PITTSFIELD — "I've been called a lot of things," quipped state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, "but never Irish Person of the Year."
The Amherst Democrat, who is Jewish, was in Pittsfield on Friday to receive that honor during the 15th Robert "Bees" Prendergast St. Patrick's Reception — a major annual fundraising event for Hillcrest Education Centers programs.
Also honored was UNICO of Pittsfield, with the 2016 Judge John A. Barry Community Service Award.
A large crowd that filled to overflowing the main dining area at Country Club of Pittsfield also heard from a student in Hillcrest educational programs and his stepfather.
Introducing Rosenberg, Hillcrest Centers CEO Gerald Burke noted that the veteran lawmaker, like many children in the organization's programs, grew up in foster homes. But he overcame a difficult early life to be elected to the state House in 1986 and to the Senate in 1991.
As Rosenberg met with Hillcrest students before the event, Burke said he saw the young people "take a step back" upon realizing "that there was a man who could work his way through a system and work so hard that he becomes an incredible political advocate for kids and their rights. It's just an amazing story all the way around."
Burke praised Rosenberg's efforts on behalf of education and children, citing in particular his role in promoting the Kids First initiative, which seeks to identify innovative strategies for further investing in Massachusetts children.
Speaking of the initiative, Rosenberg said, "It is something that I wanted the people in the Berkshires to know we are embarking upon."
Noting that he had heard students in Hillcrest programs described as "resilient," Rosenberg added, "We want to raise resilient children who become productive adults."
He said Kids First seeks to replace a series of short-term programs for youth with a comprehensive approach that "takes a long view" of what children need from prenatal care through the fourth grade in school.
It is important to understand that "those first eight years of the development of a child will determine the success of the rest of their lives," he said.
"Another thing I can tell you is that we will, eventually, get over being mad at Ben Downing," Rosenberg said, referring to the Pittsfield Democrat's decision not to seek another term in the Senate after five terms.
"He is an amazing individual with extraordinary talents," Rosenberg said, "and he has contributed so much to this commonwealth in such a short period of time ... I want to tell you we will really, really miss him."
Downing also is a past recipient of the Irish Person of the Year Award.
Rosenberg said he was accepting the honor on behalf of the Legislature for every lawmaker's efforts in the face difficult challenges. "We take our responsibilities very seriously," he said, "and when you choose to honor any one of us, you are honoring the [Legislature] as a whole, and the members therein."
He also asked those present to continue working cooperatively with lawmakers to allow them "to do the very best we can."
Accepting the Barry Community Service Aware on behalf of UNICO, Francis Marinaro, register of Berkshire Probate and Family Court, said he was honored in part because he knew Judge Barry and remembers he "had a presence second to none" while serving on the bench.
Marinaro added that members of UNICO, Hillcrest and other organizations "don't do the things we do because we want to be noticed. We do them because it is the right thing to do, because people in our community are struggling."
Mister Shaw, a student at Hillcrest, said he lost relatives in a fire as a child and had other experiences "that I couldn't let go of," which led to him continually act out in school or in residential program placements. Eventually, he said, the people in his life that he cared about began to stay away "because of my actions."
Finally, he said, "I woke up one morning and said to myself that I wanted to be the best I can for myself and for others, and to show people I can really change," he said.
Shaw said he determined to change and found support from the staff, teachers, board members and others at Hillcrest, and from his stepfather Christopher Farmer, "to show people I could really change."
Farmer said he was immediately impressed upon seeing a video of Shaw in a promotion for foster parenting, and after learning more about the boy, he started visiting Hillcrest Centers last summer on a regular basis. Farmer said "the common theme" with all the children he met in the educational programs "was they were resilient, courageous and driven."
He also recognized several other boys in attendance who are students on the Hillcrest campus.
The Irish Person of the Year Award is named for the late Robert "Bees" Prendergast, a founding board member of Hillcrest Educational Centers.
Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.