Filling the holes with partnerships

It’s no secret that the long recession has created challenges for social service organizations. State budget cuts and other repercussions have increased the need for help among Ulster County groups.

A study by the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach (CRREO) at SUNY New Paltz reported that 689 men in Ulster County were eligible for food assistance in 2007. That number almost tripled in 2010 to 1,982. Among women, the number of those eligible for assistance increased from 1,031 in 2007 to 1,578 in 2010.

At Ulster Corps’ fourth annual Service Summit at SUNY New Paltz on April 16, Sue Books of CRREO told about 50 representatives from non-profits, business and government that three in 20 county residents who are eligible for food assistance don’t get it.

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Ulster Corps offers a single website where county residents can access volunteer opportunities throughout Ulster County. The group helped coordinate the installation of maps to food pantries and soup kitchens on UCAT buses. It also transports food to those soup kitchens, and has begun an immediate-response volunteer team it calls The U-Team. The service summit, an annual event focused on finding solutions to regional problems through education and problem-solving, focused on two themes this year: hunger and public-private partnerships.

The panel discussing the issue of hunger included Books, Melinda Herzog of the Cornell Cooperative Extension health foods task force, Deborah DeWan of the Rondout Valley Growers Association, and students from Ulster County BOCES New Visions health-career explorations unit.

The New Visions students spent this past summer on local city streets, interviewing people, talking to store owners and trying to get a clear picture of the “food deserts” hiding in plain sight in our local towns, where easy access to quality, fresh fruit and produce is often lacking.

The second half of the discussion addressed the growing trend of looking to private business for funding non-profits. Stacey Rein of the United Way of Ulster County told the audience, “We wouldn’t be here without public-private partnerships.” Rein described companies that have built-in philanthropic cultures, pointing to Ulster and Rondout savings banks, Central Hudson, Markertek, KeyBank and Toyota.

“The question is how to get business involved in helping without asking for money,” she said. “And the answer, for some of these businesses, is getting their employees interested in volunteerism.” KeyBank touts “Make a Difference Day,” while other businesses call it “A Day of Caring.” Employees donate some of their time, or are allowed to do volunteer work during their scheduled work time.

“That requires the involvement of local leadership,” Rein said. “One company requires eight hours of paid leave a month for community service, but it’s not successful because it’s a national corporate requirement that doesn’t have local management support.”

Eileen Liverani, site director for United Healthcare in Kingston, spoke to illustrate the potential of local leadership. “United Healthcare has a culture of social responsibility,” she said, “and it matches my heart.”

Despite a set budget for community giving, Liverani said, her employees have managed to do far more than the budget would indicate. They have worked to clean up parks and acted as ushers at movies in parks. For every 30 completed hours of community service, United Healthcare will donate $200 to a charity chosen by the employee.

“We’ve donated 10,000 hours,” Liverani reported. Businesses can also help by offering things that cost nothing. “We let non-profits use our cafeteria and our board room when they’re not in use,” she said.

Liverani said being a socially responsible company was good for business. “If you give an employee a chance to do good,” she said, “they feel good about their company.”

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