Berkshire Children and Families eyeing more private funding

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PITTSFIELD -- Amid a diminishing stream of federal funding, Berkshire Children and Families is aiming to dial up private donations as a means of preserving, and perhaps expanding, its services.

And the agency, which touches the lives of more than 3,500 regional families, pointed to a recently launched after-school music education program whose success already has the administration thinking big.

"This program goes a quantum leap further, and may revolutionize the way we deliver services," said Carolyn Mower Burns, president and CEO of the nonprofit agency. "For us, this is an opportunity to start early before problems happen."

Burns made her comments during Thursday's annual meeting at the Country Club of Pittsfield, which was attended by Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, who gave the keynote address.

The president said the music program, Kids 4 Harmony, allows access to children and families at a new level, adding to BCF's programs in parenting skills, adoptions and foster care and early education care. And she said the efforts to broaden its funding resources will continue.

The agency receives roughly 80 percent of its present funding from state and federal sources -- notably the state departments of Children and Families and Early Education & Care -- but Burns said more robust private collections could allow BCF to start up more programs like Kids 4 Harmony.

"We want to remain flexible, focused and entrepreneurial," she said.

Early in the agency's new efforts, it has received philanthropy from people who own second homes in the Berkshires and want to support local programming, said Catherine Deely, chairwoman of the BCF board.

"Our point of view is we want to work with families in as many capacities as possible, to do whatever we can to help them achieve their greatest potential," Deely said.

Deely said in addition to encouraging private donations, the BCF administration also hopes to participate in efforts to "safeguard" funding for social services -- including food stamps and Section 8 housing subsidies -- through advocacy and talking with local lawmakers. Cuts to these programs affect area families and by extension, BCF.

More than 100 children, preschoolers through teenagers, participate in Kids 4 Harmony at Morningside Community School, where they learn to play orchestra music from professional teachers.

"The opportunities these kids have today: Picking up an instrument, they're less likely to pick up a gun; learning the discipline of music, they're less likely to put a needle in their arm," Pignatelli said.

Kids 4 Harmony is BCF's only program which relies solely on private funds, and according to Burns, "(has) a constant waiting list of children who would like to join the program." BCF is soon planning to issue a direct mail appeal for funds to support Kids 4 Harmony, Burns said.

In his keynote address, Neal said agencies like BCF stand to suffer if the federal spending cuts known as sequestration continue.

"The budget cuts you're currently witnessing have in fact been pretty dramatic. These deficits that have been cut automatically, in the last few months, have been pretty serious. And you're feeling it," Neal said. "You need a safety net in America."

The congressman said he would have faced an uncertain future himself but for the Social Security benefits he began receiving in adolescence after his parents died.

But there's reason to believe an end to the pain is in sight, Neal said. He said there's cause for "mild optimism" that the two parties may strike a budget deal in December or January.

"Our Republican colleagues want to see some changes to the defense spending authorization and my fellow Democrats want to see a bit more spending on education and social initiatives. I think that might be the incentive."

In fiscal 2012, BCF suffered a deficit of $228,807 but bounced back in 2013, posting a surplus of $152,650. Increased operational costs and a flat economy accounted for the 2012 deficit. According to Burns, a modest increase in state funding -- the first such increase in six years -- increased contributions and tightened management turned things around in 2013.

To reach Phil Demers:

pdemers@berkshireeagle.com

or (413) 281-2859.

On Twitter: @BE_PhilD


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