Carolyn Mower Burns remembered for decades of advocacy for children in the Berkshires

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PITTSFIELD - In the wake of her recent and unexpected death, the longtime president of a local nonprofit is being remembered as a tough and unwavering advocate for children and families by local leaders.

Carolyn Mower Burns passed away after a brief illness on Nov. 16 surrounded by her family and loved ones, according to an announcement by Berkshire Children and Families, the nonprofit she led for more than 25 years.

"Our team at BCF is heartbroken by this news yet determined to carry out the vision Carolyn has ignited in us," the statement read.

Burns spent 20 years working with the Massachusetts Department of Social Services before taking the reins at Berkshire Children and Families in 1989.

The nonprofit provides an array of services - which expanded significantly under Mower Burns' leadership - in the Pioneer Valley and Berkshires including the Family Resource Center and adoption and fostering. It also operates the Redfield Infant/Toddler Center and BCF West Street Center in addition to its Kids' Club at Conte and Kids' Club at Morningside before and after school programs in Pittsfield.

Burns also led the Pittsfield Family Consortium, a coalition of family-oriented agencies funded by the City of Pittsfield.

"BCF certainly evolved, developed, and grew as an organization under her leadership, and always with a focus on kids and families," Christine Macbeth, CEO of the Brien Center, who first met Burns more than 35 years ago and had previously served on the board of Berkshire Children and Families.

For those who knew her professionally, Burns' belief in children was unwavering.

"She always believed that kids and families had inherent strengths that anybody who was working with could build on," MacBeth said.

Carolyn Valli, Executive Director of Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, worked with Burns through the Working Cities Pittsfield Initiative and recalled that Burns "just loved children so much."

Aimed at bringing Pittsfield residents out of poverty, the Working Cities initiative was sparked by Burns, but she remained inclusive and "really held the space open" for input from other community leaders, according to Valli.

"That's a really powerful type of leader," Valli said.

Kristine Hazzard, president and CEO of Berkshire United Way, said she was "heartbroken" to hear of Burns' death. Sharing a background in social work, Hazzard recalled hitting it off with Burns as soon as they met.

"She was just a trailblazer. A really good strategic thinker," Hazzard said.

Hazzard remembered Burns as always being fair and reasonable - even in the face of funding cuts - and was able to have a disagreement without making it personal.

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer said Burns' work in Pittsfield will leave a lasting legacy.

"Carolyn Burns was a dynamic, huge-hearted, community leader who built compassionate foundations that offered families opportunities to thrive beyond their sometimes deeply painful and personal struggles," Tyer said.

Burns was the driving force behind the formation of the Kids 4 Harmony intensive afterschool music program in Pittsfield and North Adams schools, which MacBeth described as the "perfect complement" to Burns' career.

James Montepare, then the superintendent of North Adams Public Schools, remembers when Burns approached him with the idea to bring Kids 4 Harmony.

"I've known Carolyn for 20 years, she was very innovative and always at the cutting edge of innovative programs for children and families," Montepare said.

The Kids 4 Harmony Program began with a small handful of students - who were able to participate free of charge - but continued to grow as Burns continued to advocate for it and find ways to fund it, according to Montepare.

"It was always, always about doing the right things for kids and for families and teaching them self-worth and respect," Montepare said.

Montepare recalled watching the students, two of whom have autism, perform.

"To see those kids up on the stage stringing away, it just makes the hair stand up on my neck ... you could just see the self-esteem. I sit there and wonder, what has this really done for these kids?"

And despite being the architect behind programming and major organizational decisions, Burns was a leader who never lost touch with the root cause.

"In her daily life and being, she was thinking of children and families," Hazzard said. "Sometimes you get removed from that when you're working in administration, but she really didn't."

Diane Robie, formerly the senior vice president at BCF, has been named that organization's acting executive director.

"As an agency, we have strong values and principles guiding our actions. They serve as our North Star as we continue the work forward in collaboration with our community partners and those we serve," she stated.

Notes of appreciation can be sent to the Burns Family at PO Box 55, Housatonic, MA 01236.

Reach staff writer Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376 or @EagleAdamShanks


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