Graduates of BCC's Project Reach overcome social challenges


Photo Gallery | 2014 Project Reach Graduation

PITTSFIELD -- Culinary arts training is a hallmark of Berkshire Community College's Project Reach. But over the past three years, the program also has helped students with significant learning and social challenges to secure jobs, develop a firm handshake and even muster up the confidence to ask a peer out on a date.

This week, the academic, social and kitchen successes of Project Reach were celebrated during a graduation luncheon held at the college.

The program is designed to serve Berkshire County students between the ages of 18 and 22 who are served under the criteria of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The program's purpose is to help students further their education, learn to work and live as independently as possible.

"Project Reach is an important program as it gives students who may not otherwise be able to manage traditional college instruction an opportunity to develop their vocational skills and have the same social opportunities that other young adults have at the college level," said Pamela Farron, coordinator of Project Reach and the Disability Resource Center.

Ten students completed the program this year, representing four public school districts: Central Berkshire, Southern Berkshire and Berkshire Hills regional school districts, and Lenox Public Schools. The program, through referrals, will serve another 10 students in an expanded program this fall.

Farron said the program began three years ago as a 32-hour culinary arts program subsidized through a grant from Berkshire County ARC. Today, the program is supported through the students' home schools.

It includes two semesters or 117 hours worth of culinary training -- basic knife skills, cooking and baking techniques, weights and measures, kitchen sanitation and kitchen safety with instructor Audrey Sussman -- and soft skills instruction such as teamwork, decision-making, communication with specialist Constance West - all skills necessary to become effective employees.

The program is designed to be completed in a year, though students can opt and apply to participate in a second year. This fall, in addition to the existing opportunities, students will receive BCC IDs, giving them access to attend schoolwide cultural forums, clubs, activities and fitness facilities.

On Monday, this year's Project Reach graduates showed off their skills by preparing and serving a lunch of various quiches, specialty sandwiches, salads and desserts for their own graduation luncheon. During the ceremony, students received certificates of achievement and shared some of their stories and experiences with the program.

"It's been pretty good learning how to do different things. It also helps you communicate with other people," said Bernard Nixon, who completed his second year with the program. He's since been able to secure a job with Cavallero Plastics in Pittsfield.

Alexander Pettus, also a second-year Project Reach grad, said he's gained confidence to do things like look people in the eye and give them a firm handshake -- which he demonstrated with Farron during Monday's luncheon. Pettus works at Sugar Hill assisted living in Dalton, and recently gained the courage to get up in class and ask his classmate, Ashley Adler, to his high school prom. She said "Yes."

Adler, a first-year graduate of Project Reach, said the program has "helped me come out of my shell a little." Now she works in food service and also volunteers.

Asked about how she'd like to see the future of the program, Adler said, "I'd like to see students become more successful in their work areas. I hope it can help everyone find a job and be successful."

Farron said all but one of this year's students are either involved in internships or paid employment. Of the 10 students, six have completed the two years of the program, three will age out under eligibility requirements and one student will return for a second year this fall.

Learn more by calling BCC's Disability Resource Center, at (413) 236-1608 or emailing

2014 Project Reach graduates

Year one:

Ashley Adler

Isabella Carey

Ryan Schwendenmann

Rhaedon Zimbowski

Year two:

Amelia Carey

Jessica Hampton

Jeffrey Kane

Dylan Kubis

Bernard Nixon

Alexander Pettus


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