PITTSFIELD — Kelly Marion's father died when she was 11, but she found solace and engagement at what now is known as the Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center on East Street.
"My mom didn't want myself, my sister and my brother to be isolated because of his passing," Marion said. "So, she made sure we were really engaged in the community."
To keep her daughter connected, Marion's mother enrolled her in swimming and gymnastics lessons at what then was called Girls Inc. of the Berkshires.
"I sort of grew up seeing a lot of good role models in the agencies I was in when I was a young person," Marion said. "It sort of became full circle for me."
Marion returned to the center as an employee in 1989, and today is the Brigham Center's CEO, a position she has held since 2007.
In 2005, the center was named for Brigham, who headed the Berkshire United Way's predecessor organization, United Community Services, from 1948 to 1966 (Brigham died in 1997). But, the center still is affiliated with Girls Inc., a national youth organization whose origins date to 1864. It often is referred to as the Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center located at Girls Inc. of the Berkshires.
We recently spoke with the Pittsfield native about her experiences at the Brigham Center, how they have influenced her life, mentoring girls and young women, and a career path that she didn't pursue.
Q: What led you to become involved in working with young women and girls?
A: I was in college at the human resources program at [Berkshire Community College] and I had the opportunity to help out here at what was then the Girls Club for two weeks, substituting in the program. I really liked being in the agency and the work that I was doing.
The then-executive director asked me what I was going to do in the future. I said I'm going to college and want to work with people. She offered me a full-time position [so Marion could] figure out a way to work and go to college, and that's what I did.
I basically took a two-week job and never left. I really feel this work makes such a difference in our community. ... I feel like this is what I was destined to do.
Q: Why do you say that?
A: It sort of became full circle for me to be able to come back to an agency that was here for me when I had such a tremendous loss as a young child. To be able to support the young women who are in the center today, it sort of feels like a destined thing for me. ...
For me to take a two-week position and continue to go to college ... that was a long time for them to stick it out with me and support me while I was working full time and going to school. I got married during that time. It was a lot. But, I felt like it was meant to be.
Q: Based on your experience, what kind of programming do girls need?
A: In our mission, we talk about [being] a multiservice community center empowering children and youth with a special emphasis on becoming responsible, and for helping girls become responsible and fulfilled individuals. I think that's definitely what happened to me participating in programming here when I was younger, and I think that's what we're doing today and what we've been doing during my tenure.
I think as time has gone by, the way that we're doing that has changed.
Q: How has it changed?
A: Years ago, we did a lot of basic activities; there was art and cooking, swimming and gymnastics. Then we started to do Operation Smart and science activities. We started to build in pregnancy-prevention programming. We started to build in violence prevention. We started to build in an economic literacy curriculum.
Being a nationally affiliated agency with Girls Inc., the intervention and prevention [programs] became a primary way to support our girls.
We're teaching them life skills. How to protect themselves, how to make smart and healthy decisions, how to manage their money. A lot of the girls who come here come when they are very young, 5 or 6. They literally do grow up here (the Brigham Center has five separate programs, two of them co-ed, for ages ranging from infants to 18).
Q: We always hear that boys need mentors because so many grow up in single-parent households. What types of mentors do girls need?
A: I think both girls and boys need mentors. I think girls, for example with our Eureka! program, which is about science-based development and personal development, that girls need to form those bonds and have the opportunity to see women be successful and to have careers.
With any of our mentoring programs, that's what we're trying to do with our girls. ... That you can be successful. That you can go to college. That you can manage a full-time job and have a family. That there's a progression to life.
They're going to set short-term goals and long-term goals. It's our responsibility as mentors to help them set those goals, whatever they may be.
Q: How has teaching girls at organizations like yours changed during the last 20 years?
A: For us now, everything we do, we're really looking for strategies that are research-based. All of our curriculums [with Girls Inc.] are developed and evaluated at a national level, then piloted locally across the United States. So, the curriculum that our girls are getting is really top-notch curriculum that's been researched and evaluate and there's a lot of incomes and evaluations attached to that.
Years ago, when I started, we had a lot of great activities. It was a safe place for girls to go after school and to be with their peers.
Q: So, the change has been in the career program offerings?
A: I think so, definitely. ... We want them to set goals. When they're getting to the middle school age, we say, "Hey, maybe you'd like to help out with a younger-kids program and support the kindergartners. ..."
We try and teach them some job skills. We hire a lot of the young people who grow up with us. We probably have, right now on our staff, five or six people who grew up here at the center and came her for Girls Inc. programming. They had strong mentors and role models, and then they became strong mentors and role models for the younger girls that are here. ...
You can see a career path, and you leave here with some strong skills.
Q: Why did the organization add a pool when the current building was constructed in 1958?
A: Gladys and a lot of other prominent women in the community did a capital campaign for our new building, which started in 1954, and they raised so much money that they were able to put a pool in. But, it wasn't in the original plan, which is why our pool has such a small apron as compared to a lot of other pools. ...
It was an afterthought. ... Seventy-three laps back and forth is a mile, and it takes you about 40 minutes, if you're hauling.
Q: If you weren't working with young women and girls, what do you think you'd be doing?
A: I would be a writer. ... Any story or letter or article I've had to write, I've always said someday I would like to do this. ... [But], this work that I'm doing, I want to do as long as I can.