Northern Berkshire United Way Exceeds 2013 Campaign Goal

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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Campaign Chairmen Osmin Alvarez, left, and Robert Abel announce this year's drive total. A film showed some of the people who benefit from the Northern Berkshire United Way campaign.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The North Berkshire United Way marked a milestone on Thursday by exceeding its annual campaign goal for the first time in five years.

This year's campaign Chairmen Osmin F. Alvarez, president and CEO of Boxcar Media LLC and publisher of, and Robert G. Abel, president and CEO of True North Financial Services, were so confident that they'd reach the $550,000 goal they read their victory speech last September.

They were right: The final tally is $555,899

"Big things can happen when a lot of people give a little," said Abel, addressing the nearly 200 United Way supporters and representatives of the organizations the agency serves at the annual breakfast at the Williams Inn. "The generosity we have seen from all of you, your employees and so many others throughout our community has been impressive."

Northern Berkshire United Way has been struggling to reach its annual goal since the economic collapse in 2008. The drive is a major fundraiser for the United Way and its member agencies.

NBUW Chairman Thomas Rumboldt compared the past five years to the Red Sox gameball he'd dropped and had to scramble after at Fenway Park.

"This ball isn't just a ball," he said, pulling it out of his pocket. "This is a symbol of perseverance, it's a goal of not giving up. ... Five years ago, we had a ball hit to us, the Northern Berkshire United Way. ... We didn't give up on that ball. We've been under the seats for the past five years trying to grab it."

This year's campaign was certainly reflective of a recovering economy but also the drive of the two chairmen in their first times in the role.

But over the last nine months, the friendly competition between Abel and Alverez that had launched the drive (NBUW Executive Director Joseph McGovern joshed that "there is no adjective in any dictionary for how competitive these two guys are.") came to focus more on the people and services that the United Way supports.

Thomas Rumboldt and his symbol of 'perseverance.'

It wasn't the goal, said Alvarez, but the journey that was "eye-opening, fulfilling, humbling and truly inspiring."

"The journey showed us how lucky we are to live in a community that has such caring, dedicated and selfless members," he said. "The journey was more fulfilling and educational than any goal could ever be."

So instead of announcing the drive's total with the grand flourish, the gathering was treated to a video showing some of the people who will benefit from the funds raised — from senior citizens to preschoolers — all holding handmade signs with adjectives found in the dictionary: awesome, great, super, etc.

McGovern said he could see the change in focus as the chairmen met with the agencies and people under the United Way umbrella.

"It was no longer about the goal, it was raising as much money possible to help the agencies make a difference in our community," he said. "It was uplifting to see how many people approached either myself or the guest speaker at employee campaign rallies to tell stories of how their sister, their mother, their father and their neighbor was getting support from one or more of our member agencies."

The Northern Berkshire United Way supports more than 20 agencies in North County, providing services ranging from health care to legal services to mental health services to more than 11,000 residents.

Partners like NBUW will become more important as the federal Affordable Care Act is implemented, said guest speaker Timothy Jones, president and CEO of Northern Berkshire Healthcare.

Guest speaker Tim Jones of Northern Berkshire Healthcare said the health system will be looking to partner with NBUW and its agencies as the way health-care is delivered changes.

Jones said, from his perspective, health-care reform could be boiled down to two things: access and funding. While the reform will open up access to millions, how to pay for it is still being worked out. Hospitals and health institutions have to become more efficient in providing quality care to control costs, which North Adams Regional is doing by using the Toyota system of "lean production" in eliminating wasteful practices and processes.

"We have to get there. If we don't get there, we're going to be in significant trouble," said Jones. "Everyone in this room knows where this organization has been. There's no do-overs in this world, we can't go through that process again."

So in addition in implementing efficencies, the hospital will be looking to ally with organizations "outside the box" from the usual health care institutions. United Way is an obvious partner.  

"Our vision is being a vital partner in creating more sustainable and healthier communities," said Jones. "That's our vision because in the new health-care world, it's not about treating sick patients, it's about helping create healthier communities."

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Guest Column: Full Steam Ahead: Bringing Back the Northern Tier Passenger Railroad

by Thomas HuckansGuest Column

You only need a glance outside to see a problem all too familiar to Berkshire county: closing businesses, a shrinking population, and a stunning lack of regional investment.

But 70 years ago, this wasn't an issue. On the North Adams-Boston passenger rail line before the '60s, Berkshires residents could easily go to Boston and back in a day, and the region benefited from economic influx. But as cars supplanted trains, the Northern Tier was terminated, and now only freight trains regularly use the line.

We now have a wonderful opportunity to bring back passenger rail: Bill S.2054, sponsored by state Sen. Jo Comerford (D-Hampshire, Franklin, and Worcester), was passed to study the potential for restoring rail from Boston to North Adams. In the final phase of MassDOT's study, the project is acquiring increased support and momentum. The rail's value cannot be understated: it would serve the Berkshire region, the state, and the environment by reducing traffic congestion, fostering economic growth, and cutting carbon emissions. The best part? All of us can take action to push the project forward.

Importantly, the Northern Tier would combat the inequity in infrastructure investment between eastern and western Massachusetts. For decades, the state has poured money into Boston-area projects. Perhaps the most infamous example is the Big Dig, a car infrastructure investment subject to endless delays, problems, and scandals, sucking up $24.3 billion. Considering the economic stagnation in Western Massachusetts, the disparity couldn't come at a worse time: Berkshire County was the only county in Massachusetts to report an overall population loss in the latest census.

The Northern Tier could rectify that imbalance. During the construction phase alone, 4,000 jobs and $2.3 billion of economic output would be created. After that, the existence of passenger rail would encourage Bostonians to live farther outside the city. Overall, this could lead to a population increase and greater investment in communities nearby stops. In addition to reducing carbon emissions, adding rail travel options could help reduce traffic congestion and noise pollution along Route 2 and the MassPike.

The most viable plan would take under three hours from North Adams to Shelburne Falls, Greenfield, Athol, Gardner, Fitchburg, Porter, and North Station, and would cost just under $1.6 billion.

A common critique of the Northern Tier Rail Restoration is its price tag. However, the project would take advantage of the expansion of federal and state funds, namely through $80 billion the Department of Transportation has to allocate to transportation projects. Moreover, compared to similar rail projects (like the $4 billion planned southern Massachusetts East-West line), the Northern Tier would be remarkably cheap.

One advantage? There's no need to lay new tracks. Aside from certain track upgrades, the major construction for the Northern Tier would be stations and crossings, thus its remarkably short construction phase of two to four years. In comparison, the Hartford line, running from Hartford, Conn., to Springfield spans barely 30 miles, yet cost $750 million.

In contrast, the Northern Tier would stretch over 140 miles for just over double the price.

So what can we do? A key obstacle to the Northern Tier passing through MassDOT is its estimated ridership and projected economic and environmental benefits. All of these metrics are undercounted in the most recent study.

Crucially, many drivers don't use the route that MassDOT assumes in its models as the alternative to the rail line, Route 2. due to its congestion and windy roads. In fact, even as far west as Greenfield, navigation services will recommend drivers take I-90, increasing the vehicle miles traveled and the ensuing carbon footprint.

Seeking to capture the discrepancy, a student-led Northern Tier research team from Williams College has developed and distributed a driving survey, which has already shown more than half of Williams students take the interstate to Boston. Taking the survey is an excellent way to contribute, as all data (which is anonymous) will be sent to MassDOT to factor into their benefit-cost analysis. This link takes you to the 60-second survey.

Another way to help is to spread the word. Talk to local family, friends, and community members, raising awareness of the project's benefits for our region. Attend MassDOT online meetings, and send state legislators and local officials a short letter or email letting them know you support the Northern Tier Passenger Rail Project. If you feel especially motivated, the Williams Northern Tier Research team, in collaboration with the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA), would welcome support.

Living far from the powerbrokers in Boston, it's easy to feel powerless to make positive change for our greater community. But with your support, the Northern Tier Rail can become reality, bringing investment back to Berkshire County, making the world greener, and improving the lives of generations of western Massachusetts residents to come.

Thomas Huckans, class of 2026, is a political science and astronomy major at Williams College, originally from Bloomsburg, Pa.

Survey: This survey records driving patterns from Berkshire county to Boston, specifically route and time. It also captures interest in the restoration of the Northern Tier Passenger Rail. Filling out this survey is a massive help for the cause, and all responses are greatly appreciated. Use this link.

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