By Andy McKeever
02:11AM / Monday, April 01, 2019
Tori Ackley sings uplifting songs she had written about her own struggles.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — At age 19 Rebecca Gleason was just like every other teenager.
Until two weeks after graduating high school.
She got in a car accident and was in a coma for a month. Her brain was severely injured and when she came out of the coma life wasn't going to be the same.
That was 26 years ago. Gleason has been going through rehabilitation on a daily basis since. But nine years ago, she found the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts.
"In those nine years, I've grown socially. I learned not only to be a group leader but to lead my own life, too," Gleason said.
Gleason shared her story to a packed house Friday morning, praising the support she and her mother, who cared for her over these last 2 1/2 decades, received from the Brain Injury Association. Her story was one of 11 shared with local lawmakers as area human service agencies show what they are doing and ask for continued support.
"To come from 26 years ago, no, nine years ago, when I needed 100 percent assistance to do almost anything to being able to stand in front of you today making a plea for our Massachusetts Brain Injury Association to be able to help survivors in my position or worse, I'm thanking God for my miracle," Gleason said.
The agencies hit a number of topics. Marc Bourassa is a site manager for Berkshire County Arc. He spoke about the low wages those working in the field receive, saying the pay is significantly below a living wage and that often the employees are working two or three jobs.
"Anyone who works an honest full-time week, week in and week out, deserves to make a living wage within 40 hours. They deserve to have a normal life, a chance to raise their children or lifestyle they have chosen to live. This is impossible to do if you are working 16-20 hours a day, seven days a week," he said.
BC Arc President Ken Singer said state support can help raise wages, which will help keep workers and recruit workers with higher qualifications.
"There is a major crisis in this state around hiring and finding staff. When we serve the people that need us, to get qualified people has become a huge issue," Singer said.
Kim Baker serves on the board of Berkshire Family and Individual Resources and echoed the same sentiment. She said the funding for wages does not equate to educational attainment so the organization struggles to recruit people with two- or four-year college degrees.
"We anticipate the staff vacancy rate will only increase as the baby boomer generation, which makes up over 20 percent of our workforce, is nearing retirement," Baker said.
Baker encouraged the legislators to support bills that eliminate the disparity in pay between human service workers employed by community-based programs to the state employees who do the same. She is also encouraging the passage of a bill that will help human service workers to have their education loans repaid as part of working under state contracts. And she is looking for an exemption from EMAC supplement payments.
Darren Cowell shares the services his family received from Autism
Meanwhile, Katherine Sanchez is 18 years old and is a client of AdLib. Its case managers helped her understand how to take the bus and she's now able to take classes at Berkshire Community College. But the county's transportation system is insufficient for all of her needs.
"Some days I had to be absent from class because I couldn't catch the bus. I really appreciate the bus system because it can get you anywhere in town that you want to and you don't have to ask people for rides, take a taxi, or walk. I feel safer on the bus than I do with a taxi or walking. The bus is also very important for those who are in a wheelchair or people who don't drive like me," Sanchez said.
Singer added that there is a United Cerebral Palsy board member who can't make meetings because there is no night bus service.
Jennifer Piaggi spoke in favor of United Cerebral Palsy as it has helped provide her family with support for her daughter with cerebral palsy.
"It is sometimes just nice to be able to call them and say I need help. Just talking to them helps and they give us many ideas and suggestions. We talk about what we can do to help. I really don't know what I would do without them," she said.
Rosalie Kelly received the same support from BCArc for her son, Peter, who has a traumatic brain injury. C. Wayne Dore is the chairman of the Western Massachusetts Association of the Deaf and pushed bills that would bring support to help children who are born deaf to catch up in school and a bill that would create licensure for interpreters so that the deaf aren't taken advantage of in medical and legal areas.
"This organization is not a service provider. We are more of an advocacy organization for deaf and hard of hearing people. There are about 700,000 deaf and hard of hearing people in Massachusetts and out of that 290,000 are from Western Massachusetts. There are even more that are hidden," he signed.
Darren Cowell's son was born premature and underweight. He suffered from blood clots, lost a kidney, had to be on oxygen for months and then had laser surgery for his vision. He was later diagnosed with autism. Cowell praised Autism Connections/Pathlight for helping his family get his son everything he needs to live a happy life. But he knows not everybody has that ability.
"It baffles me that there is a waiting list for disability and mental health services," Cowell said.
Donna McBurney's son has an "ultra rare" disease and she said the Department of Developmental Services has helped keep him as healthy as possible, both physically and mentally. James Lambert praised the day habilitation services provided by Baroco.
Jaime Gallivan has a severe brain injury from severe seizures and epilepsy. But with the help of Goodwill Industries, she is now in a position to be able to work.
"Throughout my adulthood, the first thing people see are my challenges and don't take the time to see what I can offer them. Because of this, I've been rejected from and dismissed from many jobs. Last year, I had this desire to work again but I had very low confidence. My job coaches at Berkshire Vocational Services suggested that I join the regional program with Goodwill because they knew I can do more than I was currently doing," Gallivan said.
The various organizations rely on state support to offer the services their clients so greatly appreciate. The annual breakfast is put together by human services groups so that lawmakers can see where the state's investment is going and for the organizations to share challenges for which legislators could be of assistance.
"Every single year the entire delegation attends this event because we care so much about the people here and the people you represent. And, honestly, we learn so much," said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier. "These personal stories arm us as we go back in the budget season and we will do everything we can to provide that advocacy for you."
But Farley-Bouvier has an ask back: That everyone in the room join in the effort to raise revenue for the state.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier said the annual event gives her a chance to learn what the agencies are doing on a personal level.
"We have your back when we are in Boston. We are working very hard with very limited resources. I will never leave a room without asking people who are looking for appropriations without saying this, you are all now dubbed ambassadors in the fight to increase revenue in Massachusetts. We cannot pay our workers, we can not provide the family support, we cannot get the services for the hearing impaired, we cannot provide respite unless we increase revenues in Massachusetts," Farley-Bouvier said.
Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commissioner Toni Wolf had some good news. She said Mass Rehab received $10.1 million in the supplemental budget and the governor has proposed an $8.5 million increase to the commission.
"Those dollars go to people in this room so I'm very excited about that. It's the first time Mass Rehab has received state dollars in the last 25 years," Wolf said. "What that says to me is that everyone in this room matters. What this says to me is that Mass Rehab is no longer under the radar, that we are here, that we are strong, that we have support from the governor and our legislators."
State Reps. William "Smitty" Pignatelli and Paul Mark both expressed their support for the human service agencies.
"Every time we come here, we hear these touching stories, we hear these personal events people have gone through and ways they've overcome different obstacles. It makes us better advocates," Mark said.
On the federal level, Nyanna Slaughter from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's office read a letter from the senator voicing support and Matthew Russett from U.S. Rep Richard Neal's office promised his support.
Also speaking at the event were state Sen. Adam Hinds and North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard.