By Rebecca Dravis
03:58AM / Monday, June 17, 2019
Justyna and Gene Carlson, center with their granddaughter, are flanked by North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard, left, and Coalition board member Steve Green and Executive Director Amber Besaw after receiving the Northern Berkshire Hero Award. (Photo courtesy NBCC)
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — In an annual meeting marked by who wasn't there, the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition still was able to celebrate who was there.
Who wasn't there was former Coalition board member and well-known community member Al Nelson, who passed away last July. Nelson was a fixture at Coalition forums and annual meetings, and he was one of the founders of the Friendship Center Food Pantry, which has been named after him.
"There are no words for the hole left in our organization when he passed away," Coalition Executive Director Amber Besaw said in calling to order the organization's 33rd annual meeting, held Friday, June 14, at Greylock Works and attended by 220 people.
Parts of that hole, however, could be filled by the inspiring and uplifting words of the speakers who came to the podium on Friday to share what the idea of "building community" — the theme of the meeting, complete with a Lego brick motif and cake — meant to them.
First, Beth Alison Schmehl, founder of 5 Cents at a Time, spoke about how she started collecting bottles and cans and redeeming them for gift cards to give to community members in need. She talked about collecting her first 100 bottles — "Yes, five bucks!" — and how she has so much support from family and the larger community as a whole in this endeavor.
"The community is awesome. They help so much," she said.
Next, rising Hoosac Valley High School senior Malina Ziaja, a member of the Coalition's Youth Leadership Program, spoke about the "why" behind what she does in her community activities, which range from Girl Scouts to volunteering at the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum and many more. Ziaja said it was hard to talk about herself, but she described herself as a so-so student who might not fit the typical profile of a leader.
"I am not the ideal poster child for a community leader," she said, but said she "thrives" at it nonetheless for one reason: "I care deeply about a lot of things."
Ziaja said she believes everyone should strive to keep learning, even if it's not the kind of learning done in a classroom with homework and tests, speaking about summer participation in the New Hampshire Teen Institute.
"Everyone is learning and growing together," she said, "which is really exciting."
After a break in the meeting for a rousing game of Northern Berkshire bingo, the next speaker was Kim McMann of the Berkshire Food Project. That organization serves lunch every weekday at the First Congregational Church on Main Street in North Adams to anyone and everyone.
"We break bread together, asking no questions," she said.
While the project aims to decrease food insecurity in the northern Berkshires, the lunches are a "beautiful opportunity to build community" by bringing together people from all walks of life to eat and talk together and hopefully break down barriers.
"Our dining room is a place of dignity and respect for every single person who walks through our door," she said, emphasizing the need for trust among different populations "When people trust each other ... that's the very first building block of the community."
The last person who spoke was Paul Gordon, who moved to North Adams in 2016 and founded Terra Nova Church and the Green meeting space at 85 Main St. Gordon said he started the church for "fresh ground for following Christ" and the Green as a "common shared gathering space" for "real people to rub shoulders with other people" in an effort to grow empathy of one other. That has come to fruition, as several member organizations, including the Coalition, share the space, and outside groups can use it, as well.
"Our idea ... is that all will benefit from use of the space while no one controls the space," he said.
The meeting's theme of 'Building Community' is alluded to with the Lego motif.
And it was one endeavor in that space that Besaw wanted to highlight in a successful year at the Coalition. In addition to the more than 14,000 community members serviced with leadership training, parent education, family support, youth development and more, the Coalition was instrumental in the creation of the Beacon Recovery Community Center, which provides peer support to those seeking and maintaining recovery from addiction. BRCC offers support groups, connections to networks that can assist anyone seeking recovery, and opportunities to socialize with others. It formally opened in May and hold open hours on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Green.
Besaw credited a determined group of people in the creation of the recovery center.
"They never gave up on the idea that could create a peer-led recovery center here in the Northern Berkshires," she said, adding that it's a "wonderful example of a community creating hope."
And yet another example of that came in the awarding of the Northern Berkshire Hero Award, given annually to someone who exemplifies the spirit of the community. This year the award went to Gene and Justyna Carlson of North Adams for all of their work in the community.
Coalition board member Steve Green introduced the Carlsons, reciting the "long histories" the two have in the community, from their jobs at the former North Adams State College and General Electric to participating in their house of worship to their work with the North Adams Museum of History and Science and support of the SteepleCats. But beyond what would be "on a resume," Green said, is what's not on a resume: "their generosity in dollars, generosity in energy, generosity in spirit."
"They know they can make a difference," Green said. "They know they are right to do so."
The Carlsons thanked the Coalition for the award while surrounded by family, including their young granddaughter, who ran up to the podium to be with them. In accepting the award, Justyna said she wanted to do it in honor of the "unsung heroes" who do so much background work in the community.
That's why she said that when playing Northern Berkshire bingo earlier during the meeting, she knew what to put in the "free space" in the middle — which asked each player to write what their favorite part of the Northern Berkshires were.
"I put 'the people,' " she said.