Grand Island Neighbors Foundation branching out in new directions
By Karen Carr Keefe
COVID-19 and social media are changing the face of the Grand Island Neighbors Foundation.
While there’s a new sense of purpose and a new logo, the mission remains the same in this, the group’s 50th anniversary year.
“Neighbors helping neighbors” is still the focus, according to Foundation President Maj. Gen. David Conboy (Ret.) of Grand Island. “That core value continues to resonate and guide what we do.”
The all-volunteer organization still provides food assistance to neighbors in need through the generosity of individuals, churches and other donors, as it has since its founding in 1972.
But with new ways of outreach, the Neighbors Foundation is keeping up with the needs of today’s post-pandemic society.
The main message remains, though: If you have an immediate need for food, call for help at 716-775-7998. Other contact methods include email at [email protected].
People can donate directly to the Neighbors Foundation through P.O. Box 155, Grand Island, NY 14072; or go to its website, www.gineighbors.org, and click on the “donate” button to support the group through a PayPal or credit or debit card payment.
Meeting Needs of Today
“During different times, things are adjusted. During COVID, we couldn’t do as much with the food collection and distribution, so we supplemented with gift cards,” Conboy said. “As things have become more stable with the COVID environment, we’ve been able to do our big food collection with the mail collectors and increased the amount of food that we give.”
For 30 years, the National Association of Letter Carriers has conducted an annual nationwide food drive, collecting nonperishable food donations along postal routes. On Grand Island, the Neighbors Foundation and the letter carriers have worked together for many years on The Stamp Out Hunger food drive that took place this year on May 14.
The primary outreach the Neighbors Foundation is known for is the “Share Your Happiness” campaign, which centers on helping those in need during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Local donations and volunteers are the building blocks to the success of that campaign, including particularly, the Island schools and the students’ DECA Club, whose adviser is Grand Island High School business teacher Cheryl Chamberlain.
“Through our generous donations, both with food and with monetary donations, we’ve also increased the monetary donations that we give to clients, because, gosh, we all know what’s happening with inflation,” Conboy said. He added, “There has been an increased need for assistance during COVID – and hence, low supplies, necessitating continued generosity from our great Island neighbors.”
New Directions, New Outreach
Conboy said there are changes coming in the way the foundation reaches out to the community, some through different partnerships. “We want to foster what we’ve built over the last 50 years, but we want to stay relevant, so that involves building new partnerships, new ideas – things that we haven’t done, and we are open to all of that. That may be a message to the community that we’re looking for diverse people, we’re looking for diverse ideas, we’re looking for new thoughts.”
Some of those new thoughts are coming from the organization’s newer board members.
•One of those is Samantha Buccini, who began volunteering several years ago and was elected to the board about a year ago. Buccini is a high school teacher who is taking a break from her career while raising her children, ages 3 and 5.
She enjoys the work of helping others through the Neighbors Foundation.
“We do have a wonderfully diverse membership there, and I think that’s been a nice part of the new energy,” Buccini said. “I think the diversity helps make our motto of ‘Neighbors Helping Neighbors’ actually be lived.”
“I think, for me, the best part is just being a part of the dynamic conversations that have been happening at meetings, where we try to creatively brainstorm new ways to help the community and kind of shake up the organization a little bit,” she said.
Buccini said the board is getting past the nuts and bolts of running the pantry, and trying to think outside the box to find ways to better help the community by zeroing in on where the need is.
“We’re reaching a lot more people in the town now than we used to,” she said.
“Everyone has acted very appreciative of the effort,” Buccini said. “We get hand-written notes back about how happy they were that we came, and it’s really been wonderful.”
She said other new outreaches include partnering with the town’s Golden Age Center in helping to replenish its smaller food pantry from time to time, or helping the Meals on Wheels service.
•Diane Garey, an interior designer, has volunteered for years with Neighbors Foundation and has been on the board for about three years. She is an active participant who values the experience of the group dynamic in solving the immediate problems that people face with food insecurity in these difficult economic times.
“The group we have of volunteers and board members, everyone is of the same mind that if people need help, let’s help them. And if it’s a long-term something that we can’t do, we have access to other places and information to give them,” Garey said.
The main thing, she said, is to “get the word out there and to have people pick up the phone and call so we can help them,” she said. “The schools do a great job. They have our posters all over that say ‘Need food?’ and they give the number, 716-775-7998.”
“When you go grocery shopping, you get your electric bill, you fill your gas tank – things are crazy out there,” Garey said. “So, if they’re tight and you’re having any trouble at all, pay the bills, call us, get some help with your food. It truly is just a bunch of neighbors, people on Grand Island that want to help other people.”
•Annie Carlson, a home care nurse, runs a food pantry in Buffalo, FeedMore WNY, and is a hands-on member of the Neighbors Foundation.
“I’ve been volunteering because I want to be part of my hometown volunteering,” she said. “I’ve kind of morphed into doing a lot of the client calls and the client delivery – and loved every minute of it!”
“You get to know people’s stories. … Making the calls makes it very comfortable,” she said. “I always say, we never know if it’s going to be us, so that’s why we’re here.”
•Valerie Gaydosh, secretary of the Neighbors Foundation, has been on the organization’s board for 15 years. She said COVID-19 brought on an increased awareness of the Neighbors Foundation food pantry, both from a donor’s perspective and from a client’s perspective.
“The wonderful people from Grand Island wanted to do ‘something,’ and our monetary donations increased,” she said, as well as the number of clients they serve.
Gaydosh wanted to point out some new sources of donations and help that have been added to the mix in recent years.
√ St. Stephen Parish: “St. Stephen’s generous parishioners donate bags of food weekly to the food bin located in the Narthex and participate in a ‘Reverse Advent Calendar Food Drive’ initiated by the Rev. Ray Corbin, pastor, which results in more than 200 grocery bags of food collected annually,” Gaydosh said.
√ St. Stephen School: “Wonderful students and staff of the school, led by Principal Lynn Ortiz, hold multiple ‘dress down days’ collecting several hundred cans of chicken and tuna for our Grand Island Neighbors,” Gaydosh said.
√ Thompson Farms: “They are a huge supporter of the Neighbors Foundation, with Amanda Thompson as the board volunteer liaison. There is an ever-present food donation bin at the farm, and the social media support from Thompson Farms helps to share information about our needs,” Gaydosh said.
√ Grassroots efforts: “St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Beth Boron); Hunt Real Estate (Rebecca Simpson); Grand Island Dance Center (Rachel Novelli); and many other businesses and groups hold grassroots mini food drives throughout the year,” Gaydosh said.
She said help has also been received from Fuccillo Auto Group; the Grand Island schools, teachers and staff; many anonymous donations; and increased donations via the group’s website.
A New Logo Reflects a New Awareness
“If you look at the demographics of Grand Island … in terms of the population density, the numbers of people from different cultural backgrounds, Grand Island has changed – and the fabric of our culture, the diversity that we now have, is great,” Conboy said.
“We’re a welcoming community that welcomes people from all cultures. So that’s changed, to some degree, Grand Island, and it’s changed the way that we interact and it reflects in the logo. Part of the reason that we changed the logo. It looked like two white businessmen shaking hands. So that’s not really reflective of the ‘Neighbors Helping Neighbors,’ ” Conboy said.
“The key point is that whatever cultural background we are, male or female, any of us can and do find ourselves on either side of our neighbors-helping-neighbors equation. Sometimes we’re able to help, and sometimes we need help,” he said.
Shannon Zaccaria, owner of Popular Graphics at 2055 Baseline Road, was asked by the foundation to design the new logo. Her company specializes in custom vinyl graphics for commercial and retail, and she does everything from custom T-shirts to vehicle graphics and trailer graphics for businesses.
The goal of the new logo was to better represent the diversity of the membership and the clients the Neighbors Foundation serves, she said.
“They wanted to make the logo more friendly, less businesslike, with a more neighborhood feel to it,” she explained. She said she is excited about the foundation’s 50th anniversary, and believes the new logo raises the organization’s profile in the community for those who haven’t previously heard too much about the Neighbors Foundation. “I was happy to work on that project because it’s for a good cause.”
Major Funding Sources
“The main donors continue to be the neighbors on Grand Island; the school is incredibly helpful with collecting both canned goods and monetary donations; and the churches, organizations,” Conboy said. “The Kiwanis Club recently reached out to us, so they’ve become a new partner … and we continue to work with Rotary, the Boy Scouts, many organizations.
“It’s great that we have our long-term partnerships, but we’re always looking to reach out for new partnerships and new ideas in how we collect donations and serve our clients.”
Help Beyond the Holidays
Although the Neighbors Foundation may be best known for its help with food and gifts for those in need during the holidays, Conboy says the help from the organization isn’t restricted to that.
“We still emphasize what happens around the holidays, and that is important because that’s a special time. But people need help year-round, and we’re here and available to help people year-round when they’re in need,” Conboy said. “We’ve tried to look at trends and there really are no trends. People find themselves in need in the summertime, in the spring, right after Christmas, depending on what’s happening in their lives – with job situations, with family situations, with the economy, with inflation, all those things impact what happened to people, and it doesn’t stick to a calendar.”
If the client shows has an ongoing need such as lack of employment, housing or child care, the Neighbors Foundation may refer them to the 2-1-1 phone number to be tapped into all the resources available. If lack of food is the particular ongoing problem, Conboy said there are other food banks they can link clients with to provide food on a more recurring basis. Similarly, if a client needs furniture and the Foundation doesn’t have the items needed, they can be linked to resources elsewhere in the community.
Why They Volunteer
Conboy said those who volunteer in the Neighbors Foundation have some qualities in common that help them serve the community well.
“We have that love and support for each other. That’s always been there, and if we just try to refresh that and then make sure that the community knows that, because coming to a new community, especially one like Grand Island, where there’s a lot of people who know each other, I imagine that can be very scary,” he said. “The idea of reaching out for help may be foreign to people, and what we want to make sure is that they know that Grand Island is a loving, welcoming, helpful community that wants to help others and embraces the diversity and cultural fabric that we have.
“We’re a confidential organization, we’re a no-judgment organization. When people need help, we don’t ask for finances; we don’t ask them to describe their circumstances that you need help – we’re going to help you, because there, but for the grace of God, go any of us. We recognize that and embrace that, and really live by that and embody that – and that’s the key message to get out to those that may be considering asking for help.
“We want to help immediately, and fortunately we have lots of volunteers that we’re able to share the work with the client to make sure that we can be responsive to the client.”
“And for those involved with the board and those making the time to service the clients – which are many other people besides me – it’s a labor of love. They will do whatever they can to make contact and get people what they need, because that’s just in their nature. It’s heartwarming for me to see this happening for the organization. It’s not because of any leader; it’s because of the people that we have in the organization,” Conboy said.
He said people can contact the Neighbors Foundation through 716-775-7998 or reach him directly at 716-773-7476, if they would like to volunteer or share ideas. “Like a lot of organizations, we’re older,” Conboy said, and they are looking to bring in younger members with new ideas.
Conboy said Grand Island Neighbors Foundation will be participating in the National Night Out, to be celebrated at the Grand Island Town Commons on Tuesday, Aug. 2. The event focuses on building and strengthening community and law enforcement relationships, but also includes community organization. The foundation’s presence will be to reinforce that it is there to help even more people in need on Grand Island, as well as seeking new partners and new ideas.