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Hannah Van Sickle
Reina, age 18 months, takes a moment to herself during Tuesday's Toddler Time in Great Barrington; the program is one of many offered at CHP Family Services Center.

At Community Health Programs, serving families and children in need

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By Friday, Dec 22, 2017 Life In the Berkshires 13

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.

Community Health Programs WIC assistant director Mary Feuer, left, and CHP director of WIC and family services Michelle Derr.

“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.

Taylor Caro and her daughter enjoy a quiet moment after a busy morning at CHP’s Toddler Steps, a drop-in program for children ages 18 months to 3 years old. Toddler Steps is offered on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and follows the public school schedule. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

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.

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13 Comments   Add Comment

  1. mary says:

    If you can’t afford to have kids, do us all a favor, and don’t have them. I hate the fact that my hardworking tax dollars go to pay for someone’s mistake or just bad idea of having a child that they can’t support without government help. We now live in such a welfare state that women feel it’s fine to pop out kids knowing that they don’t have to worry; someone else will foot the bill. it’s disheartening and disgusting.

    1. Marc says:

      Thank you Mary for speaking truth

    2. Joseph Method says:

      Then advocate for funding for teen pregnancy prevention. Services like CHP aren’t the cause of the problem. Once a child is in the world it’s in society’s interest to make sure they are as supported as possible. Otherwise society will ultimately pay the cost in another way.

    3. DB says:

      Mary and Mark
      I wish you both to receive the gift of compassion and empathy in your holiday stockings!
      Maybe your hearts and minds will grow two more sizes this season.
      When reading about parents and children getting a helping hand, that’s where your heart brings you?
      Change your hearts, it will astound you.
      Happy holidays.

    4. Dave Long says:

      Mary and Marc-

      What is disheartening and disgusting is that you feel compelled to denigrate others who so clearly are trying to help themselves and do whatever it takes to provide for their children. We hardly live in a welfare state. America provides far less social support than any other developed country. Programs like this are designed to help young mothers get a foothold so that they may in fact become self reliant. In any event, we all have an interest in seeing that young children are allowed to grow up healthy and educated so that they themselves become important contributors to society at large. Programs like this are an important tool for reducing institutionalized poverty and therefore the size of the welfare burden over the long term.

      It is stunning to me that so many people are willing to reveal their short sighted selfishness when it comes to social policy. They espouse such heartless positions in spite of centuries of historical experience that demonstrate that the “social safety net” reduces poverty and government dependance — without it, society is increasingly dragged downward into a quagmire of rippling consequences and human suffering.

      1. mary says:

        I believe that women would be much more careful about getting pregnant if they knew that there wasn’t this safety net that they then rely on for generation after generation because, why not, it’s free money, no need to work. Take away that safety net and you have women actually taking responsibility for their actions and taking the necessary precautions to prevent unwanted and avoidable pregnancies.

      2. Shawn G. says:

        Agreed! Thanks Dave.

      3. Dave Long says:


        No one is disputing the fact that we each need to take responsibility for our own choices. If you think for a minute that the kind of help offered by CHP absolves the mothers of this responsibility or somehow spares them the consequences of lost youth, you are greatly mistaken. And yes, we the parents, friends, relatives, and mentors of these young people should do all we can to help our youth prevent accidental pregnancies in the first place. In this case, these children are here and need care. It is in society’s interest (and yours as well) that organizations like CHP provide services that may stave off more costly support in the future.

        If you are truly concerned about children born into poverty, I would suggest you give generously to Planned Parenthood, Railroad Street Youth, and others that work tirelessly to prevent unwanted pregnancies and teach what it means to be a responsible adult. Doing so would help reduce both the number of at risk kids and abortions.

      4. Dave Long says:

        Also, I should note that we do not know if these pregnancies were unwanted or not. There is no “income test” to qualify to become parents. Young couples often have few resources as they start their lives and this help makes it more likely that a young family will thrive.

        And the real point is that the current right wing fallacy that the safety net somehow encourages poverty in itself is not borne out in the historical data. However, many other social factors (such as lack of social mobility or opportunity) can institutionalize poverty within some marginalized communities of people. It is society’s responsibility to ensure that the opportunity for people to rise out of poverty exists just as much as it is society’s responsibility to promote the well being of its children with the knowledge that someday they will contribute as full citizens themselves.

      5. DB says:

        Thanks Dave, for taking the time to eloquently explain to Mary why she should take some time to assist and care, not not espouse hatred and blame. If only she can absorb some of that education and kindness into her heart, it will be better for everyone. Especially Mary.

  2. michquigley says:

    Thank you for all you do for families and children!

  3. Leslie says:

    Dear Mary,
    May you never know hardship, may you never need a helping hand, but make some space in your heart for those that do.
    Merry Christmas

  4. Ellen Lahr says:

    CHP and its Family Services’ mission and day to day work are about supporting and strengthening all families, to help them thrive. CHP is a no judgment zone, and it’s appalling to entwine judgments about unplanned pregnancies with the work of CHP Family Services and the people who use them have the courage to step up and seek assistance when times are tough. Families come in all shapes, sizes and socio-economic circumstances, and all are equal in the work of CHP. If any of you know anyone who could use some services or support, please send them to CHP. They will make new connections, friends and find resources to help move them along on the spectrum of family life. Thank you, Dave Long and others, for knowing this and stepping up with your good comments.

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