A new leader named for Berkshire County Head Start
While she said she's excited to lead a county-wide early education organization that serves more than 350 children and employs some 130 teachers and staff members, her first priority, she said, is to establish positive connections with the people she's working for.
"When a person takes on large roles like this, people tend to see you as a position. But I like having personal connections with people and building relationships all around," Westbrook told The Eagle in a phone interview on Tuesday. "I want people to know first that I'm a mom, a daughter, a friend and a human trying to do this work and help others."
She currently serves at the program manager for the Family Resource Center at Berkshire Children & Families.
Berkshire County Head Start Board President Sue Doucette said the job was offered to and accepted by Westbrook on Friday, Aug. 31, after approval from members of the board and the organization's policy council. The board now awaits final approval from the federal Office of Head Start confirming the appointment of Westbrook to the role. Her anticipated start date is Oct. 9. Until then, Head Start Operations Manager Marian Carr will continue to serve as interim director.
Former director resigned
A search for a new executive director was launched in May after then-executive director, Stacy Parsons, submitted her letter of resignation to the board. Parsons had been leading the organization for nearly five years, taking over for director and longtime early childhood educator, Eloise Stevens.
The sizeable summary of the position focused on recruiting a leader who is a "skilled and compassionate communicator and relationship-builder who can demonstrate the ability to successfully engage with our families, staff, and the community." Doucette said the other requirements included having at least a bachelor's degree, administrative and leadership experience; experience with staff supervision and engagement, and experience in finance and/or managing grants.
According to the agency's website, Berkshire County Head Start was established in 1976, and is a comprehensive early childhood program providing education, health, and special education services, including home visits, to children between the ages of 3 and 4 and their families. Head Start is a federal program with six sites in the Berkshires, including Becket, Great Barrington, Lee, North Adams and Pittsfield.
Because of the range in geography and family needs at the various sites, Doucette said it's important for Berkshire County Head Start to have a strong and renewed sense of mission and purpose moving forward.
"What it really needs right now is someone to help with team building, staff relationships and staff supervision," she said.
Doucette said that not enough qualified candidates submitted applications for the June 30 deadline, so the Head Start board extended it to July 31. A total of 40 applications were received and generated a list of 10 most-qualified candidates. Of those 10 who were offered interviews, three candidates declined for various reasons, Doucette said. After those interviews, three were called back for a second interview in front of the full Berkshire County Head Start Board, which includes teacher, manager, assistant, parent and family advocate representatives.
"The second round of interviews went really well. We narrowed it down to two and had lengthy discussions last week with members of our board and policy council," said Doucette. "It was not an easy decision."
Making community connections
In the end, Westbrook was selected for her enthusiasm and experience in family and early childhood settings.
"We are really very excited and were very taken by her. She had an air about her, approachable but confident," Doucette said.
Westbrook, who turns 32 next month, is a hometown woman, who grew up in the area and graduated from Taconic High School with experience as an athlete and member of Youth Alive among other activities. She initially went away to study at the University of New Haven and also in North Carolina, but, she said, "I was drawn back to the Berkshires."
Upon returning to Pittsfield, she worked various roles at the Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center, including assistant director of the ABC After School Enrichment Program. While there, she finished her bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies concentrating in children, families and society at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and also became pregnant with her daughter, now age 6. In 2017, she was named the Brigham Center and Girls Inc. Alumnae of the Year, and this spring, she was honored by Berkshire Community College's 40 Under Forty program. She is currently working to finish a master's degree in social work this year at Westfield State University, and continues to be a mentor for the local girls in the Rites of Passage Empowerment Program.
"For me," said Westbrook, "it's important to be in touch where you came from."
While working on her bachelor's degree, she said several people in her cohort were Head Start teachers.
"I got to listen to a lot of wonderful stories they had working with the kids," she said.
Now, she said, "I'm really looking forward to kind of being part of the culture there, being there in the classrooms and being part of the impact of the work firsthand. I plan on connecting with families in different ways and partnering with other agencies in different ways to build a strong foundation early on."
Westbrook said her experience working in community outreach and education centers will be helpful in helping Head Start children and families to access the resources they need.
"Being a parent is hard. Sometimes we need help but we don't know where to get it," she said. "We as a community have so many opportunities for families but I find sometimes there are a lot of barriers to them getting access. I hope all the relationships and knowledge I've been able to gain will help me to be able to bridge that gap for them."
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