Six decades on, Civitan Club of the Berkshires hasn't strayed from its mission

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PITTSFIELD — In the 1950s, when Peter C. Giftos and Bruce H. Grunow were growing their careers as young businessmen in the Berkshires, they understood that their positions meant privilege. They believed in the goodwill of giving back to their community.

Giftos was managing the family sundries wholesale business, Giftos Bros. of Dalton, as well as Joslen Wholesale Co. of Hudson, N.Y. Grunow, at the time, was working at Pittsfield National Bank. Both were Army veterans, volunteered with local Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts programs and were members of the Mystic Lodge of Masons.

So, in 1957, when a representative from Alabama approached them and some of their peers about starting a chapter of Civitan International in Pittsfield, they didn't hesitate to take their leadership in civic duty to another level.

Established in 1917, the organization, according to its mission statement, is "dedicated to serving individual and community needs, with an emphasis on helping people with developmental disabilities."

Last November, Giftos and Grunow together celebrated the 60th anniversary of the charter they helped establish, joined by 91 fellow Civitans and guests during a dinner at Zucchini's Restaurant. As per usual, Grunow, a lifelong member of the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, gave the invocation.

At that time, Grunow told The Eagle about his commitment to Civitan: "Whenever I can help, I like to."

Over the years, he had seen membership wax and wane, but was happy to see a recent surge of new members to what's now known as The Civitan Club of the Berkshires.

"We have a lot of people who work together," he said of the club. "It's always fruitful to me because it's given me a lot to do. Kids and families get involved, too. I hope it gets to 75, at least, so I can be there."

That will be one of the few milestones Grunow won't reach in person, but one his fellow Civitans hope to achieve in his spirit.

Grunow died May 28 at age 85. His obituary proudly detailed his service to Civitan, from having held almost every office, to being the top fruitcake salesman — one of the organization's long-running fundraisers. He once sold more than 1,000 pounds of it in a single season.

This year, as the local Civitan Club prepares to enter one of its busiest and most charitable seasons, they also are looking for new members to help strengthen and expand the work of their forefathers.

Proud legacy of service

Civitan Club of the Berkshires, once a men's group, is now a multigenerational, multifaceted group of 52 men and women. They're primarily concentrated in Pittsfield, but the full membership includes representatives from 10 communities in the Berkshires and beyond. Local leaders are in the midst of a recruitment campaign to add new members, particularly from the northern and southern parts of the county, to get involved with their year-round programs and activities.

In an email, Civitan International Executive Vice President Scarlet Thompson said of the local chapter, "The Civitans in Berkshire County have an outstanding tradition of service in the local community and that goes a long way in explaining their longevity and success as a club. They should certainly be proud of their accomplishments."

Over the years, the group has supported the Special Olympics and the organization that is now Berkshire County Arc by raising money and volunteering for programs and events. They've provided financial support for local organizations like the Pittsfield Little League, Moments House and George Crane Memorial Center, along with more than a dozen others.

The group also produces the "Know Your Berkshires" show for Pittsfield Community Television, and also invites guest speakers to present at their monthly program meetings at Patrick's Pub.

This summer, the group debuted "Officer Friendly," a new, inflatable mascot of the Pittsfield Police Department, who was spotted at Third Thursdays and the Westside Community Fun Day at the Christian Center.

The group organizes quarterly "Feed My Sheep" dinners in partnership with First Baptist Church in Pittsfield, and an annual pancake breakfast for veterans with Boy Scout Troop 8, which will take place Sunday morning.

Each month, the group also prepares and serves meals at the Salvation Army on West Street in Pittsfield.

"They're wonderful people and great to talk to," said Salvation Army Capt. Darlene Higgins.

"They know what they're doing and get the job done ... which gives us a chance to rest and makes us feel very good, very blessed," she said.

The Civitan Club of the Berkshires holds various fundraisers throughout the year to support its charitable work. It benefits from the annual Bees Prendergast Memorial Greylock Federal Credit Union Golf Tournament, which raised more than $10,500 this past year, despite cold, rainy weather.

And in keeping with the pattern, while it snowed heavily during its annual SoupFest in March, the group still raised and distributed more than $8,800 to local food pantries.

"Life is good," said Nancy Lamarre, who co-chaired SoupFest with Karen Ruscio. "You need to give back when you can."

Sharing the holiday spirit

Perhaps the most popular and well-known of the annual Civitan Club of the Berkshires' efforts is its Christmas Eve dinner deliveries to those who are homebound for the holidays. This past year, the group got up early to cook, package and deliver about 150 turkey dinners, complete with mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberries, savory stuffing and green beans, and Christmas Day lunches to folks in Pittsfield, Dalton, Lanesborough and Hinsdale. Each meal also comes with a holiday card.

"A lot of people can't get out," said Ken Keefner, a resident of Providence Court in Pittsfield who has received meals over the years. "It's good they think of the old people."

"This is one of the most heartwarming and gratifying things that we do all year," said Giftos, who has enlisted his family and friends to join the effort for six decades. "It makes my holiday a joy when one of the homebound seniors opens the door and smiles from ear to ear, then reaches up and gives me a hug."

"We grew up with this," said his daughter, Dawn, who remembers years of bundling holiday meals and picking up golf balls with her siblings after the annual tournament. As an adult, she has served on the Civitan Club of the Berkshires board of directors and helped organize various events and membership drives.

"At Civitan Club we're family," she said.

Jodie O'Connell-Ponkos of Ghent, N.Y., said she joined the organization because "it kind of went along with who I am."

"No matter where in the world you go, you can find a way to help and people who need it. If more people knew about Civitan, who knows how much more good could be done," she said.

Like Giftos, Maryann Sherman also has recruited her family to help for her past 19 years of membership. Last Christmas, this included her teenage grandchildren, Molly, Caroline, Sydnie and Colby.

"It's definitely teaching me to be grateful for everything I have," said Colby, who graduated from Taconic High School in June. "It's important to give back to the community,"

It's a ripple effect that Maryann Sherman and her fellow Civitans hope will build the next wave to carry their civic mission through a new generation.

"We have a great legacy of 61-plus years of the Civitan Club of Pittsfield to build upon," President Joe Landquist wrote in his September newsletter. "We cannot let down all the people who came before us. We must continue to do the great things Civitan is known for, and then some new ones."

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6239.


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