Local group serves close to home
By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
The sounds of a woodchipper and chainsaws filled the baking-hot air June 20 as volunteers from Operation Northern Comfort chopped up a downed tree in Lacandra Allen’s backyard. Despite the heat, productivity and spirits were high.
“Neighbors take care of neighbors,” said volunteer Dick Bonnano, a parishioner of Holy Trinity Church in Fulton, as neat piles of logs and woodchips appeared where the huge trunk had been.
That, in a nutshell, is Operation Northern Comfort’s mission. Organized earlier this year, the group aims to provide communities and individuals in Central New York with “labor, donations and support in any time of need.” No job is ever too small, says Matt Vanderwerken, the group’s committee chair and co-coordinator. So far volunteers have painted rooms at the Chadwick Residence, a transitional living facility in Syracuse, and remodeled the pantry in the Case Mansion in Auburn in preparation for the home to be used to house homeless veterans. Volunteers have also mowed lawns, installed grab bars in a bathroom and helped an elderly woman move out of her home. The group is about reaching out and restoring hope to those in need, Vanderwerken said.
It’s a mission shared by its sister organization, Operation Southern Comfort. Started in 2006 by Norm Andrzejewski, Operation Southern Comfort has brought more than 1,500 volunteers on 39 trips to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild homes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Vanderwerken was part of a trip in 2010.
“It was probably one of the greatest experiences of my life,” he said. The scope of the devastation, five years after the fact, was eye-opening, he said, and contributing to efforts to improve lives was powerful. It was a cause Vanderwerken wanted to continue supporting, but taking a week or 10 days off from work to make the trek was difficult.
“I called Norm in the fall and asked him if he was planning any projects here,” he said. Andrzejewski had been doing some yardwork for Christopher Communities on the north side, but nothing further was in the works. “So in typical Norm fashion, he said, ‘You start it.’”
Vanderwerken’s first project was sprucing up a room at Chadwick. He worked with SUNY ESF to gather up some student volunteers and together they painted and cleaned, and helped a young woman and her daughter move in, just in time for Christmas. The success of that project spurred Andrzejewski and Vanderwerken to get a steering committee together and, as with Southern Comfort, secure sponsorship of the program through St. Joseph the Worker Church in Liverpool. Operation Northern Comfort was born.
The group is establishing relationships with service organizations in the area, both looking for smaller projects and keeping an eye toward the ultimate goal: “adopting” local houses and renovating them for future tenants. A meeting with Kevin Frank, executive director of the Brady Faith Center, led to the work on the tree.
“Father John [Schopfer, pastoral director at Brady] and I walk the neighborhood,” Frank said. They spotted the tree, broken at its middle, upside-down branches teetering precariously on the grass. Frank spoke to Allen, a parishioner at Brady, who told him she was concerned about safety, since her children play in the yard. She also wanted room to plant a garden. So when Frank met with Operation Northern Comfort, he had a good project in mind.
The group’s local volunteerism is “a great way to build community and share gifts,” Frank said.
That’s the way Dick Bonanno sees it, too. His days of traveling to Louisiana with Andrzejewski are “probably over,” he says, but since he’s retired, he has plenty of time and opportunity to give back to the community.
“There are lots of people who just need a little help. As many agencies as there are, there are still those people and projects that slip through the cracks. That’s what we’re trying to address,” he said.
Operation Northern Comfort will be taking on additional projects in the coming months, including wheelchair ramp installation with Arise of Oswego County and the Block Blitz with Syracuse’s Home Headquarters. The group welcomes new volunteers, as well as donations of funds and supplies. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.