Gary Levante is co-chairing the day of caring this year.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Every child entering kindergarten next year will have a backpack full of supplies.
Berkshire Bank employees will be filling 1,200 backpacks with books, supplies, reading lists, and informational fliers as part of the Berkshire United Way's day of caring. The literacy kits will be given out at locations throughout Berkshire County on June 21 at a series of "pop-up parties."
"Each kindergarten party will have a variety of family friend activities. There is going to be food and fun and all types of good stuff," said Berkshire United Way CEO Kristine Hazzard said.
This year's chairs are Lori Gazzillo and Gary Levante of Berkshire Bank. The company will be closing all of its branches at noon on June 7 so the employees can volunteer in the community.
"It is a pretty bold move for a business to close down all of the locations. But we believe in the transformative power of volunteerism so much so that we know that is time, money, and energy well spent," Levante said.
Locally some 110 employees will be going to the Boys and Girls Club and other locations to put the bags together. Additionally, the company will be putting together 24 bicycles to raffle off at the distribution sites.
The focus of the program is to promote literacy and for years the United Way has been focused on third-grade reading proficiency. That age has been identified as the key point which determines a student's academic success in the future.
"We are also continuing our efforts in early childhood education programs, really with the goal of getting kids ready to arrive at kindergarten ready to learn. Our big marker is third-grade reading proficiency and basically if you are not proficient by third grade you are going to struggle with school throughout the rest of your career and it effects the rest of your career and life in terms of your ability to get a job and be financially stable," Hazzard said.
To that end, the organization has built learning trailing, build book houses, held book drives, and other initiatives. The day of caring is another annual event, which is capped off by a "Movers and Shakers" gala at Hancock Shaker Village. That is scheduled for June 23.
"It is going to be complete with music, food, surprise pop-up performances — we had those last year but it is going to be different and exciting — and of course and opportunity to make a difference by supporting the work of the Berkshire United Way," Gazillo said.
The bookbag distribution is in partnership with the schools. During kindergarten registration parents are given "passports" which lists things children need to do to prepare to enter school. That includes picking up the book bags from one of the sites.
"Here in the Berkshires, only 51 percent of children are reading proficiently by the third grade. Frankly, that is unacceptable. It is unacceptable to each and every one of us in the room and it is unacceptable to us as a business. We expect more from our community and we know we can do more as a community," Levante said.
The Northern Berkshire United Way has joined the effort and is working closely on the site there. Northern Berkshire United Way Executive Director Christa Collier also spoke of the importance of literacy but added that many children go to kindergarten already behind because they don't have the right supplies.
"We know we are working with children in an economically disadvantaged community. We recognize the importance that literacy plays in our community. We know that children are falling behind," Collier said.
The Rev. Sam Smith of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Stockbridge is helping to coordinate distributions there. He said he started volunteering with the United Way through the Chapter One coalition, which brings together educators, doctors, social workers and the like to provide a continuum of support for the youth. It is eyed to build a network of care so no child falls through the cracks.
"All of us are working together to close the achievement gap for young children in South County. We are going to do that by promoting healthy childhood development and literacy," Smith said.
The day of caring is also coupled with a fundraising effort in which businesses provide a one-time donation. So far 16 businesses have signed on. Businesses which donate will receive decals reading "we care" to feature.
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