Student speaker Brittany Sullivan shared her story of how she turned her life around. More photos from there ceremony can be found here.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — When Brittany Sullivan lost her sister, her life spiraled out of control.
"When I was 14 years old, my sister died suddenly in a car accident. This sent me into a downward spiral that led me to drinking, smoking, and dipping into opioids, which eventually got me kicked out of my home at 17. Shortly after, I dropped out of high school," Sullivan said.
At the time Sullivan was already struggling with depression. She felt that she was "stupid and inadequate." That feeling had set in because she didn't start school until the age of 9 and when she did, she was far behind the other students. She was held back a grade and was constantly being pulled out of class to receive extra help.
"At the tender age of 9, I accepted the life that I was stupid and inadequate. I already struggled with anxiety and depression. It wasn't long before I started full-on panic attacks and self harming. I had already built a firm foundation of self-hate and acceptance that I was a failure and I hadn't even finished elementary school," Sullivan said.
And when her sister died, things got worse. She left home and school and by the age of 20, she said she had destroyed most of her personal relationships, attempted suicide, took hallucinogen drugs, and was close to delving into heroin usage.
"I was alone in a prison I called my life and I wanted to die. Then I found out I was pregnant," Sullivan said. "I immediately quit smoking, drinking, and doing heavy drugs. But I remained in the psychologically abusive relationship I was currently in and continued smoking marijuana throughout my pregnancy."
A corner had started to turn for Sullivan and it got sharper when she went into labor. She was homeless at the time and tested positive for marijuana. The Department of Children and Families got involved. There was a chance she'd watch her daughter being taken away.
She called the "most stable and safe" people she knew and begged for them to help her, to take her and her daughter in. And they did. They brought her into their home and through their help and inspiration, things started to get better.
"For the first time in years, I began to have hope," Sullivan said.
She found religion and moved on from the life she had once lived. She hired a tutor who worked with her one-on-one to help her get her GED. But it was still a struggle. A friend told her about the William Stickney Pittsfield Adult Learning Center, which helps students earn high school educations. She entered the adult diploma program.
On Thursday, a new life awaited the 23-year-old as strolled across the stage at Taconic High School during the Adult Learning Center's graduation ceremony.
Graduate Elisandra Rodriguez, accompanied by Jeff Hunt, sings for the class.
"This program has not only helped me earn my diploma but opened so many doors for me as well. I can now look forward to moving up in my job, continue my education, and become the role model I want to be for my daughter," Sullivan said, after shedding some tears when thanking those who supported her.
She was one of 50 graduates Thursday night. They all had different stories as to why they didn't finish high school the traditional way. But at some point, they all had made a decision to better themselves.
"At the end of this night they will start a new beginning that is filled with new hopes and dreams that will eventually be realized by hard work and a little luck along the way," said Director Paul Gage.
Gage said the Adult Learning Center is growing with the number of graduates up 38 percent and overall enrollment is up by 30 percent. He said 80 percent of the students are living in Pittsfield, and many are from low-income neighborhoods. These students are becoming role models to their own children, he said, who are or will soon be entering the Pittsfield Public School system.
In an address to the graduates, Gage reflected on what is known as the Greatest Generation — those who lived through the Depression and then served in World War 2. He said it was that generation that showed the value of education as the soldiers returned to war and entered into college. And it was the education of those, who in the past wouldn't have been able to afford college, who rebuilt the country.
"They taught us the value of education. To find a purpose after World War 2 they came home and enrolled in college, took advantage of the GI Bill. It was really the first time the middle class in large numbers could enjoy a college education. Many went in the STEM fields and became doctors, engineers, scientists that really built this country," Gage said.
"Without the GI Bill, many would have gone back to the jobs they had in factories or on farms in order to make a living."
Gage reflected on the importance of community among that generation. And in today's community, Jason McCandless said the Adult Learning Center graduates are helping to build this one.
"You helped make our community, our city of Pittsfield, Berkshire County, our region of western Mass, you have helped make all of those entities more sustainable. You've helped make them more vibrant and you've increased the hope in our community," McCandless said.
He urged the students to thank those who supported and respected them through the process. And for those who doubted them, "you really don't owe them anything. But if you did, you will walk out of here today with something in your hand to show them and prove them wrong."
McCandless told them that Thursday didn't signify an ending but rather a new beginning.
The ceremony also featured an address by alumnus Alan Robinette, who attended the learning center about a decade ago when he was in his 40s and then went on to be in the top 5 percent of his college class. Jeff Hunt played piano and was joined by graduate Elisandra Rodriguez for the singing of the national anthem and "The Climb." School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon provided some comments before presenting the diplomas to the graduates.
City officials also in attendance included School Committee members Joshua Cutler, Daniel Elias, and William Cameron, and City Councilors Kevin Morandi, Melissa Mazzeo, Peter Marchetti, and Peter White.
The ceremony was moved to the newly built Taconic from the traditional setting at Crosby School.
"Crosby had been our home for the last eight graduation ceremonies and it served us well during that time. We are excited to be here tonight to start a new tradition here at Taconic," Gage said.
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Hinsdale Man To Compete In Professional BBQ Competition
Rinaldi with Myron Mixon, celebrity chef and four-time barbecue World Champion.
HINSDALE, Mass. — Professional barbecue teams from all over New England will compete at the Harpoon BBQ Festival in Windsor, Vt., on July 27-28, with hopes of being crowned the grand champion and earning a ticket to the Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue.
And Berkshire County's own George Rinaldi will be among them.
Rinaldi, 54, of Hinsdale, has been competing on the professional Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned circuit for eight years. He and his family travel to six or seven competitions annually. They've been all over New England, as well as in New Jersey, Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas. At a typical event, competitors must deliver their entries in four categories (chicken, ribs, pork and brisket) to the master judges by pre-specified times — and not a second later.
Rinaldi's skills have earned many trophies, including a first-place prize for his Ribs Division win at a recent competition in New Jersey.
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