Christian Center's summer programs enrich youths, support families in Pittsfield's west side

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PITTSFIELD — In the eyes and heart of Ellen Merritt, there's a lot to celebrate, to support and sustain on the city's west side.

So, The Christian Center, which Merritt leads, is trying to do its part this month to bring energy and show some love to an often forgotten and looked down upon part of the Pittsfield community.

"The west side is known for a lot of things and lately, it seems, and it's not for good or positive things. People tend to only see poverty, drugs, crime and sadness," she said. "But there's more than this one side."

In the Robbins Avenue center alone last week, neighbors were able to find clothing, and on one Tuesday afternoon, more than 70 people came there to get a complimentary meal — one of their highest attended lunch programs of the summer.

Here, young people have found internships and paid positions to learn, hands-on, how to help a struggling community. The Christian Center also found itself the recipient of a new commercial cooler for its food pantry, thanks to the support of a charitable group at Kimball Farms lifecare retirement community in Lenox, Merritt said.

For the second consecutive summer, the center will host the free Westside Community Day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, in coordination with its community partner, Civitan. Merritt said the food, games, music and prizes offered there are all part of an effort "to really celebrate the community and celebrate the good in our community."

On Monday, the Christian Center will host the Westside Children's Enrichment Program, a free, three-week program for children ages 5 to 12. Now in its third year, the event includes transportation, teachers, support staff, lunch and snacks, Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and it immerses them in art, dance, technology, science, nutrition, nature and team-building. Each Friday, families are invited to come in and take part in a special activity with their kids.

Merritt said when she appeals to partner agencies and sponsors for the summer program — which include the Feigenbaum Foundation, Berkshire Bank Foundation, Berkshire Life Foundation, Greylock Federal Credit Union, and other private donors — she reminds agency representatives that all families don't have access to or can afford a summer experience for their kids, be it vacation or a camp-like atmosphere.

The center's executive director also said it's important that the summer enrichment program not just be a vehicle for kids to drop-in and hang out.

"We're about offering a high-quality program to these kids, and showing that there's really support for the kids here," Merritt said. "I'm trying to enrich kids, to show them their value, not just have them run around."

All told, the donations sponsor the enrollment for about 30 children, and there are still some spots open.

This year's program features music and drumming with Vikki True and Joshua Morgan, respectively; art and art therapy activities with Marney Schorr, and dance with Natalia Whalen. There will also be field trips to Sabic, the Berkshire Museum, and Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Lenox.

"It's important to offer lots of arts, to allow kids to express themselves and be creative," Merritt said. "I think some of the kids here get ripped off from the small joys of having art and nature in life because they're so busy just getting through it."

Asked if she thinks programs like the children's enrichment program and community day will help change perceptions of the Westside, Merritt said, "I think the jury's still out on that. I feel like there's been some bridging that we've done, in particular, with children and families ... but we still have a long way to go."

Upcoming events ...

Saturday: Westside Community Day, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., at The Christian Center, 193 Robbins Ave., Pittsfield. All are welcome to this free, public event, held rain or shine. There will be a barbecue by Civitan, bounce house, music by Vikki True, games, contests, prizes and information and demonstrations by agencies ranging from The Nutrition Center to the Pittsfield Police Department.

Aug. 8-26: The Westside Children's Enrichment Program, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the center. This free program is designed for youths ages 5 to 12, and includes lunch, snacks, transportation and field trips. To enroll, call Ellen Merritt at 413-443-2828.


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