If the crawfish is the official symbol of Operation Southern Comfort, then the salt potato is the emblem of its sister organization, Operation Northern Comfort.
“Operation Southern Comfort does a golf tournament every year called the Crawfish Open,” said Dick Bonanno, ONC’s coordinator. “Since that name reflects the southern influence, we said we needed a name with a northern influence. And what’s more Syracuse than salt potatoes?”
That’s why the organization’s first fundraiser, a golf tournament scheduled for this Saturday, has been named the Salt Potato Open. The event will raise money for Operation Northern Comfort’s efforts to provide labor and donations anywhere they’re needed in Central New York. A project of St. Joseph the Worker Church of Liverpool, ONC is dedicated to helping people throughout the community with projects big and small.
“One of phrases I like is neighbors helping neighbors,” Bonanno said. “Basically, we’re trying to reach out to some of the people that have, and I don’t like to use this phrase, but I think it applies in this case — people who have fallen through the cracks. You have people who can afford to do various projects and repairs. They have the funds to do it. And you have others that looking for help. Their income is such that it’s too much and they can’t get help from other organizations that are out there. They fall through the cracks and they’re looking for help.”
The Liverpool-based nonprofit, founded this past spring, follows the example of Operation Southern Comfort, an all-volunteer organization dedicated to building and repairing homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. It’s a project of St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in Liverpool, which affords it non-profit status and the ability to get tax-deductible contributions and administrative support.
Operation Southern Comfort was started in 2006 by Liverpool resident Norm Andrzejewski, a Tulane graduate who’d spent time on the Gulf Coast in the 1960s. He made his first relief trip in response to a conversation with a friend, Donlene Butler, whose Belle Chasse, La., neighborhood had seen significant damage. Andrzejewski gathered a group of volunteers who spent five days cleaning up before heading home, determined to return.
Since then, OSC has made more than 35 trips to the Gulf Coast, with some 1,850 volunteers working on more than 300 projects. Most have headed back to Louisiana, though two groups have gone to Gulfport, Miss. All trips are funded by traveler contributions; each volunteer is asked to pay $280 for their own expenses, room and board. Local contributions pay for construction materials.
Bonanno is himself a Southern Comfort alum; that’s how he found his way to ONC.
“I went to New Orleans a couple of times,” he said. “He told me about Northern Comfort because I was looking for something to do locally rather than commit to a whole week in New Orleans. There were a few others who were looking for the same thing, so I kind of joined with them. The two others that were leading it — Maria Murphy has decided to go back to college, and Matt Vanderwerken has joined the Peace Corps, so Norm has asked me to take it over.”
OSC also provided the inspiration for the Salt Potato Open.
“The golf tournament is always fairly successful for Southern Comfort in raising funds,” Bonanno said. “The money we raise will go towards procuring materials for the houses and to support the work we’re doing. Since they’ve been fairly successful for Southern Comfort, we thought we’d give it a try.”
The tournament will take place at Foxfire at Village Green in Baldwinsville. Shotgun start at 1 p.m. The fee is $90 per golfer, which includes green fees, cart and dinner. There will be different prizes awarded for various golf games played throughout the day.
In addition to golfers for Saturday, ONC is in desperate need of volunteers with a particular skill set.
“Right now, we have a crying need for individuals who are willing to donate their time who have construction skills, almost on the level of a contractor. We need people who can look at a project and say, ‘This is what needs to be done,’ who can see the steps need to be taken and can direct people on how to do it,” Bonanno said. “We’ve got a lot of people who are like me, kind of handymen who can fix little things around the house. But to take a structure where the porch is falling off and know how to go about putting it back together, we need those talents and we need people who can donate their time to lead a project. We’re getting so many requests for help, but we don’t have all the talent necessary to do that.”
In an attempt to recruit that talent, ONC has put itself in the public eye with booths at community events like the Syracuse Nationals. Look for them at the Westcott Street Cultural Fair on Sept. 23 and the Baldwinsville Volunteer Center’s Volunteer Day on Sept. 24 at the Baldwinsville Public Library.
Despite its limitations, ONC has already undertaken a number of worthwhile projects, from the cleanup of a riverside home on Foster Road in Clay to cleaning out two apartments at the Skyline complex in Syracuse. And the projects are getting bigger.
“We partnered with ARISE of Oswego County,” Bonanno said. “One of problems ARISE has is that they have to have volunteers to do the work. They’ll provide the funds, but they can only do 14 or 15 a year, and they have a two-year waiting list. But with what little funding they have, they look for volunteers to erect the ramps, and we’ve done two in Oswego County.
“Another project we’ve done is Case Mansion in Auburn,” he added. “There’s a guy who’s renting it from a Presbyterian church, and he’s starting a ministry. He’s going to convert it into housing for homeless veterans. We offered to adopt a room. We spent three weekends going in and scraping and painting and putting up wallboard and finished a room.”
In order to continue doing these kinds of projects, ONC needs both the funds and the manpower to take them on.
“We often come across residents who are short on funds,” Bonanno said. “They’re unable to purchase materials to do the repairs needed. When they call us looking for help, it’s difficult. We can’t complete the work unless we have the funds to work with. So that’s why we’re having this fundraiser.”
To help ONC address the manpower issue, visit Operationnortherncomfort.org and click on the tab to volunteer.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.