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Information Session about Pittsfield Emergency Recovery Team
February 12, 2019 @ 1:00 pm - 3:00 pm
In the fall of 2017. The White Terrace fire that September displaced over a dozen households near Berkshire Medical Center. Some of the survivors received the requisite voucher from the Red Cross for two nights in a hotel in Allendale. Most needed more help than that, and when they went to City Hall, they were advised to ‘call the Christian Center,’ an ambitious and nimble social service agency on the West Side. Staff and volunteers there scrambled and helped as they could. But when the dust settled, the organization realized it could not handle a similar crisis again without community support. Its director, Ellen Merritt, reached out to area elected officials, agencies, congregations and not-for-profits to build a coalition to figure out better ways to respond.
The group that Ellen convened was diverse, motivated and effective: Staff from the offices of State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier and Mayor Linda Tyer, City Council member Helen Moon; Pittsfield Fire Chief Czerwinski; local representatives from city agencies including Ad-Lib, Berkshire Housing, Pittsfield Housing, the health department, CO-AD, the Salvation Army and the Brien Center and the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations. Some people participated as potential volunteers, others as resources for planning and training.
Together we learned that residential fires and floods are a reality of life in Pittsfield. In a city full of older, inconsistently maintained housing stock, it is only a matter of time before the next appliance shorts out, pipe bursts or accident causes a devastating chain reaction. Lightning and accidents can strike anywhere – however the risks are greater in poorer neighborhoods. It is daunting what a survivor must accomplish quickly: securing the damaged property; replacing identity documents; restoring what can be salvaged; dealing with insurance, if there is any; finding new housing, perhaps several times; replacing medication; shopping for everything. And all this happens during a time of acute grief – denial, anger, tears, loss – accompanied perhaps by symptoms of trauma that develop and change in overwhelming and frightening ways. No survivor is at his or her best in the weeks after the destruction of a home. The only official help available to a survivor was that Red Cross voucher and perhaps some meals from the Salvation Army. If they were not well-connected here before the event, if their landlord didn’t happen to have another property available for them, survivors of the destruction of a home often just left town. We also learned that we’re not alone in having such a gap – no other community in the commonwealth is doing any better.
Ultimately the group decided to develop a program to help a local family recover from the destruction of their home – with real information, basic supplies and compassionate support. Constituting ourselves under the umbrella of the Christian Center, we began to move forward:
•We compiled a packet, “Now That the Fire is Out, What Should I Do?” that the fire department began distributing to fire survivors as needed in December. This handbook contains essential information about how to proceed and available resources.
•We will encourage churches, civic organizations and businesses to collect kits – for kitchens, linens and basic household supplies – that can be brought to a survivor’s new home.
•We aim to collect funds to support our operations as a mission of the Christian Center. Some things – like cell phones and extra nights in a hotel – require money.
•We are training volunteer navigators to accompany and guide survivors as they grieve, heal and rebuild
If you are curious about this project, please attend our upcoming information session, Tuesday, February 12, at 1 p.m. at the Berkshire Athenaeum. There you will have a chance to meet the people who are involved in the project and explore how to become involved.