Inspire: Judith Hight: Driven to make a difference

By Kate Hanzalik

J.S. Hight & Sons Fine Wines & Spirits. You’ll find the shop on Albany Street in Cazenovia. Walk in and you’ll see estate-bottled wines from around the world stacked neatly on rustic shelves and tables like rare books in an old Ivy league library. The experience is pleasant, yes, but it’s more than that. It’s intentional. Owner Judith Hight’s goal is to stock extraordinary wines at everyday prices.

The fruit is raised on the vineyards where the wine is made,” she says. “Most of the places I buy from are family-owned businesses.” In fact, this knowledgeable wine connoisseur’s appreciation for the unfamiliar rather than the commercial is deeply rooted in her lifetime of service to those who are marginalized because of their differences, and this is what makes Hight especially inspiring.

With two degrees from Syracuse University, including a Master’s in public administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, she’s always found creative ways to support others. At just 24, she started a scratch bakery in Armory Square that was operated by and for people who had some experience with the mental health system. The goal of Provisions was to give employees a sense of purpose and to eliminate stigma about people who have struggled with mental illness.

We set it up like a regular business . . . with a great product. We served breakfast and lunch, and eventually our customers realized that people with emotional concerns could be valued and valuable members of their community,” Hight said. “I learned an awful lot from the people in the program–the power of perseverance, resilience, and when given the chance, people do remarkable things.”

She’s learned a lot from her father too. A scientist, he inspired her to value education. “Remember that our knowledge of the world is very limited compared to what is left to be discovered,” he told her. “It is a challenge and a source of great satisfaction to unravel these mysteries.” She recalls, “My father always said, ‘stay cool under pressure and go out and make our world a better place!’” Maybe it’s this permutation – the love of learning, and the confidence to use her education to serve the greater good – that’s given her the ability to positively impact the world around her.

Hight’s brainchild, Provisions, was recognized by Programs that are Exceptional in Education and Rehabilitation (PEER). Eventually she served as Director of Continuous Quality Improvement for Oncare where she developed data-driven strategies that would make it easier for troubled Onondaga County youths to access all the social services and educational resources they needed to thrive. This rewarding experience confirmed what Hight believes is common sense: exposure to the general curriculum in an inclusive classroom is key, and that every child deserves a place in the classroom with their peers.

The hardest and best job of my life,” Hight says, wasn’t at Oncare or Provisions, however. It was staying home to raise her two sons for seven years in Cazenovia. She says her kids “have been fortunate to attend school here,” but there have been struggles.

I learned pretty quickly that a service delivery system in a rural town for a kid with a disability is very difficult,” she says, speaking about her son, Ian, now 19, who has Down syndrome. “There are limited resources. You have to be an incredibly strong advocate for your kid, and I had a background in human services and it was hard for me. It was really hard for me. There were times where I felt I was just butting up against brick walls. And I started volunteering to accompany other parents to their special education committee meetings.”

Today, she’s left her time-consuming career in human services and runs her wine shop with her two sons. She loves sharing a neighborhood with entrepreneurs, many of them women, who support each other. Now her passion project as a volunteer is a campaign to affect change.

Our future depends on the quality of our schools,” she says. “And the divisiveness in our country is only going to be solved when individuals step up; that’s why I ran for school board.” Her vision? “To make sure every family has a seat at the table . . . fostering strong and effective partnerships, and advocating to ensure that all students have access to the resources and supports to achieve their goals.”

Hight wasn’t entirely confident going into the election this year. She was known primarily as a business owner. She isn’t a life-long resident of Cazenovia. But the writing was everywhere. On windows, posters read, “Hight for School Board.” On Instagram, people rallied: “We are behind you! You are the perfect person for this!”, “Thank you for your voice!” On the ballot: “Judith Hight.” And in the winning number of votes: 721. “It goes to show people wanted something different,” she says. And it put her in a position to, once again, make a difference.