George B. Crane Memorial Center seeks to expand addiction recovery support services

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PITTSFIELD — The George B. Crane Memorial Center has provided non-clinical, peer-led recovery services for hundreds of individuals struggling with addiction — all with a core of dedicated volunteers and a donation-fueled budget.

But now the nonprofit's directors hope to take the Linden Street center to the next level amid an opioid epidemic that is claiming or devastating an increasing number of lives in Pittsfield and the Berkshires. They want to both highlight the rising need for recovery services locally and establish a secure funding source into the future.

Board members and volunteers met last week at the center with Ruth Jacobson-Hardy, regional manager of the state Department of Public Health's Bureau of Substance Abuse Services, Ward 6 City Councilor John Krol and others to discuss a state-supported Recovery Support Center like those operating in 10 other cities, including Greenfield and Holyoke.

While Jacobson-Hardy said the DPH has no current plans or funding to add to the existing centers it supports, she added that, unlike others that have been funded, the Pittsfield center owns its building and already is operating without government support.

Ultimately, she said, Crane Center supporters should talk to their state lawmakers about money being added to the DPH budget. "It is a funding issue," she said.

Commenting on the growing addiction problem in Pittsfield, board member Mary McGinnis, a nurse who works at the in-patient McGee Recovery Center said, "I couldn't believe my eyes when I started there."

McGinnis said peer support services like those of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and numerous other groups in the area provide critically needed support to sustain recovery along with the clinical services.

During an informational meeting and tour of the Crane Center, board President Doug Malins, Vice President Aaron Elzner, Secretary Holly Stover and Treasurer Gloria Taylor all stressed that without follow-up peer-to-peer support, those fighting addiction find it much harder to turn their lives around.

The need locally, they said, is reflected in the fact the Crane Center hosts the meetings of a number of recovery groups seven days per week, 365 days per year.

Stover said that over the past year as many as 700 different individuals attended meetings at the center — most attending multiple times per week. She said it's been estimated that total attendance for recovery meetings at the center since it opened on Linden Street in 2010 exceeds 200,000.

A retired registered nurse who lives in Richmond, Stover added, "My heart is broken seeing what is happening to the city."

Malins, who purchased and donated the once-dilapidated apartment house at 81 Linden St. and helped lead its reconstruction, said the boarded-up structure was once known as "the plywood palace" and was slated for demolition by the city.

It is now renovated throughout all first floor sections and part of the second floor, he said. Because of serious problems with the foundation, it was "literally rebuilt from the ground up," Malins said, but added, "It has been a labor of love," and the center a long-held dream of his.

He has acted as general contractor and the work was all done by volunteers and with help from donations from institutions, businesses and individuals. Improvements include an elevator and energy-efficient construction that has kept heating and other costs low.

"We took something that was ready for the wrecking ball and turned it into a million dollar property," Malins said, referring to the amount it now is insured for — $980,000.

The George B. Crane Memorial Center was created after a fire destroyed a former SIOGA Club of Berkshire County (Sobriety Is Our Greatest Asset) meeting place in 2004. The club had formed in 1977 to support recovering alcoholics, and prior to the fire had rented space for meetings at the corner of Fenn and First streets.

The new Crane center — named for the late attorney who was one of the founders of the SIOGA Club — opened in 2010 after years of work by volunteers and support from local financial institutions, the city, church groups, and the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office Work Release Program, Malins said.

Along the way, he said, two nearby structures were razed, providing space for parking. Malins said former Mayor James M. Ruberto and Bonnie Galant of the Community Development Department were instrumental in pointing him toward the condemned building as a possible site for the SIOGA Club to build.

Currently, there are no paid staff members, but nearly 20 support groups hold sessions at the center. More information is available on the center's website at www.thegbcmc.org.

McGinnis said the board has searched for ways to increase services and finish off the rest of the second floor of the center to create income-producing office space for service-provider tenants. It was a revelation, she said, when directors learned of the Recovery Support Center in Holyoke and another in Greenfield — both of which receive state funding.

McGinnis said she and others have visited the Holyoke center and were impressed. They hope to bring its director, Debbie Gonzales, to Pittsfield to speak to local officials and other residents in March.

Krol said he believes the City Council chambers could be made available for a meeting, and that it could be televised by the Pittsfield Community Television cable network,

He added that he believes Mayor Linda M. Tyer will be supportive. "I'm sure the mayor will be open to this," the councilor said.

McGinnis said the center — operated as a nonprofit 501 (c)3 corporation — also is seeking grant funding through the human services portion of the annual city budget, as well as other grant or donation support.

A proposed annual budget for operating the center with core support from the state was estimated at $50,000, Taylor said, with $40,000 for a program coordinator and $10,000 for stipends for recovery support counselors. The figures are similar to the annual budget for other recovery centers.

McGinnis said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, has met with Crane Center officials and has expressed support for the effort to gain funding. In addition, an aide to Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, attended the tour and briefing session, McGinnis said, and the group has been in contact with the office of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Besides funding, another issue that needs to be addressed is that addiction remains a crisis not fully acknowledged publicly in the area, the board members said.

"I think we have had a history of keeping our heads in the sand," Malins said, adding that addiction issues have been traditionally downplayed "because the Berkshires is a tourism area. But that has to change."

However, there also is a "drive to do something that we have never seen before," McGinnis said. She said that's a reaction to the rapidly rising numbers of fatal and non-fatal opioid overdoses all around Massachusetts and throughout the county.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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