Chapter Honored for Outstanding Community Spirit
Wearing a brightly colored patchwork dress with a hat and a smile to match, Joan Ganz of the Farmingdale chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) on Monday helped Santa Claus give Christmas gifts to children at Farmingdale Head Start.
Her kind actions, as well as those of the several other AARP members present that day, exemplified a characteristic for which the group has become well-known - commitment to serving others.
In recognition of this commitment, the Farmingdale chapter, also known as Chapter Number 3967, last week received the national AARP's 1997 Community Spirit Award. The organization bestowed this honor to only two of its 200 chapters throughout New York State.
The AARP presented the community service award to one upstate chapter and one downstate chapter. The chapter for Cohoes, a community outside of Albany, received the upstate award.
Ganz, who is past president and current program director of Farmingdale AARP accepted the award, along with Blanche Oaks, who is past secretary and current first vice-president, on behalf of the chapter during a ceremony that was held in Manhattan. "I was thrilled for the chapter. It was the first award ever, which made it very special," said Ganz while discussing the honor during a Christmas party the group organized for Farmingdale Head Start.
Farmingdale AARP member Clare Deucher also received an award at last week's ceremony in Manhattan, during which a total of five awards were presented. She received the Chapter Specialist Award in recognition of her efforts at establishing new AARP chapters. Deucher has started eight new chapters on Long Island.
The Farmingdale AARP, which was established 12 years ago, has 600 members and a waiting list, making it the largest chapter on Long Island. In presenting the award to the Farmingdale chapter, leaders of the national AARP noted that the group did some of the national organization's most important work. "Thanks to Chapter Number 3967, New York's seniors have better access to services to help them live more independently," said David Rogowsky, AARP's regional volunteer director.
Farmingdale AARP's community service activities, in addition to a volunteer program at Farmingdale Head Start, include cleaning up Swan Lake, also known as Uncle Harry's Lake, which lies behind Farmingdale High School, and collecting clothing, food, money and eyewear for the needy. The members also deliver meals to the homebound and visit residents of Daleview, a nursing home in Farmingdale, among other activities.
Although this was the first year that the chapter was recognized for this extensive volunteer work, an emphasis on service is not new to the group, according to Luci de Haan, a spokesperson for the national AARP. "The Farmingdale chapter has, for the past 10 years, focused on community service," she said, commending the members during a telephone interview after the award presentation.
In addition to organizing a Christmas party for Head Start each year, the Farmingdale AARP members organize a Halloween party for the children and volunteer weekly at the program. Andy Falsetta, who, with his wife Connie, heads up the Farmingdale AARP's volunteer program at Head Start, said the volunteers serve as positive adult role models for the children.
Head Start is a federal program designed to give children from low-income households pre-school educational training. Many of the children, upon entering the program, speak very little English, Falsetta said, noting that it is gratifying for the AARP volunteers to see the children's language skills develop throughout the school year. Their social skills also develop, he noted. "They're all kind of stand-offish initially. But later on, they open up nicely to you," he said.
Despite the success of such service programs as the one at Head Start, Falsetta was not expecting the award that the Farmingdale AARP received. "That was a big thrill and a big surprise," he said. "We know that we're an active chapter, but that took us by surprise. It was very gratifying."
The willingness of the chapter's members to participate in service projects is one of the qualities which has made it strong enough to win the award, Falsetta noted. "Generally, we have no problem getting volunteers," he said, adding, "I don't know how to describe it, but they seem very community-minded, and they have sort of a small-town philosophy about them which makes it work very well."
Don Ruffner, who heads up Farmingdale AARP's program of delivering meals to the homebound, described the rewards of this community-minded activity. "These people that get these meals really just can't do for themselves," he said. "It's great to see the smiles on their faces when you give them a meal."
The AARP delivers meals every day to disabled people who live in Farmingdale, Bethpage and North Massapequa. The meals, which consist of both hot and cold food, are provided by Mid-Island Hospital of Bethpage. About 30 AARP members volunteer for the program. "The program really exemplifies the AARP slogan, which is "To Serve, Not to Be Served," Ruffner said.
Ruffner also heads the Farmingdale chapter's efforts at cleaning up Swan Lake. Using plastic bags and tools provided by the Town of Oyster Bay's Adopt-A-Spot program, the group removes debris from the area on the third Saturday of each month. "Every month, we go down and do our job, so to speak," he said.
During each visit, the group fills nine to ten garbage bags full of debris. "You'd be surprised what you find down there," Ruffner said, noting that the volunteers have pulled from the lake such debris as automobile tires, logs, and an old telephone. He added that until last year, the lake was alive with swans and ducks, but that he no longer sees them there. He believes the pollution is the cause of their disappearance.
The volunteers who clean up Swan Lake are committed to reversing the effects that pollution has on local ecology, Ruffner noted. "They're proud of Long Island," he said. "They were probably all born and raised in the area, and they want to maintain the area."
Other community service programs in which the Farmingdale AARP participates include volunteering at Mid-Island Hospital, volunteering in Farmingdale Public Library's Adopt-A-Shelf program, and raising scholarship money for local youth.
Through Long Island Blood Services' Golden Blood Donor program, members donate blood twice a year. The chapter also collects clothing, food and money for the needy at every general meeting they hold. The clothing is donated to St. Vincent de Paul Society, a charitable organization that has 60 area conferences and a network of thrift stores throughout Long Island. The food and money are given to St. Kilian Parish Outreach of Farmingdale.
The member's charity extends beyond the local area. For example, they help out in a clothing drive for the Rosebud Native American tribe of North Dakota, according to Ganz. The drive, she said, is organized by Dr. Eileen Rowan, a Bayville, Long Island-based veterinarian.
Farmingdale AARP also collects used eyeglasses and sends them to Eyes for the Needy, a Short Hills, New Jersey-based charitable organization.
Ganz believes these projects make a difference in the lives of the people the AARP helps. She explained this belief at the Head Start Christmas party after the children had finished opening the gifts given to them by Santa. "Oh, you can feel it; you can see it," she said, pointing to the smiling children as they played with their new toys.