'Reaching the unreachable': Northern Berkshire Community Coalition takes local solutions forum to the streets
NORTH ADAMS — The scene was set at the First Baptist Church for the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition's monthly forum.
There was the table with coffee and snacks, another with stacks of pamphlets and fliers for various events, and as the participants arrived and caught up with one another, it could have been like any of the other forums that the coalition has sponsored in its decades of hosting them.
But this time, they wouldn't be sitting around the room for very long.
"We're putting our feet where our mouths are," said Amber Besaw, interim executive director of the coalition. "The idea is to go out and hear from people who are not in this room."
Happily, it was a near perfect mid-autumn day on Friday, and the roughly 40 attendees had come ready for a little walking, ready for a new proactive take on the coalition's long-standing mission to "connect and network with our neighbors to find local solutions to local problems."
"The coalition is not the 15 people in the office on Main Street," Besaw said. "It's all of you."
As is a tradition at the forum, everyone in the room introduced themselves and made announcements. A representative from Ecu-Health Care reminded that the open enrollment period is still ongoing. Kathy Keeser of the Louison House, which has moved into the Flood House on Church Street after a fire badly damaged their location in Adams, said they are still getting the word out about their new phone number — 413-663-6323.
The Rev. Dan Randall, pastor of the New Hope United Methodist Church, announced that its new "Roots" teen center would be hosting a community open house and teen dance party on Saturday.
After that, the assembled were split into groups of two or three, each with a clipboard and pencil and a bunch of bookmarks noting upcoming coalition events. They plan was to head out into various locations downtown like McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts, and engage as many people as they could — people working, or just passing by. They would reconvene in a little more than an hour.
Besaw and her group headed up the hill to the North Adams Public Library. Along the way, she said, the idea came from September's meeting, and talks with Mayor Richard Alcombright and state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, about "reaching the unreachable."
"We're not just for those who are struggling, but for those who aren't here [at the forum]," she said.
On the second floor of the library, she found Sara Russell-Scholl, youth services librarian, and went through her checklist.
Did she know about the monthly coalition forums? (Yes, if only vaguely.) Would she be interested in coming? (She'd be interested in learning more.) Could you attend the regular forum sessions when they are held on Friday mornings? (That's difficult because of staffing at the library.)
Besaw and Russell-Scholl chatted a bit about what they were working on, including youth outreach efforts. Besaw mentioned the New Hope teen center that would be opening.
"It sounds like they're really interested in partners, and we'd love to get teens to the library," Russell-Scholl said.
They exchanged a bookmark and a business card, and Besaw headed over to talk to folks in the reference section.
The group continued outside. While Besaw chatted with a woman walking her dog on Church Street, then a man sitting on a bench who explained that he had already been caught by a group on Main Street.
Meanwhile, Amanda Chilson, a project coordinator for the coalition, crossed the street to chat with folks waiting at the First Congregational Church for the Berkshire Food Project's free daily lunch.
Back at the church, the groups reconvened to talk about their experiences. Some talked about bumping into people they already know, others how strangers were relieved once they realized they weren't being solicited for money. A few groups heard from folks who were surprised to learn that individuals were welcome at the forum meetings and not just agencies.
Most said getting out was a worthwhile idea.
"I think people really appreciated having their opinion heard," said Paula Consolini, director of the Williams College Center for Learning in Action.
The meeting moved to a brief discussion about the kinds of concerns that were raised — about transportation, jobs and tackling the drug epidemic.
Kathy Quinn from Berkshire Children & Families said her group went to the Mary Spitzer Senior Center on Ashland Street. As someone who works with young families most of her time, she appreciated the chance to talk to seniors about their perspectives.
She said many were curious about what she was up to, and that what began with a conversation with one person grew to include about eight or so by the time she left. All of them enjoyed chatting in person, with no technology between them.
"Sitting down and talking is so folksy and old-fashioned but the perfect way to do this," she said. "We can't eliminate this from our communication."
What's next ...
The Northern Berkshire Community Coalition usually holds its forums on the second Friday of the month. There will be a change in November, when out of deference to Veterans Day, it will meet on Nov. 18 for a special panel discussion at the North Adams Movieplex.
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