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Agency saw program improvements despite cuts

DEERFIELD — Last year’s federal spending cuts forced nonprofits to do more with less, but Community Action was still able to maintain or improve the quality of its anti-poverty programs in the region, Executive Director Clare Higgins reported on Friday.

Speaking to a crowd of employees, volunteers and supporters at Community Action’s annual meeting, Higgins recounted challenges posed by federal sequestration cuts — like the $308,000 mid-year cut to the Head Start program that forced the agency to eliminate about one-quarter of its Franklin County preschool/childcare slots.

“We made some relatively dramatic cuts but we think we actually increased the quality of the program along the way,” she said. The agency reduced its number of physical locations and used leftover money to hire more teachers and keep class sizes low.

Higgins told the crowd in Deerfield Academy’s dining hall that she would save the agency’s government shutdown story, which occurred in October and affected the agency’s Head Start and fuel assistance programs, for next year’s meeting. But that could be the low point in the agency’s current fiscal year (October 2013 to September 2014) because the federal government has now increased its spending for nonprofit programs.

State economist Noah Berger, who delivered the meeting’s keystone address, praised the agency for its work, specifically on youth programs.

Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said that there is a direct correlation between having a well-educated state and having a higher median wage. He said that Massachusetts has the highest percentage of workers with at least a bachelor’s degree (about 45 percent) and the third-highest median salary (about $19 an hour). There’s still room for growth, he said.

“If we can make sure all our kids are getting the support they need, from their earliest days, to be successful, we’ll have a dramatically different economy 20 years from now,” he said.

Sweeney — a peer leader in Community Action’s youth programs, who identifies himself with just one name — was given this year’s Youth Award on Friday. Kat Newman, the agency’s LGBTQ Program Specialist, praised the 17-year-old Greenfield resident’s work as a student leader.

“Since I’ve joined Community Action I’ve met adult after adult who is just dedicated to making youths’ lives better,” said Sweeney, who is a senior at Four Rivers Charter Public School. “When you get an organization that values youth voices, I think it is important to (be) involved.”

Community Action awarded the Free Harvest Supper Committee this year’s Volunteer Award. The committee plans an annual free meal in August, which food pantry director Dino Schnelle referred to as “a sit-down dinner with 1,000 of your closest friends.” The committee uses any donations from that event to help low-income residents afford food at local farmers markets.

Jane Lyons, the executive director of the Hadley-based child advocacy organization Friends of Children, received the Jane Sanders Achievement Award — which is named in honor of Community Action’s former executive director.

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