Kristine Hazzard: Community thrives when it joins forces
Berkshire United Way brings people and organizations together who have the passion, expertise and resources needed to get things done -- which helps advance the common good by creating opportunities for a better life for all. Working with the community, we are focused on creating sustainable change in the Berkshires.
To do this, we work to address the most pressing community conditions and identify key concerns. In 2008, Berkshire United Way began dialogs with community leaders and partnered with Berkshire Regional Planning Commission to collect and analyze data on our local issues. This research was summarized in the baseline report, released in 2009, highlighting several areas of concern, including that only 61 percent of our third-graders were reading proficiently, the teen birth rate for Berkshire County was 27.2 births per 1,000 girls age 15-19 compared to the state rate of 19.5, and that many families were living at or below the poverty level.
The results were startling. We had to galvanize the community to collaborate and work differently to address these problems. We needed shared goals, program outcomes and accountability for our donors' investments while also bringing diverse groups of people together to ensure services were aligned. Alignment meant that various, disparate agencies and activities that were independently trying to improve the quality of life in the Berkshires were working toward the same goals.
The next step was developing a shared agenda for action. This work involved coordinating efforts across the county and consulting local, regional, state and federal experts to ensure we had the research, expertise and understanding of best practices to develop strategies for success while holding ourselves and the community accountable for achieving long-term goals. Today, the community is gaining momentum to ensure more third-graders read proficiently, our teens make healthy decisions about their future and more families have access to job training, housing and financial resources. Addressing these community issues has been proven to help reduce crime rates, increase graduation rates, help more families climb out of poverty over the long term, and much more.
We know that we can't do this alone -- imagine how much better off one family could be if their employer, health care provider, teacher, city council member, after-school program coordinator, camp counselor, day care provider, and faith-based minister were all working together to help that family succeed, while community members advocated on behalf of that family to get them the tools and resources needed to thrive. This ties into our on-the-ground, community development work, centered around the belief that neighborhoods and communities are strengthened by focusing on the assets of the citizens and associations that call the community "home" and by allowing families in need to be co-producers of their own destiny, learning to advocate for themselves and their children along the way.
And now imagine that every family in Berkshire County has the same level of support and access to resources -- with the entire community building each other up so that everyone has a better life and a bigger slice of the American dream. In this scenario, all Berkshire County residents would be self-sufficient, proud of, active, and engaged in their community, which is Berkshire United Way's vision for our future.
It's a long-term vision -- but we've seen some positive results thus far, and know we have a lot more to do. Berkshire United Way is not about short-term charity, but lasting community change -- and we do this by focusing on the big picture and holding ourselves, and the community, accountable for meaningful results. You can always help be a part of the change. You can give, advocate or volunteer by connecting with us on Facebook or by going to berkshireunitedway.org.
Kristine Hazzard is president and CEO of Berkshire United Way, berkshireunitedway.org.
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