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BFAIR's Becky McAllister explains the working of the expanded Learning Lab at last weeks open house.

BFAIR Learning Lab Open and Expanded

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
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The lab offers a variety of hands-on learning opportunities for eligible high school and postsecondary students. At right, the new lounge for taking a break.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — With a fresh coat of paint and hew hands-on learning equipment, BFAIR's Learning Lab is open and expanded.
 
"Our goal is to get more students in and to get that hands-on experience they really deserve," Director of Employment Services Becky McAllister said at the Learning Lab open house Wednesday. "Before we really didn't have the space for it. This is a fun bright colorful space." 
 
The program is open to high school and post-secondary students ages 14 to 22 with a documented disability. The goal is to equip students with the skills they need to enter the post high school world.
 
"We want the people in the community to know we are here and to know you don't need a school to come to us," she said. "We teach them everything they need to know ... we help them figure out what kind of career they may be interested in."
 
The Learning Lab accomplishes that in a classroom setting that feels nothing like a classroom. 
 
"This is an idea we had. We wanted to have a space where kids could come and not feel like they are in school," she said. "We wanted this to be a fun environment but also a place where they felt safe where they can learn."
 
The Learning Lab, located at 1000 Mass Ave., is styled with blue, green, and white walls. Within there is shiny a fleet of new Mac computers and a smartboard with telecommunication. Connected to the classroom is a lounge where students can kick back, chat, get some work done, or grab a snack. 
 
At the center of the lab are Mecha Kits that allow students the opportunity to explore, hands-on, an array of different careers. 
 
"We all grow up and say 'this is what I want to be when I grow up," McAllister said. "This gives them the opportunity to really see if that is what they want to do." 
 
The kits vary. Students can try their hand at HVAC repair, cosmetology, food service, among other things. One kit contained a full motor for students to tinker with. Another held a 3D printer.
 
This was supported by $30,000 from the Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS).
 
The kits are coupled with software that starts students off before cracking open the trunks.
 
Student Gretchen Hartlage said she had her eyes on the food service trunk. She said she was excited to expand her cooking skills.
 
Hartlage said, overall, the program has helped her prepare for life after high school.
 
"It is nice and you can experience lots of things like how to use the bus from North Adams to Pittsfield," she said. "There are a lot of different classes ... you learn different skills like communication, attitude, and self-advocacy."
 
The program is revolving and any student can be referred. Students can enter and exit the program at will. McAllister estimates they serve between 50 and 70 students a year. Although space is limited because of COVID-19 guidelines.
 
Berkshire Family And Individual Resources' Chief Executive Officer Rich Weisenflue thanked the staff for imagining the program. He said those in the field always know where the actual needs in the community lie.
 
"They identified a need they understood that need because of their level of experience in the community," he said. "...To understand that need and coming up with something creative to bring it fully into operation that ultimately lets us say 'here is a career."

Tags: alternative programs,   BFAIR,   

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First-time homebuyer? Follow these steps

Is homeownership a goal of yours? It does offer some benefits, in addition to meeting your basic need for shelter. The equity you build in your home can be a valuable financial asset, and you may get to deduct your interest payments on your taxes. But if you're a first-time homebuyer, what steps should you take?
 
First, make sure the time is right for you in terms of your personal and financial situations. For example, are you fairly confident that your employment is stable and that your earnings won't decline? Of course, external events can also play a role in your decision. A recent study by Morning Consult and Edward Jones found that 12 percent of respondents postponed purchasing a house during the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
But if you're ready and eager for homeownership, consider the following moves:
  • Save for a down payment. The more money you put down for a home, the lower your monthly payments, although there's also a point at which overly large down payments can be financially unwise. However, if you can make a down payment of more than 20 percent of the purchase price, you can generally avoid having to pay for private mortgage insurance on top of your monthly payments. Also, as a first-time homebuyer, you might qualify for down payment assistance from your local or state housing authority or a nonprofit group.
  • Check your credit score. A higher credit score gives you a better chance for a lower interest rate. You can request a credit report from annualcreditreport.com, and you might be able to get a credit score for free from your bank. If you need to improve your score, you may want to delay your home purchase.
  • Learn how much you qualify for – and how much you should spend. Once you think you're ready to begin the home-purchasing process, you may want to contact a few lenders to determine the size of the mortgage for which you qualify. Be aware, though, that just because you can get a mortgage of a certain amount, does not necessarily mean that you should. You don't want to become "house poor" – that is, you don't want to spend so much on your house payments that you are cash strapped and can't afford to save for other goals, such as college for your children or a comfortable retirement. You may want to establish a budget for how much you can readily afford to pay for your mortgage each month – and try sticking to it before you buy the house. If you have extra savings, put it toward your down payment.
  • Prepare for unexpected costs. You can plan for your mortgage, utilities, taxes and insurance – but when you own a home, you'll always encounter unexpected costs. You may need to get a new furnace, repair your roof or face any number of other maintenance issues. To help prepare for these costs, try to build an emergency fund containing three to six months' worth of living expenses, with the money kept in a liquid, low-risk account. Without such a fund, you might be forced to dip into your long-term investments or take on added debt to pay for these unanticipated expenses.
Homeownership can be a rewarding experience – and the rewards will be even be greater when you've "done the numbers" and prepared yourself financially.
 
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