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Berkshire United Way Highlights Efforts To Help Area Teens
By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
06:33AM / Saturday, October 07, 2017
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Some 200 people attended the fundraiser.


Pittsfield Schools Superintendent Jason McCandless was the keynote speaker.
LEE, Mass. — When Ana Monsalve returned the United States at age 10 after living abroad, she entered school not knowing English.
 
She leaned on support from her family and the community to learn the language, and then caught up with her education.
 
Now she is college bound pursuing a career in architecture and environmental science. And she already has a leg up in the field because she spent this past summer getting her hands dirty, working with the Roots Rising program.
 
"This past summer I had the opportunity to participate in the Roots Rising program offered by the Berkshire Botanical Garden and Alchemy Initiative. This experience allowed me to work as part of a team on local farms," she said.
 
That program has driven her passion for architecture, looking to design environmentally friendly facilities. The Roots Rising program is just one of the numerous programs the Berkshire United Way Funds.
 
Another one is the Marilyn Hamilton Sports and Literacy Program. Nyanna Slaughter grew up in Pittsfield but it wasn't easy for her. She didn't see many other black people in her school and always felt different and excluded. 
 
"Growing up in the Berkshires wasn't easy. It was hard and it was disappointing at certain times. But, I can say it has helped mold me. Being black and a black woman is hard. Its amazing but it is hard. Growing up no one really looked like me, so I thought I was different," she said.
 
But she found the Rites of Passage program with Shirley Edgerton and found a community in which she had a voice she never thought she had before. She too is college bound and spent her summer working with the Marilyn Hamilton Sports and Literacy Program.
 
"Growing up in this community as a minority, you realize how important it is to give back to our youth. As a counselor and coordinator of the Marilyn Hamilton Sports and Literacy Program, I try my best every day to make our kids feel special and empowering. I let them know they can do anything they want to do if they work hard," Slaughter said.
 
Jimmy Jay Chassi is yet another local teen who tapped into programs sponsored by the United Way. He's was able to intern in the mayor's office and worked at the Boys and Girls Club. Now, he hopes to become an elected official in the future.
 
Those are some of the success stories the Berkshire United Way shared on Friday at Cranwell. The organization is perpetually fundraising to continue to support various programs. At the luncheon on Friday, it focused its work on positive youth development, one of three main focuses of the organization.
 
"Our teens are our future. Without them succeeding, we don't succeed so we have to give them a chance to be engaged and we have to give them opportunities to succeed and we have to celebrate them," said President and CEO Kristine Hazzard said. 
 
Hazzard said the organization reviews the annual surveys it conducts of area youth. Those surveys showed that more than half of the youth don't feel supported in the community. 
 
"The reality is that in 2016 164 teenagers in Berkshire County did not graduate high school in the four years that is expected. In addition, any time you talk to our colleagues at MCLA and BCC, we hear about not only what remediation services they are needing but the array of support they need to just get through that first year of school," Hazzard said. 
 
"We know a lot needs to be done."
 
So they fund mentoring, social, and college and career readiness programs. Hazzard said the organization has a track record of success to show for the efforts. The response to a 2010 report showing teen pregnancy was significantly above average triggered a similar response. The organization took a focus on curbing that and by 2015, the number had been cut by 52 percent.
 

Ana Monsalve told her story of success.
"In 2010, we put a stake in the ground on teen births. We said this number is unacceptable. It was so above the state average, just crazy numbers, especially in Pittsfield and North Adams. We brought together a group of people, united at the table, and said what are the strategies we need to put in place for our youth? Because if we don't do that, more young girls are going to have babies. Studies show that young women who have babies tend to drop out of school and never finish their career and the children's of those young moms show up at kindergarten with lots of needs, they have not had the experience of children of older moms," Hazzard said. 
 
Board Chairman Richard Rowe said the organization takes specific focuses and doesn't just throw money at programs. It brings the stakeholders together, develops a plan, and then gets everybody on board to tackle the issue.
 
"Focus on the main things that need to be done, bring all the stakeholders to the table, and put everyone at the table that has interest and need and drive positive change," Rowe said of how the organization works.
 
The United Way has three focuses, early childhood development, positive youth development, and economic prosperity. Rowe's full-time job is the president of U.S. government products at Crane Currency. He said the focus on teens is important to the area's business climate as well.
 
"We'll be changing over a lot of employees in the next five or 10 years, a lot of organizations in the community are. It's very important that we focus on the next generation of employees and leaders so they are prepared," Rowe said.
 
The keynote speaker on Friday was Pittsfield Schools Superintendent Jason McCandless. He told the crown numbering 200 or so that the most important lesson he ever learned came from his father.
 
"Love your neighbor as you love yourself. This ancient rule for loving was my father's rule for living and it is certainly the most powerful driver in my efforts to be a public servant," McCandless said. "Love your neighbor as you love yourself. It is almost subversive in 2017 to think that and say it. It was probably subversive thousands of years ago when it was first written. This mandate through the profit and reiterated by the apostles naturally leads to this question: who is my neighbor?"
 
Answering his own question, he said, "everyone is our neighbor. Everyone is deserving of our care. Everyone is deserving of our mercy. Everyone is deserving of our love. Everyone is our neighbor."
 
That's what the United Way does. He said approximately 15,000 area teens are benefiting from the United Way's programming in one way or the other. That is spreading love to all corners of the county, he said.
 
"No other organization brings the love, the care, the focus, or the demand for excellence more than our neighbors at the Berkshire United Way," McCandless said. 
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