State Rep. William 'Smitty' Pignatelli speaks to the crowded room at Itam Lodge on Friday during the 14th annual Berkshire Legislative Breakfast.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Elected officials at the annual Berkshire Legislative Breakfast on Friday came ready to listen instead of talk.
The breakfast, now in its 14th year, gathers local legislators together to hear from the myriad county agencies that support people with disabilities.
This year, agencies such as the Berkshire County Arc, Berkshire Family and Individual Resources (BFAIR) and United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) were represented in a very meaningful and personal way:
Clients of the agencies and members of their families spoke directly to the panel of legislators and the nearly 300 people in attendance about their experiences on a variety of subjects.
One such subject was employment, with BC Arc client Holly Vacchina speaking about how her experience working at Greylock Federal Credit Union for the past 13 years has changed her life.
"It's amazing how great this job is and I hope it doesn't end for a long time," she said.
Her comments led to what was billed as an "educational moment" — and plea to the legislators — by Rich Hawes of Arc.
Hawes spoke of the need to keep Regulation 14C, which allows employers to pay subminumum wage, so people with disabilities can continue to be productive, working members of society. He urged the legislators not to have a knee-jerk reaction and advocate eliminating the regulation because of a notion that it devalues the work done by people with disabilities.
"In some cases, we need to have that option," he said. "If done correctly ... people with disabilities can be productively employed with the 14C Regulation."
Other personal stories shared at the breakfast included Nichole Christman, with her young daughter nearby, praising the early intervention services that helped her get assistance with her daughter's medical and developmental needs.
"I can't say enough about the importance of early intervention services in Berkshire County," she said.
Christina McHugh talked about "turning 22," referring to the age at which people are not guaranteed services anymore. She spoke of her son and how he was able to find a positive situation at a Baroco program when he turned 22.
"They focused on what Jamie could do and not what he couldn't do," she said. "We're fortunate to live here in Berkshire County."
Mother and daughter Anita and Rebecca Gleason echoed those sentiments when they talked about the brain injury support they have received in the Berkshires. Rebecca was in a bad car accident and suffered traumatic brain injury, forcing her to re-learn everything, including who she was. At the time they lived in the eastern part of the state, where Anita said she found getting help difficult.
"We went through torture," she said, but that all changed when they moved to the Berkshires. "We now have options. It's all because of being out here."
One of those options are community homes for people with brain injuries such as Lisa Morgan-Fiero, who spoke about how multiple sclerosis has changed her life, robbing her of her job as an X-ray technician and landing her in a nursing home for seven years.
"It was a long seven years," she said, adding that she was lonely and had no choices for her own activities and needs there.
Now she lives in a community home in Pittsfield, where she can do things like help make up menus and her own schedule.
"I am enjoying my life again," she said. "I know there are other people like me stuck in nursing homes. I feel bad for them. I would like to let them know that they can have this opportunity, too."
Letting the legislators know that these opportunities and options are important to their constituents in the Berkshires was the main goal of the breakfast. And that goal appeared to have been reached.
In brief remarks by the five legislators on the panel — state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing and state Reps. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Gailanne Cariddi and Paul Mark — they agreed that getting the message straight from the people had a profound effect during this time of crunching numbers for a new state budget.
"You have actually put a face on those line items," Pignatelli said.
Cariddi said her heart was warmed by what she had heard Friday morning at the Itam Lodge.
"Your stories are what I go to work for every day," she said.