A summer festival in 2008 at an Amherst synagogue forged the largest annual fundraiser for the Food Bank of Western New York. Temple Beth Am – which since has merged with Temple Sinai into Congregation Shir Shalom – was planning the festival when board member Todd Sugarman suggested creating a walk to go with it. Fellow temple board member Gary Bluestein also was on the Food Bank board. The decision was made to give the walk proceeds to the Food Bank.
“The temple had always been a big supporter of the Food Bank,” said Bruce Corris, a then-television news producer tapped to run the event. “We do a high holiday food drive. We do a Thanksgiving basket drive.”
The walk, which raised about $80,000 last year, moved from the Congregation grounds four years ago to Island Park in Williamsville, where the ninth installment – including a summer fest – will take place next Saturday. Registration starts at 10 a.m.; the walk begins at 11 and the festival runs till 2 p.m. For more info, visit foodbankwny.org. Corris, 59, of East Amherst, COO of Market Domination in Williamsville, remains a key organizer.
Q. How did you get involved with the Food Bank?
It’s always been a cause that I believed in and have always been helpful whenever it was possible, but Walk Off Hunger is what really kicked off my very intense involvement. Every year, we’ve had more people from our temple than any other group, even in the last several years as it’s branched out. Jennie Pohl has walked the walk every year. She’s 96 and she’s planning to walk it again. And every year, she’s been either the top pledge producer or number two. In the eight years of the walk, she is the all-time pledge leader. In 2012, Calvary Episcopal Church came on board as a co-host of the walk and it got moved to Island Park in Williamsville, where it has been every since. It has grown. Last year was our biggest ever. We raised right around $80,000. Every dollar that the food bank gets provides six meals, so it was over half a million meals that we provided last year.
Q. How do the walk and the Food Bank help families in Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties?
The walk was started as a summertime event because the food bank isn’t always top of mind with people this time of year. You have the holiday food drives and there were always big events: Sweet Charity in the winter. Summer rolls around and people go on vacation, but the need also goes up in the summer. Look at all the kids who get free and reduced lunch. In the summertime, they’re not in school. The need goes up in the summer and the donations tend to go down. We want families to take part because you can live in any neighborhood and have need for the Food Bank. The kid who sits next to you in class might be getting help from the Food Bank and you might not even know it.
Q. Why is it important to help the Food Bank and how big is the challenge of hunger in the region?
It’s a great cause. In Judaism we do mitzvahs. There’s probably no better mitzvah than feeding the hungry. Whatever your religion, you do good things for people. You help people that need help. ... There’s a perception out there that people who get help from the Food Bank are not like you and me, they’re not our neighbors. That’s not true at all. Hunger doesn’t stop at the city line.
The Food Bank helps as many as 129,000 people every month, and as many as 45,000 of them are children. And let’s not forget seniors. We have a high poverty rate here. In the four-county area the Food Bank serves, approximately 22 percent of the children don’t necessarily get all the food they need. Approximately 180,000 people don’t have access at all times to enough food. The Food Bank provides food and services to over 300 member agencies and the numbers are staggering. In 2015, the food bank distributed enough food for more than 12 million meals.
Q. What will the walk be like next Saturday, July 30?
People will start checking in at 10 a.m. at Island Park; the walk begins at 11. It’s under two miles. We’ve kept it that way. It’s a very family friendly walk. We have parents pushing strollers, parents walking with children. There’s always senior citizens. The Williamsville Farmers’ Market is in the park with us. People can come early and buy some good food or do the shopping after the walk.
After the walk, we have Summer Fest, which goes till 2. That will feature music and games and children’s entertainment. We have a big basket raffle. We has sports team mascots. We have food. The Glen Park Art Festival is also being held , so people who come for the walk can also walk across the street (to Glen Park) and check out some great local artists.
The cost of the walk is $25 and that includes a great T-shirt and all the great festivities of Summer Fest, including your lunch. If your kids are under 16, they walk for free, so it’s a great family adventure to take part in. We have bounce houses, a climbing wall and children’s nutritional games, children’s fun games.
Q. What will families, and especially kids, learn about during the walk?
That anyone out there – anyone in Western New York – is the same. Everyone needs some help at one time or another. If you can help someone else, you should.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon