BFAIR workers, Unitarian Universalist Church mark year of 'symbiotic' relationship

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PITTSFIELD — Two organizations, each specializing in offering a hand up to fellow men and women, are celebrating a year-long arrangement that has become a "symbiotic" relationship.

Roughly a year ago, Berkshire Family and Individual Resources, which provides employment to developmentally disabled workers, began running its countywide cleaning operation out of Wendell Street's Unitarian Universalist Church.

James Cowell, 30, a BFAIR worker since 2007, said the change has dramatically improved his work life.

"It's been the best change that's come along since I started working there," he said. "Some crews stay and some crews hit the road to the other cleaning sites. Everything runs much smoother."

The 16 workers participating in the program begin arriving at the church at 9 a.m. Some remain through the working day, until 2 p.m., while others leave for work sites located all over the Berkshires — Lanesborough, Lee, Becket and many in Pittsfield.

Previously, the cleaning team had to meet up in hallways or other available spaces at BFAIR.

One key aspect to the relationship — and why BFAIR program supervisor Mark Barrette called it "symbiotic" — is the workers who remain at the church pour sweat into the building, leading to numerous improvements over the past year.

Most notably, the memorial garden behind the building, neglected for many years, now is weeded and looking ready for spring. The workers also have been performing tasks like vacuuming, general cleaning, raking, landscaping and much more on the property and inside the three-story building.

"It's not required; they just are using the space, want to give back, and love to work," said Kas Maroney, administrator of the church.

She said the social benefits of the program also shine through.

"We've gotten to know [the workers], both myself and the clients here," Maroney said. "I see them the most while I'm teaching classes and playing music. We say 'hello,' and chat a little. It adds one more element to their day-to-day life."

She added, "And the work is certainly needed. It's a big building and we only have one caretaker — there's always something that needs attention."

Barrette said the workers do everything from clean specific sites — including The Berkshire Eagle, Pittsfield Veterinary Hospital, the YMCA's Camp Becket-Chimney Corners, the skate park next to Pittsfield High School, North American Martyrs Church in Lanesborough, the Lee Sportmen's Club, the Silver Lake walkway, individual residences and more — to any old street or water body in Pittsfield in need of a facelift.

"They get paid, but not much," Barrette said. "And they don't do it for recognition, either. The work goes largely unnoticed. But they take a tremendous pride in it."

Barrette said BFAIR "couldn't be happier" with the home the UU has provided.

"In this day and age, people are struggling, the economy is struggling, and here we have a great services for space partnership," he said. "They've created a home for us there, and it's a wonderful relationship."

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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