GLOVERSVILLE – After a year of fundraising successes and difficulties, nonprofit group “I can Breath and I will Speak” conducted its third annual Backpack Giveaway in Trail Station Park Saturday, successfully donating 132 backpacks and 400 pairs of socks to children in need.
Lashawn Hawkins, founder of I can Breathe and I will Speak, said Saturday was by far the most successful backpack giveaway in the three-year history of event.
“This year was the first year I wasn’t able to fundraise money to do it by myself,” Hawkins said. “This was the first year that I actually had to ask for help”.
In 2021 “I can Breathe and I will Speak” her nonprofit distributed 93 backpacks, but this year the program received a big boost from a $16,300 donation to the Gloversville Enlarged School District from the “100 Women Who Care” organization, which helped provide funding for the backpacks, as well as other programming to help youths in need. Hawkins in 2021 was also appointed to the position of “Elementary Family and Community Educator” by GESD, which has enabled her to identify children and families with needs and help to connect them to her organization’s events.
Hawkins said another 25 backpacks have been distributed by her, for a combined 157 backpacks, leaving her with 20 backpacks still to giveaway as well as 10 backpacks for each of Gloversville’s three elementary schools, so 30 total remaining to be given away directly from the district.
At the event on Saturday “Mama Ruth,” Ruth Drake from Northville, also attended bringing 100 hand made sandwiches, granola bars, chips and water bottles. In total Hawkins’ estimates there were $3,500 in school supplies, $300 worth of socks and over $900 worth of backpacks given to children Saturday.
She said this year the costs were up for everything.
“I don’t ever remember it being this much,” she said of the school supply costs. “It is a lot, when you think of (the income levels in) this area. That’s what people forget about. And people say ‘well, people shouldn’t have kids’, and yes, I get it, and people don’t want to give out handouts, they think ‘oh Lashawn, you’re just giving out handouts’, but no, it’s not about me giving out handouts. It’s about making this community better, for the children in this community. If we don’t start somewhere and help these kids, they’re going to be lost. They’re going to continue to be lost, and we’re going to continue to just complain about it.”
Hawkins said her past fundraising practice of selling food — such as barbecued chicken, mac and cheese and other “soul food” items — was stymied when the kitchen she was using at the United Church of Christ 31 E. Fulton Street was “shut down” after a phone call was received from Herkimer office of the New York state Dept. of Health.
“Someone called the Department of Health, because they thought I was cooking out of my house, so they reported me,” she said.
Hawkins said she was told by state officials that since the church kitchen she was using was not “a registered kitchen” she’d have to stop using it make food for her fundraisers.
“So, they shut down the kitchen at that church, where the (CAPTAIN CHS) program was also utilizing that kitchen,” she said. “All of that got shut down, maliciously — because, come on, what other reason (besides malice) could there be to shut down cooking.”
Hawkins said she had also previously used the Elk Street Park playground area to sell food to raise money, including once doing so with Mayor Vince DeSantis, but she said this year when she tried to sell her food items without city officials being involved she was told she needed a permit. She said she was told by city officials that the permit fee would be waived because her group is a nonprofit corporation, but she decided not to pursue the permit because she questions the fairness of her having been allowed to do it without a permit in the past as long as city officials were involved.
“I didn’t cook anything else after that,” she said.
Hawkins said she did have a permit for the third annual Backpack Giveaway at Trail Station Park, but she didn’t have all of the funds she needed for the event.
“I think this was the hardest effort I’ve had in terms of fundraising,” she said. “A lot of local businesses stepped up and helped tremendously.”
She said she was able to get donations equally about $1,500 total from businesses, including: Euphrates Inc., Nikki Nicolella Famiano, Hannaford, First Congregational United Church of Christ (Chris and Charles Reed), North Main Street United Methodist Church Pastor Joyce Royal, Taylor Made Gloversville and Enlarged School District Community health center in Johnstown.
Hawkins served as a member of Gloversville Local Planning Committee for its $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) grant. She had proposed a DRI grant project for ‘I Can Breathe and I Will Speak’ costing $500,000 to fund 100% of the cost of building a commercial kitchen and meeting space in the basement of the Fulton County CRG’s 34 W. Fulton St. location. On Monday she said her idea had been to establish a kitchen where she wouldn’t have to worry about any state registration or licensing problems.
Hawkins said she ultimately withdrew the project idea stating she found the application process and deadlines too cumbersome for a small nonprofit organization like hers.
Hawkins criticized the DRI program for the fact that all three of the projects proposed by racial minorities were ultimately withdrawn stating similar reasons.
The LPC has proposed creating a $1 million Downtown Improvement Fund, about double the size of the similar funds created as DRI projects in other communities that have been awarded that grant, including the city of Amsterdam. Nearly all DRI grants include a form of a Downtown Improvement Fund, which can be used to provide grant funding for smaller projects for businesses, and usually includes less stringent requirements than the larger DRI projects. Hawkins had previously stated she intended to attempt to tap into those funds to fund the construction of the kitchen she wants to build, but on Monday she said her plans have evolved since then.
“I have a huge announcement coming before the end of the year,” she said. “The bigger plan I’m working on will cover (of the costs I need), so I’m not looking to get into any DRI funding to be honest with you.”