State Sen. Benjamin Downing said he was humbled to receive the award.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Saturday mornings bright and early, the late District Attorney Gerard D. Downing would get dressed, head down to the Catholic Youth Center on Melville Street, descend the stairs to the mini gym and start working.
His work had nothing to do with the district attorney's office. It had to do with teaching a group of 5-year-olds how to dribble and shoot basketball. It was about becoming a mentor and inspiration for area youth.
"My father must be the only individual under 5-foot-7 in the history of the United States who fancied himself to have a good hook shot, to shoot free throws underhanded, who ended up having a basketball league named after him," his son, state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing joked. "I'm sure we can fact check it but if there is someone else who meets that description, I will be shocked to no end."
Now some 13 years later, the senator hears more stories and memories like that when community members talk about his father. He hear stories from the young attorneys who were mentored by his father. He hears of volunteer efforts and sitting on boards. Gerard Downing saw the problems in front of him and "rolled up his sleeves" to tackle them.
"That's the bar that my dad set. I look at that and say if my old man can do it then we all ought to all be able to do it and we all find a way to do it," Downing said.
During his 10 years as a state senator, the Pittsfield Democrat has done that in the eyes of many in the community. On Wednesday morning, Downing received the Gerard D. Downing Service to Children Award, which is given annually by the Berkshire County Sexual Assault Intervention Network.
"To be associated in the same breath with my dad in not just by way of relations but by service, means more to me than I can express in word," Downing said, adding that he accepts the award on behalf of his entire family, all of whom found ways to give back to the community that supported his family.
"This community has given me every opportunity. This community has been there for my family and what we've gone through and it has held us up."
Hillcrest Educational Centers President Gerard Burke said it was Ben's father who taught him about taking responsibility for the helping others and the entire community.
"We ultimately believe we can make those lives better. To me, this was the basic premise of who Gerry Downing was. The family here can certainly attest to what made that man tick. Whether it was facing the various challenges within the whole district attorney's office and the whole community and the responsibility that brings or whether or it was Saturday morning dribbling with the 5-year-olds who had two left feet at the CYC. He embraced that responsibility," Burke said. "He taught us that that responsibility is ours."
Unfortunately, not all children are in need of just coaching. Gerard Downing spent his career putting those who abuse children behind bars and advocating for victim's rights. And there are many groups that have picked up the torch to continue those efforts but the work is far from complete.
"The estimated number of children who died because of abuse and neglect grew slightly from 2014 to 2015 and that is sad news. Forty-two percent of the children who died were under the age of one and 70 percent were under the age of 3," District Attorney David Capeless said. "The statistic in Massachusetts aren't much better."
Christa Collier said she remembers the 'heavy hearts' of those in the community after Gerard Downing died unexpectedly in 2003.
In Berkshire County last year, there were 667 cases of child abuse or neglect referred to his office and almost half of them were sexual assault. Massachusetts has some of the highest reporting rate of such cases in the country.
"There is hope. Massachusetts has some of the toughest reporting laws in the country and we can attribute the increased number of cases to greater public awareness and increased vigilance by our state agencies," Capeless said.
Through a number of organizations there is a concerted effort to combat child abuse, he said. One of those groups is the Berkshire County Kids Place, an organization which brings police detectives, nurses, therapists, and child protection services all together and a group in which Gerard Downing raised a significant amount of money to start in 1993.
"We are helping children heal. More children are getting medical and mental health access, that's the most important thing children advocacy centers do," Program Director Christa Collier said.
The impacts of child abuse and neglect last a lifetime and Collier said for as long as the child needs it, her organization will be there to help. Benjamin Downing has been one to advocate for funding to keep those programs alive as well as helping the Department of Families and Children.
"Ben has been a great friend to DCF over the years. He's advocated for the needs of our families and supporting DCF staff in advocating for them to have the resources they need to do their job," Margie Gilberti, DCF's area director, said.