October 27, 2016
CB loves to play songs from Grease on the piano.
The academy’s most important fundraiser is August 10 in Nantucket.
Peter, Kay and Charles “CB” Bernon in their home music room
A portion of proceeds from this limited-edition Hermès scarf will benefit Berkshire Hills Music Academy.
All parents who have a child with a disability fear what will happen to their son or daughter after they themselves are gone. You do everything you can to help the child find a path that suits him. For our family, that path has been music. My 28-year-old son, Charles, has Williams syndrome, a rare neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how he interacts with others. In 1994 my husband, Peter, and I enrolled Charles in a music camp in Lenox for students with Williams syndrome and were amazed at how the experience made him light up. Music acts as a bridge for those who can’t articulate feelings. It was exciting to find my child responding so strongly to something. That was the impetus for me to start Berkshire Hills Music Academy in South Hadley, where music acts as an educational tool and a voice for students with disabilities.
I reached out to many friends, family, and acquaintances I knew from serving on the board of overseers for the Children’s Hospital League. Our first fundraiser in 1999 garnered $1 million, which helped us purchase the 40-acre Skinner Estate from Mount Holyoke college. It became obvious that the Boston community wanted to support this venture.
Hermès has long been a supporter of the academy, and this year the French fashion house is the main sponsor for our August 10th fashion show on Nantucket, which is our summer gala and most important fundraiser. Hermès’ relationship with Berkshire Hills began five years ago when we had a cocktail party at the Boston boutique with our students performing. The company also purchased a table for its clients at another of our events. We are fortunate that this year Hermès has created a special limited-edition silk scarf, which will be sold at our Nantucket fashion show and the Hermès boutique in Boston, with 10 percent of proceeds benefitting the academy. The scarf design, from the Spring/Summer 2010 Quintessence collection by Zoé Pauwels, is inscribed with the name of the school and depicts a musical score of the creation of the world played by three angels.
Help from community partners such as Hermès has made the school a success since we opened in 2001 with just 14 students. We eventually went from a two-year certificate program to the academy’s Extended Learning Community program, which helps students transition to greater independence. Originally 85 percent of students had Williams syndrome, but now more students with autism spectrum disorder and other disabilities apply. Besides music education, the school helps foster social skills and teach students how to cook, do laundry, grocery shop, and manage money.
We now have 27 students from across the US and Bermuda; our goal is to increase that number to 50. Some need more support than others—including Charles, who lives in a house next to the campus but requires additional help because of his medical problems. In an effort to demonstrate what people with disabilities can offer, the academy has 12 internships and outreach programs involving elder care, elementary schools, and local libraries and museums. Charles participates in sing-alongs with the elderly and those with Alzheimer’s disease. The most rewarding experience for me has been seeing Charles belong to a community and enjoy reciprocal friendships—which he formed on his own and we as parents could not have created for him.
The whole family, including my other son, daughter-in-law, and sisters, have been involved with fundraising for the school. There are also many who don’t have children at the school but sit on the committees for our events and are passionate about our cause. They know the joy of seeing their children succeed and want others to have that experience.
This year we are hoping to surpass the $50,000 raised at last year’s summer gala. Fundraising has allowed us to plan for the 2013 construction of a performance hall and music center that will include additional practice classrooms and a student-run café. Proceeds from this summer’s gala will help endow the center and build two modular residences on campus as the next step for our students to learn about independent living.
Our students have performed for more than 120,000 people since we opened our doors—including at Best Buddies, PepsiCo and Raytheon diversity events, and Red Sox games—and the community responds with remarkable appreciation and encouragement. It is extremely gratifying to see Berkshire Hills Music Academy’s students transform their own lives while also giving others a glimpse of the gifts that people with disabilities have to contribute to our communities. Not many of us can say we have sung in front of a cheering crowd at Fenway Park, but our students can. Now that’s what I call a home run.
For more information on the academy, 413-540-9720 or berkshirehills.org.
photography by Eric Levin (Bernons); Geoffrey stein (Scarf)