The issues of staffing challenges and low wages were front and center at the 19th Annual Berkshire Legislative Breakfast, where nearly 300 people filled the room, along with the full legislative delegation for the Berkshire region on March 29.
“This region collaborates like no other region in the Commonwealth,” said State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, noting the number of representatives from business, families, community organizations, and service providers. Because of this collaboration, “every dollar spent out here is a dollar well spent.”
State Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli called the event unexpectedly emotional, given the loss of his father a week before the event. “My father served on the board of BCArc [Berkshire County Arc]. He loved people with all different abilities. He loved BCArc, and he loved Ken Singer.”
Kenneth Singer, CEO and president of BCArc, moderated the event.
State Senator Adam Hinds, citing the impact of the annual event, said that he had filed legislation for the hard of hearing this past year, an outcome of last year’s legislative breakfast.
Toni A. Wolf, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, told the crowd that the agency was committed to the region, and while this was her first time at the event – she was appointed in 2017 — she was honored to join the tradition. “Just keep inviting me back.”
True to her word, the Commissioner spent her afternoon in the Berkshires touring BCArc residential homes, day programs, and BCArc’s mailhouse company staffed by people with disabilities that serves 200 customers throughout western Massachusetts.
Along with comments from North Adams mayor Thomas Bernard, State Representative Paul Mark, and aides to U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congressman Ed Markey, front-line service providers talked about the issues they faced, calling on the panel of lawmakers for action on behalf of people with disabilities.
Marc Bourassa, BCArc, and Kim Baker, BFair, spoke about the difficulty living with low salaries, forcing many staff to work two jobs and 16-hour work days. “This is as close to the definition of modern day indentured servitude as it gets,” said Marc.
- Jennifer Piaggi, UCP of Berkshire County, and Rosalie Kelly, BCArc, addressed family support;
- Wayne Dore, Western Massachusetts Association of the Deaf, spoke about deaf services;
- Rebecca Gleason, Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts, spoke about brain injury;
- Darren Cowell, Autism Connections/Pathlight, discussed autism services;
- Donna McBurney, Mass. Dept. of Developmental Services, spoke about the challenges of turning 22 as a person with disabilities;
- Jaime Gallivan, Goodwill, addressed employment issues;
- James Lambert, BAROCO, spoke about day services.
Singer Tori Ackley from the Berkshire Hills Music Academy performed original songs that explored the will and tenacity to overcome the loss of hope people with disabilities might feel, and celebrate the unique qualities each of us own.
The event was presented by: Ad Lib, Inc.; Autism Connections; BAROCO Corporation; Berkshire County Arc; Berkshire Family & Individual Resources, Inc.; Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts; Department of Developmental Services; Goodwill Industries of the Berkshires; Guidewire, Inc.; Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts; Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission; ServiceNet; and United Cerebral Palsy Association of Berkshire County.