Cold, lengthy bouts of rain and some snow, combined with a pandemic quarantine, might send some people scurrying inside in defeat — but the educators of the North Country are rising up and reaching out.
Raising funds to support local food pantries, delivering food to students each week, making face shields for local health care workers, and getting books in the hands of students are strong outreach initiatives currently happening with the support of unions. The activities of the union-led People Project in St. Lawrence County and the activism of the Lake Placid Educators Association are two examples of North Country spirit and grit.
Mary Wills, coordinator for the AFT- and NYSUT-supported People Project, said the organization started a Neighbors Helping Neighbors Facebook page in response to needs that have erupted due to the coronavirus. The group has 2,300 members who want to help or need help.
“So far we have connected parents with supplies such as diapers and formula; and senior citizens with food, cleaning supplies and toilet paper,” Wills said. “We have also provided almost 200 masks to those in need. Some of the masks were purchased through the United Way, while others were handmade and donated by local folks who wanted to help. They have been feverishly making children’s masks to help our students.”
The People Project is also donating books the organization received from NYSUT’s First Book literacy initiative. () Wills said teachers are sending the books to students when they send them their homework packets. Stacia Sheppard, a first-grade teacher and member of the Ogdensburg Educators Association, was the first to get 40 brand new books for her students.
Wills, an Ogdensburg EA retiree, knows first hand the concerns that rose up quickly when the pandemic erupted — and how people helped.
“When this pandemic first started, I was looking for masks for my daughter who is at risk and immuno-compromised. Strangers stepped up immediately and helped us out. I wanted to do the same. There is no shame in asking for a helping hand and it is a wonderful feeling to be able to do something to help others.”
Neighbors Helping Neighbors also inspired a food drive, organized by a member of the group. Four truckloads of food were delivered to local food banks after residents collected donations. Members of the Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters Local 1799 joined the movement and donated and delivered $600 of food to the pantries, showcasing union solidarity and community activism.
Food is also at the forefront of Lake Placid EA’s generous outreach. The local union raised $2,000 to stock local food pantries, providing $1,000 to the Lake Placid Ecumenical Food Pantry and another $1,000 to the nearby Wilmington Ecumenical Food Pantry.
“Staff members have been riding buses with CSEA members and administrators delivering meals to students on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays,” said Brenden Gotham, Lake Placid EA co-president along with Kathleen Briggs. “We are delivering food to 194 students from 112 families.”
While the first two days of deliveries consists of breakfast and lunch, the Friday delivery includes food for the whole weekend.
“This is part of our backpack program that was started with the help of a NYSUT grant four years ago,” Gotham said.
Educators in Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, and SUNY Canton are also using 3D printers to make face shields for health care workers, Gotham said.
To keep up the spirits of the members of the graduating seniors, teaching assistant Patti McConvey raised more than $2,000 for senior signs. Each banner is a portrait of a senior, and will be hung from a light post in this mountain community to honor a graduate.