McKinstry: Taking a twirl for a generous charity
When Patrick LaBella was 39, he started to have trouble with his sight. Eight unsuccessful eye surgeries followed. As did kidney failure, a stroke and an extended stay in the hospital -- all stemming from diabetes.
Within six months, the limousine driver from Yonkers was blind, broke and out of work.
Despite having health insurance, tens of thousands of dollars of bills mounted, and he and his wife, who then had a 3-year-old and a newborn, had to choose among paying for rent, for utilities and for other basics like food.
That was in 2004.
For several years, he scraped by on $200 a week in disability benefits and the generosity of friends and family -- LaBella even hocked valuables like his jewelry. But it would never be close to the $800 a week he brought in when he was working.
"I was trying to learn how to function with no sight," LaBella told me earlier this week. "I was sitting around and asking why.... 'How am I going to feed my family?'"
Too often we think hunger affects those in far-off places. Despite an abundance of food in this country -- and an almost carnival-like atmosphere in the aisles of our supermarkets -- some of our neighbors can't afford what most of us take for granted.
Enter Hillside Food Outreach. The City of Yonkers put LaBella in touch with the nonprofit organization, which quickly dispatched its volunteers with bags of groceries filled with oatmeal, whole wheat bread and vitamins. They asked him about his many dietary restrictions.
"They took a thousand-pound weight off my shoulder," he said of that winter day in 2007 when he feared he couldn't feed his growing daughters. "When they left after that first day, I got down on my knees and thanked God."
Hillside has been part of his life ever since.
The organization delivers food to roughly 2,300 people a month who, for various reasons, don't have access to food pantries in Westchester and Putnam counties in New York and Fairfield County in Connecticut. The people Hillside helps are usually senior citizens, the disabled or those with illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure and late stages of cancer.
The need, even in our wealthy area, is great.
The group relies on private and corporate donations so it can purchase the goods from food banks; it doesn't take government funds, which gives it more flexibility in the services it provides. And the organization believes its mission is a community responsibility, not necessarily the government's. One of the misconception is that groups like Hillside get the food for free. They don't; in fact, monthly food bills run around $20,000, and they don't charge recipients a dime.
Lately contributions have been drying up, though. The prolonged economic slump has meant fewer donors, and corporate cutbacks have translated to fewer dollars. All that while demand for Hillside's services is growing, according to Kathleen Purdy, the group's executive director.
"We are falling behind and trying to invent new ways" of raising money, Purdy said.
For $45 a month you can adopt a family of four, providing10 days of groceries. (Learn more at hillsidefoodoutreach.org.)
Or you can waltz up to Hillside's annual "Dancing with Our Stars" competition Saturday night at the Matrix Conference Center in Danbury, Conn.
If you can't make it, you can go online and vote for one of the dancers at 10 bucks a pop. Much like Chicago politics of another era, you can vote early and often.
Hillside's "stars" include small-business owners, politicians and left-footed hacks like myself (yes, I'm dancing in this competition). And there's not a ringer among us, I can assure you.
We've been training with the professionals for months -- learning the rumba, salsa, tango, swing and jive with hopes of not embarrassing ourselves too much.
That's where our partners come in to play. We're all under great guidance: My teacher, Yuliya Zubava, who owns the Mount Kisco Studio with her business and dance partner, Andrei Svirydzenka, is a champion who has competed around the world. She's earned her teaching stripes working with this clumsy ink-stained wretch whose best move -- until recently -- involved an overbite and running in place.
Learning a few dance moves has been a great experience. And so has learning what a group like Hillside does for so many of our neighbors.
Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board. Tickets to the Oct. 6 dinner and dance competition are available at hillsidefoodoutreach.org or 914-747-0095. Register for the event (and vote) online here.