Mary Lou Sayles isn’t the kind of executive director to lock herself away in her office and busy herself with paperwork while people need help outside her door.
“I am a firm believer [in the idea that if] you help one person, that’s a good day,” said Sayles, who heads up the Huntington Family Center. “Sometimes I go home thinking, ‘Wow, I didn’t get anything on my list done, but I filled four pantry bags.’”
But that’s the purpose at Huntington — it’s the people, not the paperwork.
“I feel pretty strongly about making a difference on the ground,” she said. “I step in if we need help anywhere. It’s the kind of leader I wanted to be.”
Sayles, who has a master’s degree in social work and a long career in the nonprofit sector, took the helm at Huntington Family Center eight years ago. But her biggest struggle is getting the word out about the organization.
“I am sad at the number of people who don’t know what Huntington is,” Sayles said. “How do we get that word out? How do we get people to know us and visit?”
The settlement house tradition
Sayles said the organization’s board has tried a number of things over the years to try to increase its visibility, including changing the name. But there’s a lot of history behind the Huntington name.
Huntington was founded as a settlement house 100 years ago. Settlement houses grew out of the Progressive Era’s efforts to confront issues like chronic poverty, overcrowded tenements, child labor, industrial accidents, and public health. Settlement houses served as a place where young people, particularly women, intent on reform would gather to share ideas and ultimately put in motion the wheels of change.
Huntington Family Center was founded as part of that tradition in May of 1919. Then known as the Huntington Club, its original goal was to help the growing numbers of women who had moved to Syracuse looking for factory work while their husbands were fighting in World War I.
“Huntington Family Center is one of the first, if not the first, settlement house in Syracuse,” Sayles said. ”We are neck and neck with the Dunbar Center. We’re both celebrating 100 years this year.”
The center has moved a few times over the years, but ultimately landed at its current location at 405 Gifford St. on the city’s Near West Side.
“The whole purpose is to be in a neighborhood that was struggling with poverty and to provide a one-stop shop for social services,” Sayles said. “That’s what the settlement house tradition really means.”
A place of hope
And Huntington Family Center lives up to that tradition.
“When I say one-stop shop, I mean really, from birth to aging,” Sayles said. “Huntington provides universal pre-K, toddler and 3-year-old programming, afterschool program for youth and teens, support programs for parents with disabilities and parents [of] children with disabilities, supervised visitation program for parents… and a robust senior services program. And then, we have a basic needs program, so we do free food through the food pantry and free clothing, right here on this corner.”
Sayles said Huntington meets a critical need in communities like the Near West Side, which has one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the country. Median income in this area according to the U.S. Census is $22,567; the poverty line in the U.S. is $25,750 for a family of four. While median home value in Onondaga County is $142,000, on the Near West Side, it’s $63,300.
“We are one of the neighborhoods that they are talking about in all of their articles [on concentrated poverty],” Sayles said. “That is still unfortunately what we see here.”
While the agency’s programs help, they’re not always enough to address the generational poverty that has plagued the neighborhood for decades.
“We have folks who live here as adults, who come and use the food pantry, who come for the parenting program, who came as children,” Sayles said. “The need continues to be great.”
The upside of that relationship is that the residents of the community know the staff at Huntington does care about them.
“The fact is they may not ever have had experience trusting an agency or a social service setting, and maybe that helps them if they trust us, then they would be open to the next service, that then hopefully puts them on a path to be better positioned maybe for the next opportunity,” Sayles said.
Huntington, too, must always be open to new opportunities. As funding streams dry up, Sayles said she’s had to get creative to keep Huntington thriving.
While the bulk of the center’s funding comes from several United Way grants and a portion of the remainder comes from the county and the state, Sayles has also started clinical programs for youth and families in Oswego, Cayuga and Delaware counties that helps support programs in Syracuse. For a while the center also operated an on-site café.
“Over time, the agency tried a couple of different things,” she said. “ If you are not nimble, and you don’t provide opportunities to bring in other kinds of revenue, it is really impossible to manage the day-to-day needs of a community neighborhood center.”
The other critical piece to keeping the center running, Sayles said, is making sure the staff is happy.
“In order for your agency to thrive, your staff has to thrive,” Sayles said. “They have to feel like they’re valued, that they matter, that you listen to them, and that you have their back. I don’t know how you can demonstrate clients matter if you can’t demonstrate that your staff matters.”
Much of the staff comes from the neighborhood, so they, too, have a vested interest in doing what’s best for the community. They all share the same passion Sayles has for the agency’s mission. Sayles said she hopes that passion endures after she eventually retires.
“I want it to go past me,” she said. “I am so proud that this agency is 100 years old… The key is I’m passionate about it. I think in order to get more donor revenue or fundraising revenue is that level of passion. That’s my challenge.”