Kristine Hazzard: South County rife with resources to benefit children, families

As published in the Berkshire Eagle

Did you know Berkshire United Way has an office in south county?  Through generous support of our partners at Berkshire Community College, Amy Taylor, south county community liaison for Berkshire United Way, maintains a full-time office at BCC’s south county center.

We’ve had a strong commitment in the communities ‘south of Pittsfield’ since we merged with the Southern Berkshire United Way many years ago, and renewed our commitment to a visible presence there when we began our community impact work in 2008.  We continued to build upon that foundation, by hiring Taylor, who lives in south county.

Last year we impacted more than 4,000 lives in south county communities with collaborative support from our south county coalition, Chapter One, and community partners including Community Health Programs (CHP), Pediatric Development Center, Greenagers, Flying Cloud Institute, and Railroad Street Youth Project, just to name a few.

Chapter One was established in 2015, with Lucy Prashker, managing partner with Cain Hibbard, as volunteer chairperson. The goal of Chapter One is to close the achievement gap faced by young children aged 0-5 in southern Berkshire County.  This coalition—comprised of donors, volunteers and advocates who have joined forces with professionals working in pediatric healthcare, early intervention, education and family support—is working to ensure every child is ready for kindergarten and reading proficiently by third grade.  

Members of the coalition have identified that healthy child development requires a safe, responsive and loving relationship with an adult caregiver who can guide open-ended play, within a rich forest of words by talking, listening, playing, singing and rhyming. 

A new Chapter One initiative, The Word Project, launched recently at Carr Hardware in Great Barrington.  Local volunteers with expertise in early childhood, Rebecca Honig, Josh Briggs, Craig Langlois, Joey Chernila, Stacy Parsons and Adam Gudeon, created this interactive game that engages families and the community in early childhood language development.  Each month a category word is featured at a new location to connect kids with their community, so they can learn the words that ‘live’ in each place they visit. 

If you live, work or frequent Great Barrington, you can join our efforts by volunteering as a Word Coach— simply contact Amy Taylor to receive a Word Coach sticker and check out the short word coach video on our website to learn more. Opportunities are also available to host the Word of the Month at your Great Barrington business or to sponsor the Word Project and help prepare our children for success in school and life.

Fostering relationships between young children and their families, pediatric practitioners and educators also help close the achievement gap.  Berkshire United Way’s partnership with Dr. Claudia Gold and the Austen Riggs project, Discovering Your Baby at Fairview Hospital, is focused on training community caregivers in a relationship building tool called Newborn Behavior Observation (NBO).  With support from Berkshire United Way, this past spring 40 early childhood professionals from the community were trained in NBO. 

Following the training, Theresa Brewer, a 40-year veteran maternity nurse commented, “I now have a new way to help our families discover their newborn’s unique qualities and develop this important relationship from the very start.”

“We left with many plans for strengthened collaborations, while making new contacts to further our work in south county. It was a great community investment,” added Maureen Atwood, executive director of Pediatric Development Center.

Thanks to the efforts of our partners at the Bushnell-Sage Library in Sheffield, there’s a new Born Learning Trail in their beautiful backyard. Developed by United Way Worldwide, the Born Learning Trail is a series of 10 interactive signs that offer fun learning activities for children, helping parents, caregivers and communities create quality engagement opportunities while on a stroll or visiting a playground. An additional Born Learning Trail, installed during a Berkshire United Way-led Day of Caring, is available at Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School in Great Barrington.

The next Chapter One meeting will take place on September 15 from 9-10:30 a.m. at Berkshire South Regional Community Center.  We invite you to join us there.