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HOUSATONIC — These days, some see compassion as weakness.

At Berkshire Meadows and its community-based homes and programs, compassion is the motivator behind the work, says Liisa Kelly, senior director for the group at 249 North Plain Road.

Work at Berkshire Meadows — a residential program for children and adults with complex medical, intellectual and developmental differences — goes on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 365 days a year to maximize growth and skill development of the young people and adults in the agency's care.

"Any position here has to be for someone who has a lot of compassion and is willing to take care of the primary needs of our students. A lot of the students here don't walk or talk, they don't feed themselves, they have a lot of needs. When you work here, you're paying close attention to them and making sure their needs are met," Kelly explains.

Berkshire Meadows is looking for its next bevy of compassionate workers right now, for direct care and nursing positions, for shifts around the clock, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., 3 to 11 p.m., and 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Positions are flexible, with full and part-time opportunities available.

The school has on-site student boarding, plus three group homes, one in Housatonic and two more in other parts of Great Barrington. The school is also securing two units in the new Bentley Apartments in town.

Direct-care and nursing positions

Direct-care staff perform duties that range from one-to-one daily care and helping with instruction, keeping consistent daily routines, offering hand-over-hand assistance, and verbal and physical prompting for skills development. School goes on through the summer so students make progress and don't lose ground on their life skills learning.

Patience is another key attribute of successful Berkshire Meadows applicants, as students' skill development is often marked by incremental measures of success.

"It's not like when you're working with the general population," notes Kelly.

There's also a particular skill successful staffers need: the ability to understand the needs of someone who is nonverbal.

"We like people who are intuitive, who look for nuances," notes Kelly.

The program director says staff also need a degree of physical fitness, as well, for chasing after a student, playing, or assisting with ambulation during direct care.

A glass-half-full personality and a sense of hope are good things to have, as they affect the school population positively, says Kelly.

Everything for student life is provided on site, including basic health care.

For the nursing positions, registered nurses are preferred, but Berkshire Meadows will consider licensed practical nurses, too.

Many students have ongoing medical conditions, and having a nurse practitioner there full time is a great help to the school and students, because the nurse gets to know the students well enough to understand nonverbal cues and communication.

"By her getting to know them when they're not sick, they trust her. It's very beneficial," says Kelly.

The goals: happy, independent, healthy

Most of the young people at Berkshire Meadows have cognitive abilities much lower than their physical ages, in many cases, toddler level. They're highly monitored and coached, and most will need care for the rest of their lives, says Kelly.

Work at Berkshire Meadows extends from child-based programs to those for adults, says Kelly.

The pillars of the Berkshire Meadows program are three: "We want everyone as independent as possible, as healthy as possible, and happy," says Kelly. Another key goal: students able to return to their homes.

"Some students stay for a really long time. We've had people stay for a couple years and return back to their families, and that's great," says Kelly.

Students live with any number of physical and mental differences, including genetic disorders and syndromes, autistic tendencies and/or behavioral issues, all of which are addressed in the student's school-life structure.

"When the student comes in for the first time, we look at the total picture of the child — medical, behavioral, social — and we formulate a plan around that," says Kelly.

COVID-19-era work environment

Work has gone on uninterrupted at Berkshire Meadows through the pandemic. Staff get screened for illness before entry, and all staff wear a face mask, no matter the department. When performing personal tasks, there's more PPE involved. And if any staff or students fall ill, there's protocols in place to maintain a safe environment.

"We have some medically fragile people, feeding and breathing tubes, orthopedic and respiratory issues," says Kelly of the extra care that must be taken with certain students. "In this time of COVID, we've really learned about commitment. Our staff showed up day after day, and really put the kids first. It's a place where you feel really good about humanity."

Part of the success of maintaining a safe space has been the curtailing of nearly all visits, a measure taken at many nursing homes during the outbreak.

"We've kept access to the program pretty limited. Right now, the only visitors coming are family," says Kelly. "They have been absolutely amazing with how patient and wonderful they've been."

She says the group has received great suggestions from families for how to operate during the pandemic, and they often bring their own personal protective gear so as not to tax the staff supply.

Education: a special perk

In addition to competitive pay and benefits for staff, the agency has a tuition-reimbursement program that enterprising employees use to expand their knowledge and careers.

"We want this to be a career and not just a job, so it's important that we invest in our workforce. We've had many people complete a teaching certificate or a nursing degree. A lot of people have started out as direct care, then take a class here or there, and then get a degree. It helps educate our workforce and bring new information into the program," says Kelly.

There are opportunities for advancement, with supervisor roles opening or being created as needed.

The open positions also come with affordable health insurance, and perhaps best of all, generous paid time off.

Berkshire Meadows is always aiming to improve its diversity, and this round of hiring is no different.

"We try to have a diverse workforce. If your primary language is not English, that's OK with us. We serve a diverse population. We need to have Spanish-speaking people and people of color, because that's who our families and students are," Kelly says.

Becoming more diverse as a company - Berkshire Meadows is part of the JRI family of treatment and learning facilities - is a steady work in progress, with a goal of greater equity for employees of all backgrounds. One on-site house includes staffers from Ghana, Jamaica, Thailand and Columbia.

"They take really good care of people. Their biggest battle is what they're going to have for dinner," says Kelly. "The families love how diverse it is."

Equine and aquatic therapies

The Berkshire Meadows program includes some special therapies, including the equine variety with a pair of mini-horses, Maggie and Delta, and a certified therapy dog named Greg.

There's also an aquatics program with a therapeutic pool administered by physical therapy staff.

"You can see people walk in there who can't walk on land," says Kelly of an amazing Berkshire Meadows moment.

Employees get a chance to work with adults, too, as Berkshire Meadows operates a day habilitation program for adults with disabilities, some of whom live in the community.

"We have people who are here for a long time, 30 to 40 years. You could get a chance to know people through their lives. You get to know them and their families really well," says Kelly.

Interviews are ongoing

Parent company Justice Resource Institute, now called JRI, is one of the largest and most programmatically diverse human services providers in the commonwealth. Today, JRI has over 100 programs with 2,500 employees serving hundreds of clients, helping them live more productive and happier lives.

Berkshire Meadows is conducting pre-interviews and interviews now. To apply, contact program director Liisa Kelly at 413-528-2523 or email lkelly@jri.org.


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