ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — When people talk about ending poverty, there are few players as big as Volunteers of America.
They are on the front line and Lynn Sullivan is their captain.
In my interview with her, we talked about how her group might fit into a larger community-wide plan, but also touched on her prior job running Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.
Interview Lynn Sullivan
Adam Chodak: Where are we right now?
Lynn Sullivan: So we’re in the Volunteers of America Children’s Center which is on Lake Avenue in the City of Rochester.
AC: You’ve been here for six months, what’s your impression?
LS: It’s quite an organization. I knew of the Children’s Center before coming here. I knew about the focus on homelessness. I wasn’t as aware of how expansive VOA really is within the community.
AC: Why don’t we talk about that, its core mission, but also its tendrils if you will …
LS: Our territory for VOA — VOA is actually a national organization — we have the Upstate New York territory so our territory technically covers everything from Albany to Buffalo and everything in between.
We currently have operations in Rochester and Binghamton so we have lots of room to expand. In Rochester we actually have four different locations. We have the Children’s Center which is here on Lake Avenue, we have our homeless shelter, which is over on Ward Street which is right next to our residential re-entry program as well and then we have operations from a supportive housing standpoint at Cooper Union which is on State Street. And then we also rent from the Diocese of Rochester our house called Foundation House which is another supportive housing operation so that’s just in Rochester. In Binghamton we have five different locations there with supportive housing.
AC: What’s the core mission?
LS: Helping people to rise up out of poverty and to really reach their full potential.
AC: And how does VOA do that differently than other organizations?
LS: VOA covers the spectrum. You’ll find babies here at our children’s center right up through age 12 from an after-school program standpoint, but we also cover the other age of the spectrum which is seniors with our supportive housing at Cobblestone.
So we cover the full spectrum of ages so we provide different programs, so here at the Children’s Center we not only operate Pre-K and Headstart programs, but we also operate wrap-around programs so that families that are working to make a better life have the opportunity to have their children in a safe place for the entire day and not sure part of the day and trying to find care afterwards.
And from a supportive housing standpoint we work to get people into homes where they will be able to stay as opposed to potentially living on the streets. There’s a real focused on keeping people housed, making sure they have food to eat, making sure the children are educated, even here at our Children’s Center we have a dental program that’s operated in cooperation with Jordan Health where children are starting at a young age getting dental care to ensure that they don’t miss hours at school because over 50,000 hours of education are lost every due to children not having the proper dental care.
AC: In Rochester, we have the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative and at this point they’re trying to get everybody just moving in the same direction. How has that been going because I have to assume VOA has been playing a role in this?
LS: We are. There’s been a focus that the right types of programs are on there. It’s more about providing people what I would consider a hand up, not a hand out, right? You can throw dollars at just about anything, but if you’re not providing the right programs and services those dollars aren’t used effectively.
There are people living on the streets in our community in places that would have never thought during the winter months, up underneath bridges. I mean, you just wouldn’t think that’s where people are living so it’s really making sure we’re getting people off the streets and into supportive housing and once they get there providing the right programs and services to keep them housed because all too often people will go into a shelter for the night and then end up back on the street because that supportive housing structure isn’t there so that’s part of it.
Housing is a key component to it, but it’s also providing those additional supportive services around there, understanding the person’s financials, understanding their family, could be loss of food stamps, how do you find the right food to provide the kids so they’re still eating and have an opportunity at a healthy life. It’s getting the right services and programs in place to ensure people stay housed and basically have their basic needs met.
AC: With that in mind, do you think VOA will fit nicely into the RMAPI plan?
LS: Yes, yes. I think we have been really focused on getting the right programs in place whether it be wrap-around care from a children’s center standpoint along with the Head Start program or the additional services provides for the supportive housing standpoint, even from a residential reentry program with individuals leaving incarceration, it’s really those programs in place to help ensure that they have a job when they leave out housing operation, that they have the right skill set to apply for a job or to secure housing.
We’ve actually worked with between our supportive housing operation and our residential reentry program to ensure that individuals coming out of incarceration and going into the residential program, once they’re done aren’t left without a housing option. In many cases they go back to live with family, but in many cases that’s not an option so they can very easily end up back on the street, which would likely lead to very likely going back to jail again, so trying to make sure they’re housed the whole way through so bridging those programs is key to ensuring success.
AC: You’ve had significant roles in the for-profit side of the world and the non-profit. Are there differences that you’ve seen between the two worlds?
LS: I think the first misnomer that it’s a much better work-life balance in the non-profit world, right? You expect a 40-hour work week and then you go home. It’s far from that, you get calls throughout the night, there are issues to address, but it’s also very rewarding, not to say the for-profit work-life isn’t rewarding, but seeing the difference on a day-to-day basis that an organization makes really causes you to come to work every day.
So I think that’s one of the big things, a mission of an organization that you really believe in is one of the differences, but non-profits and for-profits also operate similarly in that they have budgets and they have to secure funding and you have to have programs and services that people want or need and so there are a lot of things from a business standpoint that I learned in my for-profit lifestyle that I’m really using now the not-for-profit lifestyle to make sure we can provide the services going forward to the community.
AC: I find it interesting that in your previous job you were CEO of Holy Sepulchre and you were afraid of cemeteries …
LS: Yes, I was. I drove as fast possible past them holding my breath. My kids told me the spirits would get me, I tended to be superstitious. What I learned from being there is it’s a much different place and for me it was a mindset about how it was a place to really celebrate life was important and that’s what I focused on during my tenure there for about six years so we invented things that would help people celebrate the lives of their loved ones.
AC: What has driven you through your career so far? These roles have been demanding and force you to work outside of normal work hours …
LS: What drives me is really making a difference in the community. I’ve grown up in this community. I’ve been here since I was 2.5 so I am a Rochesterian through and through even though I was born in Jersey and so making a difference in the community and making Rochester a better place is something that’s been personally important for me for years.
My mother volunteered, my mother was a stay-at-home mom, but she volunteered for many years and she showed me it’s important to give back to the community. I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career. Kodak paid for my education and the Greece Central School District helped me where I was from a good start standpoint so really having those opportunities means giving back to the community in which you live.