Monday, October 15, 2018

It's Now and Forever the Al Nelson Friendship Center

     Al Nelson: Our Man for All Seasons


On Monday, Oct. 15, 2018 at the First Baptist Church of North Adams, we held a tribute to our late co-founder, Al Nelson. We unveiled our new sign for the Al Nelson Friendship Center and the commissioned painting of Al above. Scheduled speakers were North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard; Christa Collier, executive director of the Northern Berkshire United Way; and Mark Rondeau, friend and collaborator with Al. As prepared for delivery, Rondeau's tribute follows.

I first met Al Nelson in 1996 when I was editor of the Advocate. I went to the Northern Berkshire United Way offices, then located at 85 Main Street, to do an article.

Immediately upon meeting Al, I recognized his voice from the radio. It was one of the voices I heard on WMNB growing up in North Adams decades earlier. I had moved away with my family in 1976 and moved back with my family in 1993. So other than his voice, Al Nelson and his work were completely unfamiliar to me.

I wrote a profile of Al for the paper. What a nice, interesting and unassuming man, I thought. Another of those people who made my hometown special.

Around the same time I started going to monthly forums of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition. Al, of course, had been present at the creation of the Coalition. Then he served it as board member and treasurer for many years. I started sitting with Al at these Coalition forums.

He invited me to a prayer breakfast at this, his church. He knew I liked sports and invited me to meetings of the Sideline Quarterback Club at the Log in Williamstown. For the uninitiated this is the Williams College Football booster club.

(As an aside: the only time I ever heard Al yell in anger was at Williams football games.)

As the years wore on Al and I started to collaborate on the occasional project. At the Advocate I wrote about Al and Anne going on a mission trip to Romania. About 10 years ago, after a rough stretch of illness and death in my family, I had the idea of creating a local caregiver resource guide. The Coalition thought it was a good idea and we started having committee meetings of interested parties.

Who was present at all the meetings and actively involved? Al Nelson, of course.

A couple years later, in 2010, at a Coalition forum about the intersection of faith and community, Al and I thought there should be more collaboration between local houses of worship. The clergy present, under-supported and overworked as they were – and are – challenged us in turn to do something ourselves as laypeople.

So Al and I got talking. Why not launch an Initiative to bring people of faith and goodwill together to serve the community?

Along with some others involved, the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative was born. We started looking for a project to collaborate on and bring people together. We held monthly meetings looking for a project. We even held a drumming circle at the 2010 North Adams Downtown Celebration.

By the end of 2010 and beginning of 2011, things started coming together. The Friendship Center was born. Al and everyone else involved got a crash course in running a food pantry. I don't have to tell you the rest of the story. I can say that all of you here tonight have been part of the story as it has gone forward.

– – – – –

I'd like to shift here and ask a rhetorical question? Why are we here tonight? Right here in this place, on Saturday, July 21st, a nearly full church honored Al Nelson. Wonderfully well done and emotional as that service was, it was a closing of a book, like all such services. But we need to take this book with us – and keep the spirit of the story it tells alive.

We're here tonight to carry Al's life and example forward with us into the future, most specifically in the work we do at the Friendship Center – from now forward the Al Nelson Friendship Center. We're here to honor a man who came to this city for a job at the radio station and stayed to build a life, lift a community and walk humbly with his Lord.

I'll offer that we're here because the community needs Al Nelson. Who he was, what he stood for, what he did and tried to do, how he treated people are signposts along the way in a troubled, turbulent time. We're here to insure in our small way that Al Nelson is remembered, that he remains a known example to be imitated.

Al was a man of faith. It was a non-negotiable with him. As I told a Berkshire Eagle reporter working on a story about him, Al was one of the best Christians I ever met. He took his faith very seriously and lived according to its precepts.

Unlike some virtuous people, however, Al was not judgmental. He also – and this is very rare, in my experience – did not gossip or criticize people behind their backs. It wasn't that Al wore rose-colored glasses – anything but – he was a very realistic man who kept himself well informed and knew exactly what was going on.

Al's response to problems was very wise. Work steadily and quietly and don't get upset. Things will work out. Be secure enough and strong enough to calmly wait and see. Many times, in one way or the other, he taught me this lesson and led me to take this approach. I regretted it when I didn't.

Al's kindness, service and care of those in need were rooted in the Scripture and his daily walk with the Lord. He was a gentleman, unfailingly respectful to all. You know that he was a cheerful man, with a great sense of humor. He loved to talk to people. And he loved to needle you – but it was the most good-natured, loving needling in the world. He knew I worked late, so when I showed up late to the Eagle Street Room on a Wednesday, Al might proclaim: “He has risen!”

Al was a man of community. He was all about building relationships, making connections and reaching out to others. He was always concerned about how we could help and collaborate with other food pantries and related services in Northern Berkshire. He went out of his way, for instance, to include Adams and Williamstown in our efforts to promote and report on the results of the annual Letter Carrier Food Drive.

In doing these things, Al was a meticulous, precise and thorough man. People have a hard time reading my handwriting, but Al's penmanship was perfect. If I wanted to talk to Al but saw he was starting to write a note, I would go do something else, because it was going to take a while. Al did nothing in a half-baked fashion.

He was a retired radio journalist and he liked to ask questions. At many a board meeting of the Initiative and Friendship Center, I would think we could move on to another topic but Al would have one more question. Implied in this question-asking is the fact that Al listened to the answers.

Because Al listened and listened with empathy, he knew how to respond effectively to people in difficult situations. Often he would tell audiences of things our food pantry friends had told him: the man who had no pots or pans to cook with. The woman with no refrigerator and no bed for her or her child.

And Al never, never promoted himself – never. He was totally mission-oriented. He not only checked his ego at the door, he never brought it in the first place. In fact, he had probably stored his ego in a box one day and then forgot where he put the box. He wasn't falsely humble. He just knew exactly who he was and what he was about and that was enough.

Service, kindness, thoroughness, listening, respect, empathy, integrity, faith, love. Words, words that can be just words, empty of real meaning. Al Nelson filled them with reality. He embodied them with action.

– – – – –

I noted at the beginning that I had heard Al Nelson's voice on WMNB decades before I actually met him. I still hear his voice. I hear it in some of the closings he used in his notes and emails to me and others about Initiative and food pantry business.


“We shall overcome”

“Keep the Strength”

And my favorite:

“Stay out of trouble and keep the faith --”

Thank you

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Letter Carrier Food Drive a Success

Thanks to All Who Helped

It was a rainy day Saturday, but we thank all who donated, our volunteers and especially our North Adams letter carriers for a successful Letter Carrier Food Drive in the communities of North Adams, Clarksburg and Florida.

Our initial collection was 5,779 lbs. donated in the three communities. More food usually trickles into the post office, so we will give the final total when we have it. At least 40 volunteers helped with the gathering and sorting of the donated items at the former Sears store space in the Steeple City Plaza.

Here are some photos from the day:

Al Nelson, Fran Morandi and Jocelyn Barrett help unload a truck.

Rich Davis weighed most of the food and Fran Berasi, seated, recorded and added the weights.

Our donation sorting system in action.

In the late afternoon we had a big rush.

Al jokes around with two of our letter carriers. Thanks to the Northern Berkshire United Way we were able to offer them, and our sorting volunteers, pizza and water.

Al Nelson recorded the final total.

Thanks to All Involved!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Catching up on All Sorts of News

Letter Carrier Food Drive Saturday, May 12

In the years since I started this blog at the urging of Al Bashevkin, retired executive director of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, I don't think I have gone this long without posting. At any rate, there's a lot to catch up on.

First of all, as the flyer above indicates, Saturday, May 12, will be the annual Letter Carriers Food Drive. The information on this flyer comes from our friend Amanda Chilson of Mass In Motion. On the day of the drive, we will be sorting the donations at the former Sears store in the Steeple City Plaza. See file photo below.

We sort the food the letter carriers pick up in North Adams, Clarksburg and Florida -- the same communities we serve as a food pantry.

We can always use volunteers. Let us know if you can help or just show up around 11:30 a.m. or so on the day of the drive.

Rich Davis at the former Sears space a few years ago. Volunteers will be sorting donated food there again this year on May 12. This is always a fun day. All are welcome to help out. Or just stop by and say "hi."

United Way to Recognize Al Nelson

Al wearing his light-up Patriots hat

We are very pleased to announce that our co-founder and co-director Al Nelson will be one of those recognized at the First Annual Spirit of Caring Awards and Celebration to be held on Thursday, May 17, from 5 to 8 p.m. at the MCLA Church Street Center. 

This event is being presented by the Northern Berkshire United Way. Al will be receiving the Spirit of Caring Award. Former North Adams Mayor Dick Alcombright, who did much to help the Friendship Center Food Pantry while in office, will receive the Spirit of Community Award, and Christine Hoyt of Adams will receive the Spirit of the Future Award.

Al is the conscience and personality of the NBIAI and the Friendship Center Food Pantry, perhaps the finest person I have ever met. I am looking forward to seeing him honored.

Individual tickets for this fundraiser are $50 each. RSVP by May 7. Northern Berkshire United Way, P.O. Box 955, North Adams, MA 01247. Phone: 413-663-9062. Email:

Al speaks to MCLA Lead Academy students in the early days of the Friendship Center

State. Rep. John Barrett III Visits Friendship Center

Our new Sate Rep. John Barrett III visited the Friendship Center Food Pantry recently. We had a productive discussion with him about the state's role in helping to meet food security needs in the state. 

This photo was taken by Kim McMann, director of the Berkshire Food Project, who attended the meeting. From right, counterclockwise, Michelle Geoffrey, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Rep. Barrett, James Swinchoski, MCLA senior and spring intern with us, and Al Nelson and Mark Rondeau, of the NBIAI/Friendship Center.

James, by the way, has been great to have around. He helped develop and conduct a survey for us of our food pantry friends and has worked on developing a website specifically for the Friendship Center!

North Berkshire Food Access Collaborative

The North Berkshire Food Access Collaborative held its second meeting on Friday, March 9, at the Green Space on Main Street in North Adams. More than 30 people attended. It was a very productive meeting and much interest was expressed by varied stakeholders from throughout Berkshire 
County in a Food Hub. What this would entail and mean has yet to be fully fleshed out but it could be quite exciting and many people are enthused about the idea.

The next quarterly meeting of the Collaborative will be on Friday, June 15. Stay tuned for more information.

Amanda Chilson speaks to part of those attending the March 9 meeting of the Collaborative. Below, the partial group discussion of a food hub generated much interest.

That's all for now. Thanks and God Bless,

Mark Rondeau

Sunday, November 5, 2017

New BFP Director, Recipes from EB-3, Micah Awards

Kim McMann, new director of the Berkshire Food Project, at our Oct. 20 public meeting.

We have some news to pass along.

On Friday, Oct. 20, old friend Kim McMann came to our public interfaith meeting. Kim is the new director of the Berkshire Food Project. Back when she was with North Adams with Target Hunger she helped us out when we were starting the Friendship Center Food Pantry.

Kim replaces out old friend Valerie Schwarz, who ran the BFP from its inception.

Kim talked about her plans for the Food Project. And we talked about areas of shared cooperation. We are very excited she's back in Northern Berkshire.

Kim McMann, Gordon Clark and Jonathan Schwartz at our Oct. 20 meeting. Nine people attended in all.

EB-3 at the Eagle Street Room

North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright at the Eagle Street Room for the EB-3 food sampling and recipe offering.

More recently, our friends from the North Adams Public School EB-3 alternative program, came to the Eagle Street Room on Wednesday, Nov. 1, with food samples from recipes they had been working on. They also had the printed recipes available for our pantry members.

The recipes included Seven-Layer Bean Dip, Spinach and Grilled Chicken Penne, French Toast Casserole, Chicken Cordon Bleu, Baked Ziti, Scrambled Eggs with Spinach & Parmesan, Rice Cakes, Black Bean Dip, Warm Cinnamon Apples, Potato Sausage Casserole, Chicken Stir Fry, Bacon, Egg and Cheese Bagel, and Pasta Salad.

This is not the first time EB-3 has worked with us. A couple of years ago they produced a very well-done cookbook for our food pantry members.

Another view of the EB-3 presentation (photo from North Adams Public School Facebook)

We honor two at Micah Awards Celebration

Corinne Case and Aubrey Armstrong. Photo from BIO 2nd Annual Micah Celebration program.

BIO First Vice President Jim Kolesar and Corinne Case at the celebration. (BIO photo)

You may know that the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative Inc. is a non-congregational member of Berkshire Interfaith Organizing. BIO's mission statement is: “We work together to make social justice real in our community and improve the quality of life for all in the Berkshires.”

How does BIO go about this?
“We bring together people of faith and values by sharing our stories to: Increase our power to act for justice; Develop skills to be more effective in the public arena; Take action on issues of common concern for our member groups; Ensure that those affected by the issues craft the solutions.

By doing this we: Build relationships and strengthen community Identify and develop diverse local leaders. Achieve systemic solutions.”

The annual celebration is based on the famous verse from the famous Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) book of Micah (6:8): “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

This year we nominated Aubrey Armstrong and Corinne Case for the award. Each BIO member organization had the opportunity to nominate one or two of its members.

The celebration was held on Sunday, Oct. 29, at the Stationery Factory in Dalton.

I wrote and read the nomination for our two nominees. Unfortunately, Aubrey was unable to attend, but Corinne did so.

In addition to Aubrey and Corinne, other of our friends and volunteers were honored at the Micah Awards by their congregations. For instance, BIO member First Congregational Church of Williamstown honored Phil and Susan Smith. Rev. Mark Longhurst, pastor of First Congregational, noted that Phil had the idea for the volunteer-driven rides-home program we now offer at the Friendship Center. He had heard how much we had been spending on taxi rides and resolved to do something about it! He and Susan were honored for a lifetime of service.

Phil and Susan Smith, center. The Rev. Mark Longhurst at right. (BIO photo)

St. John's Episcopal Church in Williamstown named Robin Lenz and Charles Bonenti as its nominees. Robin has participated in our rides program, and she and Charles run the church’s garden, from which they have given the Friendship Center plenty of produce.
To conclude, here my prepared remarks at the celebration:

The Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative (NBIAI) is proud to nominate Aubrey Armstrong and Corinne Case as our co-nominees for the 2017 Micah Award. They both exemplify an honest, humble and effective attitude of service in all they do.

Both women have represented the NBIAI on the BIO Executive Board and other BIO activities. 

Aubrey Armstrong until quite recently was a member of the NBIAI Board of Directors, which is primarily occupied with running the Friendship Center Food Pantry in North Adams, our major ongoing project. Aubrey has supported the pantry in numerous ways. She has been key in helping us find ways of better serving the homeless people we encounter in our work. Her advocacy has also included being a liaison between the NBIAI and the Berkshire Food Project. Aubrey was a key member in BIO’s task force responding to the closing of the Price Chopper in North Adams, where her knowledge of transportation issues was particularly helpful.

Aubrey’s positive attitude, thoughtfulness and detailed knowledge of many subjects will be missed as she moves on. We hope she will check in from time to time as she is able with both the Interfaith Action Initiative and BIO.

Corinne Case is one of a small handful of people who founded the NBIAI in 2010, an opportunity for “people of different faiths and denominations to work with others of goodwill to serve our community.” She helped found the Friendship Center Food Pantry in 2011, and served on the NBIAI Board of Directors for several years. Corinne’s professional training and passion for service has been a huge benefit to our work. 

These include her current and past work in such fields as Adult Basic Education and Tobacco Cessation, among others. In addition, Corinne’s understanding of the interfaith aspect of the NBIAI was key in establishing this as a non-negotiable part of our identity. She is a regular presence during food pantry day at the First Baptist Church of North Adams, ready to help out visiting friends with their education needs and more.

On a personal note, I first met Corinne when she was running a grief support group for the VNA and Hospice of what was then Northern Berkshire Health Systems. She was a great help to me as I dealt with the loss of two family members. A few years later, after another loss, she again helped me deal with it in an unofficial capacity. I will never forget her help with this.

The NBIAI thanks BIO for the opportunity to honor these two wonderful people with the Micah Award.

Several hundred people attended the BIO awards celebration.

That’s all for now. God Bless!


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Where Am I? At the Friendship Center, That's Where

Here are the nine students from the Where Am I program who helped out on Saturday.

We were pleased on Saturday, Sept. 2, to host a group of Williams College students with the Where Am I? local community orientation and service program.

Most were first-year students, with two sophomores leading the group. They came from such diverse places as Queens, N.Y.; Boston; Los Angeles; and Ethiopia.

After a hearing a brief description of what we do, the students took on a wide array of tasks. NBIAI Board of Directors members Sheila Bounds, who is volunteer coordinator; Fran Berasi; and Mark Rondeau each had tasks for the students.

 Here are the students working on repackaging cat and dog food. The pet food comes from the Berkshire Humane Society and from private donations.

The students bagged cat and dog food, and a group went out to Stop & Shop and bought more with money they were given; they repackaged diapers; one students did data entry; they put return stickers and stamps on envelopes for our upcoming letter fund-raising campaign; one student made copies of our fund-raising letter and fact sheet. To top it all off before they left, the students made the weekend cleaning the Friendship Center much easier by thoroughly sweeping the floor.

Though we have had the Where Am I? program visit in the past, I have a hard time remembering the name, at times calling it You Are Here! or Where Are We? At any rate, on a long walk on Monday in Williamstown, I discovered from a sign along Main Street that they are involved in the habitat restoration project near the old Spruces site. In fact, last week I saw a group of young people working there, and they were probably the same students we saw on Saturday. (See photos below).

Working with local students is one of the many enjoyable things about this work.

  Students in the foreground are re-packaging pet food while the students in the back are re-packaging diapers. We get our diapers from the Berkshire Diaper Project.

 One of the Williams students did data entry for us, entering information about our volunteers onto a spreadsheet. That's volunteer coordinator Sheila in the background updating the volunteer board.

Here's the habitat restoration project in Williamstown that the Where Am I? Williams students also worked on.

We Celebrate Versatile Volunteer Kevin Tyree

Here's a photo Kevin provided in documenting a trip back and forth to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts in Hatfield.

Since the February 2013, Kevin Tyree has been an invaluable volunteer with the Friendship Center Food Pantry. Over the years he has been very involved in food transportation, picking up a rented truck and driving either to the local depot in Pittsfield or directly to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts in Hatfield, roughly a 100-mile round trip. Then after helping unloaded the truck he would return it to the rental agency.

For several years, he drove the truck on Tuesdays the great majority of the time. We could not have thrived as a food operation during this time without his help. He has ceased being involved in weekly food transportation, but fortunately he continues to help in other ways.

For instance, Kevin also has been a key presence during the annual Letter Carrier Food Drive during the second Saturday in May — not only helping on the Saturday itself but in setting up the sorting space downtown and in transporting the collected food over to the Friendship Center in stages.

 Here's photo I took of Kevin  a few years ago.

Kevin is a regular presence helping out at the food pantry during the morning and early afternoon session on Wednesday.. In the past he has helped in the evening at the Eagle Street Room with the setup and putting away of tables and cleanup. He has also over the years helped with various mechanical and technical aspects, such as when we changed and upgrades our door locks and putting new wheels on one of our hand carts. He's also taken photos of our activities from time to time.

Kevin is good with computers and often helps out during morning session when there’s a problem with the sign-in computer. In fact, just this past Saturday Kevin came down to pick up a start-up disk in an effort to get our new sign-in computer up and running properly.

Kevin is a cheerful and helpful presence, who cares very much about what we do and about the friends we serve. We greatly appreciate who he is and all he does.

Here's a photo of our celebration of the birthday of another stalwart volunteer, Lois Hescock. That's Kevin standing behind her in his cowboy hat. We have the best volunteers in the non-profit world.

~ Mark Rondeau

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

In Confusing Times, We Stay Focused on Our Mission

Paul Jennings, at left, drove the truck back and forth from Hatfield today. That's our Food Distribution Coordinator Rich Davis at right in the green shirt.

Today on Tuesday, Aug. 1, we unloaded more than 6,500 lbs. of food from the Foodbank of Western Massachusetts in Hatfield. We definitely needed this food after serving a total of 194 households on Wednesday, July 26.

Thanks to all our great volunteers and supporters, who have kept the Friendship Center Food Pantry going strong since it opened in February 2011.

It's that time of year when we plan our annual fundraising letter campaign. We are an all-volunteer organization and we keep costs down, true, but it takes money to keep all that necessary food coming in.

In 2016, we served 1,007 unique households consisting of 2,863 individuals. We served an average of 130 households per week. We distributed 290,696 lbs. of food. The average amount spent on food weekly was $2,730.

In addition to providing food, we also make services available at the Eagle Street Room of First Baptist Church North Adams. These include a nurse from Berkshire Medical Center and numerous others.

In recent years, to help people get home with their groceries, our volunteers have started a rides program. As I wrote to those involved a few months ago to thank them: "We gave our food pantry friends 1,312 rides in 2016. In December, we provided 109 volunteer rides. The month with the greatest number of rides was November (five weeks) at 156; February was the lowest month with 74 rides."

At $7 per ride, if we used a local taxi, this number of rides would have cost $9,184 -- a cost we could not and would not have borne. Yet, as we give an average of 35+ lbs. of food per household in a hilly area, these rides are an enormous service to our members.”

Those not on our mailing list who would like to support us, may made a tax-deductible contribution to the Friendship Center Food Pantry and mail it to The Friendship Center, 45 Eagle St., North Adams, MA 01247.

At work today, Rich Wolfe, standing, and Jocelyn Barrett, seated behind door are expert at shelving and refrigerating the food.

September Meeting

In this turbulent era, we have decided that it remains important to keep as many forums for dialogue open as possible. With this in mind, our public interfaith meetings will resume in September. Our next public interfaith meeting will be held on Friday, Sept. 15. Our topic will be an update on the federal and state funding picture for program for those in need. The meeting will be held at the Eagle Street Room of FBNA and begin at 10 a.m.

With the possibility of deep cuts in safety net programs – such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program – we fear the number of people in need in our community may increase dramatically. Working together is the best way to meet this crisis – if it indeed comes.

For more information, contact or call Mark at 413-664-0130 and leave a message.

Thanks for Everything. Keep the Faith and God Bless,