A full calendar year has passed since she assumed the role of CEO for Operation Northern Comfort, and Cicero resident Laurel Flanagan is still seeing more and more how the charitable organization has helped and can assist those in need.
At the very start of 2022, Flanagan took over at the helm for the nonprofit’s founder, Norm Andrzejewski, whom she called an “inspiration and a visionary” as well as one of the most generous people she knows.
Andrzejewski had been pursuing his master’s degree in public health from Tulane University when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, and in the wake of its devastation he sought to do more than write a check on account of his personal connection to what had happened.
According to Flanagan, he went through his personal Rolodex and gathered friends from Central New York to go down there, clean up and rebuild. That was the start of Operation Northern Comfort, as it became known, and in the ensuing years its volunteers have made nearly 50 visits to help reverse the wreckage in Louisiana and Mississippi.
“He worked so hard to figure out how we could help somebody that needed it,” Flanagan said. “When he approached me about taking over, I was a bit of a deer in the headlights because I was like, ‘Wow, those are big shoes to fill.’”
The organization has additionally sent volunteers following natural disasters in Houston and parts of North Carolina, not to mention closer places like the city of Oneida in the aftermath of considerable flooding. Amid the COVID pandemic, however, the service trip side of Operation Northern Comfort (ONC) was put on pause for three years, right up until an advanced team of five made their way to Fort Myers, Fla., this past January to cut out moldy drywall and pull out floors damaged by Hurricane Ian.
ONC has held Crawfish Festival every year for a decade and a half except 2020, when it was forced to cancel because of the pandemic. It was sorely missed, Flanagan said. The festival was, after all, Flanagan’s entry point into volunteer work with ONC about six years ago. Around that time her husband, Michael, was boiling crawfish for the yearly occasion and working for festival sponsor Suburban Propane when he noticed that her hotel management degree could be useful for expediting food handouts.
With a mask mandate and social distancing measures still in place, the Crawfish Festival returned in 2021 after the year away for a take-and-go event called “The Crawfish Rodeo,” and by the next year it was back at full steam.
The daylong event, which always takes place on the first Saturday of May, has had several homes over the years, but it has settled in Clinton Square.
As Flanagan said, it kicks off the festival season but arrives at the tail end of crawfish season.
“After that, the condition of the shells on the crawfish is such that they’re not the best quality anymore,” she said. “We get them when they’re the best and we fly them up here directly from Louisiana the day before, so it’s as fresh as you’re ever gonna get right here in Central New York.”
The 16th Crawfish Festival will take place on May 6 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and will replicate the Pelican State’s festivals with stands containing crawfish mac and cheese, crawfish and shrimp boil, clams, gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, pulled pork sandwiches, cinnamon bread pudding, and beignets. There will also be eight food trucks to order from, a kids zone with games and face painting stations, and over 50 crafters showcasing jewelry, candles, signs, woodworking, upcycled clothing and other items. The event will feature performances from C’est Bon, Letizia & the Z Band, The Fabulous Ripcords and Brass Inc.
“It’s a lot of dance type of music that just makes everybody feel like getting up and having a good time,” Flanagan said.
She said alumni from Louisiana State University and people who moved to the Syracuse area from the South have told her that the festival’s offerings remind them of home. One man, Flanagan says, is almost always the first person in line, and he makes sure to buy 11 pounds of crawfish every time to fill a cooler he brings.
“To get that kind of endorsement from somebody who obviously loves to eat crawfish is amazing,” Flanagan said. “We know how to do it right.”
After this year’s festival, ONC will turn its attention to Buffalo and Watertown to repair pipes caused by an excess of snow this winter.
Locally and elsewhere, ONC’s efforts have included home and building modifications for senior citizens, veterans, local food pantries and other people having trouble getting around. They’ve built ramps where permitted as well as railings, grab bars, sliding doors, widened doorways, platform lifts, safer staircases and shelving units.
Though the labor remains free, they ask the recipients of their assistance for financial contributions to cover materials if possible, even in installments, but it’s never a deal-breaker, Flanagan said.
Seeing that some kids were using in-home surfaces like ironing boards to do their homework during quarantine while others were clustered around the kitchen table with their siblings and distracted as a result, ONC built over 1,500 desks for PGR Foundation, Inc., a mentorship program for girls ages six to 18 that stands for “Poised, Gifted and Ready.” From there, ONC branched off to build more than 200 bookshelves for kids to encourage literacy.
With the second journey to Fort Myers on March 19 marking Flanagan’s first-ever service trip for ONC, she said it’s been something she’s waited on but wanted to do for a while now.
“I think it’s an important part of being the CEO of Operation Northern Comfort, and it’s been a long time coming,” she said. “I’ve heard everybody talk about the stories but I wanted to personally experience it. I feel responsibility for our volunteers, and I want to make sure that they’re safe.”
The volunteers have places to stay and make meals together, but they’re expected to cover their own transportation expenses. With each visit, they make as much headway with given projects as they can, leaving the situations better than before.
“There’s some personal investment,” Flanagan said. “It’s not a vacation, but across the board every time, they say they get more out of it than expected. People find it very rewarding.”
Operation Northern Comfort usually ventures as much as an hour outside the Syracuse city center for more local jobs but has referred people to separate charitable entities that can step in as well. For more information about this 100% volunteer organization, visit its website operationnc.org
The Central New York nonprofit Operation Northern Comfort organizes the yearly Crawfish Festival in downtown Syracuse, helps with home modifications and plans service trips to other parts of the country.