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.”

Berkshire Bridges: A vision for our community

On Friday, December 11th the Berkshire United Way, Family Resource Center and Working Cities Pittsfield Team hosted a day of learning and discussion about Berkshire Bridges. This vision for our community was inspired by the Schenectady Bridges team just over the border in Schenectady, New York. Over the last nine years, Schenectady Bridges has helped improve the lives of thousands of under resourced residents with leadership training, employer resource connections and more, all based on the Bridges Out of Poverty framework.

Nate from Schenectady Bridges speaks with the Working Cities Pittsfield Team.
Nate from Schenectady Bridges speaks with the Working Cities Pittsfield Team.

There were 3 meetings that Friday about Berkshire Bridges:

  • A morning session for Pittsfield employers to learn about the Employee Resource Network, and how it will strengthen their company and workforce. Hosted at Berkshire Hills Country Club with over 35 employers in attendance!
  • A lunch session with Working Cities Pittsfield Team partners about how organizations embed Bridges Out of Poverty into their staff, and collaborate better as human service providers.
  • An afternoon session with nearly 40 attendees from the community to learn about the core principles of Bridges Out of Poverty and how it works in daily life.

Nancy Stoll, Vice President of Community Impact at BUW, gave a recap of part of the day: 

Nathan Mandsager and Schenectady Bridges are an excellent resource for us as we move toward implementing and embedding the Bridges philosophy and constructs in Pittsfield, and then throughout the Berkshires.  Nathan gave us concrete examples such as the importance of providing monetary compensation to the under resourced participants who deliver the Bridges trainings throughout the community. My belief is that resource should be built into the Working Cities implementation grant we write.

Nathan provided a fantastic presentation to the morning session of local employers. He discussed the connection between the Bridges Out of Poverty concepts in the workplace, and how the Employee Resource Network is building and supporting the economic vitality of the community and the employees who live and work there.  He provided much information to support the Berkshire United Way Workplace Resource Coordinator program; many employers are interested in signing on to the pilot currently in the works as a result of Nathan’s presentation.

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A crowd of nearly 40 joined us for the afternoon Berkshire Bridges discussion.

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Nate from Schenectady Bridges was articulate, engaging and provided inspiration for us in Pittsfield. We are striving to become a Berkshire Bridges community, so that all people in Pittsfield experience an equitable, thriving and safe community.

If you’d like to learn more about Berkshire Bridges, the Working Cities Team, or would like to be part of these movement, please contact us!