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SUNY Canton student organization tackles poverty with weeklong awareness campaign

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CANTON - SUNY Canton’s International Student Activist Organization (ISAO) concluded its weeklong poverty awareness campaign Friday, but those involved with the cause plan on continuing their efforts well past its conclusion.

The campaign began Monday and was highlighted by a discussion panel Wednesday night, led by St. Lawrence County Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) member Donna Seymour.

The panel featured Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, Canton Mayor Mary Ann Ashley, St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES Superintendent Thomas R. Burns and St. Lawrence County Department of Social Services Commissioner Christopher Rediehs.

“Christopher Rediehs not only gave us statistics about the number of people in poverty in St. Lawrence County, he talked how we can build a community around the issue and help resolve it. He talked about how these are persistent problems and that we need persistence to find solutions,” Ms. Seymour said.

Mr. Rediehs said that currently roughly 27 percent of St. Lawrence County’s residents receive some type of benefits from the Department of Social Services,a number that has risen significantly in the past five years.

Five years ago, Mr. Rediehs said there were 1,856 residents receiving temporary assistance, while at the close of 2013 there were 2,303.

The number of residents receiving medical assistance has risen from 17,729 to 21,793 and the number of people receiving SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) has risen from 10,707 to 14,894, a number that Mr. Rediesh said does not include the number of people receiving public assistance, as they would also receive SNAP benefits.

“The Department of Social Services helps more than 30,000 of the county’s residents in some way,” he said.

And while the nation seems to be coming out of the recession, Mr. Rediesh said that’s not necesarrily the case in St. Lawrence County.

“At the moment the residents of St. Lawrence County are in about as much trouble as ever,” he said. “In order for us to do what our department needs to do, we need policies that encourage empathy for people who are struggling. We’re most effective when people are passionate about helping those who are living in poverty.”

Ms. Seymour said Assemblywoman Russell talked about legislative solutions to poverty. “One of the issues was unequal pay for women and how many people would be affected positively for fair and equal pay. It would lift many people and families out of poverty if there was fair and equal pay,” according to Ms. Seymour.

“Tom Burns talked about how a student’s zip code should not influence or decide a student’s future. He talked about how all students in the north country get less opportunities than students who live in rich, suburban districts.”

During the discussion, Ms. Ashley mentioned the “Pack the Back” campaign the Canton school district is currently holding. In this campaign, school officials work on putting canned goods and food in the backpacks of students who are in families that “may be having trouble with poverty.”

Ms. Seymour added that the panel discussion was a critical component of the weeklong campaign. “It was a very good event. In fact, at the end of it we talked about how to take the next step in this conversation. I think people were energized and intrigued about how to address positive steps in solving this issue,” she said. “This is such an important topic and touches people in the north country so profoundly.”

This is not the first year that the ISAO has led an awareness week. The past two years has seen the group take on other important issues on campus too.

“Two years ago we talked about Trayvon Martin and students on Main Street marched and talked about the issue. Last April the club had a silent march and for one week in April, they (performed) a play about human trafficking. It was a big event raising awareness of human trafficking not only around the world, but also in the north country,” ISAO advisor Sabel Bong said.

On top of conducting the annual awareness campaigns, the ISAO also provides community assistance by sponsoring local food drives.

“(This year) the students organized a food drive with every dorm on campus. Once the weather clears up, they will be going to every dorm to collect food and donate it to most likely Helping Hands or another local organization.”

The student organization’s president, electrical engineering technology student Maleek McKenzie, grew up surrounded by poverty in New York City. “When I first came up here I wasn’t expecting to see the problem. I didn’t expect there to be a real homeless issue. When you go out on Main Street, you obviously don’t see people begging for change and it’s an out of state out of mind (situation,)” he said. “That’s one thing we have to be careful of. Just because we don’t see the issue there, it’s still happening.”

Having been in St. Lawrence County for only a small portion of his life, Mr. McKenzie has already noticed a profound difference between the two atmospheres.

“We’ve talked about the idea of community and residents and people being empathetic to the needs. We all need to help out our neighbors and our community in need when we can,” he said. “The difference between the city and up here is the whole community thing. In the city, not a lot of people have that person they can talk to and reach out for help. (In) the city it’s almost like people don’t have time to help. The north country is different because I think it’s more tight knit and people take the time to try and help each other out.”

“I’m very proud of the students, in particular the president, Maleek McKenzie. He mentioned (Wednesday) night at the panel, that as a black male in New York City, poverty is all around him. Once he and others come up here to the north country, they notice that it is very relevant and present here, just not as obvious,” Mr. Bong said.

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