A new program in Pittsfield is aimed at supporting young people and preventing them from entering a life of crime.
The Community Connection program is part of the city’s Shannon Grant initiative. The state grant focuses on gang management and prevention, targeting teenagers to young adults. This year’s $100,000 award allowed the city to hire Adam Hinds as the city’s first dedicated program coordinator in March.
“There are a handful of vulnerable neighborhoods here in Pittsfield,” Hinds said. “Data indicates that these are the neighborhoods and streets that having the highest number of arrests, incidents with police and the highest levels of unemployment. I’m still doing a lot of the research, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it also has the highest levels of education truancy.”
The program will provide additional money to the city’s police department to patrol “hot spots” as the summer approaches. The city saw four shootings last summer that injured five gang members. While enforcement plays a role, Hinds says rooting out the underlying causes of criminal activity is the goal. Partnering with local organizations like Berkshire United Way to offer academic and athletic activities, the city plans to hire an outreach specialist and form neighborhood-based caretaker councils to provide needed parental support, according to Hinds.
“Support to moms and caretakers is central,” he said. “There’s one housing development we are working with that has 44 units. Forty-one of them are headed by a single mom. That just really jumped out at me. It underscores the importance of moms as an important anchor for funneling support, for understanding what’s happening in homes and as way to reach both the kids and the parents and making sure that opportunities are available for both.”
Through the recently announced program, $15,000 will be allocated to the county’s Bridging the Gap project, allowing 20 youths to go through the course. The youth intervention initiative is offered across Massachusetts through the Salvation Army. Bridging the Gap offers three month-long courses to teens referred by the Berkshire County Juvenile Court system. Carole Hilderbrand is the county’s program director.
“Starting with choices, how to make decisions, career planning, teen employment, teen dating, cooking, back to basics even how to iron and how to sew basic buttons onto their clothing,” Hilderbrand explained. “Anything that we think is what a teen needs to review or to learn. Life skills…that’s what we do.”
Bridging the Gap partners with Berkshire Community College, the Berkshire County District Attorney’s office and other organizations to present workshops for teens during the three-hour sessions, twice a week. Hilderbrand says some guest speakers were heading down a troubling road at one point as well.
“You can stand and say this is rule number one, two and three, but when a teen hears a person that has gone through different situations it really hits home with them and they really take in the good path and the bad path of life,” said Hilderbrand.
The program stresses parent involvement from the get-go and tracks the students beyond the three months, through high school, and helps them seek employment. Hilderbrand says there is a 10 percent recidivism rate among the roughly 60 teens who have completed the program in the past eight years.
“We are reality,” she said. “That’s how I present the program. It’s no sugar-coating of ‘You’ll get a great job.’ No, you have to do right thing. Employment is tough so when you are in school you get good attendance and you get your grades as high as you can because employers are looking for people that are reliable.”
Bridging the Gap is launching a cookie factory, which Hilderbrand hopes will turn a profit. Teens will run the operation top-down from baking, marketing and accounting. The hope is they can eventually be paid for their work.
“We start at 3 [o’clock], that does not mean 3:15,” Hilderbrand said. “That means five to 3 or 3 o’clock. Those are the ethics that I’m trying to teach the kids.”