There are hundreds of worthy organizations in and around the county; this is but a cross-section of groups started right here, some of which are a bit are under the radar. As the saying goes: no one can do everything, but everyone can do something. Here’s where you can start.
Walking on the campus of Green Chimneys (400 Doansburg Rd, Brewster 845-279-2995; greenchimneys.org), seeing the sheep and goats grazing in the fields, children tending to horses and other farm animals, red barns, gardens, a K-12 school, and other buildings, it is hard to imagine that this is a treatment center for children who have suffered serious social and emotional trauma. “Many of these kids come from loving homes, but they have behavior issues that parents don’t know how to deal with,” says Farm and Wildlife Director Michael Kaufmann. “Most have been admitted to psychiatric hospitals twice before coming here.”
More than 60 years ago, Samuel B. Ross, Jr., opened Green Chimneys Farm for Little Folk to just 11 students. Now 84, Ross has seen his school become a worldwide leader in animal-assisted therapy, growing in size from 75 acres to nearly 200 acres with an additional 350 at Clearpool Education Center, a sister program located in Carmel, New York. There are 88 kids in the residential program (living in brand-spanking-new dorms in which each child has a private room), and more than 100 in the day school.
In addition to taking care of nearly 200 rescued or donated animals, the children are instrumental in training service dogs for wounded vets and maintaining an organic garden—all this while attending school. Older students can get vocational training at Boni-Bel, the center’s multi-acre sustainable farm. The facility’s Farm and Wildlife Sanctuary is open on weekends for visitors to enjoy a day in the country, see birds of prey up close, and even take tractor and horse rides led by students during special events. Volunteers are always needed, to help with riding programs, farm chores, the gardens, or simply spending a Sunday with a child who has no family resources.
Cluster Community Services
It’s easy for the disenfranchised to fall through the cracks, and, for 35 years, Cluster Community Services (20 S Bdwy, Rm 501, Yonkers 914-963-6440; clusterinc.org) has helped them find a way out: treating the mentally ill and addicted, preventing homelessness, and offering academic support to at-risk children. The bulk of Cluster’s annual $5.4 million budget goes to helping people with chronic mental problems who can’t live alone. “We start them out in supervised living residences, teach them how to manage their illnesses, and offer support services so they can eventually live independently,” says Executive Director Toni Volchok. Conflict resolution is another priority, and the group has 60 trained mediators at centers in Westchester and Rockland Counties to advise in everything from landlord/tenant disputes to divorce proceedings to small claims court. “This year, our mediators have handled two hundred seventy-seven cases with a seventy-two-percent agreement rate,” Volchok says. “We also offer peer mediation in the schools, training teens to help others. Last year, they handled eleven hundred eighty-one cases, with a success rate of eighty-three percent.”
Trip of a Lifetime
Stan Rosenberg, a 19-year-old Scarsdale resident and sophomore at NYU, knows how good he’s had it. In 2008, he came home from a summer teen tour and realized how lucky he was to have had the experience. He also realized that a majority of teens wouldn’t be able to pay the $5,000 to $7,000 price tag for the experience. So he founded Trip of a Lifetime (P.O. Box 185 H, Scarsdale 914-874-1051; projecttoal.org), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping underprivileged teens in Westchester and New York City see a little more of the world. “We have raised more than a hundred thousand dollars and have sent twelve deserving teens on these life-changing trips since we started this,” he says, noting that all monies raised goes to fund the grants. “Our goal is to send ten more this summer.”
If education is the key to success, what happens when roadblocks like dyslexia and other learning disorders, or emotional or physical problems, get in the way? Student Advocacy (3 W Main St, Elmsford 914-347-7039; studentadvocacy.net) helps children receive the education they need and are legally entitled to. “Four of our five advocates are attorneys skilled in education law, and some are former educators themselves,” says Student Advocacy Assistant Director Martha Jordan. “When parents call us wondering what to do, where to go, or how the law affects them, we provide technical assistance and legal representation. We work together with the schools to come up with a working solution. The goal is to keep kids connected to education so they can get a high school diploma and become productive members of society.” More than 90 percent of the children Student Advocacy works with find new ways to succeed in school.
Talk about a community effort. The all-volunteer Mount Kisco Interfaith Pantry (United Methodist Church, 300 E Main St, Mount Kisco, 914-610-5187; mtkiscointerfaith.org), which provides food for about 175 Northern Westchester households every week, is composed of representatives from a variety of local churches and synagogues. Among its supporters, Panera Bread in Bedford Hills donates 300 pounds of surplus bread, muffins, rolls, and cookies each week. Local M&T and TD bank branches provide financial support, as does Connie’s Bakery in Mount Kisco. Founded 20 years ago, it has grown from three volunteers distributing eight bags of groceries a week to 150 regular volunteers dispersing an average of 4,000 pounds of food a week. “We see people who never dreamed they would end up at a food pantry—the newly unemployed, seniors, young families—it’s really reflective of Westchester County,” says Kate Stone Lombardi, who has been volunteering for the organization for the past four years. The Pantry provides a typical family of four with enough nutritious groceries for three days’ worth of complete meals. A home delivery service is available for shut-ins or people who are disabled.
Friends of Karen
Friends of Karen (118 Titicus Rd, Purdys 914-277-4547; friendsofkaren.org), a group that supports 500 critically ill children and their families each year, started at Sheila Petersen’s kitchen table 33 years ago. A family friend, 16-year-old Karen MacInnes, was terminally ill with a rare genetic disorder, and her parents wanted her to be able to spend her last months at home with friends and family. Petersen began a fundraising campaign to help pay the mounting bills for her care at home. After Karen passed away, Petersen continued helping make life easier for other catastrophically ill children and their families; the organization has since grown to a staff of 21 with three offices, serving families in 22 counties in the tri-state region. Funds raised help families pay rent and utilities, uninsured medical expenses and co-payments, travel expenses to and from medical appointments, supermarket gift cards, and more for families with financial need. The group also helps families cut through red tape to receive government benefits, referrals to other agencies, and pro bono legal counsel. Finally, bereavement support for surviving parents and siblings helps them cope with the changes within the family.
Rather than trying to fight the realities of immigration, Mount Kisco decided to deal with its many Latino immigrants in a positive way. Neighbors Link (27 Columbus Ave, Mount Kisco 914-666-3410; neighborslink.org) was created to help integrate recent immigrants into the community by offering English lessons, employment skills classes, and parenting workshops for adults, as well as “Learning Links,” an after-school program for at-risk children. It also maintains a worker center where the public can hire landscapers, masons, seamstresses, cleaners, and other day labor. “It’s really not an issue of why do people come to this country; it’s why life is so bad for them in their country,” says Executive Director Carola Otero Bracco. “We need to help people who come here break the cycle of poverty.” Bracco supervises four full-time and four part-time staff members, along with 300 volunteers who provide services to more than 2,000 immigrants each year.
Every girl deserves to feel like Cinderella for a night, and if former Yonkers student and self-described “promologist” Noel D’Allacco has her way, they will. She founded Operation PROM (P.O. Box 924, Bronxville 914-672-3070; helpprom.org) in 2005 to provide donated dresses, handbags, and accessories to help the hundreds of local teens living in Westchester shelters, group homes, or low-income households attend their prom at little or no cost. “We collected more than thirty-two hundred dresses this year,” she says. “When our volunteers help the young ladies pick out their prom dresses, they tell them things like, ‘This is the first time I ever put on a dress.’” For information on drop-off locations or how to make a charitable contribution, visit the website.
The Pajama Program
Genevieve Piturro was a New York City marketing executive when she started reading stories at a center in Harlem to children whose mothers were in prison in 2000. She was shocked to see that, when she left them, the children just went into another room to sleep: no pajamas, no nighttime ritual. “I started bringing in pajamas to make them feel more at home. Then one little girl asked me, ‘What are these for?’ She’d never had a pair of pajamas before.” And that was the impetus for creating The Pajama Program (pajamaprogram.org), which delivers new, warm bedclothes and books to children in shelters, group homes, orphanages, and other facilities around the county. Her goal for next year is to raise $1 million. “We want to give children pajamas and books four times a year—once each season.” We agree that cozy jammies and a story at bedtime should be every child’s birthright (and bedtime ritual), don’t you? Help by donating new PJs and books, organizing a pajama drive, hosting a fundraiser or event, or volunteer to work directly with the program. The organization is in particular need of tween- and teen-sized pajamas as well as books tailored to that age group.
The Bridge Fund
It’s hard to believe, but, back in the early 1990s, Westchester had the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the country, with a peak of 4,500 people in shelters. Since then, the number of homeless in the county’s shelter system has plummeted 75 percent. Much of the credit goes to Katonah residents Oscar and Nan Pollock, who started The Bridge Fund of Westchester (171 E Post Rd, White Plains 914-949-8146) to prevent evictions from happening in the first place by providing short-term loans. It is still the leading private organization in the county dedicated to preventing homelessness among the working poor, helping 330 households last year.
In 1969, a group of parents looking for an alternative to state facilities for their adult children with developmental disabilities started Opengate (28 Warren St, Somers 914-277-5350; opengateinc.org). Today, the 27-acre campus has 10 group homes for 75 adults; another home for the medically frail is scheduled to open in early 2012. Four additional homes are located in neighboring communities throughout the county. In addition to housing, Opengate offers a variety of supports: life and socialization skills, language, and communication. There is also a day habilitation program for residents, as well as those who live at home or come from other agencies, that provides recreation, computer training, personal fitness, and art and entertainment.
My Second Home
What a brilliant idea: an adult day program that mixes generations. My Second Home (95 Radio Cir, Mount Kisco 914-241-0770; fsw.org), part of Family Services of Westchester, brings children from Mount Kisco Day Care to its day program for seniors. Both groups benefit from the daily interaction: art projects, singalongs, storytelling, and more. Established in 1998, My Second Home is unique to Westchester—and a model for the nation—offering an affordable alternative to assisted living or nursing home care. Caregivers can get a needed respite while their loved ones partake in activities such as yoga classes, music therapy, and group outings; hair services are also available and a podiatrist visits regularly. The group is looking for volunteers who like working with older adults, needs art supplies, and welcomes monetary donations to its “scholarship” fund for members.
Open Door Family Medical Centers
Open Door (165 Main St, Ossining 914-941-1263; opendoormedical.org) began as an all-volunteer free clinic in a church basement in Ossining 39 years ago. It now has centers in Ossining, Port Chester, Mount Kisco, and Sleepy Hollow catering to the county’s working-class and immigrant communities and operates five school-based health centers in Port Chester. We’re not talking bare-bones free clinics, but facilities on par with Mount Kisco Medical Group or WestMed. Working with a nearly $30 million budget, Open Door Medical Centers provides comprehensive medical and dental care along with social services to more than 43,000 patients a year—nearly half of them uninsured and 72 percent with family incomes less than $22,350, which is the federal poverty level for a family of four. “It is well documented that patients in our care do better controlling their blood pressure, managing their diabetes, and avoiding asthma attacks,” says Lindsay Farrell, president and CEO. “This means children do better in school, workers are more productive, families have more stability, and our communities are indeed healthier.”
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