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United Way Installing Book Houses Around Berkshires

The Berkshire United Way is working to place a number of book houses across the county in hopes of improving childhood literacy.CEO Kristine Hazzard says Berkshire United Way decided back in 2010 to make early literacy the organization’s main focus and 2016 marks its biggest push.

“So this year, because this is how we are, we’re going bigger and we’re going better,” said Hazzard.

Attempting to reach 12,000 Berkshire County children, United Way is placing 50 wooden houses each filled with 100 books across the region.

“We really want kids and families to have access to books 24/7,” she said. “So when’s school not in session, they can still have access to books. In the summer when they’re trying to figure out what to do, let’s take a walk and leave one and take one book. It could be a family event. We want the community to embrace this. We want the community to help young people understand that reading is – old saying – fundamental. We have about 50 percent of our kids not reading proficiently in third grade. We are insistent on changing that situation and getting it closer to 90 percent by 2020.”

Between now and May 20th, which is the group’s 2016 Day of Caring, the houses will go up in more than 20 towns either on poles, attached to buildings or in open spaces. The houses were built with the help of employees from SABIC, LP Adams, JRL Construction and Geary Builders.  An additional 40 volunteers will install the weather-proofed structures, which weigh 46 pounds and are more than three feet tall. Project co-chair and Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn says the United Way called on leaders in each community to figure out where to place the houses.

“In the city of Pittsfield, it [the call] went to the mayor’s office where they have agreed to use municipal resources to install 10 in city parks and two in public housing developments,” Wynn said. “Although the city’s not responsible for it, there will be a 13th in Pittsfield on the campus of Berkshire Community College that BCC is responsible for.”

Thirty companies, organizations and municipalities have agreed to stock the houses with children’s books and take care of the houses.

“As you can see it has not been a simple endeavor, but it has been a broad, community-wide endeavor,” Wynn said. “It speaks amazingly to the generosity of our Berkshire community.”

While the houses are expected to be permanent fixtures, the installation process will culminate during a celebration at Hancock Shaker Village on May 20th. In addition, businesses that sign up with the United Way as an “I Care” partner agree to donate a portion of their sales that day to the cause or make an outright donation. Project co-chair Christina Barrett says volunteer efforts that include social activity can be a way for companies to better engage their employees with the community.

“Sometimes we think to think outside of the brick and mortar buildings of our employers,” Barrett said. “We need to think about those social connections and ways that we can engage and excite people to stay and live in our community that goes beyond the day-to-day job.”

The Berkshire United Way is seeking to raise $25,000 through the “I Care” campaign and the May 20th celebration to support its year-round early literacy efforts. One such program is a summer literacy effort in Pittsfield that’s been going on for three years. Hazzard says each year at least 90 percent of the kids have maintained or improved their reading levels. Still, she says countywide third grade MCAS scores, a state assessment, have only slightly ticked up.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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