Pam Koner, founder and executive director of Hastings-based nonprofit Family-to-Family, didn’t initially intend to spearhead a Hurricane Harvey relief effort.
“My first thought was, ‘We can’t take this on, it’s too much,’” Koner recalled.
While the storm was posed to wreak havoc on the city of Houston, Koner was deep in the trenches expanding Family-to-Family’s reach in Westchester County.
The organization runs more than a dozen programs within the county and across the nation, all with the goal of easing the burden of hunger and poverty by facilitating connections between families with enough to share and those with profoundly less.
“What we hear all the time is people saying, ‘I want to give one-to-one, I want to give to a family,’” Koner said.
Family-to-Family offers donors that one-to-one connection with opportunities that include sponsoring a family with monthly groceries, providing children with a book each month or making birthday boxes for impoverished youths. Donor families and those they sponsor are also able to exchange letters and share photos with each other.
Koner said that though she was not eager to begin soliciting donations for Hurricane Harvey relief, she was inundated with requests from families and corporations asking how they could help. “People kept asking, ‘What are you going to do about Houston?’ And finally I was like, ‘Well, all right, I’ll do something.’”
This is not the first time Koner and her organization have stepped up following a natural catastrophe. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Family-to-Family connected more than 1,000 families with sponsors who supplied them with basic essentials. The group also organized a toy drive that yielded more than 15,000 toys for seven communities in the devastated region.
Similarly, when disaster struck closer to home in 2012, Family-to-Family linked more than 700 sponsors with families affected by Hurricane Sandy.
“Katrina and Sandy overwhelmed us,” Koner said, which made her initially reluctant to begin a Hurricane Harvey donation program.
Sttill, Koner’s decision to assist those affected by the Texas hurricane did not come as a surprise to those she works with.
“Pam sees that something is wrong and she goes ‘Oh my God, we have to do something,’” said Nancy Hennessee, program director for Family-to-Family.
To help those affected by Hurricane Harvey, Koner reached out to a trio of organizations in Houston that serve impoverished populations: the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Houston, Houston in Motion and Epiphany Community Health Outreach Services. “It’s better to work with a group of partners who are on the ground who know what (people) need,” she said.
Following its one-to-one model, Family-to-Family aims to connect Houston families in need to those who hope to assist them. To accomplish that, victims of the hurricane are asked to fill out detailed questionnaires assessing their needs. Family-to-Family will then pair those families with sponsors who will send along the requested items.
“They’ll send pillows, blankets, cleaning products and grocery gift cards,” said Hennessee.
Koner said that Family-to-Family has already enlisted individual donors and corporations to sponsor more than 65 families in Houston. “We have some donors that have been incredibly generous,” she said.
In just the first three days of soliciting, the organization raised roughly $10,000 for the victims of Hurricane Harvey.
Though Koner admits to getting caught up in the day-to-day workings of Family-to-Family, large-scale events like Hurricane Harvey remind her why she launched her nonprofit more than a decade ago.
Prior to starting Family-to-Family, she spent more than 20 years working as a fashion stylist and producer in New York City. When her family relocated to Hastings-on-Hudson in 1993, Koner decided that with two young children at home, it was time to embark on a new career path.
She began running an after-school program in her home in 1996, where children could have an “unplugged” space to work on homework or other creative endeavors. That program soon grew into a day care center, kindergarten program and creative arts space.
“I sort of found this niche and I just had seven or eight different programs in Hastings,” she said.
Her life would see another change, though, when in 2002 she read a New York Times cover story that profiled the impoverished town of Pembroke, Illinois. After reading of the dirt-floor homes, damaged rooftops and profound hunger that characterized the area, Koner felt compelled to take action. “I tapped into my community and I said, ‘I think there’s something we can do,’” she said.
Koner got in touch with an outreach worker in Pembroke and floated the idea of linking families in her own community with those in Pembroke. “I said, ‘I don’t know what I can do, but I’m good at solving problems. You need food, we can help. How do you want that to happen?’”
The outreach worker supplied Koner with the names of 17 families in Pembroke. Koner and 16 of her neighbors each began shopping for and sending a monthly box of food and basic necessities to “their family.”
“That was the seed that got sown for Family-to-Family,” she said.
Over the years, the organization has grown to connect donors with impoverished families in 29 communities across 17 states. They range from rural communities where a large percentage of families live below the poverty level to urban areas where many are unable to meet their basic nutritional needs.
To date, Family-to-Family has provided more than 5 million meals to families in need, along with supplying more than 27,000 books to children nationwide.
“The notion for us is that the giving goes on and on,” she said. “It’s not just a one-shot deal.”
That ripple effect of giving has become even more apparent in the days following the organization’s decision to send relief to Houston.
Hennessee and Koner relayed a letter they received from a family who lost everything during Hurricane Sandy. Following the storm, Family-to-Family helped connect that family with a donor from Connecticut who helped them begin the process of rebuilding their lives.
Now the family that was impacted by Hurricane Sandy hopes to repay that kindness by supporting a new family affected by Hurricane Harvey.
“It’s so amazing when things like this happen,” Koner said, “because I think sometimes we forget the volume of our impact.”