John Fülöp: Caring For Our World (part I) | By Margot Welch

Like many of us, John Fülöp worries about our precious, endangered world. Indeed, given the increasing power of power — money and corporate greed, for example — it’s hard not to worry – and easy to get stuck in helplessness. But Fülöp, a West Stockbridge architect (see profile in Jan 15-21 Berkshire Eagle’s “Berkshire Week Shires of Vermont” supplement), continues to be vigorously engaged in tangible, promising life work:  building smart homes, workplaces, and strong communities.

Maybe it’s no accident that a boy whose young years were lived during World War II grew up with a lifelong determination to “find something to do  that I think is important,” as he’s said. But, though smiles for a camera are often cued, photographs of Fülöp’s early life radiate the importance during war time of family attachment and hope. The boy seems to have come through smiling.

After the Eagle article was published, Fülöp received phone calls from people near and far, strangers and friends who thanked him for sharing his story.

“One man called to thank me because his wife was in the Warsaw Ghetto and she can’t talk about it. He said my story was important for him to hear. And when I think about Hungary right now,” Fülöp continued, “I’m afraid it’s kind of like what it was in the 30’s — rife with anti-semitism and tough economic conditions. Maybe not quite so bad, but it’s a little scary to think about what potentially could happen again. People have such a short memory.”

At least two factors contribute to our amnesia. One is the aching truth that wounded lives carry secrets.  Many of us realize this only when we’re grown and discover things our parents never talked about — things we didn’t even know to ask about when we were young.

When the Vietnam War was raging, I was a single parent and determined to protect my then little kids from the evening news, the body bags.  I wanted them to know what I knew — that the world was safe, which I’d come to feel from my assimilated German-Jewish parents during World War II, who certainly knew more about what was happening in the world than they ever said.  Growing up during the forties in southern Ohio, my brother and I didn’t learn about what happened to Jews in Europe until we were in high school. Only after my mother died did I discover — from found, old letters she wrote home in the early thirties — how attached she’d become to adoring German cousins when she was a college student in France. I started to understand her profound (and frightening) outrage – which she could never explain – as betrayal and utter bereavement. For us, as kids, our world felt safe partly because our parents kept war truths from us.

It’s also true that, as privileged whites, we knew nothing about the extent to which the engine of slavery and its legacies drove the productivity of our nation through the first half of the twentieth century. Had we been African Americans, or poor whites left behind, our parents would have protected us by telling us what dangers we could expect, teaching us strategies to use when bad things happened. Because they would.A related but essential reality is also that our country does a grievous job of teaching history. I’ve met bright people in their thirties who confuse Viet Nam with Iraq. And, in a discussion following a showing of Selma last week in Pittsfield, several young people said it was the first time they understood that their grandparents had died so that they and their parents could vote.  More evidence for the failure of our schools came in phone calls Fülöp received.

“Alot of kids today don’t even know who fought in World War II,” he said. “I’ve gotten calls from young people saying they didn’t know anything about ‘that stuff.’  Of course, this would include knowing that Budapest was 80% destroyed, Berlin 95% destroyed, and the winter of 1947 [when he and his family were staying in a former Prisoner of War camp, waiting to leave for America] was one of the roughest, coldest winters in Europe — no water, no electricity, no heat.”

In our endangered lives today, if we’re to think about the future of our world, we must ask, listen, learn, teach, and talk about our pasts. The world we love can not afford to lose our stories.

On the Bridge: Mary Makuc embodies positive strength, Local advocate has overcome obstacles | By Emma Sanger-Johnson, Special to Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont

Mary Makuc relaxes in her festively decorated home in Monterey.

Mary Makuc relaxes in her festively decorated home in Monterey. (Stephanie Zollshan / The Berkshire Eagle)

MONTEREY >> As she prepared for Christmas with her husband, five children — one son applying to colleges up and down the coast — and a boisterous dog, Mary Makuc looked forward to a week filled with family and activity. Her husband had made dozens of Christmas cookies. Her family is Catholic, she says, and the holiday is a warm gathering and focus for them.

With her husband and children and work with local organizations, she is busy and fulfilled, a community organizer — and an advocate.

At 21, she survived a car accident that injured her head, spine and leg. These injuries prevented her from walking for a long time, and she still experiences challenges in walking. Her disability crystallized her mission: she works to improve the lives of people with disabilities.

Mary grew up in eastern Massachusetts, in a suburb between Worcester and Boston. She was attending college to become a nurse when the car accident injured her.

Her family, her religion, her humor and the fact she is “an extreme extrovert” helped her through her recovery, she said. When her father entered the hospital room after the accident, he said to her, “Mary, you still have hands,” and she responded, “Yeah, and I’m breathing, Dad.”

She held onto her ability to see positive possibilities and humor in daily situations.

At first, recovery took a great deal of energy, she said. Immediately after her accident, she moved back into her family’s house and began learning to walk again with the help of medications and physical therapy. Sometimes, she said, she felt as though she spent all her time going to doctors.

Then one night, a friend came over and loaded Mary and her wheelchair into the car and took her to the movies. Her friend helped Mary return to herself by making sure Mary could get out and relax.

She continued her studies in social services and graduated with a bachelor’s degree. After looking for work around Worcester and Boston, she moved to Amherst. While working there she met her husband, who was living and working in Monterey, and they moved here, where they still live. She has worked continuously in social services, in places including Gould Farm, and now while raising her children she pursues projects that will benefit the Southern Berkshires. She is working to form a Monterey Community Center, a local space for classes and other learning opportunities. She serves on the community center’s board, and she has also applied for a grant to create a dance class in the pool at Berkshire South Community Center, an opportunity for people who have difficulty dancing and can learn in the safety and warmth of the water.

She wants to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities, she said, to find ways for them to move comfortably in their communities — and for their communities to open to them.

Many communities and places have made some effort to accommodate them. Special parking spaces, designated wheelchair ramps and seating on buses give people with disabilities recognition, she said, and she believes they are positive steps, but they are not enough.

Recognition happens between people.

She said it helps when people are honest about their emotions and concerns when they encounter people with disabilities. It helps when people ask questions — like how or when someone needs or wants help. Asking is the best thing anyone can do, she said.

If they don’t ask, people who want to give her a hand may do the opposite. When she is going through a door and someone automatically assists, saying, “Oh, let me get the door for you,” they may not realize she is using the door for help in balancing, and someone taking the door from her might make her fall.

She also wants to shape space so people can move through it smoothly. She works for more awareness of the architectural challenges people with disabilities face every day, looking for ways to change them and to help people understand them.

“I would love to see more integration and inclusion,” she said.

Some spaces are easily accessible for her, while others are difficult, and the people who shape them may not know it.

“It’s straddling two worlds,” she said.

When she goes out with a group of friends who also have spinal cord injuries, she knows they are going somewhere accessible and the people with her are experiencing the same things she does. But when she comes into local restaurants or stores, she may have trouble getting in the door, and once inside she often has trouble navigating the space. These places are not built to accommodate people with physical disabilities, and she knows this is not intentional, but it is a constant challenge.

She can move around more easily in a wheelchair, she said, and she uses one at home because she can move quickly in it. But the world is not set up to allow wheelchairs everywhere, and away from home she often uses a walker to get around because she can move more freely with one, in more varied spaces.

She sees and pushes against the stigma that surrounds people with physical or mental disabilities, people too often seen as a burden, she said, as being too slow and awkward to accommodate.

People with disabilities have gifts, talents and skills, she said. They contribute to the world, and often they have trouble being recognized outside of their disability.

At the turning of the year, in a time of community and listening, willingness to learn and understanding, she and her friends are here, sharing gifts, reaching out to loved ones and making resolutions — leading their lives with strength, humor and confidence.

On the Bridge …

This profile is a collaboration between Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds in these pages.

To learn more: berkshireeagle.com/onthebridge

On the bridge: Young black voices lift in sadness, hope | By Cynthia Pease and JV Hampton-VanSant Special to Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont

GREAT BARRINGTON >> In the ongoing turbulence following the killing of unarmed black men and boys, and the failure of grand juries to indict the police who shot them, three young African-Americans involved with the Railroad Street Youth Project who all live in the Berkshires spoke about these events.

Kiana Estime, 18, said that her first feelings on hearing that Policeman Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the killing of the unarmed Michael Brown were disbelief, fear, passion, and responsibility.

“My responsibility is to continue the passion to protest, to not stand by and allow this to happen,” she said. “I have a responsibility to let friends know and to allow them to be aware of the systemic racism in this country.”

She referred mostly to white friends, but also to friends of color, because she believes that her generation has had a need to deny that their color makes a difference. Getting rid of that denial may make them vulnerable and insecure, she said, but it is necessary to address the issue head on.

She also thinks there is a fear among her peers of bringing up controversial issues to do with racism, particularly in what are called microaggressions, things said to people of color that are perhaps not intended to be racist, but in fact are because they stem from unquestioned ideas white people have grown up with. These people may mean well, but they cause hurt and anger.

The first step, she said, is to get at the root of systemic racism: the misrepresentation, misunderstandings and social injustice that still prevail for people of color today.

“If you don’t solve the root, there is no desire to change,” she said.

Tymell, 24, who asked that his full name not be used, said he didn’t watch television news about the non-indictment of Michael Brown’s or Eric Garner’s killers.

“Watching makes me too angry,” he said.

Commenting on the public outrage towards the justice system and the riots after the verdict, Tymell compared the media coverage and the social outrage over the killing people of color to emotions experienced running over a squirrel.

“You feel bad for a minute, but then you’re over it,” he said.

He sees this public outrage as fleeting in this society, a society in which the murder of these young black men are dismissed as though they do not matter.

“That’s what we are to these people: roadkill. All because of the color of our skin,” he said.

These kinds of murders are not new and have been ongoing for quite some time, he said. For him, the recent tragedies are personal. When he was 12 years old, he said, living in Brooklyn with a foster family, he had an older brother who was called J Happy, and Tymell and looked up to him. J Happy was on the verge of going to college. One day he took Tymell to the park, as he usually did.

The next moment, said Tymell, “a white cop pulled over and accused him of having drugs in his pocket.”

The encounter ended with J Happy being shot in the head by the policeman.

There was an inquiry during which Tymell was interviewed, but there were no repercussions for the policeman except for his gun being taken away.

“I went through hell there,” Tymell said.

The policeman was a local beat cop, and Tymell had to see him on a daily basis until he was moved to another foster home.

Originally from Uganda, 21-year-old David, who also asked that his last name not be used, has lived in the United States for almost 12 years.

“I’ve had my share of run-ins” with police, he said, citing an instance where he and a white friend pulled a prank on Halloween. David was suspected and questioned, he said, not the friend.

David has watched the news about Ferguson and Staten Island and the many protests with his brother.

“It feels personal to a degree,” he said. “The legal system is not what it should be.”

He pointed to the fact that district attorneys have to work closely with police and therefore have a conflict of interest in how they handle a police shooting.

“How do you get the bias out?” he said. “How do you fix a system that doesn’t know it’s broken?”

Where is the hope for young African-Americans in all of this? Tymell does not believe there is much hope. He thinks it will take a much larger tragedy before white people wake up to the reality and engage in the conversation.

“I want to hope,” he said, “but I don’t believe it’s going to happen” without some kind of purge that will grow out of the frustration and anger being felt around the country.

David looks to a new governmental system to create change and give hope.

“How do we make action make something that works? There needs to be checks and balances” he said in how police shootings of unarmed people are handled and in the justice system as a whole.

“Hope is in the struggle,” he said.

JV Hampton-VanSant is a youth coordinator with the Railroad Street Youth Project. Cynthia Pease, a volunteer with Multicultural Bridge, has worked with him on this conversation about a difficult topic.

On the Bridge

This profile is a collaboration between Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds in these pages.

To learn more: berkshireeagle.com/onthebridge

Sue Maguire: What’s Good for Kids (Part II) | By Margot Welch

“At first glance Bennington appears to typify New England life at its best,” Sue Maguire wrote, in her introduction to the book she and Joy Dryfoos wrote together, Inside Full Service Community Schools. (1)  Dryfoos was a life-long educational consultant with a long-term interest in adolescent health, preventive interventions, and high risk youth. The two met after Maguire had long been working at Bennington’s Molly Stark Elementary School – first as teacher, then as Principal. Maguire describes the context for her work.

“…(T)here is another part of Bennington. Molly Stark School is in an isolated area of the community not typically seen by tourists driving through town. Its student population of nearly 380 is considered large by Vermont standards. The school is literally located on the other side of the railroad tracks…” she wrote, adding that this was actually how people talked about it. When I visited, fifteen years ago, I was told that some of the children rarely saw “downtown Bennington” – which is no more than a mile away.

As a new teacher, Maguire recalls, she had great ideas.

“Two and a half decades ago, I came to Vermont to teach fifth grade… I was ready to change the world for kids. I thought little about poverty or its ramifications because I truly bellieved it didn’t matter; I could make education the ticket for a happy and productive life for all kids, whether rich, middle class, or poor. Through my training, I had learned that teaching consisted of high standards, strong curriculum, and solid instruction delivered by a caring teacher. All these years later, I know that I hadn’t learned enough.”

After being at Molly Stark for a few years, and raising her own two children,  Maguire began to understand what tremendous opportunities they were having. She and her husband read to them incessantly, took them on all kinds of trips and outings, were constantly preparing them with relevant vocabulary and social skills for new experiences and discoveries and encouraging them at every turn.  The result?

“They entered school healthy and eager to learn. They knew education was important in our family and they thrived….What I slowly came to realize is that not all children have lives filled with these basic supports and opportunities. Far too many kids exist in a world without stimulation. Many live in a constant state of chaos and are isolated from everything beyond their own neighborhood. They don’t go to parks and museums and librairies, they don’t eat in restaurants, and they don’t make regular visits to doctors and dentists.”

Very frequently Maguire encountered heart-breaking troubles in her students’ families. She  references, for example, a mother who calls two days before school opened to say that the family has been evicted, and are living in a car without an address, but can she still register her kids? A boy wanting desperately to join the after-school running program doesn’t have sneakers. Two young children have nearly burned down their apartment while their mother is out. With her help, a boy gets to a dentist for the first time and, after he’s had seven teeth extracted, he tells her he’s never before “known what it was for his mouth not to hurt.”

 

As Maguire understood how many things block a child’s chances for academic, social, physical and emotional growth, she began developing a full-service school – before she’d even heard the term.

“The services and opportunties we developed at Molly Stark happened because they make sense for kids and their families.” Solutions, for Maguire, were obvious.

“Through collaborative partnerships with a wide range of service providers in our community, we… tried to create the opportunities that most of us would expect and demand for our own children. Along with quality instruction, our school offers extended-day and extended-year services, health and social services, and parent education and support – the things we believe that children need to do well in school and that families need to live productive lives in their community.”

Maguire is as certain as ever that education is the critical ticket. Even today, looking forward to mentoring principals when she eventually retires, she is not about to stop educating – and leading by example.

“I am now working with the children of children I taught years ago, and I continue the search to find what it is that might make the difference for this generation and the next.” (2)

 

 

End Notes:

Sue Maguire has given me permission to quote extensively from this introductory passage, which I think describes the context for the full service school model in a way that is relevant in communities all over the United States. Inside Full-Service Community Schools was published by Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, California, 2002.

(2) The term,  “Full Service Community School” is, today, commonly abbreviated again to “Community School.” But today it is possible to build a much stronger program, under that name, than ever before. The clearinghouse for resources and information about the Community School is the Coalition for Community Schools  (c/o Institute of Educational Leadership, 4301 Connecticut Ave. NW Ste 100, Washington, DC 20008 Tel: 1-202-822-8405. Access their website; www.communityschools.org. Email: ccs@iel.org).

On the Bridge: Bard College at Simon’s Rock professor teaches understanding of American Indian culture | By Kate Abbott

Nancy Bonvillain has learned language and friendship among native peoples of the Six Nations in upstate New York

By Kate Abbott

Courtesy of Nancy BonvillainBard College at Simon’s Rock professor Nancy Bonvillain has had close ties to the Kanienkehaka, people of the Mohawk

Courtesy of Nancy Bonvillain Bard College at Simon’s Rock professor Nancy Bonvillain has had close ties to the Kanienkehaka, people of the Mohawk nation, for many pears.

GREAT BARRINGTON >> Akwesasne is said to mean “land where the wild grouse drums.” Grouse drum as a courtship display, but in the fall, in the woods near here, a walker at Notchview may hear a grouse launch into flight with a rapid beating of wings.

In the early 1970s, Nancy Bonvillain lived and worked in Akwesasne (or Ahkwesahsne), a Mohawk Territory on the border of upstate New York and Canada.

Now a professor of anthropology and linguistics at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Bonvillain has spent time over many years learning the language and making friends in a community of the Kanien’kehaka — the Mohawk people do not call themselves “Mohawk.”

The Mohawk are an Iroquois people, Bonvillain said, one of six nations of the Haudenosaunee — along with the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, the Seneca and the Tuscarora.

Today, they hold land in upstate New York, near Syracuse and Buffalo, Montreal and Lake Ontario.

“They live in a tiny fraction of their original territory,” she said.

She came to Akwesasne to work on grammar of the Mohawk language, she said, and to compile a dictionary and a book of conversations for use in schools. As a linguist, she wanted to work in a place where the language still lives, and she lived with families who spoke it among themselves. When she lived there, she could follow a conversation, she said, though her friends there spoke English with her.

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She returned in the summers and on short visits many times in the next 30 years, she said.

At Akwesasne, children now learn the Mohawk language in schools, and the community has emphasized speaking it among families, moving it beyond homework assignments.

The 2006 Canadian census reported 600 people speaking Mohawk. The language may still be listed as endangered, Bonvillain said, but she believes it has a future, because so many people are working for it. She recalled a Tuscarora student at Simon’s Rock four or five years ago, Montgomery Hill, who has gone on to study linguistics.

Many white Americans, she said, think of American Indians and their cultures as part of the past, as though they have merged into American society or vanished.

“We put this into history so we don’t have to think about it,” she said.

People expect American Indians to live as their ancestors lived hundreds of years ago — and how many American people live as their families lived in 1500? — or expect them to live as “mainstream” Americans live, she said.

She sees them as contemporary artists, scientists and lawyers, musicians and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists. She sees their sustained efforts to nurture their own languages, schools for younger students, college scholarships, health programs.

In many ways, she said, American Indians today face substantial obstacles in health, longevity, infant mortality and education. Jobs are scarce, and promised government funding gets cut from the Indian Health services, education, school lunches and many other programs. Most casinos, she added, do not make large profits — she compared the likely population in Connecticut to a place like central Nebraska.

Though barriers like this are slow to budge, she has seen hopeful signs. In the last 10 or 20 years, she said, she has seen a surge in indigenous rights movements around the world.

“To come out of it saying, ‘We have our own voice, our own role,’” she sees as a sign of growing influence among these nations.

“The U.N. declaration on the rights of indigenous people is at least a sign of worldwide pressure from these groups,” she said.

Near this area, the Iroquois have brought court cases to reclaim land in the U.S. and Canada, to compensate for lost land and to protect and clean up their own land, she said. They may have to live with the effects of contaminated air, land and water they did not cause. Akwesasne is a Superfund site, Bonvillain said. (Readers in the Berkshires will understand the challenges of seeking to clean contaminated land and water. The county has similar areas along the Housatonic and Hoosic River.)

From helping to teach young Akwesasne students, Bonvillain has turned to teaching about American Indians in college courses.

Most recently, she has written new editions of text books on cultural anthropology and American Indian studies. She acknowledges that anthropology today is a field to enter with care and respect.

In the past, anthropologists have at worst made use of other people, she said. Today, an anthropologist might act more honestly, more equally, as a translator — in some ways like a journalist.

She feels strongly that anthropologists have an ethical obligation to the people they work with, she said, to advocate for them and to take confidentiality seriously. In any work like this she would want to be honest and up-front, to make sure anyone who speaks with her knows why she is asking questions and what she plans to do with the answers.

As a professor, she now teaches linguistics and cultural studies. Simon’s Rock has no Native Studies program, she said, because its curriculum is both concentrated and flexible; it offers courses, like “Native American Languages,” and a cultural studies course on “Native American Religions,” and the faculty will willingly coach students in any direction they choose.

As they leave for Thanksgiving vacation, she will tell her students to think about all that has happened to bring turkey to their tables.

And she encouraged people who have not yet shared a meal with them to think of the Hadenausee and the Mohicans, the Pequod, the Narragansett, the Nipmuck, the Penobscot, the Pemaquid, the Huron, the Abenaki and all the people with roots in the Northeast, as they are today.

“These communities in some cases are struggling, like any community,” she said, “but they have a lot of strength. Look at what they’ve survived.”

At a glance …

In the U.S. and Canada, more than 120,000 people are enrolled in the Iroquois nations, according to the 2010 census.

About that many people live in the Berkshires, and less than a third as many live in Bennington County.

Today, about 12,000 people live in the Akwesasne community, according to the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, which makes it about the size of North Adams and slightly smaller than Bennington.

This profile is a collaboration between Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds in these pages.

To learn more: berkshireeagle.com/onthebridge

 

On the BRIDGE: Bear McHugh strengthens local teens | By JV Hampton-VanSant, Special to Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont

Bear McHugh of Berkshire Area Health Education Center supports local teens.

Bear McHugh of Berkshire Area Health Education Center supports local teens. (Eagle file)

With rolling hills and close-knit community, Berkshire County is known as nurturing — for artists and musicians, and for relationships that last for years.

Bear McHugh, project coordinator for Berkshire Area Health Education Center (Berkshire AHEC), grew up in Great Barrington and still regularly speaks to people he knew as a student at Monument Mountain Regional High School, and some of them now work at the high school. These time-tested friendships have withstood almost anything, even being known by a different name after graduation. McHugh has always been himself, but during high school he was known by a different name.

McHugh is a transgender man. A transman, also called female-to-male transgender (FTM), is a person who was assigned the sex “female” at birth, but who later in life, typically after deep soul searching and self-reflection, identifies as male. This is not an uncommon realization now, he said, but that doesn’t make it easy. Most often, trans* people are met with ignorance on the subject.

McHugh began to question his gender identity as a student at Ithaca College in upstate New York. He remembers that as a difficult time, coming after his Roman Catholic upbringing. He also remembers the love and support of his parents, who sought out the correct information to help him. He thinks the transition would have been smooth if it had happened in high school.

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“I really think that, if I were still at Monument when all of this was going down, my friends would have still loved me and accepted me,” he said.

Familial understanding, or at least willingness to adapt, can be the most influential factor in the life of any youth. While a person’s gender identity is deeply personal, some chose to share their experiences in the hopes that they will benefit others, he said.

Many people facing this transformation have a difficult time. According to national statistics, McHugh said, 30 percent of LGBTQ youth will have reported a suicide attempt in the past year. Fifty percent of transgender youth will have attempted suicide before the age of 20.

One of the common contributors to depression and suicide is a feeling of being alone and being misunderstood, McHugh said. Mix loneliness with a lack of information about an important section of identity, and those high numbers are understandable.

People who do not encounter outright discrimination often encounter microaggressions, he said. Microaggressions are the little things people say, usually without malice, that alienate groups of people or belittle a group’s experience. That alienation is extremely dangerous to the health and safety of youth, he said. That is why sharing his story is so important: The more he shares the information, the more likely he is to save a life.

“You never know exactly how the information will impact someone,” he said.

Now, McHugh tells stories and gives information that saves lives by running the Youth Suicide Prevention Project. The project hopes to build resiliency among all youth, not just LGBTQ youth, he said. Resiliency means giving youth the ability to bounce back from depression, bullying and other causes of suicide. For those not at risk, it also can give insight and the tools to see when someone is showing signs of depression, anxiety and suicide.

Spreading this information can also be crucial to developing acceptance, he said: “A little bit of education can go a long way.”

He came to this work gradually. After college, he worked as a landlord in Albany for a while, he said. He was working at Berkshire AHEC when the high local suicide rate prompted action. In 2004, Berkshire County had the highest rate of youth suicide in the state. Berkshire AHEC created the Youth Suicide Prevention Project and put McHugh in charge. In 2011, Berkshire County had no youth suicides, which indicated strong progress.

“I didn’t go out looking for the work. It sort of just found me,” he said, and he has become passionate about his work.

McHugh lives in New Lebanon, N.Y., but spends most of his time in Berkshire County. Living up to the “Class Clown” superlative he earned in high school, he has a smile on his face most days. Despite the heavy topics he deals with day to day, he rarely gets discouraged. The Berkshires have a long way to go, but he can see a future that looks brighter.

On The Bridge

This profile is a collaboration between Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds in these pages. To learn more: berkshireeagle.com/onthebridge

 

Ralph and Jeanette Rotondo go together like a horse and carriage | By Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe

Ralph and Jeanette Rotondo reflect on their active lives together.

Ralph and Jeanette Rotondo reflect on their active lives together. (Courtesy of JV VanSant)

LEE — The obituary for a man who died in 1982 at the age of at 92 is yellowed and cut slightly unevenly out of a newspaper. It tells of the life of an early Italian immigrant, Ralph J. Rotondo Sr., who came to the U.S in 1908, when he was about 19. He worked on railroad construction in Geneva, N.Y., for a few years, sending money back to his family in Italy, choosing to live leanly.

On a visit to his mother in Italy he was drafted into the Italian army and served in North Africa for a couple years before returning to settle in Lee.

His son, Ralph Rotondo Jr., said his father never returned to Italy again. He had a disagreement with his only sister when she visited Lee, and he cut ties with his family overseas.

Rotondo Sr. worked at Lee Marble, making steam to run the cranes. He then worked at Eagle Mill as a fireman, firing the steam room to power the mill. He studied for his engineer’s license to become a steam engineer and worked at a tannery, where he was promoted to fireman and stayed until the place went out of business.

Rotondo Jr. speaks fondly of his father, who instilled his work ethic by making sure he got a job the minute school let out each summer. Rotondo Jr. said he loved horses and was delighted to find work as a farm hand, where he learned to ride and drive carts.

He worked at the paper mill in Lee as a day-time job for 37 years, but his love of horses led him to purchase horses for his five daughters.

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He was unhappy with the local farrier, the man who forged horse shoes and shod horses in the neighborhood, and he learned how to shoe horses himself. When others noticed he was doing this, they asked him to do their horses.A professional farrier, Clarence Martin of Sheffield, who learned to shoe horses during the war, saw his handiwork and asked him to be his apprentice. Rotondo Jr. smiled as he told how, at the end of his one-year apprenticeship, the farrier split the payment for a job with him, telling him he was good enough to go out on his own.

What had started as his attempt to do a better job grew into a business, and Rotondo Jr. traveled throughout New England to shoe race horses and even the Budweiser Clydsdales. He said the harnesses for Budweiser horses were made in the gray building next to the present-day Briarcliff Motel.

Rotondo Jr. kept shoeing until he was about 79. Then he trimmed shoes until he retired at 81. He and his wife still keep a pony on their farm in Lee.

His wife, Jeanette, whose mother immigrated from Quebec, also grew up loving horses. The couple met at Jeanette’s uncle’s house, according to their daughter, Donna. Ralph had come for a meeting — he rode with Jeanette’s uncle in the Powder River Riding Club in 1953.

Jeanette taught people how to ride and care for horses and then build trust in them. She enjoyed working with young people, she said, especially those with special needs. She still teaches her great grandchildren, though the Rotondos no longer give lessons or carriage rides.

Their eyes lit up as they took turns talking about their carriage business. Besides shoeing, showing and grooming horses, they discovered the tradition of carriage parades. Jeanette believed the tradition began in the early 1900s, when rich wives paraded up and down Main Street, all dressed up and riding in horse-drawn carriages.

The Rotondos got involved in showing horses and carriages in various town fairs and festivals, like the Colonial Carriage and Driving, Tub Parade and Norman Rockwell Christmas. The spoke with excitement about their favorite and most expensive carriage, white with a maroon velvet interior, which they bought for $4,000.

“It was always amazing to see [my dad] and his horses pulling diffeent apparatuses in parades and events,” Donna said. “He took my son to the prom in his white carriage, and he was the last one to get a ride in that.”

They provided horses and carriages for the weddings of four of their five children and a grandchild. They turned the carriages into a side business and did local weddings. Rotondo Jr. boasts Town & Country magazine once did a photo spread of their carriages.

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,” Jeanette said, quoting Winston Churchill.

They’ve used that motto as a guiding principle in all their years of working with horses, she said.

Donna Rotondo is the executive assistant at Multicultural Bridge.

On the bridge: This column is a collaboration between this magazine and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds. berkshireeagleblogs.com/onthebridge

 

On the Bridge: Sonsini family keeps Italian traditions alive in the Berkshires | By Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe

 

Joe and Theresa Sonsini, above, own Main Street Cafe in Stockbridge and 528 Cafe in Great Barrington. They pride themselves on keeping their Italian

Joe and Theresa Sonsini, above, own Main Street Cafe in Stockbridge and 528 Cafe in Great Barrington. They pride themselves on keeping their Italian heritage alive. (Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe / Special to Berkshire Week & Shires of Vermont)

For centuries, immigrants have been seeking a home in the Berkshires. Though the landscape of immigration has changed considerably over the last century, the Berkshires continues to welcome people from many parts of the world. The Italian family of Sonsinis look back to an earlier wave of European immigrants.

Joe and Theresa (nee Troiano) Sonsini own Main Street Cafe in Stockbridge and 528 Cafe in Great Barrington. Joe’s parents came with an earlier generation of Italian immigrants to settle in Stockbridge. Three of his grandparents immigrated from Italy, and one grandparent came from the Ukraine. Theresa’s parents were also first generation, descending from Italian immigrants who arrived in New York City around 1928.

Joe and Theresa met on a job in the early 1990s, and they have been married for 19 years.

They show pictures of their children around the Main Street Cafe. They had four children but lost the second one to cancer about 10 years ago. The photographs show the family active and relaxing. Joe said he loves being outside and makes it a point to bring the outdoors into their family routines.

Food has also always been a part of his history, he said. His maternal grandmother worked as a cook in a restaurant, and she worked her way up to own her own restaurant.

In Joe’s family, meals were served at specific times and everyone gathered to eat together. Today, his nuclear family gathers at Theresa’s parents’ home every Sunday after church.

Being Italian comes with being Catholic in Joe’s family and in Theresa’s, he said. In his childhood, the family’s communal life outside of home and work was organized around their local parish. His parents taught cathechism, and he laid bricks for some of the many construction projects around the church.


He laughed as he said the stereotype of Italians loving to eat, being loud and passionate and sometimes prone to outbursts, is partly based in truth.

“They are a passionate people,” he said. They eat well, work hard and play hard.

Being passionate sometimes means disagreements, he said, but generally they deal with them in the moment and move on, with no hard feelings.

Sonsini and his wife have always been hard workers, an ethic he credits to their fathers.

“They worked almost round the clock to put food on the table and yet rarely missed a football game or recital,” he said.

He and his wife together have about 50 years of the cooking and restaurant business under their belts. Their penchant for good food and community led them to purchase Alice’s Restaurant. Two years later they took over the Main Street Cafe and Market. Almost 20 years later, they purchased the old Friendly’s in Great Barrington and renamed it the 528 Cafe.

“Theresa is the mastermind behind everything,” Joe said.

He blends construction and management of the properties, and he plans to renovate the Stockbridge facility in the next year.

“It needs a make-over. It’s not been renovated since it opened about 17 years ago,” he said.

The Berkshires and its diversity play an important role in the cafe menus, he said. The Sonsinis try to incorporate foods from around the region and from different ethnic groups in their planning: Gyros, chicken Masala and shrimp carbonara. They also try to follow the seasons: butternut bisque soup, New England clam chowder. pumpkin French toast with syrup, walnuts and cranberries, or a French toast sandwich dripping with cheese and a choice of bacon, ham or sausage. They make “American fare” like hamburgers and ribs with locally grown produce and meats from Berkshire and Columbia counties.

The Sonsinis treat many customers as family, often greeting people by name as they stroll in and asking about their lives.

“The usual?”

“How is Jaime?”

“How was Joey’s game last night?”

These questions roll off the tongues of the baristas and wait staff as they busy themselves fixing those “usuals” and put in orders with specifications for “vegetarian,” “gluten-free” or “no nuts, please.”

Sonsini welcomes guests as his father did. He remembers his father as open in his outlook in approaching diverse people and incorporating ideas and values from different cultures, he said. He does the same today, following in his father’s footsteps.

Thinking over immigrantion and assimilation, Sonsini said he laments not having had the chance to learn Italian. Early waves of immigrants shed their native language and culture intentionally to fit in and become “American.” This is different from the approach some have to assimilation now, when preserving language is key.

The Sonsinis are keeping the Italian traditions of good food, gregariousness and welcoming, open arms as a daily part of their work and their lives. Both cafes have cheerful staff, and the Sonsinis mingle and chat with customers even when the cafe is bustling.

“All are welcome here,” Joe said. “Come give us a try.”

This profile is a collaboration between Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices of all backgrounds in these pages. For more local stories, visit the On the Bridge blog.

What Are Full Service Community Schools (part I) Margot Welch

 

suem“The Community School is both a place and a set of partnerships between school and other community resources. It has an integrated focus on academics, youth development, family support, health and social services, and community development. The community school’s curriculum emphasizes real-world learning through community problem solving and service. By extending the school day and school week, it reaches more families and community residents.” (communityschools.org)

Fifteen years ago, when Sue Maguire and I first met, she was Principal of the Molly Stark Elementary School in Bennington, Vermont. The kindergarten through sixth grade school, then serving about 400 students, had become a full service school dedicated to “not just instruction but social responsibility, family involvement, and health and wellness.” (Bennington Banner, February 1,1997)

My good fortune was that, beginning in 1998, when I was working at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I ran five, annual national conferences about Full Service Community Schools.This meant meeting wise, energetic and committed interdisciplinary teams of educators, community activists and human service organization representatives who were determined to find new ways to strengthen schools’ responses to the unmet needs of children. Maguire and her team attended as participants and presenters, sharing with communities from all over the country, what they were doing to change and strengthen Molly Stark.  Maguire first found her way to our conferences when Doug Racine, then Vermont’s Lieutenant Governor, read about Molly Stark’s Family Center in a book by the late educator, Joy Dryfoos. The book, Full Service Schools: A Revolution in Health and Social Services for Children, Youth and Families, prompted Racine to call Maguire and ask if he could visit. She was delighted, bought and read the book, and recognized much about her own school in the models Dryfoos was describing.

Programs called “Community Schools” have been in place in the USA, here and there, since the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Much earlier, at the beginning of the 20th century, when large cities like New York and Chicago were welcoming immigrants from all over the world they were also establishing “settlement houses” which, in many ways, were the prototype for the “full service community school.” Like Maguire’s schools — and those of colleagues all over the country — settlement houses offered a wide range of classes, education and training programs for parents as well as young people, along with a range of health and social services for children and families in their communities.

In the sixties and seventies, the ‘community school’ entered public vocabulary. For the most part these programs happened in school buildings where leadership had found enough public funding to start modest afterschool programs for children, usually more focussed on enrichment activities than academic tutoring. In the 1980’s, though federal support for school-based programs waned, research was starting to show that children whose parents were involved with their kids’ learning experiences  were more likely to do well in school than others. New parent engagement and family support programs developed — but weren’t, for the most part, incorporated into the school day. Then, in the 1990’s, with growing attention being paid to the relationship between violence, healthy youth development, and community well-being, the possibility of making schools a safe place and hub for community services gained traction. School days — and in many instances the school year itself — were extended. When the US Department of Education established “Twenty-first Century Community Learning Centers,” educators could apply for grants for a variety of enrichment and child-and-family support services.

At our conferences, Maguire often began talking about Molly Stark by describing its Family Center and the services it was bringing into the school building. These included a preschool, before and after-school child-care, an infant-toddler play-group, full dental services for all Medicaid-eligible children, consultation and direct services from a pediatrician and clinical psychologist, adult basic education (including GED classes) for parents, and an outreach worker connecting families with local resources, a range of literacy programs,and direct services.

Each year at our Harvard conferences, Maguire and her devoted colleagues did a great deal to help educators all over the country understand, strengthen and integrate all kinds of of  school-community partnerships into their programs. That, for years now, she’s been weaving this sensible, comprehensive, full service approach to a High School is remarkable. As Teacher and Principal,in spite of her humility, Maguire is straightforward and powerful, shining a strong light on the needs of the whole child in ways will certainly help other dedicated educators find their paths towards doing “what’s good for kids!”

On the Bridge: Sue Maguire reaches out to help teens | by Margot Welch, Special To Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont

Sue Maguire, principal of Mount Anthony Union High School, has built many local partnerships.

Sue Maguire, principal of Mount Anthony Union High School, has built many local partnerships. (Bennington Banner file)

BENNINGTON — After 15 years as a teacher and 23 years as an administrator in the Bennington public schools, Sue Maguire has come to understand the impact of poverty on children, and she has found herself in a position to try new solutions.

“If it’s good for kids, let’s make it happen,” she said in her sunny high school office.

Maguire served as principal at Bennington’s Molly Stark Elementary School and took over as principal of Mount Anthony Union High School (MAUHS) in 2002. MAUHS serves roughly 1,000 students from Bennington, Shaftsbury, Woodford and Pownal. They come from many backgrounds.

“My job is about giving all kids the same opportunities my children and grandchildren have,” Maguire said. “Why wouldn’t all kids have that?”

Poverty, she said, can devastate childhoods. It can bring hunger, domestic violence, and chronic and acute physical and mental health problems, including unaddressed vision and hearing needs and learning disabilities. Any of these can keep a child from learning.

When Maguire wrestled with these troubles for her young students at Molly Stark, she reached out to the community. She was following a model that grew into a national movement in the 1970s: A Community School creates partnerships between the school and local resources.

Over the years the term has often meant an afterschool program, but the Children’s Aid Society in New York launched a broader model in the 1990s, and today a community school often means far more, as it does in Bennington.

The model more often appears in elementary schools — bringing these services to a high school, as Maguire has done, is rarer.

“For me,” Maguire said, “the Community School means access, opportunities for kids who don’t have them.”

Born in Syracuse, N.Y., and a long-term resident of Bennington, Maguire has always believed in the value of this kind of partnership.

MAUHS has developed strong collaboration with the local town tutorial center, a summer Bridges program — helping kids make a big transition from middle to high school — connections with the local community college and a day and evening program for students who are pulling away from school. They take day jobs with local nonprofit and governrment agencies and receive real wages they deposit in local banks. If they miss their evening academic program, they lose the jobs and the wages.

“Kids need multiple pathways to learn,” Maguire said, “and we have many alternative academic programs to help them succeed. We provide mental health and drug and alcohol counseling, a free clinic with a doctor once a week, and five full-time tutor mentors — caring, dynamic adults who become part of kids’ academic schedules.”

A mentor may spend many hours a week talking with a student and giving support, taking a student to visit colleges and advocating for a student with teachers.

The long-term community relationships Maguire has forged can support her students in difficut times. Bad things happen — students find themselves suddenly homeless, become truant because of difficult home situations, lose access to transportation or experience significant, unexpected trauma — but she and staff work together, she said, like a family.

“When I was a child, this might have been hard for me to understand,” she said. “We were never rich, but I always had what I needed and my parents’ love. But my experience has acquainted me well with hardship. Though our main job is academics, you have to address other parts of kids’ lives too — and you can’t do this without working with the community. And we’re influenced by how we grow up. I saw my dad making a huge difference in kids’ lives.”

Her father was a schoolteacher, principal and superintendent, and her son is a teacher now, she said. She plans to mentor people in the field when she retires.

She is thankful she can hire people who care strongly about students, she said, people sharing values and passion. She sets the tone, and the people around her do the work

“Lots of people care,” she said, “but some people see barriers. I refuse to believe we can’t figure out ways to make things better.

“What’s most meaningful is when a kid in their 30s approaches me in a store and says, ‘Remember me? That time I was all upset and you calmed me down?’ or ‘Remember when you told me I’d be good at computers?’ … These moments always show me how important an educator’s job is.

“Kids will remember — the good, and the bad. The words we say are so important. Education is a noble profession: I believe that we can make a huge difference.”

 Margot Welch and Sue Maguire first met in 1998 at the first of five national conferences Welch ran about Full Service Community Schools at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

This profile is part of an ongoing collaboration between the magazine and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from many backgrounds in these pages. To learn more, visit berkshireeagleblogs.com/onthebridge