It Takes a Village

Seventeen-year-old Autum tended to describe herself as introverted, closed off, and with a lot to say but not always the opportunity to say it. She often found herself struggling to find her voice and to interact with people.

The Village at Ithaca changed Autum’s outlook completely. Today, a sociable proactive high school senior, Autum goes through her days speaking up for what she knows is wrong and what needs to change. She is outgoing and collaborates with peers and adults alike. As a summer youth employee, Autum became a founding member of the Village’s Girls of Color female empowerment group.  She is the student coordinator of the Stolen Joy Project, a social media initiative that shares stories of racism and oppression experienced in public school by students of color. 

“Through the Village at Ithaca, I have found a safe space for me to be my true, authentic self,” said Autum, explaining how she had the opportunity to meet peers who have felt misplaced and share stories strengthening their bond.

Founded in 2002, the Village at Ithaca is a non-profit organization that advocates for education equity for black, brown, low income, and other underrepresented and underserved populations. Designed to meet family needs, the Village provides wraparound support services such as academic tutoring, family advocacy, and emergency food and financial support.  The Village is committed to actively listening to families and designing programming based on community needs.  “We as an organization, as a community can always do more and do better for our children and families,” said Executive Director Meryl Phipps.

The Village’s Student Success Center is one of the many programs that focuses on improving students’ understanding of their course material to create a solid foundation. Each student is paired with an Achievement Coach who works one-on-one with them to first “affirm, inspire, encourage, instruct.”  In this current climate of pandemic schooling, the Student Success Center has evolved to include virtual tutoring as well as daily in-person academic support during the school day for middle and high school students struggling to navigate remote learning.

Another important Village service is the Family Advocacy Program, which helps both students and families ensure they have all the resources provided to them to excel in school and their home life. Family Advocates attend school meetings to support caregivers and students in making their voices heard. They also join caregivers of students with disabilities at Committee on Special Education meetings, and advocate for students in disciplinary proceedings. 

The Village is open to students of all ages. The organization has supported some young people from elementary school all the way through college. “We take our name very seriously,” said Phipps. “Once you reach out and want to be a part of our village, we will follow you all the way.”

The Village operates with Phipps as the only full-time employee and three part-time employees. Phipps finds herself with her hands full, writing grant proposals one day and tutoring biology the next. She is a 2009 graduate of Cornell Law School, and practiced family law in Ithaca before joining the Village. “I was frustrated by the challenges of working with kids in an oppressive system that wasn’t serving the needs of vulnerable people,” said Phipps. “I’ve always been more interested in policy work and in thinking outside of the box to create solutions to historically rooted problems—this all has been liberating.”

—By Anna Moura

Anna Moura, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a Class of 2021 Writing major and Psychology minor at Ithaca College.

[The Village is the recipient of $1,018.00 in donations collected in The Sophie Fund’s 2020 Cupcake Button Fundraising Campaign, which is held annually to aid local nonprofits supporting mental health and wellness. The Sophie Fund thanks the following student organizations for participating in the campaign: At Cornell University, Cornell Minds Matter, Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter, Phi Sigma Pi honor fraternity, PATCH (Pre-Professional Association Towards Careers in Health), and Building Ourselves through Sisterhood and Service (BOSS); Active Minds at Ithaca College; and Active Minds at Ithaca High School. To learn more about the Village at Ithaca, or to become involved in its work, visit the Village on social media, at http://www.villageatithaca.org, or e-mail contact@villageatithaca.org.]

Support Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca

Now more than ever, Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca needs the aid of the community to ensure that it can continue to be a place to turn when someone needs support for their mental health. Click here to donate to F&Cs’s Annual Cardboard Boat Race (Virtual Edition) fundraiser.

Scenes from the 2019 Cardboard Boat Race on Lake Cayuga

The Covid-19 pandemic prevented F&CS from hosting its fun-packed fundraiser on Cayuga Lake as usual. But boat “captains” are nonetheless flying their virtual flags high to collect funds to benefit F&CS.

This year’s goal is to raise $40,000 by September 13. Donations will support high quality mental health care that is affordable and accessible to anyone in Tompkins County.

More than 40 clinical therapists and psychiatrists at Family & Children’s Service help some 2,000 individuals and families every year by providing counseling and psychiatry services for depression, anxiety, and mental wellness.

F&CS also operates a range of social service programs, such as temporary housing for runaway and homeless youth and support for kinship foster families. F&CS’s Community Outreach Workers provide social worker support throughout downtown Ithaca.

Watch a short video to hear President and CEO Karen Schachere and board members discuss F&CS’s mission.

Ready? It’s Time for Ithaca’s 4th Annual Cupcake Contest!

Tasty cakes. Delicious frostings. Creative toppings. We can’t wait to see what cupcake delights our amateur bakers have in store for us again this year. The 4th Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest will take place in the Commons on Saturday October 19.

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Contestants of all ages are invited and will be eligible for dozens of prizes including a Grand Prize valued at $250. (Open to amateur bakers only.)

Attention Teens and Pre-Teens: A $100 gift certificate redeemable at dozens of downtown Ithaca shops will be presented with this year’s Special Youth Award!

The contest is organized by The Sophie Fund, which was established in 2016 in memory of Cornell University art student Sophie Hack MacLeod to support mental health initiatives aiding young people.

The 4th Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest is sponsored by GreenStar Natural Foods Market, Alternatives Federal Credit Union, and Cayuga Medical Center.

To enter the cupcake contest, contestants are asked to bring their submissions to the Bernie Milton Pavilion in the Ithaca Commons from 10–11:30 a.m. on Saturday October 19. The winners will be announced and prizes awarded at a ceremony at the Pavilion later the same day at 3 p.m. There will be musical acts throughout the day!

Sophie’s passion for baking cupcakes inspired the launch of the contest in 2016. At the time of her death by suicide at age 23, while on a medical leave of absence from Cornell, Sophie was active in Ithaca’s vibrant culinary scene. According to her family, she hoped to open her own bakery after completing her Cornell degree.

In conjunction with the contest, The Sophie Fund is again organizing a “Cupcake Button” fundraising campaign, with monies donated this year to the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County, which fights sexual assault and domestic violence.

Click here for all the information on contest procedures and rules, and to download a registration form.

A Day at the Alley Cat Café

Kristin recalls the afternoon when a troubled woman came into her Ithaca café. The woman had apparently just split up with a partner and was feeling the stress of managing her house and raising her children. “A cat came and laid on her chest, and she just started weeping,” said Kristin. “It was the first time she felt loved in a really long time.”

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Welcome to the Alley Cat Café on East Seneca Street, which has become a surprisingly popular downtown community hub since opening last June. As its name suggests, the establishment is a café, which offers drinks and tasty delights for customers who want to lounge for a while and for those on the run alike. But it is especially a haven for rescued cats with names like Luna, Ginny, and Mack, and Penelope and Millie Joy, who have their own large glassed-in quarters in the rear of the café where customers can play with them ($5 per 30 minutes) and adopt them if they wish.

Café owner Kristin, 36, who prefers to go by only her first name, has been rescuing abandoned and abused cats for two decades. She also runs Browncoat Cat Rescue, a volunteer organization that first took strides in 2012 to find and support abandoned cats in Ithaca to find new homes; Browncoat provides the cats for the Alley Cat Café and collects the $100 adoption fee. To date, according to Kristen, more than 20 cats rescued by Browncoat have been adopted from the Alley Cat Café.

At any given time of day, customers will be sipping a cappuccino or drinking tea in the front of the café while a handful of others will be canoodling with kittens in the back. You’ll see students popping in on the way to or from class, young lovers on dates, and parents with tons of kids in tow, all eager to hold a cat and take selfies with the feline menagerie.

There’s Freddy, with brown and black fur, and Clarissa, a ginger cat, who love to jump around with visitors. Among the most calming and relaxing cats is a sweet ginger kitty named Strawberry, the kind of cat who purrs on you, goes to sleep, and gives you the kind of connection many people need, Kristin said. Sitting on your lap, this kitten purrs at a healing frequency—the feline happiness helps heal human hearts, Kristin said.

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Everyday customers can enjoy a menu including items like lentil spinach soup and almond chocolate cupcakes. There’s also a long list of hot and cold beverages, many of them feline-themed (and served up by purr-istas, of course): The Cat Lady (mocha latte with lavender), The Black Cat (French press coffee with double espresso shot), and the Meowcchiato (double espresso with a dash of frothed milk).

Special events also bring in the crowds, such as Knitten’ Mittens with Kittens, Slow Flow Cat Yoga, craft afternoons, and board game nights (Exploding Kittens, Cat Stax); the café also hosts talks about gender, sexuality, and healthier relationships.

The cats, meanwhile, have their own entertainment: besides cuddling with their affectionate human visitors, they enjoy a Romper Room of high perches, hideaways, and meandering obstacle courses that allow them to leap or just sleep as they like. In December, Kristin inaugurated Movie Night—for the cats—with a film about bird watching.

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As the story of the weeping woman indicates, the Alley Cat Café functions as a de facto animal therapy space. “There are a lot of people who are missing their friends, or a sense of connection, and just being able to connect with our cats meets their needs, even if it’s just for thirty minutes,” said Kristin.

Kristin goes so far as to say that some customers reported significant improvements in their mental health after visiting the Alley Cat Café. “Multiple people would thank us for the effects on their emotional health and said that us being here has kept them from self-harm and literally saved their lives,” Kristin said.

Families who have adopted cats from the café also report benefits. One family adopted a cat for a 5-year-old girl who was having trouble making friends. “She was able to blossom as a person and improved her social skills with her peers,” Kristen said. The café also runs a cat foster program where people can take a cat home for a limited period of three months, which Kristen says has been popular with law and engineering students.

Alley Cat Café has proved a success with young and old. In a Facebook comment in November @IthacaAlleyCat, Lyn Stone wrote: “I love what you do! I’m 82 years old and don’t travel much but my granddaughter is coming in from Colorado in early December and I can’t wait to bring her to your café.”

—By Amber Raiken

Amber Raiken, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Ithaca College majoring in Writing, with a Creative Writing Concentration, and minoring in Education Studies. She is a writer and the social media director for IC Distinct Magazine, a student-run culture and fashion publication.

Photos courtesy Alley Cat Café

“Be the One”: Caring Connections in Tompkins County

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. To promote the occasion in 2018, members of the Collaborative Solutions Network (CSN), a broad association supporting family mental health throughout Tompkins County, came up with a campaign. They called it “Be the One,” and the goal was “to spread the belief that everyone needs a safe, secure and nurturing relationship.”

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Lansing Middle School students join the “Be the One” movement

Thanks to community enthusiasm, “Be the One” turned out to be much more than a fleeting slogan. More than 100 people representing some 30 organizations came together at The Space @ GreenStar on December 10 to formally re-launch “Be the One” as an ongoing public wellness project to promote supportive relationships. The New York State Office of Mental Health provided funding, and Mayor Svante Myrick issued a proclamation declaring 2019 “Be the One Year in the City of Ithaca.” Ithaca Voice, Ithaca Times, and The Lansing Star have featured the campaign in their news reports.

Students throughout the county are wearing “Be the One” T-shirts and hoodies, and matching motivational silicone wristbands, and sharing “Be the One” stories in classroom discussions. “Be the One” has a website with information explaining the campaign and toolkits and downloadable posters for bringing it to schools and community groups, and an active Facebook page and Twitter account sharing updates about “Be the One,” news about community wellness events, and inspirational stories from the world’s headlines. There’s even a “Be the One” song, which goes in part:

Imagine what this world could be

If kindness led each thought and deed

Building our communities

In peace and love and harmony.

In a time of rising anxiety and depression, “Be the One” has resonated with its message that safe, stable, and nurturing relationships, based on feeling cared for and connected to other people, build resilience in individuals and communities. Tompkins County has been rocked by three teen suicides in the past year. “Stress can get in the way of letting relationships happen,” Jaydn McCune, a program director at Racker and coordinator of CSN, said in an interview with The Sophie Fund. “But when we have someone to relate to, we can then gain a sense of lightness and possibility.”

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Lansing Central School District decoration

Superintendent Chris Pettograsso has overseen an enthusiastic rollout of “Be the One” in the Lansing Central School District. In late January, two campaign volunteers held sessions helping Lansing students share how they and their teachers could “Be the One.” In mid-March, Lansing Middle School students ran a program to introduce “Be the One” to fifth graders. On March 26, Lansing held a special session to encourage teachers and staff to embrace the “Be the One” ethos and improve empathy and support for students.

“Students have gained much more self-awareness of who really care for them and how they can care for others, and they have been very open to talking to their teachers about that,” Pettograsso told The Sophie Fund. On March 23, a “Be the One Lansing Team” took part in the 6th Annual Ithaca Polar Plunge at Taughannock Falls State Park Beach to support the Special Olympics.

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Lansing Middle School students sharing the “Be the One” campaign with 5th graders

Liz Klohmann, director of the Ithaca Youth Bureau and a member of the campaign planning committee, said the organizers are developing a common curriculum “that can be used by teachers and youth directors all throughout the Tompkins County community.” The campaign encourages schools to introduce “Be the One” in health class, invite students to write stories about their own “Be the One” experiences for English class, create “Be the One” awards, and create community outreach projects around the campaign theme.

Community members have begun posting experiences about their “Ones” on the “Be the One” website—about inspirational teachers, friends, an family members. An anonymously posted story recounted the relationship between a teacher and her elementary school teacher and their re-connection decades later.

“As a fourth grader I’d been happy and alive. Not so as an adult— I felt boxed-in and very, very sad. Mrs. N and I got into a pattern of visiting every week. I could tell her anything. Sometimes we sat and said very little. At one point she said to me, ‘I’m not worried about you, B. You have such vast inner resources.’ That was lifeline!”

McCune tells a story of how “Be the One” helped a teacher change course in the Dryden Central School District. The teacher was complaining to a colleague about a fourth-grader who was driving her up the wall with misbehavior in her classroom all day. She then noticed another teacher wearing a “Be the One” bracelet. “She stopped and realized that she needed to ‘be the one’ for her student,” McCune said. “The teacher realized that her student was having trouble, and that she wanted to do her best to help him.”

—By Amber Raiken

Amber Raiken, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Ithaca College majoring in Writing, with a Creative Writing Concentration, and minoring in Education Studies. She is a writer and the social media director for IC Distinct Magazine, a student-run culture and fashion publication.

Photo credits: Courtesy of the Lansing Central School District