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,