BY BOB BAIRD
Diane Serratore often gets applause when she tells audiences the not-for-profit she heads is serving more clients than ever.
She quickly explains that when business is booming at her offices, it’s not a good thing. Indeed, it means times are tough.
Serratore is executive director of People to People, Rockland’s largest food pantry, working to feed and clothe poor and hungry families.
The good news: They’ve been filling that need since 1989.
The bad news: Each year for 25 years, the need has gotten bigger.
At a Sept. 19 luncheon at Paramount Country Club, People to People will celebrate its 25th Anniversary and mark 25 milestones in its history. They include opening a building in Valley Cottage in the early 1990s and purchasing two office condo units for their present Nanuet headquarters in 2005.
Although People to People was incorporated in October 1989, the anniversary is being celebrated early to coincide with Hunger Action Month, marked nationally in September. At the “25 @ 25” luncheon, County Executive Ed Day will proclaim September as Rockland’s first Hunger Action Month.
While it will help focus attention on hunger and on People to People’s ongoing battle to eradicate it, the proclamation won’t alter a harsh reality.
In July 1996, People to People serviced 636 individuals monthly. This July, the number was more than 4,000, an indication that families are finding it harder than ever to make ends meet.
The recession’s impact became clear at People to People when individuals who once were donors turned up seeking assistance for themselves.
That was proof of what Serratore and retired executive director Dolores Treger always believed – that need knows no color and cuts across all ages and races.
The primary service of People to People is providing food and clothing to individuals in need, but they’ve often tailored programs to target specific groups of clients.
Community contributions and corporate grants allow People to People’s small paid staff and legion of committed volunteers to do that. They buy food from the Regional Food Bank, where Serratore says a single dollar donated can turn into $5 worth of food. People to People also partners with Feeding America, to access excess food from BJ’s Wholesale Club, the Cheesecake Factory and others, to help feed Rockland’s hungry.
Children are the focus of several programs, one of which unfolded as a new school year approached.
“Back to School with Dignity” collects school supplies to fill new backpacks distributed when families came for their August food pick-up. The program gets many individual donations, but could not succeed without state funding through Assembly member Ellen Jaffee, corporate donations from Orange & Rockland, Better Homes & Gardens Rand Realty, Cambridge University Press and help from groups like the Upper Nyack and Orangetown Senior Clubs, and a $1,500 contribution from the Clarkstown Retired Teachers Association.
People to People also distributes backpacks through the Department of Social Services and Nyack Center.
Realizing that many students getting food assistance through schools during the week were hungry on weekends, People to People launched “It’s in the Bag,” last September. Each Friday the program distributes meals and snacks for Saturday and Sunday to 100 children through the Nyack Center and 60 more through the Haverstraw Center.
That satellite distribution model may someday be how the agency makes its monthly food distributions, bringing help closer to Nyack, Haverstraw and Spring Valley.
People to People’s best known programs unfold around the holidays.
For two weekends before Thanksgiving, the agency accepts donations of turkeys and other food items for the “Talk Turkey” program. They then distribute hundreds of turkeys, complete with all the fixings for a Thanksgiving feast. When dropping off, donors can view holiday letters from clients and opt to adopt a family and fulfill their holiday wish list.
When known as “The Santa Project,” the program provided holiday gifts for about 125 families. “Project Joy,” as it is now known, makes holiday dreams come true for about 900 families. The donations of bicycles, new toys, and winter clothing are so numerous that the agency needs a 60,000 square-foot vacant space donated by Blue Hill Plaza to store and sort the gifts for delivery.
But People to People isn’t only about children.
Back when ex-county legislator Connie Coker was office manager and even when Dolores Treger was executive director from 1991 to 2008, the agency served few senior citizens. But Diane Serratore quickly saw a dramatic shift in 2008 as taxes, medication costs and utilities took a greater toll on fixed incomes. “Now,” she says, “more and more seniors are coming in for help because they have to choice.”
For several years People to People has tried to reach unemployed, ill, elderly or homeless veterans with a program called “Vets for Vets.” Many need help, Serratore says, but are reluctant to go to an agency to get it. People to People is working with veteran organizations to reach a generation often too proud to admit it needs help.
While the recession’s rising unemployment drove the increase in clients, Serratore says, the reality is that individuals here can have full-time minimum wage jobs – or even two or three part-time jobs – and still fall below the poverty line.
The agency’s client totals reflect a weaker economy and continuing government cuts impacting the poor and hungry.
In 2008, People served 500 households. By 2009, that doubled to 1,000 households. Now, Serratore says, they serve 1,400.
Since 2008, People to People’s budget has tripled from about $1 million a year in 2008 to $3 million today.
People to People depends on many generous benefactors like John and Ilse Lang, co-chairs of the “25 @ 25” Luncheon. “They have been involved from the beginning,” Serratore says, “They believe in our mission and they believe in us.”
The agency, she says, “has been blessed with corporate support, both in grants and in providing hands to help with our work.” Corporations like Kohl’s and Active International actually give employees paid time off during their work week to volunteer at People to People.
Board President Joe Allen, Serratore says, has made sure the agency board has representatives of the biggest and best companies in Rockland. “Those representatives are passionate about their commitment,” she says.
People to People takes part in Active International’s Charity Challenge and also sponsors fundraising events of its own, including the annual “Rockland Down the Shore,” party. Each June it transforms the Pearl River Hilton into a shore destination like the Hamptons or Coney Island, with simulated golf, tennis and surfing, a great band and summer fare.
Coming up right after the “25 @ 25” luncheon is “Get Saucy” an Italian sauce (or is it gravy?) competition from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 9 at Nyack Seaport.
Those fundraisers make a substantial difference for People to People, but they’re just not enough in an era of increasing need and dwindling government assistance.
“All the charities in the world,” Serratore says, “can’t fill the gap caused by repeated budget cuts and negative economic influences.”