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