April 2, 2001

C.U. Volunteers Discover Local Public Service

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Environmental protection, human rights and homelessness were just some of the issues that were discussed at the fifth annual Public Service Leadership Conference on Saturday in Ives Hall.

In a series of discussion panels with members of the community, government and public service boards, students had the opportunity to discuss ways in which they can make a difference locally.

Students and residents of Ithaca and surrounding areas attended three “breakout sessions,” consisting of discussion panels on issues facing the Ithaca community. Each panelist gave a brief overview of his or her organization and answered questions about specific projects.

The conference also featured a performance by Ordinary People, a Cornell anti-oppression acting group.

The keynote address by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-125) stressed the importance of volunteer projects in continuing some of the programs and services that may be cut by the Bush administration in its budget proposal.

“Volunteerism is something that we have been doing in this country for a long, long time. Many of the essential services in this city are provided by volunteers. Your work is needed, your abilities are needed, and you can do a lot to help the entire community,” Hinchey said.

Michael Chahinian ’02, an organizer of the leadership conference, felt that the conference was successful in helping students to find and organize their own community service projects.

“We hope that people will gain an awareness that many major global issues like hunger, homelessness, human rights and illiteracy are prevalent in their community and that they can network with various community leaders involved in these fields,” Chahinian said.

In a session titled “Assessing Community Needs,” panelists discussed the issue of a living wage for workers — the amount of income that it takes to live and support a family in an area. This issue was stressed because of its importance to the region’s economy.

“Cornell is, by far, the largest employer in the three-county area. They set the wage rate for the entire region. So, this campaign for a living wage is very important, not only to Cornell workers, but to the entire community,” said Amy Bonn, a member of United Way of Tompkins County.

In encouraging more campus organizations to join the living wage campaign, Susanne Davis, member of the Tompkins County Board of Representatives, encouraged more groups to work on projects like the securing of a living wage.

“Although it may seem redundant when three different groups embark on similar projects, they are often working with three different populations. It is important that they each work on their respective populations because what works for population one will not necessarily work for population two,” Davis said.

Addressing the issue of homelessness in Ithaca, a panel touched on techniques to make students’ community service efforts go further. According to the panelists, the most successful projects are usually personal hygiene drives and soliciting small donations of money.

Chris Pothier, a volunteer for Loaves and Fishes of Ithaca, explained that beginning this year, there is going to be a limit on federal welfare. After five years, welfare recipients must either start working at a job or go to a safety net. The safety net will cover only certain necessities and will be considerably less money than welfare provides.

“This is sort of a harsh reality for some people that have been on welfare for many years. It is very hard to get back into the workforce when you’ve been out of it for so long,” Pothier said.

Although students have been very successful in collecting items in food drives, one panelist believed that the actual benefit of this type of project is not that great.

According to Natasha Ribeiro, the operation frontline coordinator of Food Bank of the Southern Tier said that although a person donating a box of cereal that cost three dollars will help feed one family, that same three dollars could have been spent by the agency to buy two bulk cases of cereal that would feed many families.

Human rights was also an issue that drew a lot of attention from the conference attendees. Panelists from organizations such as Human Rights Commission, Refugee Assistance Program and Challenge Industries described the positive effect students have had on some of the less-fortunate members of the community.

“One thing that students can bring to human services organizations in Ithaca is personal relationships with people. This is one thing that staff members may not be able to give because they don’t have the time,” said Marty Gold, a member of Challenge Industries.

Archived article by Seth Harris