By Lorna Oppedisano | Photography by Paul Carmen Viggiano
Deborah Hundley will be the first to tell you she’s an introvert at heart. However, each step of her career — from teaching to founding a local nonprofit organization, Providence Services of Syracuse — has given her the opportunity to adopt skills based on connecting with new people.
“If I had just stayed in my comfort zone, I wouldn’t have grown,” she said. “I would have missed so many things.”
When Deborah was growing up, she wanted to be an astronaut. She discovered she had a hearing problem, though, which set her on a different path. In college, she considered studying medicine but eventually landed on biology and teaching.
She began her career teaching eighth grade biology. After some time, she found a job in church ministry. It was the best job she’s ever had, Deborah said. She loved working to help people in that capacity.
“There were so many needs that weren’t being met,” she remembered. “So, my thing was to start helping those needs be met. We started all kinds of programs.”
She followed that path until her husband got laid off from work and the duo moved to Central New York for his new job.
Deborah hadn’t been sure of her next career move until she saw something in the newspaper about an opportunity to become a certified financial planner. Having followed stock markets as a hobby, she found the idea intriguing. She pursued that as her next career path, working in the financial sector for more than 20 years, until she retired in 2014.
After the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Deborah’s life changed again. She felt compelled to find a way to help. Initially, she’d planned to travel to Haiti with a group of people from the area. About a week before they were supposed to leave, however, they realized they didn’t have enough money to go.
Deborah was initially relieved; she’d been nervous about the trip. But then she learned she could still go if she traveled with people from around the country. She ventured out of her comfort zone and went to Haiti to help rebuild orphanages and care for people in need. The experience gave her a completely new view of the world, she said.
“When I came back, I was a different person,” she said. “I saw a level of poverty way beyond even my imagination.”
She found herself reorienting herself with her day-to-day life when she came back to Central New York. The experience eventually led to her volunteer for Hopeprint, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the refugee population, and to be open to fostering two refugee teenagers. They’re both in college now and doing well, Deborah said with a smile.
Through discussions with other volunteers at Hopeprint, the subject of local unemployment came up. Having worked in downtown Syracuse, Deborah had been familiar with the issue of unemployment in the area.
“Coming out at lunch, I would see all these people walking aimlessly. It always struck me,” she remembered. “So, as I was getting close to retirement, I thought, ‘You know, when I retire, I want to try to give back.’”
Talking to other people at Hopeprint, Deborah learned the problem wasn’t lack of motivation or lack of jobs; it was lack of practical transportation. Without access to cars, people found themselves dependent on public transportation, which didn’t necessarily fit their work schedule.
“It just blew my mind,” she said.
She began reading studies on transportation, trying to arrive at the root of the problem and determine how she could help.
In March 2013, she founded Providence Services of Syracuse. According to the organization’s website, they aim to “provide transportation services to and from work to enable New Americans and under-resourced Americans to accept employment where community transportation services are not available.”
Providence Services now employs two drivers and plans to expand to four other communities in Central New York in the next few years. Deborah’s goal is to eventually share their model across the country with other areas in need.
In the meantime, they will continue to bridge the gap between people who need employment and available jobs, helping to fight poverty in Central New York.
“Everybody’s trying to find a solution,” Deborah said. “We don’t necessarily fit everybody, but we can make a big dent.” SWM
To learn more about Providence Services of Syracuse and how you can help, visit providenceservicessyracuse.org.