Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Connecting activities for a brighter future

Every young person deserves a chance to explore opportunities relating to both college and career, this was the theme that rang clearly throughout the 20th annual Connecting Activities Conference hosted by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) on May 15th. Emphasis is placed on attending college after high school, however, the reality is pursuing a 4-year degree is not an option for some teens, and in fact, may not even be what they need to be successful. A recent NPR article captures this sentiment perfectly, as it addresses high-paying vacancies in the trades that are left empty, as increasingly more young people line up for universities - only to find themselves faced with the challenge of finding employment once they’ve graduated college.  

Attending this conference made me realize we’re on the right path with our Positive Youth Development Impact Council (PYDIC), which is centered around successful youth transitions to work, education, or training after high school.

While PYDIC’s initial goal was to increase high school graduation rates throughout the county (it is currently at 87%), we also understand the need to focus on ensuring our young people graduate from high school with a college or career plan.

On April 18th, community members, non-profit organizations, and local businesses put their heads together to develop a plan to support college and career readiness for all Berkshire County Teens.

The result is a commitment to:

1) Support and increase existing mentorships for Grades K-12
2) Formalize and strengthen partnerships between business, non-profit, and  other sectors
3) Increase education and access to information for parents on college and career readiness for their children

Regardless of which option a young person chooses to pursue, work-based experiences and internships are the foundation our young people need to successfully transition into life beyond high school and when our youth succeed, we all succeed.

Katie Hickey of Berkshire Community College leads a workshop for south county teens at Berkshire Community College on Wednesday, May 23, 2018.  The workshop was one of twenty workshops offered as part of a Career Conference.  (Photo courtesy of Berkshire Community College.)

For more information and/or to join PYDIC, please contact me at or 413.442.6948 x15.  I look forward to hearing from you!

Kat Toomey, Coordinator of Positive Youth Development

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

How are the children?

Come away with me, if you will, across these Berkshire mountains and streams.  Come with me across oceans and borders, to the heart of Africa to the lands of Kenya and Tanzania, to the Maasai tribe, renowned as one of the world’s last warrior cultures.  I imagine you’d appreciate learning a greeting to use upon meeting our hosts so that you can make a connection with this fabled tribe.  Are you ready?  The greeting for “Hello, how are you,” is “Kesserian Ingera,” which loosely translated, means “And how are the children?”  Not hello, what’s up. Not I’m fine, thanks, and you?  Not your children, or mine, but the children.

The Chapter One early childhood development coalition has been asking this question, how are the children?  We come together out of a shared concern that 56% of children in the southern Berkshires are not reading proficiently by 3rd grade.  Seventy-four percent of students who struggle to succeed in reaching this marker are far more likely to continue to struggle in school and in life.  We are a community who is prepared to implement strategies to improve literacy.  In fact, the first strategy developed by the Chapter One coalition was to improve the well-being and access to early learning for our kids, with the goal of ensuring each and every one of our children arrives at school ready for success.

How will we know if we are making a difference?  How will we know we are improving our children’s readiness for school?  How will we know what strategies are working?  In effect, we are now asking together, “How are the children?” To hold these goals and strategies in place, the Chapter One coalition has worked with all six south county school districts.  On April 30th, eighteen teachers from five school districts spent the first of three evenings together to learn how to measure kindergarten readiness.  

Educators from Morris, Lee, Muddy Brook, New Marlborough, Richmond and Undermountain Elementary Schools gather to learn about the Brigance screening tool. Educators will use the screening tool to collectively measure kindergarten readiness in southern Berkshire County. 
In the weeks and months to come, we will learn important information about our children.  So, friends and neighbors, please join us, in greeting one another, in this ongoing dialogue of this most important question, “How are the children?”  Our futures, yours and mine, are dependent on us having this conversation, whether on Main Street, at the doctor’s office, in our parks, houses of worship, and places of learning. 

Amy Taylor
South County Community Liaison

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Driving Our Community Forward

For 18 years, the Johnson Dealerships and Greylock Federal Credit Union have paired up together to support Berkshire United Way by donating a new car or $10,000 to a lucky participant in our annual campaign.

Winners have mostly been workplace donors from businesses and organizations such as: Precision Tool, General Dynamics, Cranwell, Town of Dalton, Canyon Ranch, Crane Currency, Marland Mold, City of Pittsfield, BMC, BCC, Onyx Specialty Papers, and Berkshire Children and Families. All of them had great stories about how much a new car helped them, and how fulfilling it is to support Berkshire United Way.  Sally Rice, the 2014 winner from Crane Currency noted that, “This was the first brand new car I have ever had.”

On May 10th, we gathered at the Johnson Dealerships to celebrate the ways in which all of Berkshire United Way’s donors, together, are driving the community forward with their generous donations.  We heard from volunteers who led a successful cross-sector coalition, Face the Facts: reduce teen pregnancy, about how the community came together to forge solutions no one person, agency or company could do alone.  And with great anticipation, we learned the 2018 winner.

Berkshire United Way board member, Mike Stoddard, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Greylock Federal Credit Union, draws the winning car ticket at the Driving Our Community Forward event on Thursday, May 10, 2018.

Great things happen when we work together.  Thank you to all of our donors, and congratulations to Michelle Little of Pittsfield!

Jennifer Kerwood
VP of Development

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Improving financial futures all year long

Each April, the Financial Literacy and Education Commission (FLEC) encourages people to take action to improve their financial futures. Here at Berkshire United Way, we work year-round to help families along the path to sustainable incomes. We support programs that match individuals seeking employment with open jobs, and provide college students with paid internship opportunities. 

Click for resources on how to unlock your financial future.
Free tax preparation through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program is another way we are helping build economic prosperity for all. On March 24, 2018, Berkshire United Way hosted a taxathon at Berkshire South Regional Community Center. In addition to free tax prep, our community partners at Berkshire Community Action Council - Fuel Assistance, Community Health Programs – Women, Infants, and Children, Goodwill Industries of the Berkshires, and Greylock Federal Credit Union, were on hand to provide information on financial literacy programs.

Thank you to everyone who played a role in making this VITA season a success – clients, volunteer tax preparers, greeters, host sites and other community partners. Preliminary reports indicate 109 tax returns were filed by Berkshire United Way, resulting in over $101,000 in additional funds circulating in south county communities.  In addition, 593 returns were filed by our VITA partners in Pittsfield (Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity) and the hilltowns (Hilltown Community Development Corp.) which resulted in an additional $861,000. I’d also like to give a special shout out to our VITA hosts – Berkshire South Regional Community Center, Community Health Programs, and October Mountain Financial Advisors in Lee. We could not have done it without you!

I invite you to email me at or give me a call at 413.442.6948 x32, if you are interested in using your time and talent to help others improve their financial future.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Program Manager, Community Impact

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

#Talking is Power

May is Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month and you’ll likely see an increase in national marketing and ad campaigns throughout the month on this very important topic.

Here in the Berkshires, we’re planning a large celebration and we hope you’ll join us! #Talking is Power is the theme of our celebration. A theme that epitomizes the approach taken by individuals and organizations who launched the Face the Facts: reduce teen pregnancy coalition in 2010.

Face the Facts was developed in response to the growing number and rate of teen births in the Berkshires. The initial goal of the coalition was to reduce the number of teen births in Berkshire County by 50% by the year 2020.

The coalition implemented several strategies to achieve this goal, all of which embrace the fact that #Talking is Power:

  • They worked with local schools to ensure students in all 13 school districts received sexual health education.
  • They increased access to reproductive health services for students in every Berkshire County high school as well as Berkshire Community College and MCLA.
  • They held workshops to provide parents with tools and information that help them when talking about sexuality.
  • They worked with local pediatricians to make sure sexual health was discussed during teens’ well visits.
  • They launched a marketing campaign using billboards, posters, YouTube and Pandora to educate teens and their parents on common myths.
Taconic High School students, with Marcie Simonds, Allied Health teacher at Taconic, on the set of a Myth Busters video.  The Myth Busters video series were produced by the Berkshire United Way led Face the Facts: reduce teen pregnancy coalition as part of a social norms campaign aimed at Berkshire County teens.

Last spring, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health released the most recent data on teen births across the state. Berkshire County’s teen birth rate had decreased by 52%*, exceeding the coalition’s goal five years ahead of schedule.

That’s a result worth celebrating, and we intend to do just that as we recognize those throughout the community who are Driving Our Community Forward through the sometimes difficult, but always important work required to build a stronger community.

We hope to see you on Thursday, May 10th from 5-7 p.m. at The Johnson Dealerships in Pittsfield, where we will keep the “talk” going.  You can register for this free event here.   I hope to see you there!

Kat Toomey, Coordinator of Positive Youth Development

* Between 2010 and 2015, the most recent year for which data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health is available.