Fourteen years ago a Long Islander saw needy kids who lacked school supplies, rallied her friends and filled 68 backpacks with supplies. She shared her idea with the UJA-Federation of New York's Long Island region, and this year the organization inspired 500 volunteers who filled 10,000 backpacks to be distributed across the Island, said Stuart Tauber, 63, the group's vice president.
UJA's network of 100 agencies includes 23 on Long Island. Last year it raised $200 million, including $17 million from Long Island, that went toward programs ranging from Alzheimer's respite care and after-school activities to Thanksgiving meals for the needy and an indigent burial program.
During the Jewish holy days starting with Rosh Hashanah on Sunday evening, people will reflect on their personal and business values and consider whether they "lived up to the best of who we can be," said Tauber, the son of a rabbi. "If all you're about is earning a lot of money so you can acquire more cars and more paintings and a new home, then life is going to be pretty shallow and I would probably say ultimately very unfulfilling. We try and build and strengthen the Long Island community by providing volunteers with an opportunity to live out the values that they know are very important."
What's your most surprising story of giving?
We had a donor, a major Wall Street business leader, and we took him to one of our agency service sites where a little girl was horribly disfigured. When they went in, the social worker introduced the little girl to them and talked about how beautiful she looked with the ribbon in her hair. When they left, this big, burly, tough Wall Street trader broke down in the hallway and actually cried and said he felt so guilty. He was so overwhelmed because he said he had trouble looking at this girl because she was so disfigured, and yet here was this social worker, a volunteer like himself, who spent time with her making her feel good and making sure she was cared for. He said he knew he had to do more. He substantially increased his giving to that program and to UJA, and made it his mission to tell people to care for more than just their businesses.
What went into raising $17 million on Long Island?
Recognizing the inner strength of our volunteers. There's an inner goodness in most people, and we have a staff that is very committed to finding that inner goodness that is waiting to break out.
Can you explain the nuts and bolts of it?
First you talk to people and find out what it is that really keeps them up at night, what they find distressing. We'll talk to them about a way they can do something about it, a program we think addresses the need, asking . . . where could we go together, how could it grow? They reach out to their friends, and before you know it they have groups of people who come together. Last week we had 1,500 people who have volunteered with us -- either giving out Thanksgiving dinner to the poor, or helping fill backpacks, or working in our network of agencies. We brought them together for a concert. They get a sense that they're a part of one community really trying to improve the world.
It sounds like you have a fierce board of directors?
We do. They're successful business people and they're experienced and they're strong and they're terrifically committed and they're generous people. Sometimes I think there's an undercurrent that makes it sound like everybody who is successful in business is a bad person. It's just the opposite here. It's truly business leaders with big hearts that continue to keep UJA strong and providing service.
What's something people don't know about the needs on Long Island?
Poverty on the Island looks different from other communities. Sometimes we drive through what looks like a middle-class neighborhood and you think everybody is doing fine because they are living in a home and they're not out on the street, yet they're just struggling to make ends meet on every level.