Category: Uncategorized

Taxing Barriers: Using Data to Overcome Predatory Tactics, Maximize Refunds, and Further Free Tax Preparation for all

Guest Article: Todd Goehle, Community Engagement Director, PEACE, Inc.

Albert Einstein quipped, “The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.” If a Nobel Prize Winning Physicist can’t understand it, what are the rest of us supposed to do? Especially when we have to organize financial documents and navigate unfamiliar tax terms? The stakes are even higher for Central New York’s residents of under-resourced neighborhoods and those who have been historically excluded from opportunity. Where can one turn when legacies of discrimination (i.e. racism, ageism, ableism, and more) and neighborhood disinvestment continue to limit one’s access to a full tax return and stabilizing if not potentially transforming capital?

One critical resource is the free tax preparation service offered through the IRS Initiative named VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Grant Program). In Central New York, VITA partners with the CNY CA$H Coalition, a United Way of CNY Initiative, to “help low- to moderate-income individuals, persons with disabilities, elderly people, and limited English speakers file their taxes each year.” This year, any household making under $60,000 a year will be eligible for the service. To ensure confidentiality and quality, all VITA volunteers must pass a series of certification exams. As a CNY CA$H Coalition member, PEACE, Inc. offers the largest local location and one of only a handful of year-round, Free Tax Preparation sites in the state. Last year alone, more than 1600 households with an average annual income of $25,000 took advantage of PEACE, Inc.’s program.

VITA sites not only help underserved clients overcome the average $220 tax preparation fee and earn a full refund; They also combat predatory tactics such as refund anticipation loans and checks that impose excessive fees and take money out of the pockets of people working hard to make ends meet. For example, this past summer, a mother of two came to PEACE, Inc.’s Free Tax Prep Program. Earlier in the year, a national tax service prepared the mother’s taxes for the year. The firm charged $680 for the service and a loan that advanced her tax return. The story worsens. Like many during COVID, the woman required assistance e-filing her 2020 taxes. The firm again looked to charge $680, yet this time requiring an upfront fee to prepare any back tax return. If not for PEACE, Inc., the woman would have paid a total of $1360 in fees, more than 15% of the mother’s taxable income for the year.

To raise awareness about such practices and the additional Child and Earned Income Tax Credits (CTC, EITC) available to filers in 2022, the Central New York Community Foundation (CNYCF) and the EITC Funders Network partnered to fund a number of local organizations. CNYVitals previously discussed the social media efforts pursued by Layla’s Got You. PEACE, Inc. sought to recruit additional volunteers and to target traditionally underserved residents in high poverty neighborhoods of Syracuse. Data proved critical in 4 respects. First, PEACE, Inc.’s COVID-19 Community Needs Assessment and Chronicle from June 2020 identified the need for unrestricted capital in neighborhoods, where Black, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander and Native American people live. These same neighborhoods were disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, census tract and IRS data showed those places where residents had yet to claim or historically don’t take advantage of tax credits. Third, members of PEACE, Inc. used CNYCF Life Needs Assessment Survey Data to identify those agencies with clients who would be good fits for the program because they responded that they “didn’t have enough money to meet their needs and to pay their bills.” Finally, analyzing internal data further justified PEACE, Inc.’s move to a year-round site. As revealed above, greater outreach yielded many new clients who required past tax season preparation or amendments in the offseason but lacked the funds to meet IRS deadlines.

Embracing a data-driven approach, PEACE, Inc.’s Free Tax Prep Program returned nearly 3 million dollars to the Central New York economy and an average tax return of nearly $2200. Perhaps more importantly, the program served far more low-income households than in previous years. Clients themselves shared how a quality return brought short-term stability and long-term economic mobility for their households. For example:

-KM, a mother of four, earned $14,879 at her job. Because of the stimulus and tax credits, KM received a tax return of $19,272. As KM explained, “the money will help me and my family get a new car, daycare to work more hours, and the supplies that the baby needs right now.”

-RT, a mother of 3, earned just over $25,000 at her job. Thanks to tax credits, RT earned a refund nearly equal her income, $18,374. As she shared, “I will be putting this refund on a new home for me and my kids. So I’m very thankful and more so excited that this year, I worked so hard and my family can use this to go towards a new home.”

With a new tax season upon us, the CA$H Coalition and PEACE, Inc. are seeking volunteer tax preparers, administrative assistants, interpreters, and greeters/screeners. Hours are flexible. Training is free. Want to make a true impact in our community? To learn more, visit or call 315.634.3756 today!


Report Points to Child Care Crisis in Onondaga County

Onondaga County has a big problem, and it’s impacting our littlest residents: children under the age of five. There are approximately 12,000 children in our community who need child care but cannot access it because there simply isn’t room for them.

High quality child care is important – we know that access to high quality early child care helps build foundational skills that are necessary for success in school, career, personal health, and life. Comprehensive studies suggest that high quality early child care leads to greater school readiness, grade retention, academic achievement, high school completion, family stability, employment, higher income, home ownership, reduced health care expenses, and less crime. (CITE 1). We also know that, due to child care breakdowns, businesses in the United States suffer an economic loss of $12.7 billion each year. (CITE 2).

The Early Childhood Alliance (ECA) was launched in 2015 with the bold vision that all children in Onondaga County are healthy, thriving, and ready to succeed in school and in life. Composed of a diverse cross-section of community stakeholders impacting the county’s early childhood system, the ECA is committed to advancing bold solutions that are evidenced-based and grounded in family and community voice. In the summer of 2021, as we moved into the immediate aftermath of the COVID pandemic, the ECA felt it important to take a step back and really focus on the accessibility of child care in our community. A year of research later, the ECA has released its new study entitled, The Child Care Landscape in Onondaga County: A Supply & Demand Analysis. This study dives deep into how families can (or can’t) access child care in our community. We encourage you to read the whole thing, but here are a few key points for you to consider:

  • We only have enough licensed and regulated child care to meet 44% of the demand. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of child care slots in Onondaga County dropped by 27%. In 2019, there was a supply gap of 8,574 child care slots and in 2021, that gap grew to 12,123.
    • Families shared their lived experience of attempting to access child care: “I was told, ‘We’ll put you on the waitlist,’ but she’ll be in pre-K before a spot opens up in the daycare rooms.”
  • Child care is expensive: in Onondaga County, the average cost of care for a four-person family with an infant and a toddler is $24,336. For a two-parent family earning the median income of $61,359, this means that 40% of household income would be spent on child care.
  • Child care assistance can help many families pay for the cost of care, but families are not taking advantage of this resource. In the last 6 years, the number of families who have utilized child care assistance has decreased 59%. Right now, only 19% of the families that are eligible for subsidized care are taking advantage of this public benefit.

You can read the full report to learn more about the state of child care in Onondaga County.

Citation 1: Heckman, J. J. (2012). Invest in early childhood development: Reduce deficits, strengthen the economy. The Heckman Equation, 7, 1-2.
Citation 2: Child Care Aware of America; The US and the High Price of Child Care, 2019 Report.



EITC photo

Tax season is dreaded by many. Oftentimes, people find that it’s overly complex and tedious to get finances organized to complete the near never-ending forms. But for some, there is the opportunity to collect needed funds by properly completing the process.

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a refundable tax credit geared towards middle, and low-income adults, oftentimes with children. However, many individuals who are eligible to file inevitably don’t, as they assume they do not qualify. This results in unused credit that could have improved the lives of thousands of families.

Layla’s Got You, an organization dedicated to using social media to connect Syracuse residents with women’s health information, partnered with the Central New York Community Foundation to inform and assist filers by spearheading a comprehensive social media campaign. Using the talents of its young ambassadors, the organization has been able to provide accessible information about the EITC and potential tax refunds to individuals that may qualify.

Qiana Williams, a program officer at the Central New York Community Foundation, emphasized the importance of young voices.

“It was very exciting to be a part of this collaboration to utilize young, trusted ambassadors to carry a message forward to the community,” she said. “When the opportunity to partner with Layla’s Got You arose, we felt it would be an effective way to identify young people who could help efficiently get out information about the EITC.”

Jayah Pierce, a 19 year old who has been an ambassador for Layla’s Got You since she was 14, emphasized the impact that finances and other factors play into the organization’s primary mission. “Financials really do impact the way you live, what you can do and where you’re limited,” she said. “So we really thought, you know, that young people could benefit from having that money back and by getting their taxes in on time and not having to go through owing.”

The cornerstone of the social media campaign was the ambassadors who created the EITC content itself. They used commonly under-utilized social media platforms such as TikTok to spread awareness via messaging that catered to a young audience. Instead of using complex financial language, they opted for simple explanations and comprehensive resource sharing. By hearing from likeminded peers, EITC became a tangible reality for many, rather than an unknown program.

Hearing information from ambassadors that could connect to their fellow neighbors reduced the likelihood that filers would scroll past information, and instead ask questions.

“We explained to social media users that you might get money back, like we’re young. So if you can get up to $1,500 back, get your bag, like go get your money,” said Pierce. “We’re the same age, [and] it really works out because, you know, if you see something that looks like a scam, you scroll, but if you see your best friend saying it, you’re more likely to take it seriously and apply.”

The EITC program directly benefitted several individuals and families across the Central New York area, often with life-changing effects. For example, Layla’s Got You has worked with a young mother that received over $18,000 in tax refunds. She makes just over $25,000 per year at her job.

“This year’s income tax is great,” she said. “I will be putting this tax refund toward a new home for me and my kids. So I’m very thankful and so excited that this year my hard work will benefit my family in such a big way.”


Innovation in Action: Data Dating

City highways and lights.

The world of dating has been forever-changed by the Internet. Applications such as Tinder, Bumble and Hinge have allowed for individuals separated by time and space to connect based upon shared interests, without ever needing to meet one another face to face. For better or for worse, this has led to an unprecedented level of digital connectivity unlike the world has seen before.

But what if this new technology could be used for a different purpose—for the betterment of communities, outside of pixilated messages and swipes? For Dr. Frank Ridzi, vice president, community investment at the Central New York Community Foundation, the idea wasn’t so farfetched.

Ridzi is a lover of data. He thrives on the excitement of recognizing trends between nonprofit groups in the Central New York community, and using data to allocate aid accordingly. Utilizing the Life Needs Assessment, a survey offered to various non-profits in the area, Ridzi pioneered the concept of “Data Dating.”

The Life Needs Assessment is quite simple; surveyed respondents answer succinct, straightforward questions such as “Do you have dependable and safe transportation when you need it,” and “Do you have long-term housing that you can afford.” Respondents are also asked to provide basic, demographic information on age, race, and neighborhood, among others, to analyze which communities are in need of certain resources.

The most crucial aspect of the survey is that it is completely confidential. Anyone who is served by a nonprofit organization has the opportunity to take the survey. Privacy is integral to data gathering, and the assessment never shares names in the process to protect respondents.

Similar in the way dating apps match users with one another based upon common interests, data dating uses survey responses to pair different nonprofits with one another based upon their clients’ needs and strengths. In all aspects of their operations, where one organization flourishes, another may struggle. Data Dating allows for different organizations to connect based upon mutually beneficial partnerships, and ultimately leads to better services for the communities the nonprofits represent.

PEACE, Inc. used Data Dating resources to partner with organizations that have similar missions to further enhance its work. Todd Goehle, community engagement director at PEACE, Inc., cited the importance of holistic data collection and collaboration with other organizations.

“The data that we’re accumulating doesn’t necessarily reflect the community at large,” he said. “This tool gives us opportunities, especially with live mapping, to identify locations where interventions can be made.”

The survey allows organizations to combine both qualitative and quantitative data to paint a better picture of the needs in communities. For example, during the onset of COVID-19, there was a common narrative that the most need-based resource was food. However, it became clear through surveyed respondents that there was a greater need for things like jobs, assistance paying bills, computers and internet connectivity. This data made it easier for organizations to identify the areas that needed attention and quickly shift resources to address them.

Pairing nonprofits together in order to more efficiently and effectively achieve their goals is the first step in creating a better quality of life for Central New York residents. Not only does the method of Data Dating facilitate a culture of partnership, but it ensures resources are allocated in an equitable and impactful way



Building Sustainability for the Arts Community

During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the arts and culture sector was among the hardest-hit. As residents remained shuttered in their homes, movie theaters, actors, arts organizations and independent artists struggled to sustain themselves — unable to share their talents. With support from the CNY Arts COVID-19 Impact Fund, emergency assistance provided them with a critical lifeline when they needed it most.

While the arts is commonly thought of as a “niche,” and small industry, the Arts & Culture Impact study in 2019 found that “greater Syracuse’s arts and culture industry generates more than $148 million in economic activity, supports nearly 6,000 full time jobs, generates $125 million in household income and delivers over $21 million in local and state government revenue,” while providing cultural and artistic talents that bring life to the Central New York community.

The arts and cultural sector is composed of myriad industries such as film, advertising, and digital and visual arts, as well as specific individual occupations like performers, musicians, architects, graphic designers, and curators. In addition to its direct contributions to the economy, the arts and culture sector supports and is supported by other professions, such as nonprofit administrators, promoters, accounting, and finance, further magnifying its economic footprint.

“At CNY Arts, we believe that a healthy arts industry is essential to the quality of life and community in Central New York,” said Steve Butler, executive director of CNY Arts. “The industry has been hit much harder than expected by the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout.”

Despite its importance, the arts in Onondaga County experienced a sharp decline in employment even before the pandemic. In 2018, total arts employment numbers in Syracuse dropped from 3,624 to 1,823. The decline not only hurt the sector, but exacerbated Central New York’s gender employment gap in the arts, with only 716 women in the industry in 2018. Since 2009, women have not come close to reaching equal employment numbers compared to their male counterparts – the closest they came was in 2012, when the gap was composed of only 44 people. However, 2019 data implies that women’s arts employment has begun to rise, with 745 women.

As the pandemic continued to disrupt all aspects of our lives, it became apparent that the arts was an area that needed immediate attention. Without patrons visiting museums, productions, shows and exhibits, independent and organized artists struggled to make ends meet. For live arts performers, the closing of venues presented an acute barrier to employment. According to CNY Arts, it is estimated that independent artists lost over $12,000, while organizations lost over $200,000.

CNY Arts realized the need to support local arts, and the community foundation partnered with them to carry out that vision. In August of last year, they had the opportunity to build a campaign fund with CNY Arts designed to support arts organizations in Central New York impacted by the pandemic: the CNY Arts COVID-19 Impact Fund. Specifically, this fund supports artists and nonprofit arts organizations in three categories: restart, reopening, and resiliency.

All contributions made to the CNY Arts COVID-19 Impact Fund were matched dollar-for-dollar, up to $175,000, by the Community Foundation, The Dorothy and Marshall M. Reisman Foundation and the John Ben Snow Foundation. As of Labor Day, CNY Arts reached its $1 million goal for this fund.

“Donations to the CNY Arts COVID-19 Impact Fund helped provide resiliency grants to artists and arts, culture, and heritage organizations in the seven county CNY Arts region,” said Butler. “Funding has been critical to these arts and cultural providers as they work to restart, reopen, and serve our communities as we heal and rebuild.”

Grants were allocated to the CNY Jazz Arts Foundation, the Erie Canal Museum, the Everson Museum of Arts of Syracuse and Onondaga County, Musical Associates of Central New York, Inc., Red House Arts Center, the SU Theater Corporation, among other talented, independent artists and organizations. Due to the slow process of reopening, CNY Arts will keep issuing grants through 2022.

“CNY Arts is committed to ensuring that our arts, culture, and heritage sector will survive and thrive and the Central New York Community Foundation is proud to be a resource to them in this work,” said Peter Dunn, President and CEO of the Central New York Community Foundation.



Lead Poisoning in CNY: Event Recap

On January 26th, 2022, the Central New York Community Foundation hosted a community discussion concerning the rate of childhood lead poisoning in the region. Chris Bolt, public affairs director at WAER, moderated the discussion and has been covering issues around Syracuse lead poisoning since the 1990s. Panelists included community leaders, health professionals and activists, who engaged in constructive dialogue to find solutions to an issue that has affected the lives of hundreds over the past 30 years.

Lead poisoning is an issue long thought to have been eradicated in the 1970s when lead paint was officially banned in the United States. However, when topcoats of new paint slowly erode over time, it can reveal the original, toxic paint on the walls underneath. When inhaled, it can lead to severe, irreversible side effects in children. When poisoned, children can develop headaches, seizures, and permanent cognitive disabilities. Dr. Frank Ridzi, vice president of community investment at the Community Foundation, relayed that lead poisoning is affecting around 4% of the county’s children.

Syracuse in particular is home to an older housing stock – houses built long before the lead paint ban went into effect. Thus, residents and their children remain at a higher risk of lead exposure. Around 9% of Syracuse city children tested positive for elevated levels of lead in their blood in 2020. Panelist Oceanna Fair, who works as the South Branch Leader for Families for Lead Freedom Now, cited the lack of education that results in childhood lead poisoning – if families are not aware of the risks, lead poisoning remains an almost incomprehensible possibility.

Dr. Indu Gupta, Onondaga County Health Commissioner, acknowledged the shortcomings in the effort to curb lead poisoning but explained that the overall case numbers were decreasing. She highlighted the need to match children with pediatricians, who are required by law to test children for lead poisoning. Ultimately she hopes to receive new funds from the state, in order to provide better overall testing for families in the city.

Bonfrida Kakwaya and Darlene Medley, two mothers who also work with Families for Lead Freedom Now, expressed their frustration and heartache. Both mothers have young children who have been poisoned by lead and are tired of seeing more children being poisoned every year. “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Medley said.

Syracuse City Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens and Commissioner Michael Collins assured attendees that they would continue to try and find solutions to the lead poisoning issue in the city. Peter Dunn, CEO of the Community Foundation, reiterated the Community Foundation’s commitment to invest $2 million over five years to making residences lead-safe, with a focus on the Syracuse census tracts that house children with the highest blood lead levels. “We want our young people to be able to arrive in the classroom able and ready to learn and on a path to reach their fullest potential,” he said.

Watch the full event video below:


City of Syracuse Launches New Snow Plow Map

Central New York residents are hardy when it comes to snowstorms – we know how to deal with it safely without much interruption to our daily lives. But what can be a minor hassle for some of us can be a major hurdle for others. Low-income individuals often work in service industries that can’t be done from home. A missed day of work due to snowed-in roads and sidewalks could mean fewer wages earned that week or even worse yet – being out of job. The guest article below, written by Conor Muldoon, explains how the City of Syracuse is launching a new, innovative tracking system to ensure road clearing is monitored and efficient.

City of Syracuse Launches New Snow Plow Map
By Conor Muldoon, Deputy Chief Innovation and Data Officer City of Syracuse

Syracuse is one of the snowiest cities in the United States. We consistently receive more than ten feet of snow every winter, and have been the winner of the Golden Snowball Award, a friendly competition amongst Upstate New York cities, for 14 of the past 19 years. In 2018, the Office of Accountability, Performance, and Innovation developed an in-house web application to track the City’s fleet of snow plow trucks and map street segments that had been plowed during winter storms in order to communicate to residents when their street had been plowed. The tool was exceptionally well-received and played an important role in the City’s communication strategy around an important public service delivery.

However, last year the system experienced significant challenges with the underlying sensor technology and ran into limitations in the frequency of the network provider’s communications – resulting in performance issues that made the much-anticipated snow plow map no longer functional. Despite extensive attempts to work around the inherent technical limitations, it became apparent that it was time to develop a more robust solution.

In October 2021, the City of Syracuse partnered with Esri to develop a new tool utilizing Velocity Pro – a software as a service (SaaS) that acts as a real-time ingestion and analysis engine to process large volumes of spatial data and consume streaming Internet of Things (IoT) data from multiple sources.

This partnership, one of the first in the nation, will allow the City of Syracuse to solve three simultaneous challenges. First, it will produce a public-facing map to communicate to our residents when their street was last plowed. This map will automatically update every few minutes, sync with SyrCityLine – the City’s new platform for service requests, and share other important information such as overnight parking restrictions. Second, it will provide internal fleet management tracking, so our colleagues at the Department of Public Works can inventory and track their fleet of equipment, define service areas, and create new snow routes. Third, it will create internal dashboards to monitor and improve our city services. This will allow department leaders to develop city-wide performance metrics and monitor individual plow operations to track fuel and salt usage – thereby more effectively and efficiently serving our residents and reducing our operational costs.

Finally, by leveraging outside support and technical expertise, this partnership will also free up City resources to explore how to integrate this technology into other IoT pilot initiatives as part of the Syracuse Surge. We are incredibly proud of what started as a shining example of technical ingenuity and intentionally low-cost innovation to show what is possible is now evolving into a comprehensive approach to how the City of Syracuse improves its snow operations, delivers key services more efficiently, and improves the quality of life in our community. View the snow plow map.


Hopeprint to Invest in Micro-Neighborhood

Jung Hoon Ryu moved to Syracuse from South Korea in 2005. During his mission work with the Boaz Project at his church, Korean Church of Syracuse, he encountered abandoned, broken and neglected housing on the Northside.

“I could see the broken hearts of the residents living in those conditions,” said Jung. “I realized then that God led me to Syracuse to help make change for them.”

Using his construction and architecture background, Jung established Building the Bridge USA to rebuild broken homes and communities and provide construction job opportunities for other New Americans. Through his involvement with Hopeprint, he was hired as the general contractor for one of its first lead-safe renovation projects.

On a warm August Day, Nicole Watts, CEO and founder of Hopeprint Inc., toured us around the Northside neighborhood. She loves the community of neighbors, the sound of the Assumption Church bells that play every hour and the kids playing in their yards. And she’s not the only one. The New Americans that settle in this neighborhood and find community through Hopeprint’s programs do, too.

“Folks come to us, and we build together,” Watts said. “We help them on their trajectory to thriving, and after a few years, many are ready to be homeowners, but they aren’t staying here.”

For more than a decade, Hopeprint has served the local resettled New American community through family empowerment programs, community navigation supports, and neighborhood development.

After a series of community dialogues, Hopeprint recently launched its micro-neighborhood reinvestment strategy, which seeks to address the area’s lack of quality, affordable housing. The strategy is multi-stepped with a focus on advocating for equitable transit options, right-sized housing, and business development. The chosen micro-neighborhood is a stretch of 30 blocks inside a boundary of four Northside streets (Park St., E. Division St., North Salina, and Kirkpatrick).

“We want to invest in these 30 blocks, so that residents can prosper in place,” Watts said. “So they don’t have to move away, and leave the community they’ve built here.”

Hopeprint approached Greater Syracuse Land Bank to purchase vacant homes and properties in the area, and hopes to start renovations on properties this fall. With support from the Community Foundation’s LeadSafeCNY initiative, Hopeprint will remodel the houses to be lead-safe.

According to the Onondaga County Health Department, more than 10 percent of Syracuse children tested in 2019 were shown to have elevated lead levels. On the Northside, such as in census tract 23, that number jumps to 16 percent – or one in every six kids. Our LeadSafeCNY initiative is committed to data-driven investments to eradicate childhood lead poisoning that disproportionately affects communities of color in the county.

“Our focus is on the people that call this place home,” Watts said. “This initiative is an investment in housing, but ultimately it’s an investment in people.”

As we walked the streets on the Northside, Watts pointed out the vacant houses and empty lots that she’s hoping to one day move families into. Some are full tear-downs, and others will take a lot of love and care, but it’s easy to see her vision as she talks.

She sees the problems – the broken windows, the faltering foundations – but just as easily sees the businesses that might one day root the corner of DeMong Park, or the new parents moving into their first home on North Alvord.

“We want to make sure that there are viable options for our families who want to stay on the Northside, and that there’s a quality home available to them,” Watts said.

As a Northside property owner and budding developer himself, Jung shares Hopeprint’s desire to see the Northside be a place where people can prosper in place.

“This is the first big step to reaching the light at the end of the tunnel and opening the door to the future for residents on the Northside,” he said.


Feeding the Community During COVID-19

COVID-19, one of the largest pandemics in world history, disrupted the lives of millions. Government entities were forced to close down businesses and schools to keep residents safe, resulting in job and income loss. Organizations began to respond to a wave of people facing challenges to accessing food.

The network of nonprofits collaborating on the Life Needs Assessment project (more about this later), however, looked at their real-time data and saw something different than they expected; the data showed that food needs were actually largely being met. This seeming contradiction led our community to look further and to reach out to key players in this field to learn more.

“The presence of these data was a seeming contradiction with national news media hype,” said Frank Ridzi, vice president, community investment at the Central New York Community Foundation. “Images of long lines at food pantries led to further investigation and discussion with food distribution professionals and even follow-ups with individuals who had completed the Life Needs Assessment.”

The Life Needs Assessment is a data source, managed by the Community Foundation, accessible to local funders and organizations committed to serving and helping the community. It functions as a centralized location for these groups to share up to the day information with each other about current needs of their clients and how those are changing.

One of the first places we looked was a long-term partner of the Community Foundation, the Food Bank of Central New York, which serves as a food provider to hundreds of thousands of families in our local community. Luckily, we learned, the federal government implemented legislation that supported farmers and food banks around the nation during the crisis. The result was that desperately needed food was making it into the homes of millions of families. “We have a fire hose of food and we are directing it wherever it needs to go,” said Brian McManus, chief operations officer at Food Bank of Central New York. This was a reassuring finding during an otherwise unnerving period of time.

The Food Bank partners with 370 different food pantries and agencies in Central and Northern New York. The pandemic disrupted typical operations such as sorting and transportation, forcing the organization to be creative on how to get food to those in need. They quickly adapted by implementing more mobile distributions in the communities they serve. Many volunteers and employees spent their evenings and weekends packing food in preparation for deliveries the next day.

“We had to change our model of distribution because it is typically very interactive,” said Karen Belcher, executive director of the Food Bank of CNY. “We found the need to partner with more community organizations in order to expand our accessibility and reach more families, individuals and seniors at this very uncertain time.

The pandemic brought many hardships and challenges for individuals and their families. The Nourish New York Initiative and emergency federal funding helped the Food Bank to obtain food to keep up with the accelerated demand. The Nourish New York Initiative provides funding to the Food Bank to directly purchase fresh produce from local farmers. This permanent initiative secures economic stability for farmers and consistent flow of food for food banks.

“Our pantries have been key partners during the pandemic,” said Belcher. “If the food pantries and soup kitchens hadn’t remained open, our work would have been much different than what we found ourselves in.”

Today, the Food Bank connects to 39 different farmers who grow and produce food. This leads to over 2.2 million pounds of produce and dairy products distributed to the community. To support the efforts to distribute and deliver food, the Central New York Community Foundation awarded them with more than $55,000 in funding from its COVID-19 Community Support Fund.

“The Community Foundation has been a huge resource,” said Belcher. “We share information to collaborate on tackling food insecurity in our communities.”

The Food Bank gives major appreciation and gratitude to the community for stepping up during this trying time for fellow residents.

“Donors and volunteers were major contributors to the effectiveness of packing and distributing food to families,” Belcher stated. “People came in with smiling faces ready to serve.”

The Life Needs Assessment that led CNYCF to re-connect with the Food Bank during this moment of crises is useful not only in identifying where immediate needs are emerging, but also in assuring us when key needs are being met. In this case, it helped us to come to appreciate one of the pandemic’s success stories, that much of the need was being met by the work of the Food Bank of Central New York.

To learn more about the Food Bank of Central New York, visit


Financial Empowerment Center Builds Stability for Syracuse Residents

In 2008, a housing crisis rocked the national economy, leading government offices to be overrun with phone calls requesting financial and housing assistance. In response, the New York City government quickly developed a new financial assistance program that helped thousands of residents to get back on their feet. Soon that successful program was reproduced in five other major cities, inspiring local government officials, nonprofits and funders to rally together to bring the Financial Empowerment Center (FEC) to Central New York in 2019.

The Syracuse FEC addresses a variety of residents’ financial concerns, from paying bills and saving for the future, to settling delinquent accounts and righting the wrongs of identity theft. Additionally, its clients are sometimes trying to establish good credit after a new financial situation such as a divorce, transitioning from a role as a student to a professional, or immigrating to the United States. Along the way, FEC has reported that not only does its clients gain financial stability, they also carve out a financial path in which they can thrive into the future.

Clients are welcome to contact the Syracuse FEC with any financial concerns and they may meet with a counselor as many times as is necessary to get their finances and credit squared away. Any resident, 18 years of age or older, of Syracuse and the surrounding area, is eligible for services regardless of their income or financial status. FEC’s well-trained and knowledgeable counselors help clients with tough-to-navigate situations by explaining how to resolve concerns and even doing the hard work, like providing the letters to validate and/or dispute derogatory accounts or to banks who are charging exorbitant overdraft fees.

Under the shadow of COVID-19, Syracuse’s concentration of poverty has hit an all-time high. According to the Community Foundation’s Life Needs Assessment data, which tracks needs such as transportation, food security and childcare, two of the most troubling problems Syracuse-area residents are currently struggling with are paying bills and saving money for the future. The survey shows that 30% of residents cannot pay monthly bills due to job loss. Another 40% say that they can’t save enough money for their future or for emergencies.

“We helped to bring the FEC here because a piece of the poverty equation is that a lot of people are unbanked, meaning that they don’t have banks and they’re not growing wealth,” said Frank Ridzi, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Community Foundation. “They don’t have access to home loans and personal loans. The FEC was designed to address that issue, building off of the Jargowsky report, which stated that Syracuse was number one in the nation for concentrated poverty for Blacks and Latinos in 2015.”

After a gathering in 2019 with city and nonprofit representatives, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Dr. Jonnell Robinson and Terry Eckert wrote a grant to bring the FEC to Syracuse. Across the country, FECs are designed to be a city government service partnered with a nonprofit. In Syracuse, the City of Syracuse partnered with Home HeadQuarters and The United Way of Central New York.

Funding from the City of Syracuse, the Community Foundation, the H.O.P.E. Anti-Poverty Initiative and others allows FEC to offer its services free of charge to all Syracuse residents. In Syracuse, 714 clients have been served since its inception two years ago. It has had over 2,287 sessions in which its clients have asked questions and resolved issues about their finances.

The FEC measures success through four different outcomes: credit, banking, debt and savings. A 35-point rise on a credit report signifies a good credit result. A reduction of non-mortgage debt by at least 10% is considered successful. Accessing safe and affordable bank accounts is successful when accounts are opened, typically after correcting issues that may have been an obstacle to banking found on a Chex Systems report. Lastly, the savings goal is realized when one week’s worth of household income is saved in the bank.

Data shows that Syracuse’s FEC is one of the nation’s top producers, reporting more clients achieving outcomes than other FEC’s around the country. Other FECs average 25% in outcomes, while the Syracuse FEC is averaging 47-50% in successful results. Over Syracuse FEC’s short tenure, it has brought $851,836 of increased savings for clients and reduced $1,751,855 in personal debt.

“We have a woman who, during COVID, lost her job and was living in homelessness,” said Mary Margaret O’Hara, former city manager of the Syracuse FEC. “She started working with one of our counselors and not only found a new job, but was able to find safe and stable housing. She even had a couple of thousand dollars saved in the bank, all in a period of 10 months.”

Another resident who hadn’t worked for fifteen years was financially shocked when his wife was laid off due to the pandemic. He decided to start his own company and his FEC counselor connected him with the small business administration for guidance. He started his business and soon felt financially stable.

Moving into financial stability is important to all of the Syracuse FEC’s clients. It’s also critical to our entire community for Syracuse to build intergenerational wealth and security, especially for our Black and Latino populations. With more economic opportunities, the unhealthy wealth gap in Central New York will be lessened and Syracuse’s residents can thrive into the future.