County Fare: Berkshire Totes for Tots filling need for foster kids

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Berkshire Totes for Tots is gaining ground in helping foster children feel more at home when they're displaced.

The initiative to create tote bags of toiletries and comfort items for kids and teens is co-developed by Amy Tanner, of Pittsfield, and Ashley Priester, of Adams, both of whom have served as foster parents.

"A lot of these kids who are taken into foster care literally come in with trash bags with one or two personal items," Tanner told County Fare. "This is just for them to have something to call their own when they go to a strange home."

The two women on Feb. 17 created a Facebook page to begin collecting donations of new and gently used blankets and stuffed animals, and new toiletries and toys for kids as well as backpacks, duffel and tote bags to bundle supplies by age range and gender.

On March 4, Tanner and Priester made their first delivery of 35 colorful and jam-packed bags to the Pittsfield office of the state Department of Children and Families. Tanner said DCF workers can't solicit donations directly for the children involved in their cases, so the women decided to rally friends and community members and do something on their own.

To date, there are 764 members on the Facebook page that can be found by searching "Berkshire Totes for Tots."

The Facebook page is regularly updated regarding needed items. Among the items most needed for youths from birth to 18 are: duffel bags and backpacks; blankets; shampoo and conditioner; body wash and cloths or mesh sponges; hair brushes and combs; deodorant, Chapstick-style lip balm; coloring books, crayons and colored pencils; notebooks, hair ties, swaddling blankets and burping cloths for infants; feminine hygiene products, socks and underwear; baby wipes and diapers; puzzles, books, lotion, small toys and stuffed animals. Items for baby girls are particularly needed at this time.

To have items picked up or to drop off donations, contact Priester at 413-212-7687 or Tanner at 413-822-9078.

Hero on hunger

State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, recently was named the 2016 Public Advocate of the Year by the Food Bank Coalition of Massachusetts for his successful efforts to increase state funding for the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program, according to award coordinators.

"In the Legislature, we deal with many complex and arcane issues. This is not one of them," Downing said. "We know this program returns dividends in the form of nearly 20 million healthy meals for needy families. As proud as I am to advocate for this program each year, I look forward to the day when we can celebrate that it is no longer necessary."

MEFAP is a state program that provides meals to needy families through the four regional food banks and their network of 842 local providers. The funding provided through this line item helps these local and regional entities leverage additional federal, private and nonprofit dollars to feed hundreds of thousands of residents throughout the commonwealth.

An amendment filed by Downing to the fiscal 2016 budget increased MEFAP funding from $15 million to $17 million last year. This year, the Food Bank Coalition is advocating for an increase to $20 million — enough to provide 23 million free, nutritious meals to families in need.

Last year, the Mass Food Bank of Western Mass alone distributed 2.8 million MEFAP meals, and leveraged 6 million meals from other sources. An increase in MEFAP funding to $20 million would allow them to distribute an additional 425,000 meals next year, according to the food bank.

Statewide, more than 12 percent of Massachusetts residents are "food insecure," meaning they regularly face uncertainty as to where their next meal will come from, according to the Food Bank Coalition. In Western Massachusetts, as many as 1 in 5 people face this issue, and more than a third of those people are children.

Helping with magic

Whenever a tragedy strikes, it can hit close to home, wherever that may be.

Like many people, Billy Winneroski and Eric Durant were deeply affected by the news of Noah Roman, a 15-year-old Shaker High School student from Albany, N.Y., whose family died in a murder-suicide and fire at his home.

"Many in our community have been touched in some way by the tragedy that befell the young man, Noah Roman, and the loss of his family," Winneroski wrote to County Fare. "The community is rallying behind Noah with a benefit. ... This event became a necessity, out of tragedy. ... One local Berkshire entertainer that will be giving of his time, and his talents, is Eric Durant, known also by his stage name, Eric thee Illusionist."

The Stand By Noah Roman fundraiser and buffet dinner will be held from 2 to 7 p.m. Saturday, March 26, at the Albany Hilton, 40 Lodge St. Tickets are $25 and will include the buffet, music and dancing, and kid-friendly activities including Durant's performance. Tickets and more information can be found online by visiting brownpapertickets.com and searching for "Stand By Noah Roman."

In addition, Winneroski, who is Durant's assistant and photographer and goes by the name Billy the Barbarian, took the time to shout out his partner, who he says is "going above and beyond the call of duty."

"Eric was born and raised here in Pittsfield, to the Reverend and Mrs. Willard Durant, who have a wonderful heritage themselves of service and love to the community of Pittsfield, and the Berkshires as a whole," he writes. "He has been honing his craft as an illusionist, ever since he and his youngest daughter were watching (magician) David Blaine on television."

Since then, Eric Durant has gone from doing neighborhood shows to performing for the Greater New England Walk and Roll for Spina Bifida in Chicopee, the Children's Holiday Extravaganza at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, a camp for children at the Berkshire Museum and other programs. To learn more about Durant, go to facebook.com/EricTheeIllusionist.

County Fare, a weekly column featuring "tales from throughout the Berkshires," is compiled by Eagle staffers.


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