Nessacus Leadership Program helps kids step up and team up for community-building projects

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Photo Gallery | Nessacus Summer Leadership Program

DALTON — Ask the youths involved in the Nessacus Summer Leadership Program what they did during summer vacation and they might tell you they supported a pet food pantry, or started a recycling program, or came together to master the art of spreading joy to others.

Facilitated by the Becket-Chimney Corners YMCA at Nessacus Regional Middle School, with support from the Berkshire Outdoor Center, the program pilot offered youths entering grades 6 through 9, the chance to build multiple skill sets while working on a team to develop and put into action a community-minded project of their choosing.

From 2 to 4 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 19, community members are invited to a free presentation of projects and an ice cream social at the school, 35 Fox Road. A bake sale to support one of the projects will also be held.

"I think this is a good use of your summer time. It's not just a camp, it's a chance to do something to help your community," said Kendall Benlien, a rising seventh-grader.

"It all helps the problems in the community to be noticed more, so that people know about them and can take care of them," said Sheffield Drewry, who will be a new Nessacus student as a sixth-grader this fall.

These girls were among a group of about a dozen students — aka "Squad 23" — who helped create a campaign to raise awareness about, and hopefully inspire donations for, the pet food pantry at Berkshire Humane Society.

They networked with older student, Briana Rivera, a rising Wahconah Regional High School freshman who knows staff at the animal shelter and connected them with the agency. "The Humane Society was very excited to have kids join in," Rivera said.

Janelle Smith, a rising seventh grader, said she appreciated the sense of empowerment she and her fellow campers felt from being given the responsibility for organizing a project. "I think we're going to make a really big change in our community," she said.

Rivera agreed, and said that sentiment is important because, "In middle school, a lot of people feel insecure, and are trying to find their place. Here, you have a chance to feel good about yourself because you did something good for others that made you smile, and you got to meet people. And that makes you want to do more things like this."

The Nessacus Summer Leadership Program was offered in two four-week sessions, from June 27 to July 23, and from July 25 through Aug. 19, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day. Despite a shortened recruitment period, 32 youths were enrolled in the first session, and 35 enrolled in the second session, with 19 students participating in both sessions. The program had the capacity to serve 60 youths.

The program was also tailored to meet families' needs for something affordable and also accessible, especially because the Nessacus region serves seven towns.

The tuition has an estimated value of $1,020, but was significantly subsidized at a cost of $32 per student, per four-week session, with an $8 session fee, and the cost of $8 per field trip. Much of the expenses were underwritten by grants from the Massachusetts Alliance of YMCAs and Berkshire Outdoor Center. Steven Hamill, executive director for the Berkshire Outdoor Center and Becket-Chimney Corners YMCA, said unless another major grant is received, the enrollment will likely increase next season.

Transportation was provided to the Dalton-based middle school from the towns of Becket, Washington, Hinsdale, Windsor and Peru.

Hamill said the Summer Leadership Program initially was run in Springfield, "but we thought, now's the time to do it with our own community."

Nessacus Principal John Martin said the program is aligned with the school's mission and principles to create a healthy, safe school climate, with students leading the charge. Martin said various student surveys indicate that there is a tremendous tendency for students to be influenced by peer pressure.

"A message, positive or negative, can be powerful when it comes from one of their peers," said Martin, who has resigned from his post to return to classroom teaching in eastern Massachusetts.

He said he hopes the incoming and existing Nessacus administration takes advantage of having students from the leadership program by designating these youths to lead other school-wide initiatives this coming academic year.

One group of students from the summer program have already pledged their contribution. While they named their group "The Ticked-Off Tacos," they made the compassionate gesture of collecting refundable bottles and cans to put the redeemed proceeds towards the purchase of recycling bins for the school.

From that group, rising seventh-grader Emily Fontaine said initially, not everyone got along. "None of us could agree on anything," she said.

But the camp counselors let the kids talk it out, urging them to use respectful or "supportive language." Eventually, with some tips provided by their counselor, Michael Hall, they group bonded over the construction of a river side fort, complete with a swing made from bundling branches.

A third group, known as "Nerdpocalypse," spent their time discussing the meaning of joy and happiness, and how it impacts the quality of a person's life.

"A lot of people suffer through sadness and depression these days," said Logan Newsome, a rising eighth-grader.

The group honed in on the fact that, due to illness or lack of mobility, a nursing home could be particularly isolating. So the group visited residents of Craneville Place, to talk and play board games with the people they met there.

Because the students had the mindset of looking out for others, they also began taking better care of their own group members, with several kids telling The Eagle that they felt exceptionally safe in their group and had the ability to talk freely.

"We've grown so much as a group," said rising eighth-grader, Amiah Renderer. "We're all different in a lot of different ways, but I think together we've worked through problems and gained new friends to turn to during the school year."

Contact reporter Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.

If you go ...

What: Nessacus Summer Leadership Program's End-of-Summer Community Project Presentations. There will also be an ice cream social, and a benefit bake sale. The event is free and open to the public.

When: Today from 2 to 4 p.m.

Where: Nessacus Regional Middle School auditorium, 35 Fox Road, Dalton.

To learn more about this program: bccymca.org/boc/programs/leadership-day-camps or 413-623-8991.


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