Sunday, February 07, 2010

City School Northampton: Week 3

We're back again for another edition of City School where We The People get to learn from those who represent, work, or volunteer for us in city government. We are at Week 3 in a 10 week course in municipal civics. Last week, we learned about some of the Arts, Culture, Fun, and the Health Department. This week, we learn about resources for special populations in the city of Northampton, Massachusetts.

Previously, I speculated where this great idea for City School came from. It's mostly attributed to our Mayor, but I figured that she was too busy to start this totally voluntary program. And the cynic in me wonders why would any politician invest time in fostering an informed citizenry? It turns out that is came from conversations between Karen Bellavance-Grace , who is an aide to the Mayor and also organizes City School, and the Mayor. It is modeled on the Citizens Police Academy which my neighbor attended last year and totally raved about. Here's a story about the first City School from October, 2008. We'll be the second graduating class.

This week's class was held in our modern Senior Center where we met with members of the Northampton Youth Commission and the Directors of the Council on Aging and Veterans Services. I'll be sharing my class notes with you. I'll tell you a bit about the Senior Center and Senior services. About some really cool kids and what they are up to. And I'll amaze you with some information about what Northampton can do and is required to do for its Veterans.

Youth Commission

We met with two members of the Northampton Youth Commission as well as City Councilor Paul Spector who represents Ward 3 and is an advisor and City Council liason to the Youth Commission (YC). Spector has been liason for about 7 years since his child was on the YC. Another advisor is, you guessed it, the Mayor. Now I must confess (I think all good blog entries must have an earnest confession every now and then) that I did not record the names of the two Youth Commissioners. They were delightful young women who joined the YC as Sophmores and now are Seniors at Northampton High School.

There are 15 members of the Youth Commission all appointed. You have be 13 to 18 years old and to apply to serve, but then you are appointed, just like other official city Commissions. The YC was started back when there were some issues regarding police relations to youth congregating in front of local stores. As I have not been in Northampton that long, this is before my time. (OK, just about everything is before my time here.) They meet the first and third Wednesday of the month.

The YC advocates for teenage youths. They usually have a radio show on Valley Free Radio. Unfortunately, the show has not been produced recently, but getting it back on the air is in the works. They have fund-raisers - often to raise money for Northampton Public Schools. They've produced a youth card with the contact information for youth-oriented resources and services. Also, they have been able to award SPIFFY (Strategic Planning Initiative for Families and Youth) grants to the community that can benefit kids in the city. How cool is that?

Last year, during the budget crunch (as if it has gone away), the Mayor went through the budget line by line with the YC. I can remember when I was young I was on the Board of Education Citizens Budget Advisory Committee (or whatever it was called) in my home town. I made no decisions. The YC sounds better.

They discuss issues like Panhandling or more recently the fate of Bean Farm. The YCs goal may be to one day have a Youth Center, but first they will be developing a survey to see if our kids even want and need one.

Senior Center

As I said before, we met at the new Senior Center building. We heard from Patte Shaughnessy the Director of the Senior Center and the Council on Aging. She worked for the Council when they were in one room in Memorial Hall and before that she held city offices.

Since 2007, there has been an actual Senior Center which is a modern building that is LEED silver certified, meaning it is a so-called Green building. It is heated with geo-thermal energy, has computer-controlled lighting and heating, and used green materials in its construction. The building has a large kitchen, an exercise room, a computer room, a fitness room, a large room for events and meetings and can be rented, plus there are rooms to provide many services. In the last 3 months of 2009, 15,000 people made use of the building and services. Our Senior Center is simply lovely. (Our class had a tour at the end of the evening.) Drop in and check it out some weekday. Try the cafe.

The Council on Aging has a 15 member board, 50% seniors. Northampton has 5,000 seniors usually age 60 and older (some consider age 55-59 as well, but I won't get into that.) They provide many services. They will do home visits to check up on living situations, they provide an inexpensive handyman for home-repair to help people age in-place. They help provide loans and and grants through the CDBGs (Community Development Block Grants) for home repairs. They provide medical transportation and rely on volunteers (who are first checked out). They have an emergency food pantry. They have fun things to do. They have worked with the Youth Commission on fund raisers. They provide many many services including a social worker. Unfortunately, I'm not doing justice to all that they get accomplished here.

This year, the city will directly pay $133K toward salaries. The city also provides custodial services and other support. Much of their services are paid by grants, donations, and revenues from their ongoing book sale, their cafe (which is open to anyone), rentals of meeting rooms for events, and donations.

Northampton is supposed to be a great place to retire and grow old and our Senior Center and related services definitely contribute.
Veterans Services

Once again, I'll say right from the start that I will not do justice to all the things that the Department of Veterans Services does. Director Steven Connor spoke to us about Veterans Services and the role of a Veterans Services Officer (VSO). He a veteran, a requirement for a VSO.

Every municipality in Massachusetts has a VSO (no doubt there are 352 state-wide.) But Northampton is special because it's a city and has its own a VA. It is special also because we have Steven Connor and his co-workers. They assist 137 Veterans city-wide. There are way more Veterans in the city of course, and they definitely should contact The Northampton Department of Veterans Services if they need anything.

A common theme, if not a cliche, is that Veterans do not get the benefits and services they deserve. The have to get it from one of the largest bureaucracies on earth (with one of the smallest URLs - the Veterans Administration.  Connor said that the VA has a one million case backlog and it can take about 18 months to wait for a claim. As such, the municipalities of Massachusetts are required to assist Veterans by fronting them some funds which later be reimbursed by 75% from the state a year later. Often the other 25% is reimbursed at some level. Now I have a feeling that supporting Vets is a win-win for the city. First off, the Vets get benefits and services they deserve. Also, all this activity provides enormous economic activity for the city at relatively little direct cost.

The VSO can also give some immediate aid and loans as long as he has a good idea that the Veteran is eligible.The other theme is that if you are a Vet or a spouse or widow of a Vet, then you are probably entitled to a benefit that you do not even know about. If you know you are in need, then look into getting some help - be it money, healthcare, or other benefits or services.

Veterans Services handles Health, Housing and Food and Personal care. It helps Homeless, disabled and seniors. And works on local, state, and Federal level.

The VSO can also be in the Memorial Day and Veterans Day Parades. And unfortunately, this is often the extent of the Veterans Services that a smaller town is able to or believes it should provide.

Northampton has our Nation's oldest Memorial day Parade. It has been going since it was called Decoration Day (which does sound ever so much cheerier).

Next Week

I hope you have enjoyed this installment. Leave me a comment below and tell me what you think.

Next week we will be learning about City and School Finance and meeting at the Smith Vocational High School. While the US economy stinks, I can hardly wait. about the two public school districts within Northampton and meeting at Northampton High School.


  1. Anonymous8.2.10

    Hi Dave,

    I once again saw Steve O'Conner today at one of our many homeless provider meetings. We are making a concerted effort to actively connect people w/disabilities who are experiencing long-term homelessness with housing plus support type programs. By the way... our meeting took place in Northampton. I am also in the process of planning a fundraiser to suuport transitions from homelessness to housing w/Bruegger bagels. The tentative date is set fot 3/7 at both the Amherst & Northampton locations from 10am-2pm. Keep an eye out for more news on supporting this worthy cause. "J"

  2. Definitely tell me more about this fundraiser when you know more. I might actually purchase my first non-New York bagel.

  3. Why do you have to remind me that I am much closer to being a senior than I was to being a youth.

  4. Seniors, at least here in town, have a lot of fun. Believe it or not they do more than play canasta. And more people are Seniors nowadays. They start younger - around age 60 - and of course live longer - maybe till age 100. That means they spend most of their live being a Senior.

    So cheer up Grandpa.

  5. But I am still closer to death than birth. kinda maybe

  6. Well, yeah. We're all basically slowly dying after we are born.