Rochester has a long-standing reputation, locally and nationally, as a caring community.
Naysayers and skeptics may see this as little more than provincial boosterism, but a wealth of history and evidence lends credence to the notion that we live in a compassionate place.
A recent federal study is the latest indication, placing the Rochester area fifth in the nation for volunteerism and giving residents high marks for donating to charities. The annual Volunteering and Civic Life in America report was released in early December by the Corporation for National and Community Service and the National Conference on Citizenship.
“The people of Rochester should be proud of their long record of service to their neighbors and community,” says Wendy Spencer, CEO of CNCS. “Service is a core American value that connects us with our neighbors and provides us a chance to use our skills for the common good.”
Fran Weisberg, United Way of Greater Rochester president and CEO, says the report rings true. She has more than 30 years of experience in local non-profits.
“We are a very, very caring community. People give of their time and also their dollars,” says Weisberg, whose past jobs include executive director of the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency and president of Lifespan of Greater Rochester. “Every year over 70,000 people give millions of dollars to United Way because they care and because they want the entire community to thrive. It’s a very vibrant community that gives of its time and its talent. It’s always been that way.”
Longtime community activist, businesswoman and nonprofit administrator Ruby Lockhart agrees.
“I think Rochester is a giving, caring community,” she says, pointing to her experiences as executive director of Garth Fagan Dance and co-owner of the legendary Midtown Plaza store All Day Sunday.
Lockhart has worked with many organizations, boards and committees over the years. The community shows its caring side in many ways, she says: by demonstrating compassion for people who are less fortunate, responding with financial help to issues that affect the whole community, rallying for causes that are just and nurturing a love for the arts through philanthropy.
“The volunteerism to lend a hand and not just money is rich here and demonstrated on a daily basis,” Lockhart says.
Collective compassion may be more crucial than ever, with studies showing a dramatic divide between the haves and have-nots in the community. Compared to cities of similar size, Rochester has the nation’s highest rate of childhood poverty, 50.1 percent. Almost a third of its residents live in poverty; of these, half live in extreme poverty, with incomes at half the federal poverty level.
The United Way is a key player in the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, a broad coalition of more than 100 organizations addressing dire problems in the community.
“Now is a very unique moment. We have a set of very wicked problems in our community about childhood poverty and the concentration of poverty,” Weisberg says. “What’s very heartening is that everybody I talk to, from every walk of life, wants us to all come together as a community and row in the same direction to really make a difference and to affect the very negative numbers so that everybody can thrive, not just some.”
Rochester is rallying on a scale perhaps never before achieved here, she says.
“I think there’s a real acknowledgment that no one group can fix these problems alone, that we need to be united as a whole community to address these critical problems like poverty, and I get that there’s a real sense (of) ‘Let’s do it,’” Weisberg says.
“People who live in the heart of our community, businesses, government, human service agencies, people living in poverty—all are coming together to solve this problem, and I think it can work,” she adds. “That just shows you the caring nature of this community. If anywhere in this country will really solve this problem, I believe it’s here in Rochester.”
An abundance of people willing to help is evident. Roughly a quarter of the metro area’s 1.2 million residents —292,300—volunteered in 2014, and nearly 63 percent donated $25 or more to charity. Their actions placed Rochester fifth for volunteerism among the nation’s 51 largest metro areas, according to the CNCS report.
George Eastman gets much of the credit for laying the groundwork for Rochester’s giving ways. Eastman Kodak Co.’s founder led efforts 98 years ago to establish the Rochester Patriotic and Community Fund. The fund evolved into the Community Chest and, later, the United Way of Greater Rochester. It raised more than $24 million for local charities last year.
Eastman was one of the nation’s foremost philanthropists of his time, giving away more money than anyone except John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie over roughly the first two decades of the 20th century, according to the Philanthropy Roundtable in Washington, D.C. Eastman, who donated heavily to the University of Rochester and was the largest contributor to the education of African-American students during the 1920s, gave away what would amount to around $2 billion today.
Through his foundation, Paychex Inc. founder Thomas Golisano is creating a legacy of his own, having donated more than $250 million to charities and nonprofits in the last 30 years.
Another legendary Rochester entrepreneur and philanthropist, Xerox Corp. founder Joseph Wilson, created corporate America’s first community service sabbatical program 45 years ago. Over the years, Xerox has loaned more than 500 employees to nonprofits. Businesses such as ESL Federal Credit have followed Wilson’s lead, offering employees paid time off to volunteer.
The community is rich with charitable ventures large, small and in between. Grassroots projects are common, such as the relatively new Flower City Pickers, launched by Khoury Humphrey. At Rochester Public Market, he and a team of volunteers collect good food headed for the trash and donate it to homeless shelters and other charities.
Scores of businesses and thousands of people take part each year in the community’s largest volunteer effort, the United Way Day of Caring. Last year more than 7,000 people devoted 42,000 hours of work to nearly 200 nonprofits at 480 sites. And on Dec. 1, during ROC the Day, the United Way’s annual 24-hour online fundraising campaign, thousands raised $875,765 for local charitable work.
Richard Zitrin is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
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