Executive Spotlight: Deborah Leonczyk, executive director of the Berkshire Community Action Council

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PITTSFIELD — Maybe it's the type of work that she does, or maybe it's just her personality. But, whatever the reason, Deborah Leonczyk would rather talk about the organization she heads and her co-workers' accomplishments than talk about herself.

"I've always said about my role that, when it comes to be about me, then it's time for me to leave," said Leonczyk, executive director and chief financial officer of the Berkshire Community Action Council, the region's federally designated anti-poverty agency. The Huntington resident has headed the council since December 2011.

"It's so much more important to focus on the team rather than the team leader," she said. "We couldn't do what we do without them."

So, we took up Leonczyk on her offer, speaking with her recently about the council's mission and how it has adjusted to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a few personal insights added in.

Q: What is a federally designated anti-poverty agency charged with doing?

A: We were established in 1966, under the Economic Opportunity Act that was part of [President Lyndon] Johnson's War on Poverty. Our belief as a network is that poverty is best addressed at the grassroots level.

What drives poverty is really unique in that community. Because of that, that really gave rise to the Community Services Block Grant program, which is given to every community action agency.

We give out some $408,000 [in block grant funding] every year. This money is very flexible. We can use it for programming that meets the needs of Berkshire County.

Q: How is the funding distributed?

A: About 80 percent of our funding comes from the federal government for fuel assistance or for weatherization, or for DHCD [the Department of Housing and Community Development]. Those are the major contracts we have with the federal government.

The other major source we have that keeps us flexible is our utility contracts. These are agreements with Berkshire Gas and Eversource and National Grid. This provide us with unrestricted income that is needed to close the gap because the federal government never gives us enough money to run any of these programs. Without these utility contracts, we wouldn't be able to do it.

Q: So, you're dancing on the edge every year, am I correct?

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A: We are. The better our utility contracts are, the better we do.

Q: What are the major issues facing people who are living in poverty in the Berkshires right now?

A: If I had to say one particular reason, I would focus on good jobs. If we had well-paying jobs, we could reduce homelessness and we could reduce all of the other symptoms of poverty.

Q: Everything's so unknown right now because of the COVID-19 pandemic. What's the game plan for the winter at this point?

A: The CARES Act has helped us tremendously. It's given us another $1.5 million for fuel assistance, and it's given us the opportunity to get Paycheck Protection Program loans, which actually turns into cash for us. So, we were able to pay the salary of the weatherization crew with that money instead of having to use our utility contracts. So, that helps a lot.

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Q: What effect has the pandemic had on those living in poverty in the Berkshires?

A: What's been really tough for us is that, for the last three months, we've been unable to go into any client's home and do any weatherization programs. That all ground to a halt. Now, we've started performing remote energy audits and contractors have started going back into homes, but we don't know how long this is going to last.

We don't know if there will be another surge and we'll have to go back out again. ... We are very grateful that we got to take advantage of the PPP program.

Q: Is BCAC doing anything else to prepare for a possible surge?

A: We have been meeting with representatives of housing, food security, day care providers and others to find out what is really needed to move forward and address if the pandemic continues. So, these are some of the things that we did: We're going to provide tablets to senior who use telehealth services; we've purchased 150 Chromebooks that will be available to school districts for their low-income students; we've provided funding for internet access for low-income families; we provided funding to the educational task force for regional online platforms for learning; we provided funding to support folks who are in recovery that are suffering through the pandemic because they are particularly vulnerable to this.

And then we provide capital grants for local food communities through local food banks so that food pantries can provide cold storage or additional things that they need to accommodate their needs.

Q: Are there any other programs?

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A: One of the exciting new things we're doing is our HARP [Holistic Approach to Reducing Poverty] program. It will connect nonprofits through all of Berkshire County through an online case management and referral system. ... It's the no-wrong-door-approach model. Now, when you get in, you can get connected to everything you qualify for because there'll be an online referral system that will get you to all the programs that you need. ... We just got the funding for it this year and we are now in the process of converting our data system. In January or February of next year we'll be bringing in nine of the [program's] chosen partners.

Q: What has dealing with the pandemic been like for your organization?

A: It's partly flying by the seat of your pants. ... We all work as a team to figure out how to move forward.

Q: That must be exhilarating and scary at the same time.

A: It is. But, when you have a staff like I do ... they are committed, they are compassionate and they want to get the services out to folks. When you work with people like that, it's more exhilarating than scary. It's inspiring.

Q: How did you get involved in this kind of work?

A: I started out in public accounting. I became a CPA. Then I took a position with a venture capital firm and they asked me to do something that caused me to have a crisis of conscience. ... Then I decided to work in a field that has a purpose beyond just making money.

Q: Why did you want to be an accountant?

A: Because it felt like I was always solving a problem. I love problem solving.

Q: What keeps you going and motivated?

A: I could retire. But, I don't want to leave my BCAC family. They inspire me every day.


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