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United Way takes on real meaning

As JoAnn Mierzwa begins her second year as executive director of the United Way of the Tonawandas, her work in two neighboring cities in separate counties now includes a new musical-revue-style fundraising fashion show set to become an annual event.

"It pulled together aspects of the life here in the Tonawandas. Things that are unique here to the Tonawandas: Vintage clothes. Performance art," said Mierzwa, who took the post in June 2010.

A week ago today, her agency sponsored the "Fashion Extravaganza" in the Riviera Theatre. The event was organized by the Webster Street Hip Gypsy clothing boutique -- two of the three owners are Mierzwa's cousins.
About 400 people bought $15 tickets, coming to what developed into a unusual happening, with the audience cheering on local models, yelling things like, "That's beautiful. You'll see it on Facebook!"

"It wasn't just a silent, polite, clapping audience," said Mierzwa. "It was very involved."

While fashion show proceeds are still being tallied, the contribution seems to be about $5,000, which will narrow the gap between this year's United Way fundraising goal of $325,000 and the $282,00 collected and pledged.

"I'm hoping that we have a very good year this year," she said, "and that we can set our sights a little bit higher next year."

The experience left Mierzwa thinking that the evening managed to blend important things she cares about: From getting the word out about her organization and its support of 13 human service agencies in Tonawanda and North Tonawanda -- the North Tonawanda Inter-Church Food Pantry, Niagara County Legal Aid Society and the Boys and Girls Club of the Northtowns -- raising money and celebrating her community.

"It's not that people have to go to a food pantry in Buffalo. It's domestic violence counseling services here. They need to be right here for the community," said Mierzwa, former program director at the North Tonawanda-based YWCA, where she worked for nine years before taking the United Way post.

>While your career focused on leading nonprofit human service organizations, you started out in the 1970s as a special-education teacher? Can you tell me about a memorable student experience?

I was working in Williamsville at the time. I remember that this one child had a great deal of trouble. She would eat erasers. When we finally realized that she had moved away from that behavior

...You know it feels amazing, and the parents feel the growth, and they feel better, and you know the stage is set that something else positive can happen. And then it gives you that push to try other things.

I think you find that you learn team work. It's never a straight line. That comes back to this wonderful thing about the fashion show. The community sees a positive direction. It's like the positive that builds.

>So the women owners of the Hip Gypsy came up with the idea to hold a musical fashion show?

Three women own the shop. Holly Rankie, Sharon Barber, Lydia Connor. The shop is relatively new. I think it's been about a year. They're very creative. They also wanted to bring their spark, not just to North Tonawanda, but Tonawanda.

They're my cousins: Holly and Sharon have lived in the Tonawanda area all of their life.

They have a passion to see that the merchants do well. They wanted to create an event that got everybody going and interested, and something that would benefit the community.

It wasn't just a fashion show. There were retro clothes. There were vintage looks. A country and western look. Skin art: Tattoo.

It's very representative of what's here on the two main streets of the Tonawandas. There was a tribute to the Vietnam vets. They came out in uniform and did the Pledge of Allegiance. Those girls outdid themselves. Restaurants donated food. It was a coming together of all that is good in the Tonawandas.

>What was the show like? There were dance routines built into a series of thematic "vignettes"?

They had a choreographer. There was a little bit of a catwalk. There was "romance," "country and western," "biker." In each one of thes vignettes, it started out with a choreographed song.

In "romance," each girl came out with a gentleman. Each girl came forward and talked about what they had on and each of of the stores represented. It was so much more than the blue dress and the red dress. It was a visual and musical art moment almost.

You just got this overwhelming sense that people were happy to be there. The models were happy to be there. The interesting thing was the audience ran the gamut from the younger people to -- how do you delicately say -- the senior citizens.

It was a lot of work, but it was a really a celebration. I think as soon as we all recover, we'll start thinking about the next one.

>Did you see anything you wanted to buy? Outfits included "art" dresses made of coffee filters and garbage bags?

I'm a little bit more staid. There was a beautiful gold '50s dress with the waist and the full skirt. It was breathtaking. I could see one of my daughters wearing it. I think it was actually sewn for this event by Holly.

>What is it like working with two cities, in separate counties?

It is an oddity. We're divided by the Erie Canal. From the Main Street bridge over the canal, the street changes to Webster Street in North Tonawanda. This challenges us to know about programs that are available in Erie County and Niagara County.

We have citizens that have needs, and sometimes that's overlooked because you know about the difficult situations in Niagara Falls and the City of Buffalo.

You know, when I worked at the YWCA, which was in North Tonawanda, it serviced both cities, too, and I learned to live with it. There's not a wall around the cities. I see more common threads that run between the two of them. I feel that it's a close-knit community in both sides. Both of them are hard working, almost blue-collar.

I think there's great passion here for our communities. I think both communities are understanding that there's great potential.

>Can you describe a memorable experience since coming to the United Way?

It was the first Christmas that I was here that a family called. A family in crisis. A young mother who was recently widowed.

This family looked for support late. They also had older children. A lot of the Christmas support is obviously geared toward the younger child.

That's why we took this family. They fell through the cracks. The need here wasn't going to be met.

I turned to a local store, and they provided Christmas dinner. Not only that people stepped up and provided gift certificates, food for Christmas dinner, there were some gifts so the holiday would be marked. A man bought a piece of jewelry There was this letter: Give this to your mother from Santa Claus.

We were also able to talk to the mother about the services available: grief counseling. We were able to point the direction to other services that might help them.

>How did you feel about it, in the end?

When the mother comes in to collect the Christmas help, you can sense the joy. You can sense the kind of happiness that there was support for them. You share it. You feel good, too. You can't deny that.

The downside of this is very often you give the telephone numbers and try to make the connection. You don't necessarily find out if it did or didn't. You hope that it did.

Maybe they didn't call you back because they're on a better path. Then you just turn around and you're ready for what comes through the door next or the telephone call that comes.

Know a Niagara County resident who'd make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Bruce Andriatch, Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email