Our future is in the hands of our children. Berkshire United Way is partnering with our community to ensure our youth are actively involved in their community and are working to build positive aspirations for their future. There are many risk and protective factors that contribute to our children’s abilities to be successful and develop into caring adults who are self-sufficient, proud of, active and engaged in our community. Working with our partners, we strive to give youth the tools they need to make healthy decisions now and in support of their future.

Have we been successful? Since 2006, there has been a 50 percent decline in eighth-grade, 30-day alcohol use thanks in part to the Berkshire Youth Development Project’s strategies engaging the community to address youth substance use.

Additionally, since 2009, there has been a 52.6 percent reduction in the teen birth rate countywide; thanks in part to the Face the Facts -- reduce teen pregnancy coalition and its support of evidence-based strategies implemented in the community. These results are made possible because of our community rallying together to tackle these important issues, and we’ve maintained a laser-like focus on building this momentum, producing meaningful outcomes, and dedicating the community’s resources toward impacting sustainable change.

The key to long-term success, as we all know, starts at birth and continues at critical points along a child’s development. Making sure our kids are reading proficiently by third grade is one significant milestone to ensuring a lifetime of success. But, there are other challenges our youth face -- decision making about sexual health, alcohol and drug use, committing to graduating high school, and building aspirations for a financially stable future. We are diligently working with our community and funded partners, grass-roots organizations, city, state and federal leaders, and parents, schools and businesses to provide youth the information and tools they need to tackle these challenges in order to set them up for success.

The Pittsfield Prevention Partnership has been instrumental in helping to reduce the city’s youth substance use rates -- and they collaborate closely with the countywide Berkshire Youth Development Project, made up of key partners including law enforcement, health care and service providers, schools, teens, community coalitions and more. We know from research that 40 percent of kids who begin drinking by age 15 will become addicted. Delaying the age of first use will have a dramatic effect on the life of that child, their family and our community.

In working to support teens, it’s essential that we engage them in our work, that those teenagers’ voices are heard. Who better to inform our action plan than the youth who are impacted? Some examples include the Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) and the Above the Influence (ATI) student groups at the middle and high schools being actively involved in promoting positive decisions and serving as role models to their peers. Teens have also regularly attended our coalition meetings and contributed to focus groups on our community awareness campaigns. Finally, students have also told their stories in front of school committees about the need for comprehensive sexual education in schools -- and so much more. This strong display of actively engaged youth is important to make sure all of our children succeed in Berkshire County.

There are always ways for you to get engaged in this work too in order to help us continue to see the great results that are improving the lives of our young people countywide. Whether you give because you think our youth deserve to have their dreams come true; or you advocate for the cause; or even volunteer to lend a hand. Head to our website, www.berkshireunitedway.org for more information on what you can do to help build a better Berkshires for our youth by helping them see their future as one of endless possibility.