Community Action congratulated on 60th anniversary in US, 59 years in Orleans

Photo by Tom Rivers: Renee Hungerford, executive director of Community Action of Orleans and Genesee, accepted a proclamation from County Legislator Don Allport on Tuesday evening. The Legislature proclaimed May as “Community Action Month” and also commended the agency for its 60th anniversary. Other agency officials in photo include Bonnie Malakie, Director of Children & Youth Services; Barb Shine, chairwoman of the board of directors; Tina Schleede, chief financial officer; Katrina Chaffee, Director of Community Services and Reporting; and Bruce Schmidt, vice chairman of the board.

By Ginny Kropf, correspondent Posted 24 April 2024 at 1:55 pm

ALBION – The Orleans County Legislature on Tuesday presented a proclamation in honor of Community Action’s 60th anniversary and also May as Community Action month.

“We are grateful to Orleans County for this proclamation, and we are proud of the work we do for our community,” said Community Action’s director Renee Hungerford.

Hungerford explained Community Action agencies connect millions of individuals and families for greater opportunity, transforming their lives and making communities – and the nation – stronger. In 2020, the year impacted by Covid-19, Community Action nationwide served more than 9.5 million people (or 26 % of the 37.2 million Americans living in poverty).

Last year, Community Action of Orleans and Genesee assisted over 4,000 individuals to help them overcome the impacts of poverty and to work toward achieving self-sufficiency.

Highlights from 2023 include: 4,021 individuals assisted; 1,541 benefited from food pantries; 5,405 meals served at the Holley center; 288 children and families supported by Head Start programs; 96 homes weatherized; 311 individuals assisted to avoid eviction; 421 adolescents received education on making good life choices through ACT; and 2,739 received transportation trips.

Helping people in need has been the focus of Community Action agencies throughout the country since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964.

His speech in January of that year paved the way for fighting the “war on poverty,” and led to his signing the Economic Opportunity Act, which became the initial funding source for what are now Community Action agencies.

“We are proud of the work we do to continue to fight President Johnson’s War on Poverty,” Hungerford said. “I am grateful to Orleans County legislature for their support of our agency and the important work we do to raise up the communities that we assist. Also, many thanks to the donors and volunteers who help make our positive outcomes possible.”

This year is the 60th anniversary of Community Action agencies nationwide. It is the 59th anniversary of the establishment of Community Action in Orleans County.

It was 1965 when chairman of the Orleans County Board of Supervisors, Raymond Pahura, appointed a committee to study ways in which Orleans County might benefit from the Economic Opportunity Act (War on Poverty).

Arden McAllister, a Medina history teacher who represented the Migrant Ministry, was named temporary chairperson of that committee. An action committee was also formed which included Clayton Scharping, sanitary inspector; Arthur Nenni, Welfare Commissioner; and Zelma Duckett of the Migrant Ministry. This committee was formed to study local needs for housing, migrant labor and youth training, as well as problems facing older Americans.

In June of that year, the Rev. Jack Smith of Christ Episcopal Church in Albion was appointed the first chairman of the newly formed Orleans Community Action Committee, with programs funded with 90 percent Federal funds and Orleans County contributing 10 percent. Vice chair was the Rev. Johnnie Johnson from Shiloh Baptist Church, secretary was Zelma Duckett and treasurer was Paul Bower, a bank official in Albion.

In July, 1965, Jerim Klapper was selected as the first executive director, and under the anti-poverty programs the following were begun: Head Start, Family Planning, Legal Aid, Neighborhood Youth Corps and People’s Opportunity. The agency was incorporated on Sept. 13, 1965.

Head Start and later Children’s Health Assurance Program were formed to teach children and help with good health practices. Next came the Eastern Orleans Community Center – Community Action’s satellite office in Holley, to assist with senior citizens and pre-schoolers.

This was followed by Community Action Transportation System (CATS) to transport senior citizens, and Community Action Resource and Educational Service (CARES), which was a mobile van traveling the county to inform residents of the programs available under the newly formed Orleans Community Action Committee.

Since 1965, many programs have spun off and many new programs were developed. After Klapper resigned in in 1968, David Bower became executive director until 1970, followed by Emma Ford until 1972, at which time Charles Pulley took over the helm until 1992.

Upon his retirement, deputy director James Scharping became executive director. He retired in Sept. 30, 2005 and Edward Fancher, who was then operations director, became executive director. Sadly, in May 2020, Fancher died after a courageous battle with cancer. Renee Hungerford joined the agency as executive director in October 2020.

“Now, more than 50 years later, we have grown to be an agency with an operating budget of more than $7 million and employ more than 130 people,” Hungerford said.

The agency serves both Orleans and Genesee counties with sites in Albion, Holley, Medina, Kendall and Batavia. The agency began providing services in Genesee County in the 1970s, and was officially designated as the Community Action agency in Genesee County in 1988. In 2008, the legal name was changed to Community Action of Orleans and Genesee to better reflect the service area.

Programs they operate are CATS, Emergency Services, food pantry, weatherization, child care resource and referral, ACT, job skills and budgeting workshops, tax assistance, a thrift store and employment skills training site, and have expanded Head Start to include Early Head Start. They collaborate with other local agencies, such as United Way, Ministry of Concern, Department of Social Services in Genesee and Orleans counties, Office for the Aging, Red Cross and many more.

“As we continue to grow, we are increasing our efforts on becoming a data driven, results oriented organization,” Hungerford said. “This enables us to measure our impact and ensure resources are directed toward the greatest needs of our communities and the mission of helping people become self-sufficient.”