Philanthropy Day Honors COVID-19 Heroes

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The Association of Fundraising Professionals Mahoning-Shenango Chapter is again recognizing local philanthropic efforts. But who the organization honors and the form of this year’s event will be different than years past. 

The National Philanthropy Day 2020 Celebration, scheduled for Nov. 13, will be held at Stambaugh Auditorium, with in-person and virtual options for members and honorees. 

And instead of recognizing individuals and organizations in specific categories, this year’s honorees will be acknowledged as COVID-19 Heroes for their efforts to address community needs arising from the pandemic.

The Mahoning-Shenango AFP chapter was determined to “push through” and recognize the people and organizations who have stepped up during the pandemic, says Susan Berny, who is co-chairing this year’s event with Luke Politsky.    

Berny is director of gift planning for the Ohio Living Foundation. Politsky is fund development specialist for the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown.

“Philanthropy is so important in the Mahoning Valley that we felt it would be too long of a time frame to not give thanks, to recognize those who did so much,” Berny says.

While many people were forced to shelter at home, others were able to donate the time they were kept away from school, work or other obligations “to use their resources to benefit others,” Politsky says.

Social distancing will permit up to 100 to attend the luncheon at Stambaugh Auditorium, with others being able to participate via a livestream of the event.

“Here at Stambaugh, we’ve had to slightly modify our way of doing business to accommodate the restrictions with COVID so we can provide socially distanced events in our ballroom,” says JoAnn Stock, chief development officer at Stambaugh Auditorium and a member of the National Philanthropy Day celebration committee. “We also have the equipment and staff who can provide livestreaming capabilities as well.”

This year’s 22 honorees range from Zachary Barber, an honors student at Youngstown State University who works as a medical scribe at Trumbull Memorial Hospital and volunteers on the comfort care and emergency department floors at St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital, to businessman Ed Muransky and his family, who collaborated with the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley on its ongoing Satur-Day of Caring food distributions.

Other honorees are the Youngstown Foundation, Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley and Raymond John Wean Foundation, which coordinated their efforts to meet local needs during the pandemic.

The entities and individuals spotlighted here represent just a portion of those being recognized at the National Philanthropy Day event.

Spirit of Giving Is Essential Ingredient at Summer Garden Food Manufacturing

Philanthropy is always on the menu at Summer Garden Food Manufacturing in Boardman.

Tom Zidian is CEO of Summer Garden Food Manufacturing in Boardman. His company’s philanthropic spirit kicked into overdrive when the pandemic began.

The company, which makes an array of pasta sauces including its Gia Russa line and other nationally distributed products, regularly provides sauce for fundraisers at half price, if not outright donating it.

That spirit of giving was no less apparent during the pandemic, as the company donated supplies, gift cards and truckloads of food.

Summer Garden and its CEO, Tom Zidian, were nominated for the National Philanthropy Day awards by Jeannine Donatelli, major gift officer at Akron Children’s Hospital Mahoning Valley.

“Tom and his team sprung into action at the start of the pandemic by ensuring every measure was taken to safeguard both his business and its hundreds of employees, with a mission to mass-produce Gia Russa foods and keep store shelves stocked at a time when certain foods were predicted to be scarce,” wrote Donatelli in nominating Summer Garden.

“We figured out what we were going to do to protect people at the manufacturing plant and also keep everybody calm,” Zidian says.

The company performed extensive cleanings, secured protective equipment and implemented safety measures at its facilities.     

Early on in the pandemic, Donatelli reached out to Zidian to ask if there was anything the hospital could do to help the company. During their conversation, he recalls, she shared that Akron Children’s was planning to make its own hand sanitizer but needed bottles.

“Since we bottle sauce, I had connections to get plastic bottles,” Zidian says. So Summer Garden ordered more than 4,500 plastic pump bottles for the hospital.

Additionally, the company donated gift cards to Akron Children’s workers and, later, to Mercy Health employees as well. The gift cards were included in bags of pasta and sauce.

“They are on the front lines,” Zidian says. “They’re out there every day and it had to be scary. It still is, but certainly at the beginning when no one knew anything about this virus.”  

Summer Garden also donated food during the pandemic to organizations such as Salvation Army, United Way, Second Harvest Food Bank, and local police and fire departments.

“Anybody that had a need, we helped them,” Zidian says.

“It’s our duty to help out everyone we can. That’s what we do. We make food.”

Former Inmates Turn to United Returning Citizens

In the best of times, the process is daunting for individuals with a criminal record as they transition back into society. That process is further compounded by the global pandemic.

For Dionne Dowdy, executive director of United Returning Citizens in Youngstown, the mission to assist those formerly incarcerated is personal. Her father and her husband are just two of the people she knew who went to prison.  

Dionne Dowdy is the executive director of United Returning Citizens. Her organization assists formerly incarcerated individuals as they return home.

“I had brothers, cousins, and I knew they were better than their situation. I knew they were smarter than their situation,” she says.

Dowdy joined United Returning Citizens in 2015. She took over the organization when its founder left the area and began the process of converting it to a 501(c)(3).

The goal is to support individuals released from incarceration with their transition to a new lifestyle that involves self sustainability by legal means. That typically involves helping them to obtain identification cards and medical care.

The program also operates support groups and initiatives to help “men and women know their self-worth,” Dowdy says.

In nominating Dowdy, Charlene Lambert praised her “extraordinary commitment” to United Returning Citizens and the community.

She “continues to perform her job at an exemplary level throughout the COVID-19 pandemic by diligently enforcing safety protocols, locating and securing resources such as housing and employment for an underserved sector” of the community, Lambert wrote. Her work ensured that those individuals have the necessary resources to prevent the virus’ spread when stabilizing themselves in the community.

United Returning Citizens obtained funds from local foundations to provide financial support for released felons, many of whom were employed in restaurants and other businesses hit hard by the pandemic.

The organization also supported inmates who called or sent videos about conditions inside the prisons and partnered with the Ohio Transformation Fund to get them help and raise awareness of their concerns.

And to help inmates who had to be placed in solitude because of prison conditions, employees staffed a listening campaign as a way to ease their anxieties.

One of United Returning Citizens’ programs is an entrepreneurship initiative called I Am Ready. Many former inmates already have shown the 
“spirit of entrepreneurship,” unfortunately by selling drugs, for example, which led to their incarceration, Dowdy says.

“What we do is take that same spirit and add it to another product.”

Pamela Russo Helps Dementia Patients Deal with Pandemic

Pamela Russo, wise and well coordinator with Wickshire Senior Living in Poland (formerly Sunrise Assisted Living), entered the senior care field 21 years ago, after taking care of her mother-in-law, who had cancer.

Pamela Russo, Wickshire Senior Living’s wise and well coordinator, works with dementia patients to “keep them content” during the pandemic.

That experience, she says, taught her that it’s a privilege to care for people unable to care for themselves. After her mother-in-law’s death, she took a job at the assisted living center and today primarily works with residents who suffer from dementia.

“I get to sit with them and talk to them or give them manicures and hand massages,” Russo says.

Her service to patients since the start of the pandemic inspired Emily Rusu, her daughter, to nominate her as a COVID-19 hero.

“In this time of stress, Pamela Russo has gone above and beyond to enrich the lives of dementia residents,” Rusu wrote in her nomination. “This year has been difficult for everyone, including the residents who have a difficult time understanding the situation. Pam has put herself on the front lines to help those who need it – and give piece of mind to their families.”

Assisted living residents used to be able to travel by van or bus to activities and go out for lunch, she says, but are largely restricted to their rooms. Even many low-functioning residents are aware that something is different during the pandemic.

“Part of what I do is keep them content and happy,” says Russo, who was interviewed before state visitation restrictions were modified. “They have window visits and they can’t hug, they can’t kiss, they can’t touch their family members and it’s very difficult for them. So we are there to console them.”  

Residents similarly have a difficult time during outdoor visits, not understanding why they have to stay apart and can’t get up and have physical contact with their loved ones. “We have to explain to them what’s going on, that there’s a virus and we’re trying to keep everybody safe,” Russo says.    

Russo has found “a lot of success” with Facetime visits, and finds it amazing to see the reactions of residents as they connect with family and friends.  

“I’ve also been able to share pictures of the residents with their family members. I’ll take pictures of us dancing or having fun with their care managers,” she says. “They really appreciate seeing mom and dad.”

COVID-19 HERO: Youngstown Area Jewish Federation (Lipkin)

The values that guide the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation and its affiliates are embodied in the phrase “Tikkum Olam” – repairing the world.

“We don’t only care about the Jewish community. We care about the general community. We care about the area we live in,” says its CEO, Andy Lipkin.

Andy Lipkin is the CEO of the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation. He says the organization raised and distributed $250,000 to 15 local nonprofits. 

The Youngstown Area Jewish Federation “provided vital services to the community regardless of religious affiliation while also giving much-needed funding to other local organizations,” stated Bruce Sherman, who nominated the federation.  

These services included distributing funds through a community grant program, opening a pandemic day care, and delivering more than 3,500 meals weekly to area seniors.

Lipkin attributes the organization’s ability to rapidly respond to the pandemic and the needs it created to the dedicated leadership of volunteers and professional staff throughout its 85-year history.

“If we weren’t strong before, it would have been more difficult to do the things that we were able to do,” he reflects.

One of the initiatives was a fundraising campaign that provided more than $250,000, including $122,000 from the federation’s Thomases Family Endowment.

The funds were distributed to 15 local nonprofits, according to Lipkin.

The daycare was established to meet internal and external needs. Staff found their child care options limited with state orders curtailing operations at day care centers.

At the same time, first responders and front line health-care workers with children needed child care services.

“At our maximum, we probably had 50 kids,” Lipkin says.

The federation also partnered with Direction Home of Eastern Ohio to produce and distribute meals to residents of Mahoning County and northern Columbiana County age 60 or older.  “I think we were doing 3,800 [meals weekly] at our maximum,” Lipkin says.          

Other initiatives included launching a hotline to connect people with mental health, food or other forms of assistance, hosting a blood drive, and establishing a program that connected younger members of the Jewish community with residents of the Heritage Manor nursing home and Levy Gardens assisted living community.  

“Everything we’ve done would not have happened without the generosity of the entire community, whether it’s the Jewish community, the Thomases Family Endowment, banks and other financial institutions and people who gave us money,” Lipkin says.

“That spearheaded everything.”   

Pictured: Luke Politsky, JoAnn Stock and Susan Berny gather around a piano at Stambaugh Auditorium, where National Philanthropy Day will be held. Politsky and Berny are co-chairmen of the event; Stock is Stambaugh’s chief development officer.