The Samaritan Center will be serving meals on Thanksgiving Day, just as it has 365 days a year since 1981. That’s when seven Syracuse churches banded together to provide lunches from the basement of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral on Montgomery Street. In 2014, the Samaritan Center bought the former St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church at 215 N. State St. and moved operations there.
It’s a highly rated 501(c)(3) charity, but it’s just as important to think of the Samaritan Center as a community kitchen table where people who are hungry, dealing with poverty, and struggling in isolation find a welcoming place of acceptance, respect, and dignity.
Mary Beth Frey, executive director of The Samaritan Center, is thankful for the donors, volunteers, and staff who have made this year’s 40th anniversary possible. A staff of 10 and more than 1,500 volunteers a month serve meals twice a day.
When Covid-19 took hold, the Samaritan Center became take-out only and the call for volunteers was reduced. As restrictive as Covid-19 has been, Frey said the pandemic underscores a quality of Central New York: “Talk about gratitude! This community is the most amazing place – the generosity of people, their willingness to come forward and help folks who are struggling, to donate money or time or goods or just good thoughts. There’s a whole community out there that makes sure our guests don’t feel alone. It was just so heartwarming to see that continued.”
Frey has been executive director since 2005. She says anyone in a leadership role should have a passion for the mission, keep a sense of humor, and engage with people.
You mentioned generosity and gratitude. So, for Thanksgiving week, I’ll ask: What kind of gratitude do you witness at the Samaritan Center?
It’s a little bit miraculous sometimes, too. Right? When we find ourselves in need of something, a person will step up. We’ll be talking about how we need bottled water because Covid changed our model, and we still need to be able to get beverages out to people. An hour later, a case of water will show up at the door.
I don’t know if that’s divine intervention, but our community rises to the occasion. I am grateful, and our guests are grateful.
I think folks at nonprofits across the community saw generosity pretty universally through Covid. I think people were in tune to the struggles, because their struggles were in some ways similar to our guests every day. How am I going to get food? What about toilet paper? What about all these basic things that now are challenges? They could see the challenges that our folks face every single day. The community connected to those who weren’t as fortunate and were struggling on a whole different level.
There’s a meme floating out there about people with various means facing the same struggles. The answer is to help each other. It always is, but I think when you face something this significant, you feel it differently. You could come in and cry every day at the beauty of people’s kindness and generosity.
I’ll tell you a quick story about one of our guests. We’re all about relationships. There’s no questions asked. How we embrace people is to welcome them in and try to get to know them. This young gentleman was pretty quiet, just kind of a hello. One day I saw him sitting in a corner. He was much sadder than I’d ever seen him.
I went over and asked if he was OK.
He said: No.
I said: Well, what can I do? How can I help?
And he said: You can’t do anything, but thank you for noticing.
I think that’s the thing that happens here. Fundamentally our guests are grateful to be seen, to be heard, to have relationships, to have people look them in the eye when so often they’re avoided out in the community. But here they feel this family around them. I think that that fundamentally gives people strength.
It’s often the little things. You notice somebody in a suit with a haircut.
Hey, what’s going on?
I got a job interview!
Well, I’m going to keep good thoughts for you. Let us know how it goes.
That gives people support and strength and lets them know that they’re not alone. We see their gratitude every single day.
What sense can I give my readers about the guests you serve?
Typically, our guests are males and that trend is consistent nationally. Men tend to utilize community meal sites or soup kitchens. Women and families tend to utilize pantries more. I think that’s a little bit about women want to create this family atmosphere for their kids. So they tend to get foods that they bring home and then prepare a meal.
But that isn’t the only reason. A lot of our folks live alone in single-room occupancy. They don’t have access to kitchens. They don’t have pots and pans. So this is how they meet their nutritional needs.
Pre-Covid, about 3 percent of our guests were seniors and about 5 percent were under 18. During Covid those two populations kind of peeled off. And the reasons behind that were that the school system and Onondaga County did a wonderful job of taking care of kids. They were able to pass out milk and food and all those sorts of things to make sure that families were taken care of. And then the county in combination with Meals on Wheels were able to serve a lot of our seniors, bringing food to people in their homes. So seniors didn’t have to come out into a potentially deadly world. Early on, it really was: How do we make sure that people stay alive?
We did see more people accessing services for the first time. They may have lost their job. Their employer may have closed down. They were furloughed and unemployment hadn’t kicked in.
Where does your food come from?
We access the majority of our food through the Food Bank of Central New York. We also use vendors like Renzi Foodservice. We’ve gotten a lot of donated food from Dot Foods. Syracuse University is an incredible community partner, especially during Covid. Their students went home. They still had warehouses and cafeterias full of food because they didn’t anticipate suddenly not having students. A lot of those foods came here.
We have some magicians in the kitchen that can take the weirdest assortment of donated stuff and turn it into something amazing. They really take advantage of those donations.
The other thing that happens is we get fresh vegetables and fruits from area farmers that we then distribute to our guests. People get their takeout meal, but then they can pick up soup and beans and maybe lettuce and some tomatoes and milk. The Dairy Farmers of America was incredible in distributing milk so that people could then take that home to help meet their nutritional needs.
As anxiety-provoking and stressful as Covid is, there was just a beautiful thing happening as you watched people take care of each other. The Food Bank did an amazing job getting food out into the community so that people could access food where they lived. It still is an amazing thing to see every day.
Let’s pivot to leadership and early influences. Were you in leadership roles growing up?
Not really. I guess I did the typical things. There were sports teams and student government and that kind of thing. I don’t know that I would have thought of myself as a leader throughout early years.
If I have to identify pivotal people growing up, I’d really look at my parents (Marilynn and John Civic). My dad’s deceased, but my mom is still here. They’re models of integrity and hard work and putting your all into things that have meaning. They showed there’s a responsibility to try to make the world a better place. Integrity and hard work are big pieces of leadership. So is a sense of humor and being an authentic person. Those are things that my parents modeled for all of us in the family. You try to live up to your parents your whole life, so I think I’m still trying to make them proud.
I grew up between Saratoga and Amsterdam, north of Albany, on a back road, not too many neighbors, but a lot of forts in the woods and riding your bike down to the lake and all kinds of pick-up baseball games in the field. I went to Broadalbin High School and had 54 in my graduating class (Class of 1983). It was a tiny little place.
Then, I went to Oswego State, got my bachelor’s in psychology, and worked in mental health. I did group home stuff in Albany. I did counselor on call in Buffalo. I worked at an inpatient unit in Amsterdam. And then I worked at St. Joe’s here on the psychiatric unit. In 1997, I went back to Oswego and got my MBA. I wanted to be able to do program administration and make higher-level decisions about what was happening and be involved, I guess, in a leadership role. From there, I worked at United Way and got to know the community in a very different way, doing a lot of program administration work.
For me, as someone who came from direct service, I missed that sort of direct connection with people. Some of that is what drew me to the Samaritan Center.
What’s your advice for effective leadership?
Being passionate about what you’re involved in is important. It helps give you the energy to drive things forward and to maintain your stamina when things get challenging. It means you are grounded in the mission of the organization, the people that you’re helping, and the purpose of what you do. Keep that foundational to your decision-making.
When we moved here to St. John’s, the board would meet to talk about things that were changing. One of the fundamental questions we’d always ask is what does it mean for our guests and what is the impact on our guests? When you stay grounded in purpose and driven on what you’re trying to accomplish, it makes your decisions easier and a lot clearer.
I think having fun is important. Being able to have a sense of humor and laugh at yourself when you muck things up is important because you will muck things up. Give grace to people for doing the best they can. You have to do that for yourself too. You will be making the best decision you can with imperfect information and you’ll take responsibility when it goes sideways. Rely on the people around you to help work your way through challenges. You’re not in it alone.
One of the things I say is that I’m a grateful front man for a wonderful group of staff and volunteers and people that help make the Samaritan Center work. Leaning on others and asking for help is important for any leader. Lots of times there isn’t one right answer.
Another thing is engaging people wherever you can. You have to allow folks to take chances and make decisions. One of the things I always talk about is health and safety. As long as health and safety are taken care of, let’s think about what our opportunities are. For me, the ideal is always a collaborative style. If you can bring people with you and engage them and have them contribute to the future vision that’s when you have incredible success.
Understand that everybody has strengths, and everybody has things to contribute. Great ideas come from anywhere. It doesn’t have to do with what position you hold. A leader has to be humble enough to know that everybody has strengths and value and things to contribute.
Sometimes it’s natural for people to kind of defer to whoever might be in the leadership role. It’s your responsibility as the leader to kind of push some of that back a little bit and let people try. Let people make decisions that might not be what you would have done, but it’s part of learning and growing and becoming competent. Allow people to try things and learn that it’s OK if it doesn’t always work out.
Please elaborate on the idea that you’re not doing it alone, that you can rely on others.
When I think back to taking this position, one of my greatest fears was that I would do something to hurt this organization. It was, geez, what if I make a wrong choice? What if I make the wrong decision and it all blows up? You have the responsibility for sure. You’re going to own it at the end of the day. But surround yourself with people that you can talk things through with. Peers that you can use as a sounding board. Board members that have different experiences and different perspectives to help you think things through.
If you’ve created that network of support, it’s feeding information into your decision-making process. But again, if it all goes sideways, you have somebody to call and go, hey, that didn’t work out. (Laughter) And it’s going to be OK, right? You gotta be OK with it when things get messy.
A lot of self-reflection has to happen as a leader. You have to be willing to be open to different ideas, and understand that you don’t always have the right or best answer. That’s why it is paramount to be humble and to realize anything that’s accomplished is accomplished with lots of brains and lots of ideas and lots of people.
You have to have the humility to reflect on your own thoughts and ideas and question them when that makes sense. And then keep exploring those things. Sometimes you get a nugget and you noodle it around a while. Then you go to other people and say, Hey, can I talk to you about this thing?
When you rely on others, you’re open to the idea that you aren’t the end-all be-all and that you know it all.
What qualities do you see in good leadership?
When I told you about my parents, I talked about integrity, hard work, and a sense of humor as incredibly important.
I also think people need constancy, stability, and predictability from their leaders. They need to know that the leader is present with them. I would never ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do myself. And here, that may be cleaning the bathrooms, that may be mopping the floor – really practical things.
I think people need to know that you’re with them in it, that you’re not just this person who’s in an office. You’re doing.
Constancy means you have stability to your emotional responses, to how you think through problems, and that you can be relied on to be steady in a sometimes-chaotic environment. Stability from leaders helps other people manage through chaos as well.
It takes constant optimism, too. Good leaders see the intention and the good and give people the benefit of the doubt. Your outlook is a positive one. You can say, OK, well, that didn’t go right. But what’s next? Versus kind of like crying in your soup, if it didn’t go well. People need leaders that can tackle a challenge, even when it seems pretty big, and move things forward.
What attributes do you see in poor leadership?
I would say two things. First, I think what’s really difficult is a controlling sort of micromanagement. I think people do the best they can, but a micromanagement approach doesn’t give people room to grow. It tends to make people nervous. The micromanager believes there is only one right way. I have found there are often multiple right ways. The leader that tries to control every bit of a task is going to burn people out pretty quickly.
The other thing is somebody once described to me this idea that there’s task and there’s people. This particular person said: You have to choose one or the other and task is what’s going to move your organization forward.
I think that’s wrong. I think there needs to be a balance of task and people. Your practical task may get some function done. But it’s your people that make it happen. And it’s your people that you need to be mindful of and try to understand and support. Those are the folks that drive it forward. It’s not just checking off the objective. It’s how do you move and engage people in what you’re trying to accomplish?
I never really liked that sort of dichotomy of having to choose one or the other. And I think folks that do are missing a big piece of what leadership is about. Yes, there are things you have to accomplish, and yes, there are things that need to happen, but it doesn’t happen without caring for the people that make it happen.
The weekly “Conversation on Leadership” features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited. Last week featured Mike Nash, president of KS&R. He advises leaders: Listen, empathize, prepare intensely, stay flexible.
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