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Community impact a century-old priority for ESL

ESL Federal Credit Union’s impact on the region extends beyond its traditional role as a lender. The credit union counts among its priorities helping the area through its community impact efforts.

The community impact team — a staff of five — works to build a healthy, resilient and equitable greater Rochester region where all residents have access to a good education, employment opportunities and affordable, connected neighborhoods.

ESL Federal Credit Union President and CEO Faheem Masood. (Matt Wittmeyer)

ESL Federal Credit Union President and CEO Faheem Masood. (Matt Wittmeyer)

Faheem Masood, ESL president and CEO, says the community impact efforts are a core part of the financial institution’s identity.

“We are zeroed in on helping our community thrive and prosper in an inclusive manner,” he says.

The ESL Charitable Foundation is part of the financial institution’s community impact efforts.

Established in 2002, the Foundation can trace its roots back to 1920, when George Eastman founded Eastman Savings & Loan, now ESL Federal Credit Union.

While Eastman believed the best way his employees could invest in the future of their community was through home ownership, he also believed that a community’s prosperity depends on the prosperity of its institutions as well as their contributions and goodwill.

The Foundation is a direct outgrowth of this belief, leaders there say.

Maureen Wolfe, ESL senior vice president and director, human resources and community impact. (Matt Wittmeyer)

Maureen Wolfe, ESL senior vice president and director, human resources and community impact. (Matt Wittmeyer)

Since its inception, the Foundation has substantially increased its annual community contributions, says Maureen Wolfe, senior vice president and director, human resources and community impact.

The Foundation invested some $1 million into community efforts during its first year and leaders estimate investments in 2020 will total nearly $20 million.

“We are committed to giving back to the greater Rochester community,” Wolfe says.

The focus is on collaboration for community transformation and taking a collective impact approach to addressing complex social challenges in the community.

“There’s not just one good program,” says Ajamu Kitwana, ESL vice president and director, community impact. “There needs to be a shared strategy by all involved.”

The Foundation supports nonprofit organizations and social purpose entities throughout the six-county greater Rochester region.

It focuses on five areas: expanding individual opportunity, building strong neighborhoods, strengthening organizations and systems, lifting up stories, and serving the community’s basic needs.

Ajamu Kitwana, ESL vice president and director, community impact. (Matt Wittmeyer)

Ajamu Kitwana, ESL vice president and director, community impact. (Matt Wittmeyer)

Organizations can apply for support from the Foundation online. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis and funding decisions are typically made within 6 to 12 weeks after submission.

 

Some efforts the Foundation recently supported include scholarship programs at Monroe Community College and fundraising efforts for the United Way of Greater Rochester.

Additional support was provided to programs administered through the United Way.

One is the Community Crisis Fund, created in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the region.

Another is Project Uplift, which supports and administers direct, discretionary interventions for community members in Monroe County experiencing barriers to well-being and economic stability, including help with car repairs, school and childcare expenses, medical bills and other needed supports.

ESL also supports the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, which is a community collaborative with a goal to improve quality of life by reducing poverty and increasing self-sufficiency.

To do this, RMAPI is focused on increasing income, making basic needs more affordable and accessible, and lowering concentrations of poverty.

Aqua Porter, RMAPI interim executive director, describes ESL as a generous and engaged funder who understands the long-term systemic changes the initiative is working to address.

Not only does the financial institution provide financial support to help RMAPI work toward meeting its goals, it also has its employees assist in efforts from housing policies to data evaluation, Porter notes.

“They do more than provide a check; they also bring big thinkers to the table,” Porter says, adding it is empowering and refreshing to work with ESL and its representatives who understand the challenges and commitment needed to make structural changes. “They really do get it.”

Another organization ESL supports is ROC the Future, an alliance of Rochester-area institutions and community partners that promotes alignment of community resources to improve the academic achievement of Rochester’s children.

Jackie Campbell, alliance director, says ESL’s commitment has helped the organization build its capacity to do the work that needs to be done. Their financial support helped the organization expand its capacity by adding technical staff, including a director of research and analytics.

In addition to the funding, Campbell says ESL understands the intensive, technical and adaptive work that needs to be done to help the organization work toward its goals.

“It changed the way we operate,” Campbell says of the support. “(ESL’s) leadership helped to affirm the need to do this kind of work and the capacity to do it.”

Kitwana believes helping the community deal with the impact of COVID-19 will continue to be a priority in 2021, noting nonprofit organizations, in particular, are hit hard by cuts in state and federal funding due to the pandemic.

Continuing to drive equity and inclusivity will also remain a top priority.

“Our focus remains on helping the community be resilient and equitable,” he says.

Andrea Deckert is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

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