Nonprofit has worked to improve quality of life in Central New York
By Norah Machia
A nonprofit organization is celebrating 25 years of helping citizens join forces with government, community and business leaders to improve the quality of life in Central New York.
FOCUS Greater Syracuse offers several programs that bring a diverse group of people together to discuss the most pressing issues in the community and how to solve them.
“We’re big on collaboration, with government agencies, nonprofits, school and others,” said Don Radke, immediate past board president. “People come to our organization to get involved, ask questions and get answers. But we’re not a political organization.”
One of its biggest accomplishments is “the fact that we’re still here after 25 years, given the political environment that exists nationwide,” Radke said. “We’ve always been promoting citizen engagement, and we’re stronger than ever.”
The organization was started by Charlotte “Chuckie” Holstein, a civic leader who organized countless numbers of groups and events that focused on improving the lives of Central New Yorkers. She was the first executive director of FOCUS and just retired from the board four years ago.
“We would not be here without her,” said Radke, who noted Holstein recently turned 98.
FOCUS stands for “Forging Our Community’s United Strength” and its mission is to “educate, celebrate, facilitate and communicate,” Radke said. Citizen engagement plays an important role in finding answers to issues that arise in the community, he added.
How do they do it?
The organization hosts free public forums each month that bring citizens and community leaders together to discuss a variety of topics, including the economy, health and public services, housing, education, culture and the arts and recreation.
The monthly topics are decided at the beginning of the year, during the organization’s annual forum held each January, said Rita Reicher, president and interim executive director. “We ask the community what they would like to hear about, and then use that information to develop the monthly sessions for the year.”
This approach helps FOCUS conduct citizen-centered research and combine it with community planning, making their findings available to local leaders and the public. Their reports are created to help find solutions for pressing issues by making positive changes, said Reicher.
FOCUS has made reports and recommendations for improving the quality of Onondaga Lake, developing “age friendly” communities and preparing for a flu pandemic. That report was issued several years prior to COVID-19 pandemic.
City of Syracuse and Onondaga County officials, along with other individuals, organizations and businesses, often use the FOCUS reports for planning and implementing changes. “The community leaders know us well,” said Reicher.
For years, the forums were held in person, but the format was changed to a virtual one during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are plans to schedule “hybrid” forums this year, which would allow for both in-person attendance and virtual participation.
Each year, FOCUS also sponsors a Citizens’ Academy program with the Syracuse University office of community engagement. “This is our flagship program” said Radke. “It’s a beautiful dialogue between citizens and government leaders.”
Those interested must apply for the 10-week program and FOCUS makes it a priority to have representation from a diverse group by selecting applicants from different zip codes. The cost is $50 for the entire program.
While some time is spent in conference rooms, participants often travel to different sites “where professionals in the field are doing very good work in the community,” said Reicher. “These are people who are very approachable and passionate about their work.”
Visits have been made to the Metropolitan Syracuse Wastewater Treatment Plant, the Syracuse Common Council Chambers and the Onondaga County Justice Center. The program is in its 18th year and has more than 600 graduates, said Jessica Lisi, director of marketing and communications.
“We draw people from all walks of life, and we really prioritize diversity,” she said. “People leave this program with a passion to create and build from their experiences.”
When FOCUS was started as a community-wide visioning project in 1998, participating citizens established 87 goals for the Greater Syracuse region they wanted to see achieved in the next 25 years. It’s been a major priority for FOCUS and today, more than half of the goals that resulted from meetings with thousands of citizens have been achieved.
A major fundraiser for the organization is the Wisdom Keeper Celebration, which honors one or more people who live or work in Onondaga County and “are a driving force for making this community a better place to live,” said Reicher. “We celebrate the work people have done for the community, both on and off the job.”
The names of the Wisdom Keepers award recipients are inscribed on plaques attached to rocks that make up the Wisdom Keeper Garden, located near the FOCUS office at 201 E. Washington St. in downtown Syracuse.
Past recipients have been from Onondaga, Oswego, Madison and Cayuga counties, said Lisi. “They have a vision for tomorrow and they leave the community better than they found it.”
Last year’s Wisdom Keepers award recipients were Calvin L. Corriders, regional president for the Syracuse Market for Pathfinder Bank and Pamela M. Brunet, executive director of Leadership Greater Syracuse.
For more information: www.focussyracuse.org.
Reports Look at Key Community Aspects
Reports issued by FOCUS Greater Syracuse:
One of the most popular reports issued by FOCUS was “Shaping an Age-Friendly CNY: A Study on How to Retain and Engage Boomers in Our Community.” This reported on the findings of a county-wide study including nearly 2,000 surveys, interviews, and focus groups, which included participant views on which factors were important in deciding where to live as they grow older and how Central New York ranked relative to these factors. Some of the most desirable factors identified included cost of living, safety, opportunities for physical activity and housing.
The report made recommendations for change across 10 domains: housing and neighborhoods; transportation; community and health services; recreation, culture, and education; taxes; work opportunities; civic engagement; philanthropy; family and social networks; and safety.
Other reports issued by FOCUS include:
• Arts & Cultural Downtown, a report which helped lead to the development of a designated downtown cultural district in Syracuse.
• FOCUS on Our Lake Studies (Water & Waterways) was used by Honeywell, which finished implementing New York state’s cleanup plan for Onondaga Lake. A citizen survey was also done on the use of the lake and its shores, and FOCUS on Onondaga Lake provided a roadmap to facilitate reconnecting the lake with the community.
• Link CNY Innovation Expos reported on annual events showcasing regional assets, new ideas and opportunities in technology, manufacturing, energy, environment, social entrepreneurship and sustainability.
• CNY Pathways/Connecting Healthy Communities focused on accessible multipurpose trails and bike paths. This report contributed to the county’s master plan for trails, Walk Bike CNY and the city’s addition of bike lanes.
• CDC Citizen Engagement Sessions. FOCUS selected to engage citizens on these Centers for Disease Control initiatives: Community Control Measures for Pandemic Flu Epidemic (what citizens would/would not do in an epidemic), US Vaccine Plan (for citizen input in development of National 10-Year Vaccine Plan.