By Stephen Dravis
03:30PM / Friday, April 26, 2019
BFAIR gave its Self-Determination Award to Beth Roberge, a resident of BFAIR's residential home in Northampton, at its annual meeting Friday.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A world traveler, a pageant winner, an actor with the Williamstown Theatre Festival — Brittany Dorwin has never been one to let an opportunity pass her by.
Friday morning, she took advantage of her most recent opportunity, as keynote speaker at BFAIR's 2019 Annual Meeting, to share her secret.
"I have been lucky to experience all I have done so far," the 23-year-old told the crowd at Berkshire Hills Country Club. "Being lucky is about being ready when opportunity comes knocking at your door.
"So to those of you out there with disabilities, please always remember, take full advantage of all opportunities that come your way. And remember, you are capable of amazing things."
Dorwin, a North Adams resident and graduate of McCann Technical School's culinary arts program, was born with Down syndrome. But her audience was reminded on Friday morning that her condition is just one aspect of her personality and not one that has held her back.
"Many special people have given me endless opportunity to grow, learn and challenge myself," Dorwin said.
And she has made the most of those opportunities.
"My doctor, Dr. [Michael] Sussman, now retired, told my mom and dad just to love me like any other child," Dorwin said. "When I was young, I tried different activities, like horseback riding, T-ball and soccer. These were fun. But the activity that really excited me was dance."
Through her involvement with Berkshire Dance Theatre, Dorwin earned opportunities to perform on stage in front of packed auditoriums. And her passion for dance fed into her time on the McCann cheerleading team, which she said was one of the highlights of her high school career.
Dance was the talent that won her the title Miss Amazing Massachusetts Junior Miss in 2016 and sent her to the national competition in Chicago, where she was a runner-up.
"Miss Amazing is a national organization that provides opportunities for girls and women with disabilities to build confidence and self-esteem in a supportive environment," Dorwin explained. "At nationals, people with disabilities from all over the country came together to make new friends, have fun and demonstrate our skills and talents."
Another of Dorwin's passions, she told the crowd, is theater, and she never misses a chance to see a Broadway show with her mom — or a chance to get on stage herself, as she did last summer with the WTF's community theater production of "Taiga in the Berkshires."
"I hope I will have the opportunity to be in this year's show," Dorwin said.
And when she isn't dancing or acting or traveling, Dorwin is working, both for BFAIR and for the city of North Adams Public Schools, where she works in the cafeteria at Colegrove Elementary.
"My favorite part of my job is to have the opportunity to serve lunch to the kids," she said.
A capacity crowd attended BFAIR's annual meeting on Friday.
Berkshire Family and Individual Resources has been providing those kinds of opportunities for persons with cognitive disabilities, autism and acquired brain injuries for a quarter of a century.
Friday's annual meeting was an opportunity to not only highlight the accomplishments of clients like Brittany but also celebrate the hard work of the nonprofit agency's staff.
"I could take an hour or two or four and still couldn't say enough about these individuals," BFAIR Board Chairman Alex Kastrinakis told the breakfast meeting. "Respect, dignity and inspiration are a few words that come to mind when I think about the staff that represents the BFAIR team."
The meeting was an opportunity for the agency to recognize the employees for who have hit milestones for years of service and to single out a few with special recognition.
Carrie Woodard, a house manager in a BFAIR residential home, received the agency's Crosby Award for a staff member who embodies a commitment to community service and advocacy. Developmental specialist Jared Filiault received BFAIR's Quintal Award for exemplary commitment to supporting the dignity, human rights and quality of life for people with disabilities. And the BFAIR Board presented its award to Caroline Prew, a receptionist at its Pittsfield office who goes above and beyond her job description.
BFAIR's director of employment services, Becky McAllister, was given the agency's Leadership Award.
"What makes Becky stand out from others is her positive attitude, which is: We can do this regardless of the challenges," BFAIR Executive Director Ethel Altiery said in presenting McAllister her award. "Becky looks for ways for people to achieve their aspirations and goals, not only in employment but in all areas of a person's life.
"We see her commitment daily, and she is involved in just about every project BFAIR is into. She's there to say, ‘I can help you out.' "
BFAIR's director of employment services, Becky McAllister, was given the agency's Leadership Award on Friday.
Helping McAlister and other service workers is the mission of the Boston-based Providers' Council. That group's vice president for public policy, Bill Yelenak, made the trip west to congratulate BFAIR on its 25 years of service to the Berkshires and talk about a couple of items on its legislative agenda.
One bill, co-sponsored by state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, would help pay off student loan debt to service workers who are making less than $50,000 a year.
"We're often seeing workers come into the human services sector with significant student loan burden, and we're trying to find a way to ease those," Yelenak said. "Oftentimes, we're making lower salaries and choosing between paying rent and putting food on the table or paying student loans. And it's a reason we often see a lot of turnover and a lot of our colleagues leave the sector."
Yelenek said the advocacy group also is pushing for legislation that would end the pay disparity between human services employees and state employees who are doing similar jobs.
In addition to the employee awards passed out on Friday morning, BFAIR recognized a couple of its community partners, North Adams' Central Radio and Williamstown's Steinerfilm. And it gave its Self-Determination Award to Beth Robarge, a resident of BFAIR's residential home in Northampton.
"Beth became part of the BFAIR family in 2017," Altiery said. "And since that time, she has worked tirelessly to regain some of the independence that she lost due to an acquired brain injury. Beth talks about being in a nursing home, totally paralyzed and only able to move her eyes.
"Through sheer determination, she is now able to walk short distances, she does her own laundry and she makes her own breakfast every day."
Most days, that is. On Friday, she enjoyed a catered breakfast along with the rest of the meeting's attendees. And Roberge walked up to the podium to receive her award and standing ovation from the crowd.
Dorwin received similar applause and a couple of laughs, like when she talked about the challenges that still lie ahead for her.
"As I look ahead, I do have some goals," she said. "I'd like to get a full-time job. I want to keep on dancing and doing shows whenever I can.
"Someday, I want to have a place of my own, because I do not want to live with my mom and dad forever."