My story is shared by many who have heard of the Berkshire Leadership Program.
Three years ago or so, I met a great group of people my age (we're now in the 30 club). They were all outgoing, highly motivated, always seemed to have something interesting to share and they were all good friends.
When I asked them all how they met, their answer was "BLP."
Over the years, I'd ask them here and there about it, and get sort of vague, but fascinating answers, like: "It was awesome," "I learned so much," "It's one of the best things I ever did for myself."
Last spring, when the opportunity came to apply for the Berkshire Leadership Program, I had to experience it for myself.
The county-specific program for professionals was started in 1996 under Berkshire Community College President Barbara Viniar.
Now under the stewardship of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, its mission is to seek to "prepare, involve and sustain leaders from diverse backgrounds who are committed and competent to address community challenges and improve the quality of life in Berkshire County."
Since the first class in 1997, be tween 25 and 30 people of all ages, living and working in Berkshire County, have been chosen by a steering committee each year to participate in BLP. A total of 396 have graduated. The Berkshire Chamber is now accepting applications for the 16th year.
Past community leaders and guest speakers include Mary Grant, president of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Laurie Norton Moffat, director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum, and Tyler Fairbank of EOS Ventures. State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, Michael Supranowicz, president and CEO of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce are among other local leaders who are actual alumni of the program.
The tuition is $649, with a few partial scholarships available. Many participants, like myself, are sponsored by their employers. The tuition covers all programming, meals, snacks, materials and more.
Each year, classes begin with a mandatory weekend re treat -- held in recent years at Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock -- to ac quaint participants, begin to identify each individual's leadership style and to set the tone for the program.
This year, professional training leader and coach, Debra Blatt of Group Restoration, led the retreat workshops. She also gives each person a leadership personality profile, the result of an intense pre-program survey.
From day one, we began to learn a few things about ourselves and what we were capable of. Throughout our program, we had to work together, all 27 of us, on an original project developed outside of class under a theme, which is announced during the first session.
A day-long "economic development bus tour" and eight weekly four-hour evening sessions follow the retreat, each at a different location and focusing on a different facet of life and industry specific to Berkshire County, from cultural development to energy.
Follow-up project assignments and periodic get-togethers happen throughout the year. The program concludes with a project presentation and commencement ceremony, held this year at The Orchards Hotel in Williamstown.
Members of my class came from an assortment of workplaces, ranging from larger venues like General Dynamics and Williams College, to smaller businesses like Winstanley Partners and Bisque, Beads & Beyond, among others.
One of my classmates was John Bortolotto, branch manager for the NBT Bank in Lenox. He said he heard of BLP through some co-workers who had graduated from it, and thought it would be valuable, as he was developing the newly opened bank branch.
"When you sign up for something like this, you know you're going to have to be very engaged," said Bortolotto, who joined the BLP Steering Committee after graduating in June.
"It's not for everybody, but for somebody who will engage and participate, it's a beautiful thing. It has to be a mutual commitment," he said.
During the spring, I was both astounded and inspired by the level of commitment my fellow Berkshire County residents and classmates brought to the program and to their communities.
Nearly half our class members were also working parents. Others also volunteered and served on boards of local organizations. A couple had military backgrounds. Some were also taking college classes. One classmate coached a winning high school tennis team and another bought a house and got married during the program.
Through a lengthy practice of patience, consensus-reaching, lots of research and collaboration, we ultimately developed and published "Trail Blazing," an 89-page online resource guide to outdoor recreation in the Berkshires; something our group felt was an economic driver for the county. You can read it here: http://bit.ly/USUVUq.
None of us had worked on anything quite like this.
"We may think we know pretty much all we need to know about Berkshire County, then you walk into that room with all kinds of people and you start to realize there are deeper layers, there are people with similar interests who bring different backgrounds and experiences to the table," Bortolotto said.
He said he's since kept in touch with classmates who have helped him find workers for the bank's summer student program, and find new ideas for business.
Barbara Emanuel, Berkshire Works director of marketing and business services, now serves as the chair of the 22-member BLP steering committee. She's also a member of the Berkshire Leadership Class of 2005.
"At the time, I had worked a number of years for K-B Toys, which had sent people to the program.
"When that ended, it was a great way to learn about the Berkshires and broaden my network from what I knew," Emanuel said.
Some of the BLP sites visited last year included Hancock Shaker Village, William Stan ley Business Park in Pittsfield, Pittsfield Municipal Airport, Lenox Town Hall, and the colleges of Berkshire County, among other venues.
At each place, employees there shared their organization's respective goals and needs from employees and volunteers.
"We're really looking for candidates that want to make a difference in the community. There are always opportunities for growth, no matter what age you are," she said.
Ashley Sulock, director of marketing and communications for the Berkshire Cham ber of Commerce, actually made her way to the Chamber through Berkshire Leadership Program (Class of 2009), which she also now coordinates.
"I've been a lifelong Berkshire County resident. I was introduced to the program through Pine Cone Hill. I was really looking to meet new people and network in a new way, which is something I think can apply to both people new to the area, and also returning to the area," said Sulock.
"I was also looking for a way to get more involved in my community and see where I could make an impact, where my skills and passions could really get put to use, and BLP does that," she said.
To reach Jenn Smith:
or (413) 496-6239
On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink