Williams College's Winter Blitz nails it with keeping residents protected from elements

Williams College students, from top, Margot Berman, Isabelle Wood and Akhil Dayal work Saturday on winterizing the home of Shirley Lescarbeau of North Adams. This year, more than 150 students from Williams, as well as Bennington College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, teamed up for Winter Blitz, to prepare 44 homes in North County for the colder months.

NORTH ADAMS — Shirley Lescarbeau has lived in North Adams for most of her life and loves her community, but there is no denying that the winters can be frigid.

On Saturday morning, she sat in an armchair with her three cats nearby while three Williams College students made sure her Wells Avenue home would stay toasty throughout the season.

"Up here on the hill, we're about five or six degrees colder than down the street," the 77-year-old retiree said while the students weatherproofed a window as part of the annual Winter Blitz.

For 11 years, students from Williams College have volunteered in teams to weatherize homes across the county by installing window kits, door sweeps, hot water pipe insulation, energy-efficient light bulbs and other materials. This year, more than 150 students from Williams, as well as Bennington College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, teamed up for the effort to prepare 44 homes in North County for the colder months.

"I live in Eastern Mass., and I've seen homes be absolutely devastated by the winter weather," Margot Berman, 18, said before heading to Lescarbeau's home. "I've seen how bad it can be when people aren't prepared."

Berman and Isabelle Wood, also 18, worked on the project under team leader Akhil Dayal, a 20-year-old junior who has participated in the project for three years. On Saturday morning, he joined other team leaders on the Williams campus for training in how to install the insulation kits, door sweeps and caulking.

When the project began on campus, it was a student-led initiative, but when those students matriculated out of college, the school kept it going, said Mike Evans, assistant director at Williams' Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives. The Zilkha Center provides the weatherization material, Evans said.

By taking these simple steps to weatherize houses, homeowners can 25 to 40 percent on their heating and cooling bills, according to a statement from the college about the project.

"Not only does it reduce local energy consumption, but it also forms connections between students and the community," Evans said of the project.

This year garnered the most volunteers, and homeowners seeking assistance, in the past eight years, he said. During training, the students were encouraged to be empathetic to homeowners, verbally and nonverbally, and offer assistance in other household chores, like raking leaves, if needed.

As the project improves, leaders are working to get the word out to homeowners not to throw away the window kits, which can be used for five years.

Students will return to the homes in the spring, to collect and store the window kits for the next year, Evans said.

"There was a lot of great energy, and cross-campus energy," Evans said of Saturday's event.

Wood, who arrived at Williams this fall, said that this project is the first time she has taken part in a volunteer effort at school.

"I've been here two months and I haven't spent that much time out of `the purple bubble,'" she said, using a nickname for the Williams campus. "I wanted an opportunity to engage with the community."

"There's a big spirit of community engagement at Williams," Berman added. "A lot of people are really interested in going off campus and helping people in the area."

Lescarbeau lives with her niece, LoriBeth Hartlaub, who also is retired. Saturday was the second year she participated in Winter Blitz. Her husband passed away in 2016, and the home where they lived for over 30 years can get drafty, she said.

"They're such nice kids, aren't they?" Lescarbeau asked while group members worked on a staircase window and chatted softly about their weekend plans. "They're so well-trained."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.