Saturday, December 17, 2011

Friendship Center Volunteers Dec. 14

Thanks to the efforts of Cynthia and Rich Davis, the Friendship Center offered cookies, goodies and eggnog to our friends on Wednesday, Dec. 14, in the empty storefront next door. It seemed a good time to take some photos of our volunteers. The first two photos are of Cynthia and Rich.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lots of News about the Food Pantry and the Initiative

In this post: 1,890 lbs. of food from the City of North Adams, And That’s Not All, Friends vs. Clients, An Opening Prayer, The Hardest Working Man, Future Directions for the Initiative, Our Next Meeting

1,890 lbs. of food from the City of North Adams

Mayor Alcombright and Gillian Jones watch Mark Neville unload food for the Friendship Center. Below: Al Nelson pulls in some food with the hand cart with James McClain of the city by the truck.


A week-long food drive by the City of North Adams netted two pick-up trucks worth of food weighing a grand total of 1,890 lbs. Mayor Dick Alcombright, along with Lisa Loomis, Ellen Sutherland, Veronica Bosley, Matt Nevile and James McClain of the city came to the Friendship Center on Friday morning at 10 a.m. to deliver the food.

Al Nelson, Mark Lincourt, and Mark Rondeau were on hand to accept the food and meet with the delegation. Jennifer Huberdeau and Gillian Jones of the Transcript were on hand as was Tammy Daniels of iBerkshires. We talked with the mayor for a while about what we’ve been doing and how we’ve been doing it.

The mayor had the idea for an impromptu food drive — now likely to become a yearly event — and Loomis, Bosley, and Sutherland spearheaded it. Food was collected at all city schools, the police and fire departments, the public library, the Spitzer Center, City Hall and at the city yard.

As Mark Lincourt and I began sorting it Friday afternoon, it was obvious that the donations were of the highest quality and exactly the types of things we have said were most needed.

We are extremely grateful to the city and its employees and our residents for making this happen. As I said, which was quoted in The Transcript article: This type of community spirit and giving makes me proud to be a native and resident of North Adams and Northern Berkshire.

And that’s not all

Just going back in our donation book about a month shows how much food we have gotten from our friends, both individuals and instutions. And this by no means includes everything listed:

• Everyday Health, North Adams, 110 lbs of food and more than 100 high-quality cloth bags for our friends to carry their food in.

• Food collected at Williams College Lessons & Carols, 120 lbs., 12/7, courtesy Williams College Chaplain Rick Spalding

• First Congregational Church, North Adams, 171 lbs., 12/7

• St. Elizabeth of Hungary Chuch, 11/30, 222 lbs.

• First Methodist Church of Williamstown, 13 lbs., 12/6

• St. John’s Church, Williamstown, 135 lbs, 11/22

• Tony Pisano (one of our great volunteers and leaders) and the MoCA Jam Session musicians: 12/6, 20 boxes of cereal, 12/4, 95 lbs

• North Adams Regional Hospital, 11/18, 102 lbs.

• MCLA, care of volunteer Alexandra Nichipor, 191 lbs., 11/28

• Northern Berkshire YMCA day school, 82 lbs, 12/1

• We also frequently get surplus, including fruits and vegetables, from our friends at the Berkshire Food Project, including 191 lbs. on 11/23. At times when we get large-sized bags of this or that, we in turn will give them to the BFP.

The Friendship Center also has received donations recently from the North Adams Rotary Club, BFAIR, and on Dec. 9, 38 lbs from those attending the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition meeting. Among the individuals making donations in the last month were Gail Nelson and Marilyn Eade.

We strive to send thank-you notes out to all who donate to us.

Friends vs. Clients

You will notice above a wonderful little gift — a note with a candy cane attached — that my fellow volunteers at the Friendship Center have made to give to our friends over the next two weeks in honor of the holiday. We may also offer them egg nog in line.

Not to blow our own horn, too much, but the place is called the Friendship Center for a reason. We call those who visit “friends.” The words “visitors,” “guests,” “neighbors,” “families,” households,” and even “customers” are also acceptable. One word I don’t like, and my fellow volunteers agree, is “clients.”

Being an Interfaith grassroots organization, we put lots of emphasis on service and on seeing our visiting friends as brothers and sisters. In fact, I have family members and neighbors who come to the pantry, should I call them clients?

A couple of people from the Western Mass. Food Bank came to the Friendship Center on Wednesday, Dec. 7, to do some interviews on camera for a video about the pantries they supply food for. They interviewed me and Mark Lincourt. When I was interviewed, I made the very plain and common observation that most people were a paycheck or two away from needing a food pantry. For instance, if I lost my fulltime job I would soon need the help of the Friendship Center.

Now, if I had to use the Friendship Center for help, would I want to be considered “a client” or would I just want to remain what I have been all along — “a friend” — but one who could be found at different times on both sides of the counter?

An opening prayer

As noted, we open with a prayer before our morning and evening food pantry sessions. Usually this prayer is off-the-cuff by whoever volunteers or is chosen. I decided a while back to write a prayer for myself, and I read it for the first time on Dec. 7. Here it is:

An opening prayer for the Friendship Center

Dear Lord,

Thank you for bringing us together here at the Friendship Center for another busy Wednesday.

Thank you for all that makes it possible to serve our sisters and brothers in need — for this donated space, for our free time, and especially for the food we have to give away, asking nothing in return.

Please, Lord, whether we be baggers or stockers or desk workers or greeters, help us to see your image in all those we meet. Help our hands to do your work in the world and make us ambassadors of your constant love and signs of your unfailing presence in all of our lives.


The Hardest Working Man

Our good friend Shirley McDonald of BCAC recently sent us a few photos she took of Mark Lincourt, food service coordinator at the Friendship Center. He’s operating a fork lift to move a pallett of cans and she called her email with the photos “The hardest working man in food delivery.” He’s also the hardest working volunteer at the Friendship Center Food Pantry, and our first 10 month of operation would not have been possible without him.

Future Directions for the Initiative

Currently, the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative runs the Friendship Center Food Pantry and also with the help of Northern Berkshire Community Coalition business manager Liz Boland manages the ministry fund or voucher system.

Initiative volunteers are trying to expand the voucher system beyond Williamstown, into North Adams and Adams.

As many know, the voucher system proved invaluable during the flooding of the Spruces. Clergy and others in Williamstown used the system to provide much-needed emergency help to many, many of those flooded out.

In addition continuing the food pantry and expanding the voucher system, where else could the Initiative possibly make a difference?

Here are some ideas:

1). Continuing to provide an alternative community forum: Since its formation in May 2010, the IAI has hosted many discussions. At first, we hosted these discussions in our effort to find an area where we could help an existing effort.

For instance, we discussed youth mentoring with Big Brothers Big Sisters and discussed helping/mentoring the homeless with staff from Louison House.

Since we opened the food pantry, we have continued the practice of hosting presentations during our meetings. These have included discussing Faith Communities Partnering for Emergency Preparedness, the Northern Berkshire Systems of Care Committee, and affordable housing with the Citizens Affordable Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA) of Boston.

We offered the forum on affordable housing in cooperation with the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, which was not able to fit it CHAPA into its schedule of forums. I hope there will be more opportunities to co-sponsor talks and presentations at our monthly meetings with the Coalition and other groups.

Upcoming presentations and discussions will include affordable assisted living in January and revival of the CROP Walk in Northern Berkshire with the Rev. Bert Marshall in April.

2). Cooperation/Facilitation with other civic groups, college groups, and community efforts. It’s my hope, for instance, that we will be able to work with Higher Ground and the Northern Berkshire Clergy Association on faith communities partnering for emergency preparedness; with Higher Ground on developing affordable housing in Northern Berkshire. We already have had much interaction with the MCLA and Williams College communities.

I have learned that there are also areas where the fact we serve hundreds of low-income people places us in contact with those people social service professionals are trying serve in other ways. We have access that they at times don't.

For instance, the Systems of Care Committee is interested in those families with a child suffering a serious emotional disturbance; some of our visting friends are homeless and Louison House and the Continuum of Care Committee, run by the Berkshire Community Action Council (BCAC), whose meetings I sometimes attend in Pittsfield, are trying to serve them.

On Dec. 8 I attended a great follow-up meeting at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition office on the transitions and challenges facing local 18 to 24 year olds. Some 20 pecent of those we serve at the Friendship Center fall into this age category and their very presence there indicates their need for help. I suggested the Friendship Center as somehow a point of contact for outreach to this population. This possibility was first suggested to me, in fact, by two people from BCAC who dropped in not long after we opened.

So reaching out to the 18 to 24 year old population is another possibility for cooperation/facilitation, whether by putting a poster targeted to this age range in our window or, when we eventually move to a bigger space, letting an outreach worker set up a desk on days we’re open. Or such a worker could talk to people in line before we open in the morning.

In another direction, a new non-profit which likely will be started sometime next year offers some really intriguing possibilities. On Dec. 3, I attended a training in one-to-one community organizing through conversations offered in North Adams by the Intervalley Project. Among things the Intervalley Project does is community economic development.

The tentative name of this non-profit, which apparently will be brought into being by the NBC Coalition and its Northern Berkshire Neighbors program, is the “Northern Berkshire Organizing Project.”

Which leads me to my next idea for the future of the IAI:

3). Lead in creative, democratic and community based economic development. From what I’ve heard about the organizing method mentioned immediately above, it lends itself exactly to this and has been used by the Intervalley Project to do this.

Personally, I’m tired of local job-creation and economic-development initiatives being trotted out that go nowhere. Something new is needed. The one-to-one training builds relationships before the specific project is sought. Talents and interests and resources are brought out into the open before a goal is chosen. Maybe this is a way to find what’s doable.

We’ll see. The Initiative needs to closely monitor the Northern Berkshire Organizing Project, which should be easy, as four members of the Initiative steering committee attended the Dec. 3 training.

4). Advocacy/Lobbying. We have done some of this, but I would like to see a lot more. Mark Lincourt, on behalf of the Friendship Center Food Pantry, has written letters opposing budget cuts for food. As an Initiative, we wrote a letter that was not published in November 2010 opposing three state ballot questions.

I think that going forward the Initiative Steering Committee needs to look for more areas to speak out, to even travel to Boston to speak about funding for food, for affordable housing and on similar issues. This is what Interfaith groups traditionally have done, and it is a way of working for justice.

5). I think that, within certain parameters, there is room for more spiritual/religious activity. Inviting speakers from certain traditions is one area. I would like to see a multi-faith speakers when we celebrate the first birthday of the Friendship Center.

I may suggest setting aside one of our monthly meetings in 2012 to discuss possibilities.

Our Next Meeting

All volunteers, supporters and friends of the Friendship Center Food Pantry — including those who just want to learn more about it — are invited to the Friday, Dec. 16, meeting of the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative. The meeting will begiin at 10 a.m. at the First Baptist Chuch of North Adams (use Eagle Street entrance).

Enjoy refreshments and fellowship and then stay to give input at an informal discussion of the first 10 months of the Friendship Center.

For more information, call Mark at 664-0130. A blog post featuring a ton of Food Pantry and Initiative news and photos has just been added at (Ha! That's what you've been reading.)

The Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative was started in May 2010 to enable people of different faiths and denominations to work with others of good will to find ways to serve our community. Our meetings are open to everyone and include a moment of silence and faith sharing.

Those who cannot attend Friday’s meeting are invited to stop by the Friendship Center to say hello and look around during its regular hours of operation on Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 6 p.m.

Well, my fingers are tired, so I’m going to stop.

Thanks and God Bless,


Monday, November 7, 2011

We Visit The Kitchen Cupboard in Bennington

On Sunday, Nov. 6, five of use from the Friendship Center visited the Kitchen Cupboard food pantry in Bennington, Vt., during their open house. They were most generous in answering all of our questions and even giving us some coffee and rice pilaf to distribute at the Friendship Center.

The Kitchen Cupboard is run by Greater Bennington Interfaith Services Inc. The pantry opened in April and currently has more than 800 member households. It is located on the corner of Gage and Bradford Streets, near the Bennington Rec. Center.

Above: Al Nelson, Cynthia and Rich Davis and Tony Pisano listen to volunteer Donna Maroney tell us about The Kitchen Cupboard.

I'm hoping to put on the agenda for our Friday Nov. 18 Interfaith Action Initiative meeting a discussion of what we saw and heard on our visit. Our main topic on the 18th will be the Northern Berkshire Systems of Care Committee and the good work it is doing.

The outside of the facility, which has a first floor and a basement, allowing them to store a great deal of food. The building is a former tanning salon, and an out of town landlord rents it to them for a modest monthly amount.

Here, Donna shows the great storage area they have in a "room" which was once the sauna at the tanning salon. They had huge bags of dog food in there that they got from the Vermont Food Bank, which they break up into smaller amounts and give to their visitors. Our food bank doesn't offer this.

While we were there, people came in from the Bennington CROP Walk to tour the food pantry. We hope to revive the CROP Walk in Northern Berkshire next year.

Sue Andrews, executive director of Bennington Interfaith Community Services Inc., came in with the CROP Walkers and gave us plenty of tips. Sue writes grants for a living and has been instrumental in the success of the Food and Fuel Fund and the Bennington Free Clinic. She and Al Nelson remembered each other from the days when she was with the VNA in Northern Berkshire and he was with WMNB.

Before we left, Donna gave us a box of coffee and got Sue's permission to give us a box of rice pilaf, too! What great people! It was well worth the trip up the road with friends on a beautiful Sunday afternoon

God Bless You All,


Saturday, October 29, 2011

IAI meeting explores paths to affordable housing

Higher Ground plans to work in Northern Berkshire

for affodable housing

Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association to launch

Welcome Home Massachusetts to boost housing throughout state

(First article by Mark Rondeau, co-organizer of NBIAI. Second article consists of notes from the meeting complied by Carol Marine of CHAPA)

A heightened local awareness of the importance of affordable housing dominated the Oct. 21 monthly meeting of the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative (NBIAI).

The NBIAI and Northern Berkshire Community Coalition (NBCC) hosted representatives of the non-profit Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA) from Boston.

Aaron Gornstein, CHAPA executive director, said the group promotes affordable housing throughout Massachusetts. “We pride ourselves in really taking into account urban, suburban and rural communities,” he said. “We are active in all areas of the state.”

The flooding of the Spruces mobile home park in Williamstown by Tropical Storm Irene on Aug. 28 left more than 200 people, mostly elderly and on fixed incomes, without homes. Only a handful have moved back into the park since; many others have not yet found permanent, affordable housing.

Several of the 23 people who attended the Oct. 21 meeting were from Higher Ground, the group of mostly Williamstown residents who are working to help resettle the people left homeless by the flooding and who will seek longer-term solutions for affordable housing.

“The main issue for us is that all of the affordable housing, or housing that’s based on income, that could be supported by federal or state contract, is full within a 100-mile radius,” said Robin Lenz, who has led the efforts to directly aid Spruces residents.

Al Bashevkin, executive director of the NBCC, noted that the 220 units of housing in the Spruces park — where people who owned their trailers paid just $250 per month rent — is a lot of affordable housing to replace: “To take that off the market creates a huge affordable housing issue for this area.”

Bilal Ansari, a chaplain at Williams College and a member of Higher Ground, who worked on affordable housing in New Haven, Conn., said a huge problem in this area is that there is no real data on the need for affordable housing and no strategic plan to meet the need.

“Another great need is for a local affordable housing non-profit to be located in the Northern Berkshire area that is native, that has the best interests of this area at heart,” he said. “Everybody is reaching across the state for that. There needs to be one raised up so that it employs the local residents here in construction, it creates jobs.”

Mark Rondeau, co-organizer of the NBIAI, said one of his concerns is that in a year, when everyone displaced from the Spruces has been settled, the affordable housing issue will be dropped.

Margaret Johnson Ware, a member of Higher Ground, said the flooding has pointed out that there isn’t enough affordable housing in the whole area. The days when plentiful apartments are available in North Adams at a low price are long over. Others noted that rents in the city are now about $600 per month.

“I think the Spruces opened our eyes,” said Aleta Moncecchi, who works in Northern Berkshire for the Berkshire Community Action Council. “It’s always been an issue. It’s just the first time I thank that everybody’s stopped and realized it.”

Even for affordable housing organizations in the Berkshires, Northern Berkshire is not their focus. “What I’ve learned over the years, is if we’re going to pay attention to North Berkshire County, we need to have things located here,” Bashevkin said.

Asked who else needs to be at the table as the local affordable housing effort moves forward, those present mentioned the business community — especially developers; municipal and other elected officials; and those in need of affordable housing themselves.

Gornstein said a large coalition formed in 2010 in opposition to the November ballot quesiton to repeal the state’s affordable housing law. The referendum was defeated by a 58 to 42 percent vote.

Welcome Home Massachusetts

Some 2,500-3,000 people around the state were active on the campaign to save the affordable housing law. After the vote, they wanted to keep the momentum going. To that end, CHAPA has held meetings around the state and formulated a plan to begin early in 2012 called Welcome Home Massachusetts.

Over the course of three years, this initiative aims to increase the amount of affordable housing in urban, suburban and rural communities, and provide support to local groups. This will be done through a statewide messaging and media campaign highlighting the need for affordable housing. A second component will be education and information, particularly through a new website featuring an extensive online guide to implementing local housing strategies. Third will be in-depth assistance for five communities per year, 15 over three years, to achieve their affordable housing goals.

Gornstein explained that the Massachusetts affordable housing law, saved by the 2010 vote, is a zoning law that allows non-profits and for-profits developing affordable housing to expedite the permitting, including overriding local zoning barriers, though a developer still has to get all local approvals.

“It’s the primary way that whether you’re a housing authority, a non-profit or for-profit...that affordable housing is getting built today in suburban and rural communities,” he said. “Zoning does not typically allow for the kiind of housing that is being proposed.”

For instance, zoning may permit one home every one or two acres: “You can’t do affordable housing that way.”


Summary of North Adams Affordable Housing Meeting

October 21, 2011

1). Current Local Challenges

Tropical Storm Irene

Devastating loss for Spruces – mobile home community that housed elderly/disabled residents in 220 homes Many residents still do not have permanent housing and loss is taking severe emotional toll

Market rents are about $500 more than mobile home rents Despite 18 month rental assistance, there are no vacancies

Looming issue of landlord passing on removal costs to tenants of

Spruces, with costs estimated at $5000 per home

Poverty/Transitional Services

In addition to victims of TS Irene and families, college kids and

young adults are using local food pantries 600-800 membership of food pantries in North Adams and Adams, respectively, significant increase over prior years

Some college students may be forced to withdraw from school because of lack of funds to cover rent Average rent in North Berkshire County is estimated to be $600/month not including utilities

Need for transitional services and housing for families Median age in transitional housing has dropped by 10 years due to

economic disadvantage and no jobs, poor education and lack of GED

Suggestion of folks so desperate that they will commit petty crimes to get into prison system for food, shelter and medicine

Higher Ground

Non profit formed in response to TS Irene to address immediate and permanent shelter, food and other needs of those displaced

Poised to have a longer and broader role in highlighting the lack of

affordable housing in the area and create solutions

Possibility of new CDC entering North Berkshire with structure and

capacity to increase affordable housing stock

2). Underserved Populations

Near elderly

Young adults (18 to 24 years)

Families (many are doubling up to share housing)

Rental housing tenants, particularly college students growing

pressure on rental market

Some rentals available but private landlords will not rent because of code issues and /or tenant issues

Many affordable apartments have been converted to condominiums

Couples separating

3). Other Community Leaders that Need to be Involved

Private developers: need to “marry non profits and private

developers” to tap funding and know how

Elected officials – state and local – some BOS are supportive but

need more

Cool Committee (green)

LISC, Higher Ground and others can pull in officials

Employers such as colleges and hospitals – Williams already involved


Home owners/landlords of vacant units

Habitat for Humanity and other such groups

4). Collaboration and Regionalization

Berkshire County Regional Housing Corp and Western Massachusetts Coalition to End Homelessness are good models for collaboration

Regional Planning Commission of Berkshire County should be stakeholder Has a repository of data Strategic plans around land use In the process of completing three year plans

Recognition that collaboration of multiple communities may open up

more funding opportunities

Need to direct funds not only to permanent housing but to

transitional housing as well to avoid residents regressing

5). Solutions/Campaign Ideas

Collaboration with colleges such as involving students in data

collection UMass graduate school – host competition to build “exciting, green communities with affordable housing,” possibility with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as well and other schools; involve high schools, college alumni and community development corporations

With regard to technological resources, many in western MA do not have access to internet

Provide community room with internet Community effort to link people in need through internet, get them connected and use networking to increase access to housing options; then turn to education; essentially help people “restart” their lives through housing and internet housing resources

Cable TV is available to many who do not have internet so consider adapting resources to local cable TV

Also provide community space in houses of worship Focus on low cost NOT low income model- and links to elected officials.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Agenda for Friday's Meeting

Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative

Meeting: Oct. 21, 2011, 10 a.m. to Noon

First Baptist Church of North Adams

1). Welcome/introductions.

2). Moment of prayer: Particularly this month for our Colleagues/Friends.

3). Faith sharing.

4). Brief Announcements (Please keep short as possible).

10:15 - 11:45:

5). Affordable housing discussion with representatives of the Citizens and Housing Planning Association.

10:45 to noon or beyond:

6). Discussion about implications of and adjustments to cuts in BCAC staff.

7). CROP Walk update.

8). Other business.

9). Adjourn.

Upcoming NBIAI meeting topic:

Friday, Nov. 18: NB Systems of Care Committee