April 12, 2018

With the People Project, union leads charge to improve spirit and economy of North Country communities

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
people project
Caption: Erin Covell, president of the Massena Federation of Teachers and coordinator of The People Project, introduces Potsdam kindergarteners to kickoff the summit. Photo via @AFTUnion.

POTSDAM — It’s not news in the North Country when it snows several times on the 21st day of spring. But it is news when on that day, dozens of leaders from unions, civic groups, community organizations and schools throughout St. Lawrence County rejected the hard ground and plowed Wednesday into more plans aimed at improving this rural, impoverished Northern New York region.

The People Project, a union initiative funded by NYSUT and supported by the American Federation of Teachers, is leading the charge to improve both spirit and economy for all residents in this underserved area. Plate glass windows on Main Street shops in Potsdam reveal empty interiors. The mall in Massena has more stores that are empty than open. Jobs are scarce. In the school district there, teachers and health-care workers scramble to find students beds, eyeglasses, and even fuel. The number of homeless students reached 700 several years ago, according to a BOCES official.

In the tiny Madrid-Waddington district, families live 20 miles from the nearest town, and there is a lack of resources and transportation, said school counselor Sabrina Pribek-Britton. There are only small shops for food. She said she is a part of The People Project “to see if there’s more I can provide for my students.”

“Across the entire county, there is a redundancy of services and ineffective use of the resources that are available,” said Erin Covell, president of the Massena Federation of Teachers and coordinator of The People Project. In other areas of the county, new services are needed. “Different communities are operating in silos. The People Project is creating a network and partnership to meet the needs of citizens across the entire county.”

What might work? These People Project pioneers have come up with a litany of ideas, including mobile dental services – which do not yet exist here — and additional mobile mental-health services to support people where they live. School-community coordinators could help students and families. Meanwhile, incorporating the agriculture community, so abundant in this region, could support economic development. An increase in services, both inpatient and outpatient, is needed for those seeking help for alcohol or drug addiction. And collaborating with local organizations would further develop recreation and tourism in this nature-rich region has begun.

For those who live here, “It’s about access. We’re so spread out,” said Covell, who said it takes an hour and a half to drive across the county — the largest in the state.

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Photo by NYSUT Second Vice President Paul Pecorale.

The People Project, said AFT President Randi Weingarten (pictured above at left), is about community building, sustainability and creating social impact.

“If we can create empowerment, people see … they have control over their destiny,” Weingarten said. The people serving this project, she added, are working on “moving vision to action.”

The number of homeless students reached a peak of 700 a few years ago, said Roberta Stillin-Dowman, supervisor of instruction for Title I services at BOCES of St. Lawrence-Lewis counties. Using a grant from the McKinney-Vento Act, she said the 18 districts in St. Lawrence County now have two trained people to help students and families with trauma strategies.

“It’s just a start,” she said. “We’re seeing kids come in more lonely, anxious, depressed.”

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Kristin Colarusso-Martin (left), new community school coordinator, teams up with Nicole LaPage, school counselor, Massena Federation of Teachers, to share ideas on how to advocate for community schools through The People Project. Photo by Liza Frenette.

Assemblywoman Addie Jenne said in addition to substance-abuse problems here, self-cutting is “a quiet secret,” as are eating disorders. Suggestions to combat those issues include providing students with clear strategies to deal with stress, coping skills such as mindfulness and yoga, and involvement in art, music and sports.

The AFT has given $1,500 to fund a book club and book-mentoring program for the nonprofit Lifted Out of Poverty, founded by April Charleson, English teacher, Massena Federation of Teachers. AFT is a partner with First Book Inc.

“Poverty is one type of trauma,” said Charleson. “People get angry when they can’t find a job.”

AFT also provided money to Madison Elementary to stock a basic needs closet, including underwear, coats, hats and toiletries. The union also paid for early-reader books for the same school.

Other initiatives being worked on include striving to gain a commitment from each district to provide a community-school coordinator; working with mental health, dental and wellness providers to see how needed services can be provided; creating a network to share services and resources; and developing a county-wide needs assessment.

Some schools have begun using The Positivity Project, which focuses on building healthy relationships. Suggestions were made to create more welcome in the halls of the schools, and the curriculum, to help all better understand the culture of the many Native Americans who live in this region.

“It just blew me away how this project has mushroomed,” said Tom Hoey, membership development officer for United University Professions, a higher education union representing State University of New York colleges, who said he visited the area several years ago to support the Massena Project in a fight to keep Alcoa jobs.

The People Project will meet again in six months.