United Way’s annual Care Package Project delivers necessities and kindness

By Renée K. Gadoua

The 11 Brownies of Girl Scout Troop 60252 are on a Quest journey this year. Their itinerary includes activities to learn about themselves, their families and the community. As the second-grade girls navigate their place in the world, they must participate in a community project. They decided to collect personal care items for the CNY Care Package Project

“We talked about the difference between wants and needs and what we need as a community,” said troop leader Maria Podbelski. “We said if we can help people with what they need, we can make a difference.”

The troop, which is in the Jamesville-DeWitt area, was full of ideas for a community project. “They seem to know how they can help,” said Podbelski, whose daughter Lydia is a Brownie. “I don’t know if they know the extent of how lucky they are. Hopefully as they grow older, they can make more of a difference.”

The Brownies — along with dozens of individuals and groups — are donating items that United Way of Central New York staff and volunteers will sort, package and distribute to several agencies. Requested items — only new and unused, please — include soap, body wash, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, floss, deodorant, lotion, lip balm, hand sanitizer, tissues, combs/brushes, gloves, winter hats and socks.

Thanks to community donations, last year the Care Package Project collected enough items to create more than 800 care packages for local agencies to distribute. Participating agencies include Samaritan Center, Catholic Charities, Salvation Army and Rescue Mission. United Way hopes to increase donations to distribute even more care packages this year, the seventh they’ve organized a personal care collection and distribution. (The campaign previously was called the Shoebox Project).

Donors can organize workplace drives, drop off items at United Way (980 James St., Syracuse) or order and ship direct via Amazon. Donations will be accepted through Nov. 20.

The United Way is coordinating two more holiday collections this year. A children’s book drive runs Nov. 1 – Dec. 10; books will be distributed at the Salvation Army’s Christmas Bureau Distribution Dec. 15. Share the Warmth will collect new and gently used coats Nov. 12 – Jan. 2 at participating COR Development retail tenants.

Laura Serway, a Syracuse entrepreneur, volunteer and philanthropist, makes sure the CNY Care Package Project is on her calendar every year. “I can go out and purchase supplies that are readily available and needed, and I know they will get into the hands of people who need them,” she said. “It’s a very simple way to help.”

Serway orders boxes of personal care items and gets them delivered to United Way, where she will help pack the bags.

“We take these simple things for granted,” she said. “We can’t get everybody off the street or fix everything, but we can help people feel better. I hope they know that someone actually cares about them and that they’re important.”

Serway is grateful for her success and considers community support a civic duty. “Those that can give back should, period,” she said. “We just need to get people gloves. We just need to get them hand sanitizer. We just need to get them toothpaste and toothbrushes. It’s up to us to help people around us.”

Mike Melara, executive director of Onondaga County’s Catholic Charities, said the agency welcomes the care packages, especially for clients at its homeless shelter, refugee programs and emergency services.

Those clients “are what we consider the ground zero of human needs,” he said. “Those are three groups that might have access to some form of public benefits, but those benefits like SNAP (food stamps) do not cover the kind of items they get in the care packages.”

The need for personal care items is “constant,” he said. “We cannot get our hands on enough of these types of donations. As soon as we get them, they fly off the shelves.”

Demand for emergency food and personal supplies soared at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 and remains high. “It’s hard to place a value on personal care over food,” he said. “Donations like this prevent people from having to make that difficult choice of how to use their limited resources.”

Toothpaste, toothbrushes and dental floss fill a health and safety issue as well. “Folks living in poverty oftentimes experience some very acute dental problems that can lead to more health problems,” Melara said. “Anything we can do to get ahead of that for the folks we serve makes their day a bit easier.”

Improving peoples’ lives — even a little bit — is just what the Brownies envisioned when they decided to collect personal care items. When they complete their Quest journey, they’ll earn a badge to mark the accomplishment. They’re also gaining important insights into the power of kindness and generosity. “When they realize how much their collective efforts can make, they’re excited and want to do more,” Podbelski said. 

Renée K. Gadoua is a writer and editor living in Manlius.