How Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention is growing and changing

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There is new hope and change happening for the Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention.

Last month, the group celebrated its nominee, Pittsfield-based artist and art therapist, Marney Schorr, and her acceptance of a 2018 "Leadership in Suicide Prevention" award presented by the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention at the State House in Boston, for Schorr's Arts in Recovery for Youth program.

That marks the second consecutive year for a Berkshire nominee to receive this statewide honor. Last year, Betsy Nichols and Joann Farrell earned the recognition for their annual "Purgatory Road" haunted hayride attraction in Dalton, which attracts hundreds of visitors and last fall alone raised $21,000 for teen suicide prevention efforts in Berkshire County.

On April 5, the Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention partnered with NAMI Berkshire County, the Brien Center and Berkshire AHEC to host a daylong conference in Pittsfield for service providers and professionals on the topic of protecting workers from the harms and stresses of dealing with or caring for people who have experienced trauma on a regular basis.

Next month, members of the coalition will travel to Framingham to attend the state Public Health Department's annual Suicide Prevention Conference, "Many Voices, One Mission: Suicide Prevention Across the Lifespan," during which Schorr and members of her youth group will make a presentation and conduct a workshop about their program and suicide prevention for teens and young adults.

These strides are being made as the coalition also transitions its leadership model.

The Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention has existed with support from various state and federal public health grants since 2009. Peggy Morse has been its leader and co-developer since its formation.

Now, with Morse's blessing, the group has selected Lee Watroba as its board president. The group this year also incorporated as a charitable organization in Massachusetts, and is in the process of applying for an official nonprofit status with the IRS.

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"It's a good time to make this step," Morse told The Eagle in a recent interview.

She said that thanks to local supporters, including the sustained support and success from the annual haunted attraction fundraiser, the coalition is now in a position to raise funds directly instead of depending on grants, and can put those funds to direct use in the county.

Morse and the other coalition board members met the new board president through Watroba's work with the county's annual "Out of the Darkness Walk" for suicide prevention, a fundraising event coordinated nationally by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Watroba is the Erikson Institute program and community outreach manager for the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge. Last year, she led local walk efforts with Austen Riggs human resources director, Bertha Connelley, who has been named vice president for the Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention.

Longtime suicide prevention and community advocate Judy Nardacci will remain as the coalition's secretary, and school adjustment counselor Valerie Welts is staying on as treasurer. There are a total of 15 people who serve on the Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention board.

Morse said that with Watroba and Connelley at the helm, bring a wealth of institutional experience in community outreach, event organization and administration, she will now be able to focus on her work with local suicide survivor groups and recovering individuals.

Connelley said she hopes to do more planning to "make sure we're doing something across the year." Aside from spring conferences, the coalition is most known for its ties to the suicide prevention walk and haunted hayride, both of which take place in the fall.

Connelley, Morse and Watroba all said they'd like to do more outreach and collaborative program in schools, especially in Southern Berkshire County, which was affected by multiple youth suicides in the past year. They also want to help garner more support for the expansion of Schorr's Arts in Recovery for Youth program in northern and southern parts of the county, as well as expand health and community worker training and outreach to adults and older populations to address their specific concerns and needs.

"We have a lot of good programs in the coalition," Watroba said. "Our goal is to clarify the focus of the organization and to get more strategic in our suicide prevention efforts."


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