The Berkshires could be depicted as a tale of two counties.
There are people who work, live and play amongst the beauty, culture and vast experiences available here, while other individuals struggle financially and experience family challenges that prevent them from achieving their dreams. Currently, 12 percent of our county is living in poverty, half of our thirdgraders are not reading proficiently, and Berkshire County has one of the highest teen birth rates in the state.
As a community, we need to invest time, money and spirit in our future - in our home. Coming together with a common goal to improve the overall health and well-being of the residents in this county is critical. It is up to the community to decide what kind of future we want to create for ourselves and for our children.
Berkshire United Way is made up of a small staff, strong board, hundreds of volunteers and thousands of donors who believe that by working together, we can create a community of hope and opportunity for all. We are mobilizing resources - people, best practices and dollars - to address issues like early childhood literacy, positive youth development and financial stability.
There is an aspiration for our community's future - one in which every individual and family lives, works and thrives. Berkshire United Way continually researches what works and what doesn't. We are committed to aligning efforts across the county to focus on creating the most positive outcomes.
Our strategies are based on facts. For example, the U.S. Department of Education tells us that third grade MCAS test results are critical because statistics show that 74 percent of students who aren't reading proficiently by third grade will continue to struggle in school. Additionally, according to the Journal of Substance Use, 40 percent of teenagers who have their first drink by the age of 14 will become addicted later in life. And, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy states that teen pregnancy is the leading cause of high school dropouts among girls.
Education and employment - and the vibrant sustainability of our community - are inextricably linked; kids who aren't succeeding in school will be less prepared to join the workforce. Investing in early education will positively affect our residents and economy for future generations.
Berkshire United Way is bringing passionate people together to tackle these issues. We've launched the Pittsfield Promise to address early literacy, Face the Facts to reduce teen pregnancy, and the Pittsfield Prevention Partnership to reduce youth substance use.
Together with our community, Berkshire United Way is investing in programs and practices that are proven to work in other areas. These programs are intended to enhance the services and systems that are already in place. Some recent examples include: the professional development for early childhood educators and youth service workers; free Training for Intervention Procedures (TIPs) certifications to alcohol servers across the county; and working with community partners to increase the return on investment of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program that brought $832,480 in federal refunds to Berkshire County working class lowincome residents, nearly doubling the amount from the year before.
Berkshire United Way is committed to advancing the common good by creating opportunities for a better life for all. We aim to connect those with a passion to get things done to rally around the community issues that will create a sustainable future. It's a longterm goal, but one that we can accomplish together with our community's commitment and partnership.
The tale of two counties is a myth: We're all in this together. You can make a difference - we can make an impact. Join us. You can give, advocate or volunteer. Head to our website at berkshireunitedway.org or find us at Facebook.com/berkshireuw.
Kristine Hazzard is president and CEO of Berkshire United Way.