Earlier this winter, as the Blue Mountain Center (a social justice oriented conference center and artist residency in Blue Mountain Lake) began considering the possibility of cancelling its spring/summer programming due to the COVID-19 pandemic, staff began to think about how to best re-orient to serve the local Adirondack community.
As the severity of the crisis became clear, the creation of Hamilton Helps, a partnership between BMC, Hamilton County services, community leaders and residents, was set into motion. Beginning with seniors and residents in need, the project seeks to ensure first and foremost that Hamilton County residents have access to food. The project has now grown, and Sawyer Cresap (originally hired to join the BMC staff as an innkeeper/cook) has adopted the position of community coordinator.
Sawyer (pictured here) spends much of her time working with local organizations like the Indian Lake Community Development Corporation and Hamilton County Community Action, plugging into projects from all over the region — everything from applying for funding to support local food security initiatives, to arranging for a loaned chest freezer to be moved from Eagle Nest to the Indian Lake Theater (where it now sits packed with food for use by a local food pantry,) to collaborating with local mask making efforts and news outlets to ensure that residents are updated about available services and support.
As the effects of the crisis continue to worsen, the Hamilton Helps team is working to anticipate increased community challenges. As needs emerge, the goal of the project will be to steer existing resources to meet them – empowering vulnerable residents to self-isolate, assisting local groups with future grant applications, increasing capacity of existing services, and more.
BMC’s Assistant Director Nica Horvitz spoke with Sawyer Cresap to learn more about the project and her role. Read the full conversation:
NH: You have a unique BMC employment story. Tell us about yourself – how did you first connect to BMC and end up running the Hamilton Helps project?
SC: I’m from outside of Albany and grew up coming to the Adirondacks. I went to college at Syracuse University where I studied policy, which got me interested in community organizing. Later I worked for two years in Americorps doing environmental management projects, and spent the past two years working for a land trust in Albany. This year my partner and I signed on to work at BMC for part of the season. But, as we know, the season didn’t go as anybody wanted it to, and we’ve all had to pivot.
Before this crisis hit New York state, BMC’s director Ben and I were already thinking about how to promote local food access in the area. And then this all happened, which is when we knew “Ok, this is the time for promoting food access and security, from a much different angle, with a much more immediate need.” We were curious to find out–– who in this community does not have the support they need? People here are so passionate about caring for their neighbors, but who doesn’t know somebody? Who’s fallen through the cracks, and how do we reach them and build capacity in the county?
What you have learned so far about the area? How is it being affected specifically by this situation, and what unique challenges or strengths does it face as a rural region?
I’ve learned that people here are so friendly. All it takes is me walking down the road and every single person, driving or walking, will wave! People have to be really hearty to live in the Adirondacks, especially in the winter. Because of that there is this hidden capacity to deal with challenges. There’s also a lot of positivity and everybody wants to give in whatever way they can. There are many informal systems of support –– but like everywhere this crisis is taxing the existing systems and infrastructure.
Hamilton County is one of the largest and least populated counties in NY state. It also has a large percentage of residents over 65. Many of the residents we support do not use the internet as their primary way of receiving local information, so early on, with the consultation of Brenda Valentine, President of the Indian Lake Community Development Corp., we have turned to more tried and true means of communication for getting the word out –– mailing flyers, placing ads in the county newspapers, and making calls. However, for those on the web, we’ve also launched a website, www.HamiltonHelps.org, to take donations online for local pantries in order to allow those who love this region to support the community from afar.
“Solidarity Not Charity” is an important principle of many Mutual Aid Networks being activated by this moment. Does that framing resonate for this project?
Yes. One thing we are really wary of is supplanting services––we don’t want to do our own thing or go around anyone. Our goal is to take this time where our work at BMC has suddenly changed to build capacity and connections locally that can carry into the future. A lot of it is just about trying to offer ourselves up for partnerships, and following up on all the efforts already underway. It’s a lot of asking “What’s going on, how are you doing? What do you need? How can we help?” We are really following the needs as they emerge.
Thanks so much Sawyer, for all the work you are doing, and for sharing it with us! We look forward to hearing more.