Pittsfield Bridges gets $475K grant to aid in fight against poverty

Article written by Phil Demers of the Berkshire Eagle. Published on June 5, 2016.

PITTSFIELD — A Pittsfield coalition will bring home $475,000 from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston to fund an out-of-poverty program seeking to touch thousands of lives.

Pittsfield Bridges learned last week it would receive these grant funds, part of the Working Cities Challenge, a Boston Fed program to promote economic growth in low-income communities.

Stakeholders said they hope to fund broad-based training for employees of the dozens of participating city nonprofits, service agencies and, crucially, employers.

The training will better prepare these employers to work with the low-income population, and to maximize client job retention and combat health, language and physical barriers.

“We’ve never done anything like this as a city — it’s a really exciting program,” said Carolyn Valli, executive director for Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity. “We didn’t invent it; it’s an evidence-based approach that’s had big successes in Ohio and elsewhere.”

Habitat for Humanity is the organization administrating the grant funds, and a soon-to-be-hired initiative director will operate out of the group’s space on Hubbard Avenue.

The funds will be released to Pittsfield Bridges over a three-year period. Pittsfield was one of the five cities to win the funds, along with Haverhill, Lowell, Springfield and Worcester. Greylock Federal Credit Union, Berkshire United Way, Berkshire Bank and Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity plan to provide matching funds to push the program along still further.

Preparation of the grant application began last year.

Much of the work involved getting into specific neighborhoods — on the West Side, Morningside and the rest of the city — and talking to residents about what they perceive to be the most efficacious solutions to local poverty.

Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, among others, prepared the grant application. BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel W. Karns said they studied “educational issues, lack of transportation issues, health issues and employment issues” in preparing the grant.

“We didn’t sit around wondering where we were going to get the money to start this work,” Valli said. “We started engaging the community before we even wrote the first word. An untapped resource in the city is the neighborhood residents. We started right off the bat by engaging them in conversations.”

“A lot of work went into this, and it was easy to stick with it: We believed in the program,” said Roberta McCulloch-Dews, director of administrative services for Mayor Linda M. Tyer’s office. “Bridges creates a platform for folks to continue to rise in their lives. It gives people the tools and the mindset to succeed.”

Another facet of the program will be based on certain individuals, called “Getting Ahead.”

Pittsfield Bridges’ core members include the city, Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, BRPC, Berkshire Community College, BerkshireWorks Career Center, Berkshire United Way, Goodwill Industries, Berkshire Health Systems, Berkshire Children and Families, the Berkshire branch of the NAACP and many more.

“We have to all rely on each other to make things work, and fortunately we have a very cohesive community,” Valli said. “One of the things [the Fed] was most impressed by was how well we got along and collaborated. We’ve already begun testing programs and working with partners.”

She added, “Now what we’ll be doing over the summer is working with the Boston Fed to develop a more detailed work program.”