Food project volunteer faces diverse challenges

For more than a decade, Williams students have joined community members to help serve lunch to low-income residents of Berkshire County at the Berkshire Food Project in North Adams. The Food Project was founded in 1987 by a group of Williams students who expressed a wish to develop a long-term project to help relieve hunger in the Berkshire region. Last year, the Project served 14,700 meals in the First Congregational Church of North Adams. Alyssa Arnold ’99, a member of the Board of Directors, noted that this semester approximately 15 Williams students have regularly volunteered for the Project. In keeping with this week’s theme on community and service, the Record profiles Williamstown resident Beverly Scheer, one of the Project’s most dedicated supporters.

When did you first come to Williamstown and what did you do previously?

I was an English teacher in Long Valley, New Jersey. After my youngest kid reached college age, which was about 10 years ago, we moved to Williamstown. And now my husband and I run a bed and breakfast.

What is your position at the Berkshire Food Project?

I was for six years the board president. And now I am the corresponding secretary.

What do you do as corresponding secretary?

I do a lot of the communications and handle the research grants. I write letters to possible sources of revenue to see whether there are any possibilities for us. I do ordinary correspondence, like writing thank you letters to organizations that help us. We are very much engaged in many special events. There are churches in the broad community that provide us with food, fund-raisers and finances, so I just keep making inquiries.

For those who may not be familiar with the Berkshire Food Project, could you provide a brief description?

“(The project) was originally founded to provide food for unemployed and elderly people in North Adams. But the organization’s function has broadened, and now includes a variety of other kinds of programs. For instance, there is a program called PHOP (which stands for People Helping Other People) which is primarily for women (but occasionally men as well). The women meet with our manager. . .and discuss issues pertaining to their particular circumstances, and have an opportunity to socialize and to eat together and cook together. The object of it is to build self-esteem and to provide skills necessary for possible employment.

What is the yearly operating budget of the Project?

It is about $42,000 now, but that is just to run the main program. We have been given a grant from the Wendling Foundation for the PHOP program. But the rest of the program is about $42,000, most of which we have to raise. . . . There is less and less money because of the change in Congress. It is no longer willing to sponsor funds for more needy people, and that is my opinion. We have to go to other options, like getting money from the community.

How did you become involved in the Project?

When I first came to Williamstown I had been very busy in earlier life with children and being a full time teacher, so for the first time I had a lot of time. It was before we had the bed and breakfast. A neighbor suggested that I should get involved in the Berkshire Food Project because she knew I liked to cook. But I also have a very strong feeling about social action and social justice. I believe that it is important for people to involve themselves in the community to the extent that they are able. . . .

What do you think are the Project’s greatest strengths and weaknesses?

Its greatest strength is that it really provides a nurturing environment for people who are really down on their luck, and for people who are really in desperate financial circumstances. So far as improvement is concerned, we always have difficulty with equipment and keeping it current. We would love to be able to replace our secondhand stove, and the floor of the fellowship hall where we serve people. But the church can’t afford it, and neither can we. When anything breaks that is an unbudgeted item there simply are not the funds to take care of it. Grants are specifically earmarked, so we can’t use money given to us for PHOP to replace the floor or the stove. So our greatest concern is in the financial area. We would like to extend the program and not have to worry about replacing equipment when it goes. But the community has been fairly responsive to our needs.

Do you have any special holiday programs?

For both Thanksgiving and Christmas we have a special dinner. We will provide small gifts of homemade things and ingredients with which to prepare treats in their own homes to some people. The treats will include home baked cookies because some people may not have ovens.

What changes have you seen in the town of North Adams in the time you have been here?

There has been an enormous effort on the part of the whole town to make the city as attractive as possible and to really try hard to bring interest about the community to the general public. Certainly there has been a lot of support for Mass MoCA because the community sees that as a way to improve the job possibilities for its citizens. I have not seen a change in the employment prospects for the population that we service because they need to have retraining and job training. And the kind of training that they need, basic interview techniques and help understanding what is involved in the job market, just hasn’t been forthcoming sufficient to their need.

Is it difficult to attract the number of helpers you need throughout the whole year?

When the students are very busy, during reading period, for example, we definitely are short of help. But I don’t know how it could be remedied by students. I think we just need to reach in to the community more during those times. It is very difficult in the summer when students are away and people are on vacation. But at the same time we have lots of extra children coming to the Project. So our numbers of clients don’t decrease, but increase.

What have the numbers of student volunteers from Williams and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts been like?

What has been happening is that we haven’t been getting as many people from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. We used to have a stronger connection through firmer faculty attachments in the past. But when those attachments are broken, it really impacts on the connection with the students as well. The students are really critical for special events, and in that regard Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts students have been very helpful. . . . At Williams the same thing is true to some degree. The empty bowl dinner is largely a success based on student involvement in the fast that we do every year when the College contributes money for every student who doesn’t eat on the campus. . . . When the students are involved in large numbers it makes an enormous difference.

Does the decline in the number of student volunteers disturb you at all?

There are less students now than three or four years ago. But there is still a substantial involvement, just not as many. We certainly could use their help, especially with special events. . . . I think there are so many other really worthwhile things, so many needs. We have to accept the fact that some people may be interested in working with troubled young people, some people may be involved in Habitat, and those causes are really important and valid. . . . Of course we would like to attract as many students as possible to our organization. And I don’t know if students know how easy it is to get here, that there is are rides and that we work around their schedules.

How have you been involved with Williams in the past?

Through the Food Project, primarily. And I personally have participated in Dr. David Elpern’s winter study class. He did a winter study on medicine and ethics. He was interested in discussing the whole spectrum of problems pertinent to public health, and asked me to come and talk and I did. I work with other Williams students on the board of the Project. Occasionally we meet here in my house to try and discuss the details of an upcoming event.

What do you think about the commitment to community service at Williams?

It seems to me that there is an increased commitment. It seems to me that there has been an increased number of organizations. I don’t know about MassPIRG. If that is not on campus anymore, then I imagine it would be a huge loss. As to the number of students involved, I don’t have any real information about that.

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