- Written by Janis Merrell
- Published: 13 September 2019
“We are a community-wide alliance that is aimed at improving quality of life, and that can mean many different things to many different people. How someone has interacted with us is typically how they think of us.”
This is how Heather Bialecki-Canning, North Quabbin Community Coalition Executive Director, describes the organization.
“We have been in existence since 1984. We really started as an entity of folks who were coming together to provide information and referral, specifically around health and human services needs. In time we grew and we learned that the best way to tackle many of the issues that came up was to bring together the experts and help facilitate conversations to ensure advocacy for unique regions, and provide home-based solutions for people.”
The North Quabbin Community Coalition (NQCC) runs a series of task forces. Every year they evaluate these task forces, which are totally driven by community input, the board of directors, a parent advisory committee, and a youth advisory committee, along with a community coalition monthly forum which helps to identify what the current issues are. They also rely on health needs assessments.
“We really help this area to get the best of what services are available on either side of us.”
“We really help this area to get the best of what services are available on either side of us,” says Bialecki-Canning, who explains that because the North Quabbin area is on the outskirts of both Worcester and Franklin counties, it is important to have an entity that provides advocacy and can find the best resources from both counties to help people who make one of the nine towns in the North Quabbin area their home. Those nine towns are Athol, Erving, New Salem, Orange, Petersham, Phillipston, Royalston, Warwick, and Wendell.
One issue the coalition has been focusing on is substance abuse prevention, recovery, and treatment. According to Bialecki-Canning, “One of the things we really want to emphasize is that no matter how you look at substance abuse, it is a cradle to the grave issue.” The coalition has found that the feedback from their youth group regarding preventing and treating substance abuse is the same as the feedback from their elder group, including the suggestion of measures such as preventing isolation, making sure people feel useful, and making sure people have access to things that make life meaningful, rich, and robust. Access to wellness and behavioral health services are also important factors mentioned by both groups. Bialecki-Canning points out substance abuse is a generational issue and “not new to us in North Quabbin, especially alcohol abuse.”
One project of the North Quabbin Community Coalition is the North Quabbin Recovery Center, located on the first floor of the Pequoig Building at 416 Main Street in Athol. Bialecki-Canning states the recovery center has “helped the community remove the stigma around recovery” and offers multiple paths of recovery. Peers and allies visit the center for “mediocre” coffee or to attend a recovery meeting. The center is open three days a week to visitors (Tuesday at 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and in the last year they’ve had 300 new individuals visit, with many coming back regularly.
“Our focus on substance abuse has definitely been a large part of our work over the last few years, but it has not taken away from the other work that we’ve done around quality of life, access to services, and regional advocacy,” states Bialecki-Canning. One example of this is a coalition program which delivers Thanksgiving meals to home-bound individuals. The coalition had to turn volunteers away because so many people offered to help. “Programs like that are the heart of what the coalition is all about,” she says.
The North Quabbin Community Coalition also organizes local block parties for National Night Out Against Violence on August 6 with fire departments and EMTs. Athol’s party had over 300 visitors, with a rivalry growing between the towns of Athol, Orange, Petersham, and Royalston as to who could offer the best event. About the rivalry, Bialecki-Canning states, “Even though Petersham is smaller, nobody beats Petersham Police Chief Cooley.” The coalition also hosts a “Munch and Move Family Night Out” in February which includes nutritious meals, desserts, and games.
Heather Bialecki-Canning’s mother was the previous coalition director for 14 years. During that time Heather was “voluntold” to participate in activities supporting the coalition, so she got involved early on, and was “incredibly in awe of the work they did” when she worked for partners of the coalition including Community Action and Valuing Our Children. When she had the opportunity to apply for the Executive Director position in November 2014 she was happy to take the leap.
“We’re a crack filler,” explains Bialecki-Canning, “Every so often individuals come in who can’t be helped in the short term by a referral. Someone came in looking for rides but when we met with them their needs were more complex and some were emergent. NQCC could help with immediate needs dealing with unstable housing, a foot injury, lack of transportation to a food pantry, and an inability to carry the food due to another injury. We were able to get a box of food back to her home and help her get to the ER for care. NQCC could then refer out for longer term needs.”
NQCC and LifePath often work together on client-related issues and programs. For example, LifePath provides the food delivery trays for the Thanksgiving meals and is a financial sponsor, and LifePath staff serve on NQCC’s task forces and Board of Directors. LifePath also collaborates with NQCC to assist individuals in the community in need of help.