Officer Darren Derby was given the Judge John A. Barry Community Service Award.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — At age 9, Dakota Hoffman was in trouble with the law.
"This little boy needed some help and the truth is we didn't have the knowledge or tools to help him," his grandmother Jenny Pytko said of those days.
But, Hoffman is a much different person now after three years of being at Hillcrest Educational Centers.
And now, he is approaching the day when he can go back to his family and back to his community.
"Before I got into Hillcrest at age 11, I had trouble making friends. It was hard for me to find the right kids to be friends with and I was always making friends with the bad ones that go me into trouble -- mostly because I didn't want to accept reality. I also had trouble controlling my anger. At times I would start yelling at people even when they were just talking to me in a normal voice," Hoffman said.
"Then I made a big mistake and did something that was very wrong, which got me into Hillcrest."
Hoffman shared his story with hundreds of people who attended the annual Robert "Bees" Prendergast St. Patrick's Reception fundraiser for Hillcrest. Pytko recalled the days when her family finally made the decision to send him to an alternative school when she constantly questioned whether or not that was the right decision.
"We lost sleep. We cried. And we finally got work that Dakota would be taken to Hillcrest, finally not a temporary placement and work can begin," she said.
Hoffman's grandfather Tom said Hillcrest was constantly in touch with the family sharing his progress. They gave him peace of mind knowing those staff members were looking after him. There were ups and downs but now Hoffman is allowed to have overnight stays. Hoffman is part of the student council and recently headed a fundraiser to raise money for families with premature babies in the hospital.
"I became calmer, willing, and more trustworthy. What made me like this was my positive environment. Now I can have longer visits with my family," Hoffman said.
And, "I'm getting closer and closer to living with my family and living a normal life in the community."
That sort of path of integration is very similar to what Sheriff Thomas Bowler tries to accomplish, albeit with a different population. The sheriff said inmates at the Berkshire County House of Correction are all going to go back to their communities eventually. But, what matters is how they return.
"We have people who committed murder. They are in our jail. We also have good people in there. Ninety percent of our inmate population is addicted to drugs or alcohol. Seven years ago, the chronically mentally ill, we had one or two patients a year. We are close to 20 now," Bowler said. "Getting these people back into the community is very important. They are all going back but how they go back is important."
Beyond that, since taking office, Bowler has ramped up the community service efforts throughout the community. They assist other law enforcement agencies, send inmates out to do community work projects, perform search and rescues, and help with investigations.
"It is very simple for us in the sheriff's office. We very rarely say no. We pack up our gear and we go. We've done it on a number of occasions in the past seven years, for natural disasters, for people in distress, for investigations, for public safety. We just do it," Bowler said. "I never have to ask twice. This group of people [in the office] share the same vision as I do."
The office has even helped Hillcrest recently by sending a crew of inmates to help with the reconstruction of the former St. Mark's Church property. What is called Hillcrest Academy will focus on educating children with autism.
"A team of inmates spent more than three months last spring working on upgrading the building and painting the entire 40,000 square feet. Those significant savings we achieved by this collaboration allowed us to enhance our video security system, which we installed to protect kids, and to protect our staff," said Hillcrest Educational President Gerard Burke.
All of the proceeds at Thursday's fundraiser went toward that $4.5 million project. For Bowler's contribution, and for the numerous other community service roles, the sheriff's office undertakes, he was honored with the Irish Person of the Year Award.
"He has built an incredibly strong leadership team, which he speaks of often. He's empowered the workforce. He's increased programming. He's created an environment where inmates are held accountable but are treated with respect," Burke said.
Dakota Hoffman shared his story of transformation.
Pittsfield Police Officer Darren Derby spent some time working at the House of Corrections and now as a patrolman, he interacts with numerous students who went to Hillcrest. Derby has ramped up the community policing efforts of the department, creating positive interactions with those members of the community. He's become friends with many of Hillcrest's students.
"Most, if not all, of these same students I have befriended, I have seen amazing, positive changes in the way they see the police and how they interact with them. Ultimately, without a doubt, will make them better human beings and hopefully with a better sense of respect for themselves and others," Derby said.
Derby was honored by Hillcrest with the Judge John A. Barry Community Service Award.
"Darren spends every day working to build strong, meaningful relationships with some of our community's most vulnerable citizens, mostly children, establishing trust, giving them hope, making them feel important," Hillcrest Executive Director Shaun Cusson said.
Cusson said in this work people are always looking for the "big win," but Derby spends his busy says racking up small wins repeatedly. He said that is "community impact in the most purest form" and that Judge Barry, a "community service legend" would be proud of Derby.
Derby recalled his time working at the House of Correction, where he saw "a vicious cycle" of inmates through the system. He then went to the Pittsfield Police Department, but community policing wasn't a top priority for him. It wasn't until after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting when he saw one of the city's youths afraid of him.
"The academy teaches you the basics of how to fight crime and arrest the bad guy but not how to better serve your community," Derby said. "The only thing I regret in my career is not starting earlier."
Since that day, he's launched a number of projects to bring that positive interaction.
"This kind of community policing is unconventional, from having snacks in the back of my cruiser to placing 46 portable basketball hoops on the city streets to delivering bicycles to children who didn't have one, to visiting kids on their birthdays with presents. This has only been made possible by those who live in our community," Derby said.
Derby is now seeing those positive interactions paying off and he believes that "we can break the vicious cycle that plague so many communities and give hope to those trying to better themselves by simply showing those individuals we do care about them."
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Community Preservation Committee Project Eligibility Process Now Open
PITTSFIELD, Mass. The Community Preservation Committee has scheduled a public hearing at 6 p.m. Oct. 19 for comments related to the use of Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds and the city's priorities in relation to the Community Preservation Plan.
Also, the committee announced that the Project Eligibility Application process for a new year of CPA funds is now open.
The public hearing will be held virtually via Zoom. Participation instructions will be included with the meeting agenda once it is posted on the city website in early October.
The committee will provide an overview of the city's first three years in operation and welcomes public participation to understand community priorities as it begins year three of soliciting potential projects for funding.
McCandless said he took issue with some of the comments made and noted the administration made sure cafeteria employees were kept working through the outset of the pandemic and the summer.
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A collaboration of the Berkshire District attorney's office and the Pittsfield Public Schools is using $25,000 in seed money in hopes of growing a sustainable program for social emotional learning in the schools. click for more
The council accepted an order from the mayor Tuesday to borrow an aggregate a sum not exceeding $8,470,000 for General Fund Capital Expenditures for Fiscal Year 2021 to address various city projects.
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The city announced Tuesday that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, or MassDOT, approved and funded the City of Pittsfield's grant application for the Shared Streets and Spaces Program in the amount of $238,826. click for more
Berkshire United Way and Miraval Berkshires have teamed up to honor an essential worker or first responder on the front lines of relief efforts in Berkshire County during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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