By Rebecca Dravis
03:58AM / Monday, June 26, 2017
Jim Mahon, second from left, and Paula Consolini, third from right, accept the Northern Berkshire Hero Award on Friday. (Photo by Bert Lamb)
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Northern Berkshire Community Coalition's annual meeting is always a time to look back at the previous year.
This year, the Coalition began its meeting by looking back one week to the death of state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi and then looking back at her decades of service to the Northern Berkshire community.
"Gailanne was amazing," Coalition Executive Director Amber Besaw said simply as she introduced a slideshow of photos of Cariddi over the years set to the song "Kind & Generous" by Natalie Merchant. "She brought a lot of resources to the community and to the Coalition itself."
North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright echoed those sentiments before the slideshow as well, saying he was so proud of the sendoff the community gave Cariddi, particularly public safety officials, whom she always championed as a city councilor and state representative.
"That's what Gail was all about," he said. "Selfless service to others."
The slideshow inspired a solemn silence in the ballroom of the Williams Inn on Friday, where around 200 people gathered for the annual meeting. When Alcombright returned to the podium later in the meeting to give the keynote address, he — as usual — inspired laughter among the crowd as he looked back at his eight years as mayor of North Adams. Alcombright announced earlier this month that he would not be seeking another term as mayor.
"We continue to work on rebranding the city," said Alcombright, who said he was proud to be leaving the city with clean audits, balanced budgets and an improved Standard & Poor rating, as well as many projects in various stages of completion, including the recently opened new building at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the Greylock Mill and The Tourist resort projects on State Road, the Berkshire Health Systems investment in North Berkshire, the proposed bike path connecting Williamstown and North Adams, the scenic rail line to Adams and many more. "I am convinced … that North Adams and the region are positioned to be ‘the place' in Berkshire County, Western Massachusetts and New England."
Mayor Richard Alcombright speaks at the NBCC annual meeting in Williamstown on Friday.
North Adams, he said, is a "really, really, really good place to be" — a place that once was vulnerable and now is valuable and once was poor but now is rich — "rich in the people who now define who we are and who we will become."
"Is it perfect? Nah. Far from it," he said. "We ain't Boston. But North Adams is the biggest little city in the Northeast."
The Coalition and its work are a big part of that, said Alcombright, pointing to the new skate park that is opening with a July 1 ceremony that was spearheaded by the youth in the Coalition's UNITY teen programs and thus will appropriately be called the "Unity Skate Park." Even though he posted a slide of the John Candy quote "whoever said nothing is impossible obviously hasn't tried nailing Jell-O to a tree," he said there are a lot of people working together to make things happen.
"Most of what you want to happen can happen," he said. "The energy and excitement resonating throughout this community is truly making my day."
Two members of the community who have added a lot of that energy and excitement are the husband-and-wife team of Paula Consolini and Jim Mahon, who as part of Friday's meeting were honored with the North Berkshire Hero Award.
"Williamstown residents for 26 years, Paula and Jim are deeply committed to each other, to service to our community, and to empowering others as agents of community pride and service," Coalition staffer Wendy Penner said in introducing the couple.
Consolini has been heavily involved in school building projects, from building a new Williamstown Elementary School in 2001 to helping shepherd a new Mount Greylock Regional School, currently under construction. In her job as director of The Center For Learning in Action at Williams College, she has increased the level of student engagement in the Northern Berkshire community. In 2005, she helped create the Purple Valley Volunteer Tax Assistance program and has served on the Williamstown Finance committee, and the regional district amendment committee studying regionalization for schools in Williamstown and Lanesborough as well.
Mahon has been president of the Williamstown Community Chest and the Berkshire Food Project for 10 years. He is a member of the Williamstown Rotary and has volunteered on local projects of Habitat for Humanity as well as delivering church-prepared meals to shut-ins through the Take and Eat program. He serves on the Northern Berkshire Chorale and is a board member at Lever, an organization that supports local economic development. He also has served on the mission committee at St. John's Episcopal Church and has gone on medical mission trips to Latin America, where he used his fluent Spanish to help people negotiate the systems of care. He also has been chair of the town Democratic Committee and helped spearhead the Employ North Berkshire Program.
"Finally, Paula and Jim have a warm tradition of hospitality always generously feeding the many people they invite into their home to celebrate occasions of all kind," Penner said. "In particular, they throw town's best Halloween parties, with a tradition of Jello molds in the shape of a heart and brain. The climax comes when Jim comes out in lab coat dressed as evil scientist with a meat cleaver and hacks the mold to bits, simultaneously terrorizing and delighting adults and children alike.
"Thank you for not only your services but for being champions for connecting the community with our work at NBCC," Penner concluded.
In accepting the award, the couple threw praise back at the Coalition and it supporters.
"You all help us look and listen carefully," Consolini said. "We're grateful to be able to work with all of you. We're such a strong community because people like you believe in community."
Mahon said organizations like the Coalition are important in fostering a sense of community, especially as many people don't fit into a smaller community like a faith or school community.
Bob Bean praises The Family Place.
"There's an awful lot of people who have fallen out of all these communities," he said, praising Coalition founder Al Bashevkin for having the vision to start the organization 31 years ago. "This is what we have to of to keep people from becoming desperate.
"People aren't born into community," he said. "Somebody has to create it for us."
And that's what the Coalition has spent the year doing, Besaw said as she looked back over what the Coalition has accomplished since last June. It was "a year of growth and change," she said, not the least of which saw her taking over as executive director after Adams Hinds stepped down to wage his successful campaign for the state Senate seat vacated by Benjamin Downing.
But she also touted the Coalition's programs like The Family Place and the UNITY teen programs, both of which were represented on Friday: Resident Bob Bean, who with his wife has ended up adopting his grandchildren, praised The Family Place for helping the family adjust, and Teen Writing Workshop student Asha Kelton read a poem she wrote this year.
Besaw wrapped up the meeting with musings about the aspen tree. This kind of tree, native to the North and happy in cold temperatures and cool summer, grows in groves that can be quite large but are all connected by a single root system, that allow it to thrive even in extreme conditions like a forest fire.
"Like the aspen tree, we have a root system that connects us all. It is our community," she said. "We grow taller, bigger and stronger together."