By Stephen Dravis
02:37PM / Thursday, May 25, 2017
Ellen Sutherland is flanked by Northern Berkshire United Way Executive Director Christa Collier, left, and North Adams Schools Superintendent Barbara Malkas.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — When it comes to asking people to give to a good cause, you can talk about the benefit to the community, and you can appeal to folks' better natures.
But a little shame can't hurt.
"This little school in Cheshire, this beleaguered school that's going to close now, came about and accepted my challenge to reach 100 percent participation," Adams-Cheshire Regional School District United Way coordinator Starr Baker recalled on Thursday morning. "On opening day, the school year after, I'm able to say, 'Cheshire Elementary has 100 percent participation.'
"Well, the other schools got embarrassed. So one by one, I picked them off."
Northern Berkshire United Way honored the retired teacher on Thursday with its Volunteer of the Year Award at its annual Community Celebration and Awards Breakfast at the Williams Inn.
The event brought together some of the agency's leading corporate supporters and representatives of the 20 member nonprofits who receive financial support from the local branch of the United Way.
Representatives from two of those nonprofits, Pittsfield's Community Legal Aid and the Elizabeth Freeman Center for victims of domestic abuse, talked about how their agencies work together to help 2,900 survivors the Freeman Center serves each year.
"We think of ourselves as the legal arm of social services," CLA managing attorney Jennifer Dieringer said.
Community Legal Aid, which serves clients as far east as Worcester, assists low-income people with civil legal matters ranging from eviction notices to maintaining government benefits. They also help abuse survivors with matters like divorces, custody issues and restraining orders.
"We have them on speed dial," Freeman Center Executive Director Janis Broderick said.
"We at the Freeman Center offer lay advocacy, but you need to know when to bring in experts. We have worked closely together for over 40 years."
Northern Berkshire United Way Executive Director Christa Collier said such inter-agency cooperation is common, and she herself is always learning about new partnerships between nonprofits.
The United Way helps support that work through money raised from its annual appeal, and on Thursday morning it recognized some of those who make that appeal a success, including: platinum level corporate supporters Specialty Minerals, Adams Community Bank and Greylock Federal Credit Union; gold level businesses Mountain One Bank, Williams College and the Ruth E. Proud Charitable Trust; and the 213 individuals who have combined to give more than $41,000 to the agency's current campaign.
Board President Amy Giroux also thanked departing board members Chris Dodig and Dan Caplinger for their service in leading the agency.
But the main focus was on volunteers in the trenches, like Baker and Ellen Sutherland, assistant to the superintendent of the North Adams Public Schools, who was honored for directing the Northern Berkshire United Way's Campaign of the Year.
This year, Sutherland increased the school department's charitable giving by 30 percent from 2016, moving it from the bronze category to the silver category.
"She came in like the Energizer Bunny," said Collier, who is serving her first year as NBUW executive director. "We went to every school and spoke at a professional development day.
"Ellen certainly is a champion for the United Way and North Adams Public Schools."
And so is Baker, who shared some of his passion for the mission of the United Way.
Baker talked about the impact of programs like Meals on Wheels, which serves one of his neighbors, and community transportation, which helped bring his mother-in-law to a daily program at a senior center when she was afflicted with Alzheimer's disease.
"I see these things," Baker said. "Then when I hear that the government wants to cut back on its budget. Meals on Wheels? We throw away more and waste our food than that's going to solve. Medicaid? They want to cut that.
"Whatever funds we might get through the federal government and the state to help us, that's going to be eaten away. So we have to try to make sure we've got what we need here."