BCC nursing program marks 50 years with celebration, new endowment

Berkshire Community College nursing program alumni introduce themselves Friday, during a celebration at the Pittsfield campus to mark 50 years of nursing education in the Berkshires.

PITTSFIELD — Liz Salerno, who graduated from Berkshire Community College's first nursing class, in 1969, said she hails from a time when associate degrees in nursing were a new concept.

"Couldn't Google it," she said to laughs Friday from a crowd gathered in the college's Connector building.

Salerno said she graduated from the college during a time when everything was handwritten, when there was no air conditioning in hospitals and when students faked fractures so they could practice on each other.

"We were the guinea pigs," she said. "We did it all for the rest of you."

The BCC celebration marked 50 years of nursing education in the Berkshires, which comes at a time of some turmoil for the program. The college recently cleared up some accreditation issues in the nursing program, and it won't admit a fall class in its two-year nursing program this fall as the college works to address ongoing concerns from state regulators.

The program might be going through a rough patch, college President Ellen Kennedy said, but through it, the community behind it grows stronger. Now, she said, "we're in a really good place."

Christine Martin, who has served as interim nursing director since October, said it has been a challenging role to take on, but she never wants for support.

Over the past 50 years, she agreed, "the role of the nurse has changed so much."

The realization that the nursing field is ever-changing served as inspiration for a new endowment announced during the celebration. Shela Levante, development director for the college, said BCC launched the endowment with $25,000 in seed money from Berkshire HealthcareSystems, the county's largest network of nursing homes, hospice and adult day health programs.

The endowment will grow interest over time, and Levante said the college will add at least $5,000 a year to the pot after each Harvest Run, an annual fundraiser for the nursing program. The next Harvest Run is Oct. 19.

As the annual fundraiser continued to grow, raising as much as $30,000 last year, Levante said, it made financial sense to invest the money in a way that it can grow to support another 50 years of nursing education in the county.

Over time, the endowment will fuel new equipment, new programs and financial aid for students, Levante said.

"This program is the reason we have great health care here in the Berkshires," said Bill Kittler, administrator at Kimball Farms Nursing Care Center. "You get sick, chances are, the nurse at your bedside is going to be a graduate of BCC."

Jennie Sutherland, community outreach coordinator for Berkshire HealthcareSystems, said the seed money seemed a logical outgrowth of the evolving partnership between her organization, which hosts BCC nursing students at its scattered sites throughout the Berkshires, and the college.

With BCC, she said, the nonprofit Berkshire HealthcareSystems shares the "same mission, vision and core values."

"We're a perfect fit," Kennedy agreed.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.