PITTSFIELD — Ask Berkshire United Way President and CEO Kristine Hazzard about the nonprofit's next charitable campaign, and she'll say, "We're going bigger and we're going better."
Slated for May 20, the organization's annual Day of Caring projects and festivities — part of a national United Way initiative — were announced at Hancock Shaker Village during a Monday morning press conference.
The 2016 campaign is being co-chaired by Berkshire United Way board member Christina Barrett and Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn, a former board member.
This year's hallmark project is the construction and installation of 50 book houses stocked with materials for young readers; a "We Care" charitable giving campaign organized through local businesses; and "Movers + Shakers," a ticketed Day of Caring after-party at Hancock Shaker Village. Between the giving campaign and party, Berkshire United Way is hoping to raise $25,000 to support year-round literacy efforts and provide outreach to 12,000 children.
Monday's press conference detailed the event preparations and outlined how people can get involved.
Hazzard said the book houses can be characterized as a continuation of the local United Way's ongoing commitment to early childhood literacy and family engagement goals. State and local studies have shown that only about 50 percent of students can read at grade level or better by the time they get to third grade.
"We're committed as ever to making sure that every family in Berkshire County has easy access to materials that will improve early childhood literacy to make sure that our children are on the right track to a successful academic career and prosperous life," Hazzard said.
The book houses will be strategically placed in at least 22 Berkshire cities and towns that have signed on to be a part of the project. They function under the same premise as the national Little Free Library movement, where patrons can come and take a book and/or leave a book, 24/7, using the honor system. Each house can hold up to 100 books and will included reading tips and laminated lists of resources and websites for families.
While the direct impact on literacy will be hard to measure, Hazzard said local studies have shown that the more children are reading outside of school, especially during the summer months, the more likely they're able to retain and advance their knowledge and reading skills.
The weather-proofed structures are a little larger and have more depth than a typical medicine cabinet, and have the aesthetic of a quaint wooden birdhouse. They were designed by Jack Driscoll of Geary Builders in Cheshire, built from materials provided by L.P. Adams of Dalton, and were assembled earlier this month by volunteers from Sabic and JRL Construction, during two day-long workshops,
Assigned to each book house is a "town captain," a liaison who's in change of making sure the house gets properly installed, and is maintained, stocked and promoted.
Katharine "Kacy" Westwood will serve as captain for Lanesborough's two book houses, which will be located at the American Legion/VFW site and Krispy Cones Soft Serve Ice Cream stand, respectively.
"This is an idea that I've been interested in for a long time," said Westwood, who had looked into establishing a Little Free Library. "People in town are already saving books for it."
Jennifer Glockner, director for Pittsfield's Office of Cultural Development, will also serve as one of the city's book house captains. She said her office will put the book house on wheels, so it can be set up during Third Thursday street celebrations and other community events.
Wynn, who is coordinating with the town captains, said he's still looking to partner with businesses, volunteers, and service-oriented youth groups to help install and look after the houses. "This is a broad, community-wide endeavour."
Hazzard said the second component of the Day of Caring is the "We Care" initiative, where local businesses have pledged to donate 10 percent of their sales on May 20 or a one-time sponsorship of $250 to support the book houses and other early literacy programs of Berkshire United Way. So far 10 businesses have signed on to contribute, and will be distinguished with a "We Care 2016" decal.
Barrett said to celebrate and honor the work of the nearly 90 volunteers currently involved in these projects, there will be the "Movers + Shakers" celebration held from 7 to 11 p.m. on the campaign day, under a tent at Hancock Shaker Village. Tickets start at $50 and will include dancing with DJ BFG, hors d'oeuvres, signature beverages at the cash bar, and pop-up performances.
Barrett said that during a time when population loss regularly makes local headlines, this year's Day of Caring campaign is designed to "excite people to stay and live in the Berkshire community" and to "celebrate and support and literacy."
Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.
On the Web ...
Learn more at berkshireunitedway.org/day-caring-2016
The following towns and venues are currently signed up to host and install a Berkshire United Way book house to promote early childhood literacy:
Adams: The Town Common, Columbia Street Park
Hancock Shaker Village
Lanesborough: Krispy Cones, American Legion/VFW
Lee: Lee Premium Outlets, the corner of Main and Railroad streets
North Adams: UNO Community Center, the Northern Berkshire branch of Berkshire Family YMCA, Haskins Community Center, Mohawk Forest
Otis: Farmington River Country Store
Pittsfield: Berkshire Carousel, Dower Square, Berkshire Community College, Belanger Field, Burbank Park, Clapp Park, The Common, Deming Park, Dorothy Amos Park, Durant Park, Kirvin Park, Osceola Park, Office of Cultural Development, Springside Park, Wilson Housing Development
Savoy Hollow General Store
Stockbridge: St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Williamstown Youth Center
To get involved or to take care of a book house, contact Jonah Sykes, development manager, at 413-442-6948, or visit berkshireunitedway.org.