Others didn't think Kiersten Thomann would graduate high school after she got pregnant. But, she proved them wrong with the help of local parenting programs.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — When Kiersten Thomann, a senior at McCann Tech, got pregnant, she heard what people were saying.
"People would say you can't do this, she ruined her life, she will never graduate," Thomann said.
"But I did do this. I am a great mom to my son. To me, having a baby at a young age meant my life had just begun. My son didn't take away my future. He gave me a new one."
She had quickly got in touch with Child Care of the Berkshires, which got her into the Healthy Families program. They helped her with everything she needed to do as a young mother.
She gained confidence. She continued on in high school. And got an internship at North Adams City Hall.
"I now know what career path I want to go down. I want to become a social worker. Having been a part of such great programs, I was able to get my driver's license, a car, my very own apartment, my first job," Thomann said.
But not every parenting story has that kind of happy ending. In fact, 89 children a month in Berkshire County are abused.
On Friday, the Children's Trust, an organization fighting child abuse statewide, placed 89 pairs of shoes in the City Council chambers to demonstrate the seriousness of the issue.
"The 89 pairs of shoes here today is reflective of what is going on, what continues to go on here in the Berkshires. I think we have a lot more to do," state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said.
Children's Trust Executive Director Suzin Bartley said the annual event is to raise awareness of child abuse prevention programs. She said an abused child can never get his or her childhood back and that helping to grow strong families who can protect their children is far better than intervening after a traumatic event.
"By reaching out to parents right from the start, providing them with the tools, resources, and confidence, we avoid the need for more intensive and expensive intervention after something bad has happened," Bartley said.
The organization helps fund such things as a family center of the Berkshires. That serves as a one-stop shop for parents to get the help they need. And the need is great. State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said she had the means and the knowledge of the resources available and even she needed help raising her children. She said she had a master's degree and was in a stable two-income household when she had her first child.
"I was set, right? Not. There's a lot of challenges in being a parent. Followed with two more kids, so I had three kids under 5 years old at one point. I needed help. I had the resources to be able to ask for that help," Farley-Bouvier said.
She was in touch with the Pediatric Development Center and her neighborhood formed what they called "the village" to support each other and their families. The neighbors could not only keep an extra eye on each other's children but also share in good times and bad.
"If somebody with the resources I had needed help, then about a young mom by themselves needing that help. We can do that. We can provide that kind of support," Farley-Bouvier said.
While raising awareness is the intent of Friday's event, Mayor Linda Tyer said awareness is only a piece of it. She said Pittsfield is putting its money where its mouth is by providing funds to Berkshire Children and Families, Child Care of the Berkshires, and a number of other support agencies.
"We don't just talk about it. It is important to talk about it, it is important to raise awareness, but it is also important to fund programs. We use our financial resources from the city of Pittsfield both from our block grant funds and our human services funds to make sure the agencies that are providing these important programs have money," Tyer said.
Tyer said it is a "moral obligation to make sure parents have all the resources they need to building their parenting skills and the supports in the community that our kids have access to programs, safe places at school."
State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, remembered taking action on the issue in North Adams when he was first elected as mayor there. He said when he took office, North Adams had the highest rate of reported cases of child abuse.
"I was shocked by that and I had come out of a school system for teaching elementary school for 12 years. I knew it was there but I started to realize, too, that we were sticking our heads in the sand," Barrett said.
The Northern Berkshire Community Coalition started programs. The Parent's Place was formed. And in North Adams, programs were launched in schools.
The state level helps to fund various programs too. State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said Massachusetts does have very strong reporting laws that document incidents that may otherwise go unreported. But, it is concerning that Massachusetts is in the highest percentile when it comes to the number of reports.
"There is a framework for prevention, there is a framework for intervention that needs to be supported at all levels. It is all the work your doing. It is the state funding and state intervention. We have to keep our eyes on this," Hinds said.
That community assistance is what helps places like Child Care of the Berkshires churn out success stories. Anne Nemetz-Carlson, president of Child Care of the Berkshires, told the story of a 4-year-old named Joe. Joe was a foster child who was having tantrums, hitting the other children and having trouble controlling his emotions.
Child Care of the Berkshires helped to try to get him the structure and surroundings he needed.
Mayor Linda Tyer says there is something 'compelling' about the imagery of the shoes and imagining the children who fill them.
"We're not trying to get rid of Joe, we are trying to keep him in care, quality care. One of our solutions was to move him from a large child-care center to a family daycare home. We picked a family daycare home, some people might say she was very structured and Joe needed structure, consistency, he needed routines," Nemetz-Carlson said.
He moved through the foster system for some time and then was adopted. He behavior and attitude was better. She remembers seeing him and "he was happy. He was smiling. He had friends."
She told a similar story of a pair of young girls who had been sexually abused. But the problem isn't really going away right now. She mentioned that the opioid epidemic is contributing greatly to the cases they are seeing.
For those children who aren't a success story, they often end up dealing with the district attorney's office as adults.
"In my own work, I see the results of what happens when those steps were not taken, when children we left alone with inadequate or underdeveloped devices to deal with very adult, traumatic experiences," newly appointed District Attorney Paul Caccaviello said.
Protecting the children is not only for their sake but for the betterment of society, he said. He voiced his support for prevention efforts, calling it "critical."
"Ensuring a safe and secure rearing of the next generation requires the efforts of all of the policymakers Caccaviello said.
The annual event is held in April for child abuse prevention month. Pignatelli has been to many of those events and said he's hoping for the day when there are no shoes being placed at City Hall because even one case of child abuse is too much.
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Construction Grant Changes No Longer Align with Berkshire Atheneum's Goals
By Sabrina DammsiBerkshires Staff
PITTSFIELD, Mass — The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has adjusted this round of its construction grant program, no longer aligning with the Berkshire Athenaeum's goals.
This grant round is really no longer a renovation program, library Director Alex Reczkowski said during a trustees meeting last week.
Interested applicants need at least two locations that they would be interested in pursuing as possible libraries or locations, not just the current library, he said. Acceptance of the award is once every 30 years.
Although the library has some physical upgrades to the building in its strategic plan, it does not have enough data for a bigger project than that, Reczkowski said.