PITTSFIELD — The Salvation Army of Pittsfield hopes shoppers are extra generous toward helping at-risk teens this holiday season.
The Christian charitable organization plans to set aside 25 percent of the proceeds from its annual Red Kettle drive to close a shortfall in the religious group's successful Bridging the Gap program.
The 12-week intervention and prevention course failed to receive through the city a $15,000 state grant that helps fund the program's nearly $53,000 operating budget this fiscal year, according to Capt. Elliott Higgins of the local Salvation Army.
Bridging the Gap Director Carole Hilderbrand said the cutback has kept the program from filling a staff vacancy.
"We operate on a very bare-bones budget," she said.
Berkshire United Way provides nearly half the program's funding. Donations and other funding sources comprise the difference.
Hilderbrand said the grant reduction only affects the Pittsfield program, which is exclusive of the one she also oversees in North Adams.
Initially started 20 years ago by The Salvation Army Massachusetts Division, Bridging the Gap provides youth the support and skills needed to at least complete high school, manage personal finances and learn how to act responsibly on the job, at home and in social settings.
Since the program started in Pittsfield and North Adams nine years ago, some 1,450 at-risk youth between the ages of 12 and 17 have taken the course. Ninety percent of the graduates stay out of trouble, Hilderbrand said.
"The 12 weeks begins a relationship as we track them after they leave," she said. "We will help do what it takes to make them stay on the right path."
Caroline Eldred, 23, credits the program for setting her straight and now she is a registered nurse. About 10 years ago, the Pittsfield woman was a rebellious teenager who once ran away from home and seemed headed for trouble with the law. Bridging the Gap gave her the structure she needed and prepared her for a pair of difficult personal tragedies.
"My brother, a year older than me, was in a serious car accident," Eldred recalled. "He was in a coma for three or four days and that opened my eyes to how life is short."
Six months later, another brother did die, an emotional situation she handled thanks to Bridging the Gap.
"Where I am is amazing, given where I was 10 years ago," Eldred said.
Another success story, 21-year-old Sassie Conley from Pittsfield, went through the program three times before graduating and eventually became a certified nursing assistant at a local nursing home. Conley credits tough love from her mother and Hilderbrand having faith in her.
"She knew I would change and now she's like a family friend," she said.
The Salvation Army's Higgins praised Hilderbrand's dedication to the program's participants.
"Carole keeps in touch with the kids after they leave and they love that, some coming back to do internships with the program," Higgins said.
To donate directly to the program, send checks to Salvation Army of Pittsfield, Box 871, Pittsfield, MA, 01202, and indicate, if the donor so chooses, the money is for Bridging the Gap.