Great Barrington — “We come here most every day,” says Taylor Caro, taking a moment to snuggle her daughter, Rei, who just turned 18 months old. It is a chilly winter morning and the pair have come to the bright playspace at Community Health Programs where Toddler Steps is in full swing. Caro moved to Stockbridge from Fairfield, Connecticut, where she cites everything as being “very expensive.” And coming from an area where it was second nature to pay for children’s classes and experiences, Caro was elated to find a community of resources at CHP. “[There is] nothing else like it,” Caro gushes. “I love being in South County,” she adds. It is this inclusion and support of all, regardless of income bracket, that fuels CHP Family Services and is slowly strengthening families throughout the Berkshires.
“Parenting is very, very difficult,” says Michelle Derr, director of family services and WIC. “We are trying to break down barriers,” she explains, “as every family has a different situation.” Due to this single fact, the CHP Family Services Center is nothing short of unique. On Tuesday morning, the entrance at 422 Stockbridge Rd. was flanked with crates of bright red winter apples from Windy Hill Farm; Mel Greenberg of Berkshires Bounty had already come and gone with meat and was making a second delivery of bread and assorted bakery items from Big Y and Price Chopper; a grandmother was leaving three enormous bags of outgrown items at the clothing exchange; and staff members were awaiting a group of students from Monument Valley Regional Middle School, en-route with nonperishable food items. Unbeknownst to many, all of it was free for the taking – no questions asked – and everyone is welcome.
“Each family has layers and layers of issues,” says Derr. The most prevalent in Berkshire County remain housing and food security, issues of such magnitude that they carry with them increased stress and worry for parents trying to navigate an already challenging job: raising healthy kids. At CHP Family Services, a rich tapestry of offerings from food, clothing, literacy, parent support and access to referrals for services not offered is aimed at helping families cope with challenging circumstances and develop relationships in the process. While this often translates to helping those on the proverbial edge by securing SNAP benefits, WIC, fuel assistance and subsidized housing, it also means having an open door to a judgment-free zone where help is always available.
“We need to get the word out before families are in crisis,” says Mary Feuer, assistant director of family services and WIC at CHP. “Once a family’s basic needs have been met, they can start thinking about other things,” she adds. These other things – from literacy and education to play and family time – are necessary for healthy communities. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified what they are calling “social determinants of health” (SDOH) – those conditions in the places where people live, learn, work and play that affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes. It has been documented that differences in health are striking in communities with poor SDOH – such as unstable housing, low income, unsafe neighborhoods and substandard education – and agencies like CHP are looking to support them. By addressing SDOH and not only creating but also promoting social and physical environments that promote good health for all, the entire community stands to gain.
Mary Morey of Sheffield is passionate about CHP. “Because of [CHP], I get to have a Christmas this year,” explains the mother of Greyson, age 18 months. “I’m very, very lucky,” the single mother and full-time student said upon dropping into the center to pick up household items. “I think people get confused — just because I am struggling does not mean I am choosing [this lifestyle] and that it’s forever.” Morey, who has two months left in her schooling at Mildred Elley in Pittsfield, is grateful for the support that surrounds her at CHP. She took part in the breastfeeding support group as a new mom and continues to visit at least once a month for interaction with other kids, the clothing exchange, to play and to donate. “Just because people are taking does not mean they are not giving back,” she articulates. “Thank God for my grandparents,” she adds–who are helping to raise her son while she finishes school–which segues to another feature of CHP Family Services: employing a “two-generation approach” that celebrates parents and grandparents as integral to the success of children.
Deborah Salem of Great Barrington was at Toddler Steps with her grandson on Tuesday; she provides care to the boy, age 2 years 9 months, five or six days each week. “These playgroup programs are just a God send,” she said. “Any program that provides education and enrichment sets a foundation for [future] success,” she added, underscoring the importance of supporting such programs and policies across the board. “I love paying taxes knowing they go to support programs like this,” was her ultimate endorsement. Jenna Bodnar, CHP’s community coordinator, prides herself on “meeting people where they are in the community.” This means, in addition to the ongoing programs at the CHP Family Services building, playgroups are offered throughout South County at local libraries, community centers, town halls and schools in eight different towns. Her job, one that envelopes CHP and WIC, is aimed at getting families to simply come “through the doors,” a prospect that, for many, can be a challenging first step.
“CHP Family Services is a real anchor in the community,” says Lia Spiliotes, CEO of Community Health Programs. “[Family Services are] a key component to the holistic approach to family health,” she adds, noting that CHP has grown spectacularly in the two short years since she arrived. “[CHP] offers a very different model than other community health centers,” says Spiliotes, who comes from a long and deep history in the field. “[Here we] are helping families to reduce factors that impair health [and] any interventions stand to have a substantial impact on long term health.” CHP is the fifth community health center in her tenure.
With every jingle of the door as families come and go, it cannot be overlooked that next week is Christmas. “People are very sympathetic to children at the holidays,” says Feuer, who points to an “amazing, generous community” that steps up in myriad ways at this time of year. “We put the word out that we’re looking…” she says, trailing off, and the tangible items that fill her crowded office speak for themselves. Need, however, knows no season. Feuer is quick to note that, on any given day throughout the year, CHP sees about 20 families who need some form of food assistance; and then there are so many who need and won’t take help. This hits on the shame and stigma often associated with assistance programs which, while SNAP and WIC are both available through CHP, scarcely scratch at the surface of what is available. “People come [to CHP] and this becomes a home,” explains Paloma Suarez, senior nutritionist and breastfeeding coordinator at CHP Family Services. “We try to build trust — a relationship — [by asking] ‘How can we help you?’” she adds. This, regardless of the season, is perhaps the greatest gift of all.