That’s one of the reasons Berkshire United Way held its first EPIC meeting on September 22, 2017. There were 20 individuals in attendance, representing for-profit businesses, health, government, education, and non-profit organizations.

EPIC is a countywide, coalition led by Greylock Federal Credit Union, Guardian Life Insurance Company of America and Berkshire United way, which aims to build pathways to sustainable incomes for individuals and families in the community. Over the next six months, consultant Brittany DeBarros, will work with EPIC to identify shared goals and clear action steps as coalition members work together to:

  • Develop and implement strategies to get more people to work and fill vacant jobs
  • Create strategic work groups as needed based on additional data collection and mapping/identifying existing resources
  • Develop collaborations and partnerships to change the way we work to successfully reach our goals
  • Identify additional resources
  • Assist in developing investment recommendations for final approval by Berkshire United Way Board of Directors
  • Develop and monitor performance measures with reports from community partners on:
    • Employment Match Maker (Family Sustaining Employment/Pathways)
    • Adult Work-Based Experiences
I invite you to email me at jsingley@berkshireunitedway.org or give me a call at 413.442.6948 x32, if you are interested in sharing your time and talent to create economic prosperity for all.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Program Manager, Community Impact

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Talk With Your Kids Often

You may have heard us say that young people need caring adults to be positive influences in their lives; science and research support this idea. The Search Institute, a leader and partner for organizations around the world in discovering what kids need to succeed says, “Regardless of age, children need parents. Indeed, across multiple studies, it appears that the quality of the parent-child relationship is one of the more important factors in determining what kind of behaviors and attitudes adolescents adopt across domains such as health, education, reproductive behaviors, social interactions, and problem behaviors.”

It is important to appreciate that adolescence is its own distinct time between childhood and adulthood, and that it’s important to honor this developmental stage. Young people often hear confusing messages like “Grow up!” or on the other end, “You’re still just a kid!” when what they really need are caring and supportive role models who share their expectations and focus on the positive things our young people are doing.

A billboard depicting local youth engaged in conversation with Katrina Mattson of Tapestry. This is one of three billboards in Pittsfield, which are a part of Berkshire United Way’s, “Talk With Your Kids Often,” campaign.

I hope by now some of you have seen the billboards throughout Pittsfield, which are part of our “Talk With Your Kids Often” campaign.  For tips and resources on how to keep the lines of communication open through the adolescent years, please visit our website.  

For information about local workshops and support groups please contact me via email - ktoomey@berkshireunitedway.org or give me a call at 442-6948 x15.

Kat Toomey
Coordinator of Positive Youth Development

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Learning how one word leads to many words

Our mission at Berkshire United Way is to ignite the collective power of individuals and organizations to build a stronger community together. Through the Chapter One: Our Towns, Our Kids, Our Future early childhood development and literacy initiative, we are fulfilling this mission with The Word Project. Together, we’re determined to ensure that every child arrives to kindergarten ready for success in school and life.

The Word Project was created to ensure children acquire the language skills necessary to be successful. Children need lots of connected, play filled experiences with words and stories. On Sunday, September 24th, parents and grandparents, volunteers and business leaders, children and youth, storytellers and actors kicked off The Word Project at The Triplex in Great Barrington. Children wrote or dictated stories with our partners in the lobby then the Word Project’s Improv Troupe (Rebecca Honig, Josh Briggs, and Rachel Seigal, with support from musician Sunwha Reiner) brought them to life with music, and each young author was celebrated with a round of applause. Our community partners at Flying Cloud joined us with a robotics activity, and Head Start teachers did face painting.

The Word Troupe comprised of actors Rebecca Honig, Josh Briggs, Rachel Seigal, and musician Sunhwa Reiner rehearse prior to The Word Project event on Sunday, September 24, 2017.  The troupe brought children’s stories to life before their very eyes.
This month learn all about produce at Big Y, Price Chopper and the WIC office in Great Barrington.  We look forward to sharing our children’s stories at the next Word Project family event.  We are changing our little corner of the world for the better, and we’re having fun while we do!