Colleen Holmes, right, president and CEO of 18 Degrees (formerly Berkshire Children and Families), speaks at the open house of West Main Connection, a program that engages young people ages 17 to 24 who are the highest risk of being involved in criminal and gang activity.

Program Aims to Help Young People in North Adams at Risk of Criminal Activity

By Rebecca Dravis
iBerkshires Staff
02:00AM / Friday, September 27, 2019


The new West Main Connection program, an initiative of 18 Degrees, will be located at the city-owned building at 6 West Main St. in North Adams.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — On Tuesday afternoon, the upper floors of 6 West Main St. were filled with well-wishers from the community.

In the coming weeks, the space will be filled with messages of hope, community connections, and resources to help guide vulnerable young people to a safe and healthy future.

"The most exciting part of this now is we're going to be working with young people in the community, and we have the opportunity, and they have the opportunity, to make their lives what they dreamed of," Colleen Holmes, president and CEO of 18 Degrees (formerly Berkshire Children and Families) said at the open house of "West Main Connection," a program that engages young people ages 17 to 24 who are the highest risk of being involved in criminal and gang activity.

The goal of West Main Connection, which mimics a program that has been running already in Pittsfield, is to promote positive youth development and divert young people from activities that might lead them deeper into the criminal justice system. Funding is provide through the Massachusetts Safe and Successful Youth Initiative, a youth violence prevention and intervention initiative that operates in cities with the highest juvenile crime rates that is operated by the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

The young people that West Main Connection will serve will be identified by the North Adams Police Department, who will pass names along to the West Main staff of youths they come in contact with in the course of their jobs who they think might benefit from services. Outreach workers from West Main will follow up with these young people and start the process of building trust and connecting them with the services that might enable them to move forward in a productive, successful way. Those services include education services, like tutoring or working toward earning a high school equivalency diploma, job preparation assistance, mental health counseling, and more.

"It's a hope-based program," Mayor Thomas Bernard said Tuesday.

Bernard said when Holmes reached out to him about duplicating the successful Pittsfield program in North Adams, he didn't hesitate to offer up the city-owned space at 6 Main St., a space that Holmes said is perfect because it is accessible to downtown North Adams and those who may be walking or taking a bus.

"I picked up a phone. I called," Holmes said.

"All I had to do was say yes," Bernard said. 

From there, the 18 Degrees staff -- over the course of just a few weeks -- began planning for the future, furnishing the space and hiring the staff, to be led by Program Director Scott Haskell.

"We're building it hoping they will come," said Haskell, who said his job is to connect these young people with the services they need to be successful. "They might have negative connections. We help them make positive connections."

Some people, he said, initially might not want help, and Holmes acknowledged that the task isn't always easy. This population likely doesn't have trust in the system or in older adults and has also likely experienced trauma in their lives, she said. 

But she and her staff believe the effort is so very worth it and have created a space that reflects that: it contains not just office space but comfortable meeting areas, a game room with table tennis and video games, a soundproof room for musical endeavors and even a washing machine and dryer for those who might not have easy access to those appliances otherwise. Future plans include the creation of a safe and fun place for young children who might come in with their young parents who are receiving services.

"It is a place to come be accepted as you are," Holmes said.

Speaking to the community members who attended the open house on Tuesday, Holmes explained how the new "18 Degrees" name fits in the philosophy of this particular program of the organization. The new name, she said, refer to where the sun starts out every day, just below the horizon, to signal that a new day has begun.

"Second chance. New day. New promise. Fresh opportunities," she said. "What could be more fitting?"



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