This year's gala at the Country Club of Pittsfield was the 'Enchanted Forest.'
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Jennifer never thought her family would have to deal with a sexual assault.
"I knew sexual abuse was rampant but I thought of it as something that happened to other people, to other kinds of families, not ours," she said. "I know now I was wrong and naive and maybe even a little bit of a snob."
Then she learned her 4-year-old had been abused for as long as the child could remember. Her family had no idea what to do next, other than what she had gleaned from crime shows like "Law & Order."
"I had this vision of my child being interviewed over and over," Jennifer told those gathered at the Country Club of Pittsfield for Berkshire County Kids Place annual gala.
They were very wary of Kids Place but relieved by what they experienced: patience, kindness and respect.
"We were treated with respect by everyone there," she said. "They let us cry. They let us be angry. And they let us ask as many questions as we needed to ask."
Berkshire County Kids Place works with the district attorney's office to provide an interdisciplinary team approach for children dealing with sexual abuse and violence and their families. The nonprofit children's advocacy center is funded in part by the state but also relies on donations to service the 400 or more children that come through its doors each year.
On Friday night, the country club's dining room was transformed into an "Evening in the Enchanted Forest" with woodsy decorations and twinkling lights to raise funds for the agency and honor volunteers who have helped its mission. Guests were welcomed by gala co-chairs Tim and Ana Suffish and thanked by board Chairwoman Rosemarie Phelps.
Craig and Patti Cusson were presented with this year's Sheri L. Quinn Volunteer Service Award for their many contributions to the community and Kids Place, especially the Italian dinners they began holding at Dottie's Coffee Shop five years ago to benefit the children's center. The dinners are a family affair with Craig's bolognese and Patti's Italian cookies (that are so good Craig claimed he married her to get more.)
It was particularly moving for Patti Cusson, who hinted at her own "tough childhood" as an example of how the agency can help the county's most vulnerable.
When she was 5, her mother died and she and her older brothers were sent through a series of foster homes.
"When you have a horrible start, even in the happiest times in your life it comes out of nowhere and it makes you physically and emotionally ill," Cusson said, adding she was grateful for "everybody that puts this together to give these children a chance to take care of it at their age so they don't have to carry it the rest of their lives ...
"It's incredible what they do and it has a place in my heart."
The Cussons given the award by its namesake, Quinn, who served on the Kids Place board for 26 years, many as treasurer.
"Craig and Patti have recruited their entire family to help prepare these dinners and entertain the guests at this yearly event and in the past five years they have raised $11,000 for Kids Place," she said.
Craig Cusson said there was a need for Kids Place considering the "absolutely mindboggling" statistics of child abuse. According to the 2016 report by the state Department of Children and Families, some 138,500 cases of abuse and neglect were reported statewide and more than 40,000 required direct intervention.
"If not for the Kids Place, the children they serve wouldn't be capable of having the same opportunities in life as all of our children have," Craig Cusson said. "The opportunities to fulfill their dreams, to be successful, no matter how you define success ...
"What we are all doing is helping kids place put these children in a better place mentally to make good decisions and choices as their lives develop."
The Cussons invited Jessica Lamb, owner of Dottie's, up to share the moment.
"She takes Dottie's Coffee Lounge and converts into the North End Italian cafe," Craig Cusson said.
The second award of the evening, the Community Leader Award, was presented with the addition of Thomas J. O'Brien's name to memorialize his years of service to Kids Place board of directors and the greater community.
O'Brien's company, Martino Glass, had already been selected as the recipient for its sponsorship of events and fundraisers when he died in March.
Vice Chairman Paul Fortini, who made the presentation, said, "Tom strongly believed in giving back to the community, especially to the youth of our community. He impressed that upon his employees who are excited and proud to continue it."
Linda O'Brien said her husband's motto was "always do the right thing." He would frequently stop at the YMCA, where he also was a board member, to hand out gift certificates to families in need. Nonprofits would put in orders for door repairs or broken windows, and "he would send a bill stamped 'paid.'"
"He was really proud to be part of this wonderful organization," she said.
Ashley Alter, partner and now owner of Martino Glass, said the work of Kids Place is vitally important and that the company and its employees were committed to continue the work that O'Brien had done on the agency's behalf.
Jennifer said her child still remembers years later the people who had been kind at Kids Place. When told she would be speaking at Friday's gala, her child offered a coda.
"Tell them Kids Place is a really nice place, the people are really nice and they should give them a lot of money," she smiled.
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