There was a large audience at the Pittsfield Country Club for the event.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It was in the mid-1980s when Michael Dukakis was looking to close the Avalon School, which was in receivership.
Meanwhile, Hillcrest officials had taken an idea of expanding into the education field to their Chief Operating Officer Eugene Dellea.
Dellea brought the concept the board chair, financial and legal reviews were done and the leadership was ready to bring the idea of buying Avalon to the full board. But first, they needed the governor's office to stop his efforts to close it.
"In communications with the governor and his staff, we impressed upon him the needs of the students and the economic impact of losing 500 jobs in South Berkshire," Dellea, now president of Fairview Hospital and Berkshire Medical Center's Hillcrest Campus, said.
Dukakis agreed, if a non-profit could take over the school, the jobs and the operations would stay in the Berkshires. But no local bank would finance it. Dellea again used his political connections.
"We went to the state Sen. Peter Weber requesting he file legislation enabling HEC to utilize the state's education health financing authority for a bonding approval. We were successful and here we are," Dellea said.
Now 30 or so years later, Hillcrest Educational Centers continues to be one of the county's largest employers.
Gerard Burke was part of that takeover and continues to serve as its president. He remembers when Dellea was in charge of organizing an appearance for U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy in Worcester. Burke was looking for assistance for Hillcrest and Dellea introduced the two and put them in a position to be able to talk. From then on, Hillcrest was on Kennedy's radar.
The politicians all served a role and can boast about saving jobs and building the service. But in the middle of it all stood Dellea.
"There has not been a significant political event in Berkshire County in the past 30 years that Gene has not been in the middle of," Burke said.
That's why on Thursday, Hillcrest Educational Centers honored Dellea with the Irish Person of the Year Award during the annual Robert "Bees" Prendergast St. Patrick's Reception. Dellea has for years been a quiet player in not just Hillcrest's history but in the economic and political world of all of Berkshire County.
"Tonight we recognize a person I would suggest is one of the most valuable political people in some ways has never been elected in Berkshire County. He doesn't like the spotlight. He always makes arrangements to get things done the proper way. But yet, he leads up by example," Burke said.
"For years Gene's made every effort to avoid the spotlight but in the last couple of years, he hasn't been able to dodge it. The Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce recognized him, Fairview Hospital, the Esther Quinn Award, and tonight. But that's not to suggest he's changed his m.o. He still doesn't like the spotlight. He still doesn't like being recognized. It is just a direct result of all of us figuring out how to pull it off. We no longer ask him. We do one of two things: we surprise him or we tell him. We don't ask him."
And it isn't just because of Dellea's efforts in the political world. Dellea has become a mentor to many in Berkshire County, inspiring and helping new leaders. He's offered guidance and assistance on a number of projects and for a number of people.
Dellea said while he appreciates the honor, what is important is the work Hillcrest does. When he addressed the overflowing crowd at the Pittsfield Country Club his focus was on the non-profit, the people in the room, and on the students.
Jennifer Raymond knows the impact Hillcrest has firsthand. At the age of 4 her son, Brennan, started showing behavioral issues. She went to doctors and therapists.
"He was prescribed several types of medication to address his impulsive, unpredictable behavior. He attended our local school with the assistance of a one-on-one behavioral interventionist. This seemed to be OK for a few years. We say highs and lows. As Brennan grew older, we continued to struggle to find a more definitive diagnosis," Raymond said. "It felt like we were throwing darts at a dartboard."
Brennan's psychologist left the practice and the family found another one, hoping the results wouldn't be the same. Where they live in Vermont, there is a shortage of mental health support so they hoped the new psychologist would pinpoint the issue. Eventually, Brennan was has taken off his medication.
"For three weeks Brennan was a changed person. He was very active. He was mountain biking. He got his first real job in a kitchen at a local restaurant. He took great pride in his job and what he was learning. He was hanging out with friends. He had an amazing work ethic. He was pleasant to be around. We saw an overall positive change in him. We were psyched," Raymond said.
"Literally overnight we saw a completely different person. He became sneaky, deceitful, a step above and beyond anything we've ever seen from him. He got into legal trouble. He was manic, impulsive, he ran away, he was threatening. It was scary."
She went back to the few mental health resources around. She was desperate for help. He was placed in a school in New York. But six months later, he was still misbehaving and several situations led him to leave the school. He went to two temporary placements.
Raymond felt hopeless.
The annual ceremony presents awards to sponsors, the Irish Man of the Year, and the Judge John A. Barry Award.
On May 17, 2016, Brennan was accepted to Hillcrest.
"Honestly, I was initially quite worried. We were seeing the same challenging behavior upon his admission in lashing out, destruction of property, running away, blaming others for his behavior, and overall out of control. I was worried that this wasn't the right match and we would never find the right program," Raymond said.
The 16-year-old admits at the time he was "disrespectful and unpredictable." He didn't trust anybody. He wasn't interacting well with his peers and was placed on an individualized program. But then he started to bond with staff. They found the right diagnosis — bipolar and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. They found the right slate of medications to manage it, taught him how to manage himself, and taught him all about his conditions.
"I've been able to actively participate in my therapy and we've found the right medications to help me focus and have more control," Brennan Raymond said.
Now he's attending full school days. He's learning new skills. And, he's started making trips home.
"The thing I am most proud of is the progress I've made at Hillcrest. With this progress, I'll be able to achieve my future goal of returning home to my family," Brennan Raymond said.
Jennifer Raymond said "Hillcrest did what nobody else seemed to be able to do" and now she has something she had thought she lost: hope.
"I finally feel like Brennan is in a positive place for his future," Raymond said.
Hillcrest Senior Vice President Chris Smith says Brennan's story isn't uncommon. He said the majority of the students at Hillcrest who end up there have had multiple placements.
"Our work is not always easy and at times it can be downright challenging," Smith said, adding that families often lose a lot of the hope and trust they've had by the time the students get to the center. "We strive to create an environment all students and families can trust."
And those are the stories Dellea hoped to shine a light on Thursday night, rather than on him. Brennan's story was shared with hundreds who attended the gala, which has been ongoing for 16 years since the merger between Hillcrest Hospital and Berkshire Health Systems. Past award winners include U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, former state Sen. Benjamin Downing, Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo, and others.
"We are here not to recognize me but to support the students such as Brennan, as you heard earlier, and the staff that makes a better life for every student at our institution," Dellea said.
Dellea wasn't the only one being honored though. Hillcrest also gave the Judge John A. Barry Community Service Award to the Berkshire United Way. Hillcrest Executive Director Shaun Cusson said the organization holds employee fundraising drives for the United Way. This year the company made a list of all of the United Way's services and programs. The employees browsed it and Cusson said nearly every one knew or was positively impacted by one program or the other.
"They understand collective impact," Cusson said of the Berkshire United Way. "That's the impact we saw in our own staff."
Creating that direct link not only led to a 14 percent increase in donations from employees but made Hillcrest realize how valuable the United Way is in helping the county. The organization donates some $2.5 million to dozens of organizations and helps between 20,000 and 25,000 area residents.
"United Way goes above and beyond," Cusson said.
The award was accepted by United Way CEO Kristine Hazzard. The event was attended by business, cultural and elected leaders including Mayor Linda Tyer, North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright, state Sen. Adam Hinds, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Sheriff Thomas Bowler, City Council President Peter Marchetti, City Councilors Kathleen Amuso, Peter White, Lisa Tully and Anthony Simonelli, former Mayor Gerry Doyle, former North Adams Mayor John Barrett, and former state Rep. Peter Larkin.
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