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Keri Courtwright Connects Those in Need with Those Who Can Help
A moment of Facebook scrolling two years ago changed Keri Courtwright’s life and led to the creation of a community resource to help those in need.
Courtwright was looking at her Facebook news feed when she saw a message from a friend. “I need clothes,” the friend had written. “I have nothing.”
That plea for help set Courtwright, a custodian with Facilities Services and a 13-year employee of the University, on a course to become a strong advocate for community service and helping others. “It dawned on me that I had seen garage sale sites, but I had never seen a free page for people in need,” she says. After seeing the message, Courtwright thought about her next steps for a few days. She wanted to be sure that what she did was thoughtful and purposeful.
Out of that moment, the Pay It Forward CNY Facebook community was born to connect people with particular needs to others who can help. Courtwright, who has volunteered in animal rescue for more than a decade, reached out to a core group of friends asking them to spread awareness of the new page. In the early months, she focused on collecting food and clothing. But as time progressed, she realized there were many greater needs and that one of the biggest issues was transportation.
“I thought people would be able to give and take for themselves, but it became apparent people would have something or needed something and they had no transportation,” she says. “So I started picking up from one individual and dropping off to another.” The popularity of the group swelled, as did the kinds of needs Courtwright was seeing. They range from clothing and food to help with emergency accommodations. The Pay It Forward CNY community is now composed of more than 5,000 members.
The first family she helped was a family of nine, including seven children, who lost everything in a fire. The parents insisted they were not going to a shelter with seven children; Courtwright arranged for comfortable accommodations and collected clothes and household items for them. Everything they needed for their new home.
She soon found that the need outweighed the time and energy that one person could handle. She transitioned to a new job at work that would give her more time to devote to the community and assembled a team to help with transportation and other duties. She devotes several hours a day to the Pay It Forward CNY community and on an average day may receive upwards of 50 requests for help, many being immediate needs. Those are the situations she attends to first.
“I basically fell into social work,” Courtwright says, “When I started the page, I didn’t realize the need, the poverty that exists in our community.… It started off very small, with me collecting just clothes and food. And then people started saying, ‘I need baby items, I need household items, I need cleaning supplies. It opened up from there.” During the summer months, she held a donation swap in the driveway of her home every Sunday.
Courtwright says many of the people she helps are the working poor—people who have a job (or even two) and have paid their bills but still struggle to put food on the table and to pay for other necessities. She has seen many instances of setbacks that happen when a medical issue arises or a car breaks down, and families cannot get ahead or stay on even footing. “Once people fall into that hole, it’s always something and they can never get caught up. Anything can happen, you just don’t know.” Social services in the community are trying to do the best they can to meet great need with limited funding, she says.
Courtwright has found that people who turn to the community for help are eager to do what they can to help others. “They come back and want to do more,” she says.
She is excited about Syracuse University’s 150 Days of Service initiative, through which members of the Orange family are invited and encouraged to collectively reach 15,000 hours of community service by March 24, 2020, National Orange Day, in celebration of the University’s sesquicentennial. She is currently forming a team of volunteers from the University to volunteer for Sleep in Heavenly Peace, a local nonprofit that makes beds for children in need.
As the holidays approach, Courtwright will be focusing on collections for Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas gifts; contact her through the Pay It Forward CNY community to learn how you can help. Ever the strong advocate for service in the greater community, she also encourages others to volunteer for and support the missions of nonprofits meeting unique needs in the community, including:
In My Father’s Kitchen; 315.308.1561; www.inmyfatherskitchen.org; works one-on-one with homeless persons; current needed items include deodorant, wet wipes, tissues, new white socks, water-resistant winter gloves and winter hats.
We Rise Above the Streets; 315.491.7164; Weriseabovethestreets@gmail.com; provides local homeless with food, clothing and personal items through Sandwich Saturday held downtown each week; current needs include gently used coats, hats and boots; hand warmers; travel-sized hygiene products; and volunteers to assist with events.
Beyond making connections, Courtwright utilizes the Pay It Forward CNY community to share stories of service and kindness, to share community resources and to inspire others. On the page, she recently featured a Maya Angelou quote: “Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”
It is a quote that she lives out every single day.