The land in St. Lawrence County is wide and the needs are great. The median income is $31,653 a year, according to the 2017 New York State Poverty Report. Out of New York's 62 counties, it is usually no higher than sixth rung from the bottom of the state's economic ladder.
About 111,000 people live in the state's northernmost county's vast 2,680 square miles. It is hemmed by the St. Lawrence River and Canada on one side, and by the Adirondack Mountains on the other. Its landscape shortens into hills and then goes flat, as if all the air were let out of a tire.
The small villages and towns are spread out 15, 22, 31 miles apart on long, open roads, making it hard to connect people and places. Farms for hay cropping, dairy and produce, such as apples and corn, provide seasonal work and sustenance. St. Lawrence County ranks fourth in New York State in overall farm products sold, and second for organic farms, according to an NPR Farm Report. The campuses at SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Canton provide foundations for culture, education and economic opportunity.
Beyond that, industry is sparse and jobs are scarce. GM's power train factory closed in 2008, taking 500 jobs with it. The merger of Reynolds and ALCOA brought layoffs. Lack of work and family poverty have escalated drug problems. Apartments rent for $700 to $900 a month. Abandoned houses and boarded businesses flank the roads. A shadowy Massena mall feels like something out of the Twilight Zone. Only a few businesses remain, sandwiched between long spaces of darkened stores shuttered with metal grates.
Yet, amid this landscape, a movement to recharge the isolated region is evolving. Born from the grist of need, The People Project is powered by labor and community activists who are seeking ways to revitalize the region by strengthening educational and economic opportunities.
The organization formed after the ALCOA aluminum plant — a major employer in the county — announced its closing in 2015. Local education leaders led a charge to organize business, government and community leaders in a massive rally that helped some of the ALCOA jobs stay put.
Massena public school counselor Erin Covell, president of the Massena Federation of Teachers, earned her stripes as a leader in that movement. Heady from the change she saw possible through coalition-building, she corralled 32 education unions from 19 districts to apply for and win a $165,000 solidarity grant from NYSUT.
"One of the main criteria is to build member engagement and coalition with community," said Covell.
The People Project, a beacon of beginnings, has already funded a youth lacrosse program in Huevelton; a welcome program for minority students at Canton; a Massena parent-outreach spaghetti dinner and a backpack program, led by community women, that feeds 300 students a week; and the purchase of a food truck staffed by community volunteers to provide food at outdoor community and sports events.
Every effort matters.
"What I see are these little sparks," said Laurie Kiah, a teacher and People Project member.
Union members are working with community groups, civic groups, parks and recreation, fire departments and church organizations as part of the project.
"It's positive. It's proactive," said Nicole LePage, a Massena guidance counselor, MFT member and People Project member.
The sparks are about to flame.
The People Project is hosting a symposium on Oct. 31–Nov. 1 at SUNY Potsdam with the backing of the American Federation of Teachers, which has pledged funding for the next five years. AFT President Randi Weingarten, who is speaking at the Potsdam event, chose the St. Lawrence region for an action plan similar to AFT's efforts with the "Reconnecting McDowell" project in West Virginia that began in 2011.
The deeply furrowed poverty in McDowell County also stems from job loss: Coal miners have lost work as natural gas replaces coal for heating. More than 100,000 residents have fled since the 1970s, leaving about 22,000 citizens. Here, too, towns are far apart, and here, too, drug abuse is a big problem. The lack of decent housing and sagging economy has deterred teachers from working here.
Support from AFT, national corporations, religious groups, civic groups and even the NFL Players Association have provided school services for substance abuse and mental health issues; sports equipment and musical instruments; school wellness clinics; work skill development expos; mentoring programs; student trips to the state capital and Washington, D.C.; a Books on the Bus mobile literacy program; reliable Internet access; water lines and fiber optics.
Teacher housing is being constructed. Schools are now compliant with state education performance, and one K-8 school is now a full community school with health services.
Reconnecting McDowell has infused so much specific, definable change that AFT has pledged another five years of support. Massena's Covell has met with McDowell leaders to learn from their experience and share ideas. She spent hours this summer driving the long, open roads of St. Lawrence County to meet with potential business and civic stakeholders and build support for the symposium and the projects that come out of it. The work ahead is to assess the needs and assets of the region.
A summit also takes place Oct. 3 at Canton BOCES to generate awareness about community schools.
The People Project has already met some immediate needs.
A Lisbon student beach program on the scenic and pragmatic St. Lawrence Seaway was revived this summer by hiring a bus, paying for swim lessons, providing lunch and purchasing kick boards and swim belts. The town paid for a bus driver and hired a helper at the beach. Teachers volunteered every day in the sand.
"We had three kids who did not know how to swim," said teacher Alison Spears, Lisbon Teachers Association member.
Standing on the beach on a sunny day, Lisbon TA English teacher Julie Rexford was surrounded by clusters of student-made sand castles and the sounds of youngsters splashing.
"They love the water," she said. "Without this, kids would be isolated, watching TV or playing video games." Summer sets kids back academically and socially, she noted.
Programs like these help buck that trend. The goal is to have the town help continue the program eventually, and perhaps have community residents sponsor a child for the beach program.
Because of The People Project, every eighth-grade student in the town of St. Lawrence will be given a hardcover copy of the book, Wonder, for a One Book, One Town literacy program.
The book, about the struggles of a boy with a disfigured face, is part of a school kindness program.
Becky Dullea, school librarian, Kayla Phelix, eighth-grade teacher, and Margaret Snyder and Anne Avery-Truax, president and vice president of the St. Lawrence Central United Teachers, met to unpack the books in the colorful school library, which is filled with students' largescale art sculptures.
Excitement is building as word spreads that a movie based on the book opens in November. Since most student field trips have been erased by budget cuts, Phelix is determined to get the students out of the classroom and into a theater. The project also includes a community dinner with a theme of kindness.
Students will be encouraged to donate their books, once read, to the public and school libraries.
"We definitely want to do this every year with a different book," said Dullea.
For People Project board member Michael Wills, a Morristown teacher, ideas like these will bring teacher unions out of the background of their communities. NYSUT's solidarity grant, he said, provides "an opportunity to step to the forefront."
"Poverty is our biggest issue here," said Julie Paquin, a retired court clerk who started Pack the Back with a group of friends. They use a vacant store in that nearly-abandoned mall to house and assemble food for student backpacks. The $5,000 check from The People Project will take them through many months.
"When it gets close to the weekend, some kids get stressed; worried they'll have no food to eat, little supervision. Kids need food," said Covell. "Poverty is at the root of all this. This gets the community involved in a positive way."