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Local emergency fund to help nonprofits

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As Berkshire County nonprofits and community support agencies continue to tread water in a sea of turbulence and uncertainty churned by the coronavirus pandemic, the county's leading philanthropic organizations have assembled a life raft.

In less than a month, Berkshire United Way and Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation have raised nearly $2 million for a collaborative COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund for Berkshire County campaign. The joint effort with Northern Berkshire United Way and Williamstown Community Chest is designed to raise new resources in support of local organizations at the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak.

The agencies have now awarded over 60 grants totaling more than $975,000 from the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund and the Berkshire Taconic Neighbor-to-Neighbor Fund.

"This fund is providing a rapid response to the increased challenges our nonprofits face as they provide services to our neighbors in greatest need," Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation President Peter Taylor said in a statement Monday.

A collaborative team of staff from all four partner agencies has been reviewing and awarding grants on a rolling basis during the crisis, as funding permits. Nonprofits can still request funds through a simple, rolling application process that can be found at BerkshireUnitedWay.org. The maximum award given is $25,000.

The organizations receiving grants collectively work across Berkshire County to support children and low-income families; communities of color and immigrants; seniors; and people with mental illness and addiction disorders, among others.

The new philanthropic effort is funding support in the forms of food and personal protective equipment, emergency outreach staff and hotlines, creating shelter capacity, and covering rent and mortgage payments for some of the county's most housing insecure.

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Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity was a maximum grant recipient, using the funds to cover mortgage payments, taxes and insurance for 29 families, representing 115 people, for 60 days. Central Berkshire Habitat Executive Director Carolyn Valli said these families and their homes are not backed by the federal Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac housing financing program.

In Northern Berkshire, Louison House Executive Director Kathy Keeser said the organization also received a $25,000 grant to help staff and maintain housing for current residents as well as fire victims taken in after a March 18 blaze destroyed a multitenant housing structure on Union Street in North Adams.

"It's a big, big help," Keeser said, noting that the organization, which operates 24-7, lost dozens of critical volunteers due to social distancing guidelines.

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Daltrey Turner of the volunteer-driven Berkshire Community Diaper Project said the organization's $4,500 grant has helped to purchase a six-week supply of 30,000 diapers for its county-wide distribution sites.

Since the start of the pandemic, she said there's been an increased demand for this item, which is not covered by other public assistance programs. The project added three partner sites, and is now helping to deliver diapers to people with young children who lack transportation or cannot safely get to a site.

"It is truly amazing to see so many nonprofits come together and collaborate on projects that are feeding our neighbors, providing shelter for our homeless, and offering child care for essential workers. We are here to support the incredible work of our nonprofit partners as they respond to increasing and evolving needs across the county," Berkshire United Way President and CEO Candace Winkler said. "We can do a lot more together than we can apart."

Fundraising for the emergency fund launched on March 19, and has attracted more than 30 major donors and nearly 200 individual donations to-date.

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The smallest gift received has been $10 and the largest is a $250,000 grant from the Boston-based Barr Foundation. The largest gift from a family is $200,000, furnished by the Fuqua Family Fund.

Winkler said the effort has garnered supporters not previously associated with either Berkshire United Way or Berkshire Taconic.

"This crisis has brought to the surface a number of disparities in our community," said Taylor.

He added, "We recognize that this crisis will unfold in phases."

For now, the emergency fund partners will monitor their remaining and additional incoming resources "judiciously" to plan for the duration of this pandemic and also for what happens with the levels of need after the worst is over.

Tax-deductible donations to the fund can be made at www.BerkshireUnitedWay.org/donate.


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