Monday, June 24, 2013

Many Heroes Make it Happen

Al Nelson speaks at the Annual Meeting. (Photo courtesy Bert Lamb)

At the Tuesday, June 4, annual meeting of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, Al Nelson and Mark Rondeau accepted the annual Northern Berkshire Hero Award on behalf of the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative. Here is a transcription of what was said during the award ceremony.

It presents a good idea of the philosophy behind the NBIAI and the Friendship Center Food Pantry, the debt owed to so many people for our success so far, who our friends are, and our vision for the future.


Al Bashevkin, executive director of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition:

"Now it's time for, perhaps one of the most...This another very important part of our of our annual meeting and it's the presentation of the Northern Berkshire Heroes Award. So I want to ask my friend, Mayor Dick Alcombright, to come up. The mayor is a former recipient of the Northern Berkshire Heroes Award in 2007. And Mayor Alcombright is leading North Adams during some difficult times, and you do it with heart, you do it with saavy, and at times -- a sense of humor. 

North Adams Mayor Dick Alcombright

"Thank you everyone. [Unintelligible] I am not going to go there. Although I will say I am a bit embarassed. It is not casual Tuesday at City Hall, and when I saw Al with a jacket...My jacket's on the back of my chair at work, which doesn't help here. So I feel a bit intimidated by that. 

Before we get into this presentation, I really want to say, when we look at the Coalition, the work that's done and the people that are served and we try to close our eyes and envision a community, this community, this greater Northern Berkshire Community without it. It's frightening at some level. And I don't know if we get there during this program or not, but I really want to thank Al Bashevkin, and I hope you will all join me in thanking Al. 

So in April of 2010, the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative came together as a group of people of faith and good will to find ways to serve our greater community. They were looking for a project to take on, and when the BCAC food pantry closed, they found it. Boy, did they find it. 

The Friendship Food Pantry opened in February of 2011 in a small space donated up at 43 Eagle Street in North Adams, and remains as an entirely volunteer organization. They have sustained a pantry that serves significant needs through grants, donations, and the dedication of a solid and highly dependable group of volunteers.

At the pantry, they strive to treat all recepients of services with dignity and respect and as to the Friendliness, thuse the name, the Friendship Center. They currently serve about 1,300 members in North Adams and the greater region. And the pantry’s open Wednesdays from 11 to 2 and 4 to 6, I believe.

The organization survives solely on the dedication and love of community of those that play a role in its success. So, that said, I want to call up Mark and Al, please, Mark Rondeau and Al Nelson. [5:00]

Mark, thank you so much for not wearing a jacket. [Laughter]. So much. These two gentlemen specifically were the catalysts behind this program, and so much has been said about both these guys, of course most sealed in court documents. [laughter] Now, I’m just being silly here. These two fellas, they continue to serve their faith and their greater communities at a remarkably high level.

Some of you heard me say at the last Neighborly awards, and certainly it applies here, what my mother taught me many many years ago that the greatest gift that you can give anyone is the gift of time. These guys give this most precious gift day in, day out,. And today, we pause here to give you both and your organization our thanks for all you have done, all you do, and will do long after this moment passes. Thank you, Mark, thank you, Al, and all at the Friendship Center for everything you do in giving that most precious gift of time. (6:24) (applause)

Mark Rondeau, co-founder of the Interfaith Action Initiative: 

Thank you. I’m extremely happy to accept this award with my dear friend Al Nelson on behalf of the Interfaith Action Initiative, we’re accepting this award on behalf of a lot people, some who are here, some who aren’t.

The Initiative would not exist and would not have thrived without the support of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition. Indeed, Al and I got the inspiration for the Initiative three years ago at a Coalition forum on the intersection of faith and the community.

With churches closing and consolidating and fewer clergy and several of those clergy still around part time and in any case doing more with fewer resources, the time seemed right to see if laypeople from various faiths and denominations working together with others of goodwill could find ways to serve the community.

So with support and encouragement from Al Bashevkin, Al Nelson and I started convening monthly meetings, talking to various groups and individuals, trying to find a project that didn’t duplicate anything existing.

And as the mayor said, near the end of 2010 we found a project in the emergent need for food pantry services in Northern Berkshire, in space on Eagle Street in North Adams, donated for our use by Lois and Mike Daunis. 

(Lois isn’t here, but she works at the Coalition).

The Friendship Center Food Pantry opened in February 2011. A short time later, at the instigation of our treasurer, Stuart Crampton, we took on administration of a faltering emergency voucher system in Williamstown, not only keeping it operating but expanding it into North Adams and Adams.

For our next initiative, with planning by three members of our clergy, we co-sponsored a very successful service for mental illness recovery and understanding this January at New Hope Methodist Church here in Williamstown. We plan on this being an annual event.

But of course what we are best known for is the Friendship Center Food Pantry. We are open 52 Wednesdays a year — and part of the reason some of our people aren’t here is they’re getting ready for tomorrow — with a roster of about 1,300 families served in North Adams, Clarksburg and Florida. Each household is eligible to get food every other week, but we never turn anyone in need away.

Support from the community has been phenomenal. It has come from individuals of all kinds, from those in need themselves to those with plenty. Our public schools, including the Clarksburg School, which has done a drive for us for two years, our public schools, agencies, letter carriers, houses of worship, businesses, farms, colleges, clubs and many more have given and given again.

Friends coming in to give us donations have ranged from the North Adams Girl Scout Troop 11097 to the Doppelgangers Motorcycle Club. I particularly want to thank our local officials, especially Mayor Alcombright — who made me feel good about not wearing a tie — who assisted us in setting up the pantry and since has instituted an annual city food drive and has helped us in numerous other ways.

The Interfaith Action Initiative is an all-volunteer organization, and we have the most dedicated, innovative, patient, compassionate volunteers you will ever see. Many I didn’t know before we started, and they are now dear friends.

And this is important, because as important to me as what we do is how we do it. We strive to treat all those we serve cheerfully, with friendship, patience, and respect. We call it the Friendship Center for a reason. As a faith-based organization, we are entitled to avoid the word “clients” and we do. It divides those involved into “us” and “them”  — so we call those we serve “friends,” for we are all in this together.

Moreover, I see what we do and how we do it as a statement against the prevalent dehumanizing attitude that would reduce people merely to what they produce and consume, measuring the worth of an individual by the size of his or her bank account. We see each individual as having absolute worth as a unique child of God.

For the future, we want to build an Interfaith organization that lasts. One that passes our ideal of service on to the young. We’d like to do more on faith-related topics, perhaps offering an interfaith support service for caregivers.

We hope eventually to provide more services in a bigger facility, perhaps partnering with other groups and agencies. By the way, we’re already doing partnering,

Beyond charity, we’d like to search out paths to empowerment and justice for ourselves, for our friends, for the entire Northern Berkshire Community.

I thank you for this award from the bottom of my heart. I see so many in this room having given their lives to service. You too are heroes. May God bless you all. Thank you. 

Al Nelson, co-founder of the Interfaith Action Initiative:

When we told Al Bashevkin that both Mark and I would be speaking, he said “Well, I’m going to go out and buy a hook.” He did, he told me yesterday. “How many pages do you people have?” I said, “Quite a few.”

He said, “Well the hook is ready, so watch it, keep an eye out for that.”

On behalf of the initiative, that includes its volunteers, and many food and monetary donors, and the hundreds of friends that we welcome, it’s an honor to receive this year’s heroes award.

We are very grateful to the Coalition, because if it wasn’t for the Coalition, perhaps we wouldn’t even be here today. It’s been a great partnership, it is a great partnership in everything that we do in our development and our ongoing activities. It’s also an honor to be in the company of individuals and organizations that have preceeded us in receiving this award.

Mark made note of the short history of the Initiative and its ministries. And I’ll just note and close by commenting on our volunteers and our hundreds of friends. 

Volunteers: They are of various faiths, denominations, along with others with a passion to glady join in the mission. Sometimes, you might find this difficult because we don’t always get together on theology  — but the volunteers are Catholics, there are Methodists, there are Congregationalists, there are Baptists, there are Episcopalians, Jewish, yes, Muslims, and Buddhists. And there may be others that I’m not aware of. 

We pray together, this group prays together, at meetings, every meeting that we have. And every Wednesday, before opening the Friendship Food Pantry doors, we come together in a prayer circle and pray together.

As Red Sox sportscaster Joe Castiglione often says: “Can you believe it!” Yes, it can be done, it should be done, and it is done here in Northern Berkshire and we’re proud of it..

Prayers put our hearts and our minds in the proper place, showing the way in all that we do.

There are some heated moments, however, and you knew I was going to say it, between Red Sox and Yankee fans, never a dull moment. And there is one Met fan, one Met fan, that person’s in the room today. I would just like to say to that Met fan, Thank you for sweeping the Yankees last week.

Nevertheless, despite our differences in that category, we have a lot of fun together, in a very serious time, when serving our communitites. It’s amazing how all the volunteers with special gifts fall into place to accomplish all that must be taken care of. Some are able to give an hour or two on Wednesdays; others can stay all day; others are there several days during the course of the week.

Why do they volunteer? You’ll have to ask them. I really don’t know why. Several are here today, others are traveling to pick up two to three thousand pounds of food today, which they do every week, every Tuesday. Two to three thousand pounds. 

Now our friends, they’re coping with meeting basic needs, let me emphasize that. They are coping — very, very difficult, meeting basic needs. Life is difficult. How well do you know your neighbor? Next door? On your street? In your neighborhood? How about your Northern Berkshire communities? How well do you know all of your neighbors? Or most of your neighbors?

It’s been an eye-opening experience in the short time that we have welcomed our friends. Through the Friendship Center, taking applications and reviewing menus, we do engage in very food-spirited, friendly conversation, developing very trusting relationships. It’s not just food. 

A gentleman in conversation would say, “I can’t take that. I don’t need that on the menu.” Why not? “I don’t have any pots or pans to cook anything in.”

A young lady with a young child: “No, I can’t accept any refrigerated items.” Why not? “I don’t have a refrigerator. And I don’t have a bed for my child or for myself. We are sleeping on the floor.”

And then every once in a while, the answer is, to an address, “I’m homeless.” I do have to think for a few moments before you continue the conversation, and what you’re going to do.

Let me tell you, the friends that we speak of are very grateful for the help, some are in this room today. They say it to us face to face. And they put it in writing, many times, each time they come, on their menus. “We are grateful, thank you, thank you.” “You are angels.” “I don’t feel poor coming to the Friendship Center.” “It’s a good place for me to come to lift my spirits.”

Have you ever waited in a food pantry line, on a sidewalk, in all kinds of weather, say for about 45 minutes? Some of our friends have. But with the Good Lord’s help we found a solution to that. We now are in partnership with the First Baptist Church, folks go to the church, inside the church, in what we call the Eagle Street room. They start there, fill out their paperwork, and then when time allows and we can get folks into the Friendship Center, they just walk a short distance up the street. That’s helped a lot.

Food is not the only problem, as I noted. As neighbors and community leaders, we have to do some more work to meet these needs, so give us some of your time as volunteers. Thank you ever so much for your food and monetary support. It helps to make better and neighborly communities here in Northern Berkshire. It does make a wonderful and meaningful difference. We see it in so many that come as our friends.

Thank you and God bless. 

(Note: As of this posting, the entire Annual Meeting is being shown on NBCTC community access channel 15 on Saturdays at 5 p.m.)

Some of the many volunteers and contributors who make it all happen, one recent Wednesday at the Friendship Center.