December 20, 2016

Shop, wrap and roll: food, clothing, gifts generously given by local unions

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
Caption: Paolo Cummings (left) , a social worker who oversees the Mohonasen Teachers Association Holiday Wish project and Maria Pacheco, local president of the MTA, ready gifts for delivery to families in need. Photo provided.

Follow the fresh footprints in the snow.

In these most early days of winter, the boot prints will lead you to kindness and generosity. They will take you down a path made by local unions, where members have shopped, wrapped and rolled out gifts for families in need. From sweet potatoes to sweaters, many families’ holidays will be bettered.

Gather ‘round. This is a story about how each year local unions both large and small enrich the meaning of the holidays. The people behind the presents include clerical staff, bus drivers, teachers, school social workers, professors, school nurses, counselors and teacher assistants who provide passion, cash and energy.

This week they are as busy as elves delivering boxes, baskets and bags of gifts. The 300-member Mohonasen Teachers Association in Schenectady County, for instance, hosts its much-anticipated Holiday Wish each year.

“We adopt families to make their holidays a little nicer,” said MTA President Maria Pacheco. “The association donates money; members donate money. Members individually can adopt a family as well.” The MTA held a dress-down day to raise money, and community businesses and civic organizations also donated.

This year, the TA adopted 51 families, including 120 children. Donations include a full turkey dinner and gifts, clothing or gift cards for each family member.

“We also went to NYSUT to pick up First Books to add to gifts that we give the families,” said Pacheco, a 31-year Spanish teacher. Families could pick six books.

Retired school nurse Theresa Varsoke used to spearhead the program, which started with about 10 families. Now, middle school social worker Paola Cummings divines the details.

“There were many requests for shoes, coats and clothes, as well as toys, books, games, video games, bikes and readers,” said Cummings. “I think having new things to call your own makes a huge difference in a student's life.”

Deliveries started last week and continue this week. “Families get called and they come to pick it up. It’s after school and they come to the side door, to protect their privacy. It’s all wrapped and labeled. If the families don’t have transportation, then we’ll take it to them,” Pacheco said. The gifts spread joy like glitter.

Teachers and school health care professionals from the urban, 3000-plus-member Rochester TA have been on the road again making deliveries this week. They are bringing 120 boxes of food to families of students. Each box contains enough food to serve 12 people, along with a $30 food store gift card to purchase a turkey or ham. Inside the boxes are sweet potatoes, rice, oranges, vegetable oil, dried beans — all purchased from TOPS, a unionized grocery store.

rochester holiday giving
Local union members coordinate the Rochester Teachers Association's holiday giving. Photo provided.

Dave Wurz, a 28-year special education teacher who now works for the RTA as the local’s labor relations specialist, said the union ordered $3,000 worth of food for the 1,440 meals, which TOPS delivered. On Saturday, scores of volunteers came in to pack and stack the white boxes, each of them affixed with a blue RTA label.

“We let the community know the union is behind this in a quiet and dignified way,” Wurz said. Funds come from the RTA Action Committee, which Wurz co-chairs with Dawn Hohmann. While the action committee is known for “raising hell” with protests and signs to support worthy causes, Wurz said in this case it is used for “raising spirits.”

Many people believe in teachers, he said, but doubt unions. Actions like these show the community that unions are a positive force.

Social workers from each of district’s 60 schools nominate two families from their pool of students in need. There is no shortage of families to consider. Wurz says there are between 600 and 1,000 homeless students.

The Lake Placid Educators Association also knows about families in need, and they are busy this week making holidays as bright as poinsettias. This district is right near the North Pole — yes, really, it is — so you know these union members understand how to spread the meaning of the holidays.

This year, the LPEA started a schoolwide backpack food program using a $4,000 NYSUT solidarity grant. “Every student eligible for this program also received a holiday gift purchased by a teacher or staff member and this was delivered this week,” said President Brenden Gotham.

For many people, a hallmark of this time of year is music. During Lake Placid’s recent school holiday concerts, the EA gave away books they had received from the First Book/AFT book program. It was a first-time event for the 104-member local.

“Teachers realize how economic inequality effects our towns and our students,” said Gotham. “Lake Placid and Wilmington are wonderful places, where people love to vacation, but beneath the beauty and grandeur that bring people here, there are struggling people. We recognize this every day in our classrooms. We do take steps and need to take even more steps to combat this in our communities. Through the book giveaways, a Secret Santa gift giving, and the Backpack Program, we are providing ways to help our families in our communities. We are constantly looking for way to do this.”

The Union of Clerical Administrative and Technical Staff added to the bustle of New York City holiday glitz by generating enough heaping holiday help to buy wrap and deliver gifts for 50 children. Their Stockings with Care toy drive was boosted by a 25 percent increase over last year — the BIGGEST year ever, said local President Stephen Rechner. Professors, managers, students and support staff got caught up in the UCATS momentum.

At an annual brunch for bus drivers from Bethlehem, who belong to the Bethlehem Central United Employees Association, members bid on 13 holiday centerpieces made by drivers Amy Hunter and Danika Raup. The money raised was donated to the district’s Holiday Caring and Sharing Drive, where school nurses identify families who need help with the basics to make holidays happen.

Whether you are celebrating a festival of lights, cultural heritage, a savior being born, Santa spinning down a chimney or family time, there are always new ways for holidays to grow in meaning.

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