Expertise Aided Multiple Organizations

Bob Gorman

Three years ago Watertown City Manager Sharon Addison called me about the fledgling backpack program at the Watertown City School District.

    Could the United Way, she asked, be the conduit for money so that people can make a tax deductible contribution to the United Way of NNY and designate the donation to the backpack program?

    Two things should be noted here: The United Way is the nation’s largest mover of money that connects donors and good works; and, food insecurity is one of the United Way’s national focal points.

    In other words, Addison had me at “could.”

    Soon after I found out that:

  • School districts collect money all sorts of ways, including booster club fundraisers and PTO membership drives. But the more money that comes and goes – other than taxes coming in and salaries, supplies and maintenance expenses going out – the more antsy school officials get. Creating new funding streams – such as backpack programs — makes it that much easier for some “helpful” outsider to quietly syphon off, i.e. embezzle, a little bit here and a little bit there.
  • To make a backpack program work, volunteers (usually administrators and teachers) spend their own time and gas money driving to various grocery stores to buy the least expensive food that meets minimum nutritional standards. The model often becomes unsustainable after creators of backpack programs discover that generating money to sustain a program is a lot harder than generating money to start one.

    In time Addison, Watertown School Superintendent Patti LaBarr and I were trying to figure out how to make the Watertown backpack program efficient and sustainable.

    Today, WCSD has a “Food 4 Families,” pantry that provides weekend food to around 100 students during the school year. The food is ordered online through the Food Bank of Central New York and delivered by an 18-wheeler every two weeks to the school district’s building on Massey Street. And more than $30,000 in donations has come to the United Way for our account at the Food Bank.

    During this same period of time, Addison played a quiet, behind-the-scene role in helping the New York State Zoo at Thompson Park remain viable as it retrofitted while in a chokehold world of increased animal care costs and a declining number of locally owned businesses available to sponsor educational programs.

    As a long-time Thompson Park Conservancy board member and former chair, I can tell you that over the years some city politicians have foisted agendas on the zoo that had more to do with their own election cycles rather than exhibit upkeep, animal health and procurement, and educational outreach.

    While the zoo is run independently from the city, the zoo is dependent on the city to pay for utility services, and provide upkeep of buildings that existed before the conservancy was created in the early 1990s. Addison always committed the city to fulfill its zoo obligations immediately – such as extensive improvements to the director’s house — rather than put the zoo at the end of the line for attention, as every city manager is tempted to do.

    I also worked with Addison on the $1 million Watertown Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative (ESPRI). While ESPRI Director Peter Schmitt deserves the credit for Watertown being the first city in the state to have its projects approved and funded, Schmitt in turn will tell you that Addison and Mayor Joe Butler set a tone and direction that greased the skids for success.

    To us, it is no wonder that Addison was recently honored by the Watertown Urban Mission and the Community Action Planning Council for her role in the success of the program “Getting Ahead in a Just-Getting-By World.” The program, which will now be funded through ESPRI, helps participants identify what they need to do to resolve crises in their own lives, and gives them the tools to overcome barriers that keep them in poverty.

    And have you noticed the impressive growth of the Victims Assistance Center of Jefferson County, which now has programs in St. Lawrence and Lewis counties? The VAC’s board of directors is chaired by Sharon Addison.

    Addison’s time as city manager is over, and we’re all entitled to our opinions about whether the city council hit a home run or struck out in deciding to not extend her contract.

    However, I think there is one thing everyone should be able to agree on: Addison was a failure at self-promotion and developing street-fighting skills. She never bought a horn to toot. And she never embraced the governmental management axiom that success requires you to occasionally and cold-bloodedly do unto others before they do unto you.

    My opinion of Addison is limited to only working with her in the nonprofit world. So maybe I am wrong, but I think our community would be better served if more women were like Sharon Addison.

                Actually, I think our community would be even better served if more men were like Sharon Addison as well.