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PITTSFIELD — Brooke Bridges, a child actor by the age of 6 months, grew up under a microscope, pressured and scrutinized, leading her to struggle with anxiety and depression.

But, emotions weren't a popular topic in her Los Angeles household, she said, so, she repressed them and used alcohol, drugs and self-harm as coping mechanisms.

Today, she helps children in Pittsfield find a better way.

A program that Bridges runs has partnered with the Pittsfield Public Schools and the Berkshire District Attorney's Office to pilot a program called Tuned Transitions.

The three-month effort is providing what's known as "social and emotional learning" to 24 students and families at Conte Community School and Morningside Elementary School.

The partnership was made possible by a $25,000 grant the DA's office received from the Massachusetts Probation Service, District Attorney Andrea Harrington said Wednesday at a news conference at Conte.

Students in the program, which began this month, have access to two half-hour virtual coaching sessions each week. Harrington said she has seen firsthand how virtual learning has affected children.

"What we are going to need to do in order to support our children through these difficult times is to pour money and resources into social and emotional learning for children," Harrington said.

It wasn't until her early 20s that Bridges attended group therapy, where, she said, she was surprised to find people who understood what she had been through.

Wanting to share similar experiences with children, Bridges went on to become a mental health advocate and founded Building Bridges SEL. She provides social and emotional coaching to teach kids healthy coping skills to respond to distressing life events.

"I realized the way for me to get through these emotions was to share," she said. "That realization gave me the space not only to share what I felt, but to have that feeling be validated. So, that's really what this program is all about."

Wednesday's announcement drew a variety of local officials, including Mayor Linda Tyer, School Committee Chair Katherine Yon, Superintendent Jason McCandless, Conte Principal Kerry Light, Morningside Principal Monica Zanin and William "Bill" Ballen, executive secretary of the Berkshire County Superintendents' Roundtable.

Pamerson Ifill, the state's deputy commissioner of pretrial services, told the gathering that after working for 32 years in the criminal justice system, 11 of them with juveniles, he has seen what happens to young people caught in the system.

It becomes, he said, an "intractable journey where they can't really extricate themselves."

"It becomes a much more difficult issue if they get deeper into the system," Ifill said.

He called the funding for Bridges' curriculum "seed funding to see what is possible."

"You all are really working with children who are living at the margins, who, if not for you and the school system and the work that you do ... would end up deeper into the criminal justice system," he said.

New focus

More of a focus has been placed on social and emotional learning over the past several years, said Light, the Conte principal. But, just as some students require more educational support than other students, "the same is true for SEL needs of students."

"This is the piece that is missing in most schools nowadays; there's not enough resources and not enough support. That is the intention of this Tuned Transition program," Light said.

Light hopes the program will continue on after the pilot.

"This has to be sustainable, and it has to be in the future for these kids and these families," Light said.

Zanin, the Morningside principal, said she and Light have been working to prioritize social and emotional learning for some time, and thanked Bridges for her work.

Zanin said Bridges reached out to her in January to start this work. The timing of the program's launch is ideal, she said. Over the past six months, she has seen how children are craving connection and families are in need of help.

"At this uncertain time, where disparities are widening across our community, our elementary children need targeted emotional support," she said.

Amanda Burke can be reached at aburke@berkshireeagle.com, on Twitter @amandaburkec and 413-496-6296.


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