SPEAKER: --of the Cornell Elves Program. Those of you who are unfamiliar with this widely-successful program of giving will soon learn what this means, but I know him as the "Old Dog of Career Development." That's his self-description.
An extremely dedicated advocate for students, a champion of the underdog, a humble, yet smart-alecky guy with a flair for the absurd, and a staunch and steadfast friend. I've known Bill for over half my life. I actually did the math. It's over 60% of my life. And without fueling his ego too much, I must say I can't imagine my life without him in it.
Our friendship started way back in the 1980s-- wah-- when I began working in Career Services myself. And it was then that he introduced himself to me as that "Old Dog of Career Development." He was always willing to engage in conversation, happy to share what he knows, and entertain a rigorous debate, should you have an opinion other than his own regarding how to do something. That way of being continues to this day.
But one thing that is never debated is Bill's commitment to friends and family, and his dedication to make someone's life just a little bit better. Bill has a long history at Cornell, receiving his master's degree in CALS and then working in Cornell's Career Services for 31-plus years, mainly as the director of the CALS Career Office, and then as a counselor for the university, sharing his passion for careers and teaching and other areas of the nonprofit sector.
Prior to Cornell, Bill spent his time as a proud union member, serving in not just one, but three unions-- the Teamsters, the Laborers, and the Railway Workers. And given that I know that Bill hitchhiked through almost all of our 50 states, I have this vision of Bill with that bandanna on a stick and one of those rail push cart thingies on the railroad, when I think about his union work with the Railway Workers. He was a high school shop teacher, and a driver's ed teacher, and an assistant dean at Herkimer Community College.
Perhaps it was because of his working class upbringing, or maybe his union indoctrination, or maybe the result of hearing the stories of people of all stripes and colors who offered him a ride during his hitchhiking days-- whatever its origin, Bill Alberta is hardwired with a big heart and a strong work ethic. He has an appreciation for the value of a good day's work and the joy and dignity that comes from doing whatever-- but making sure that whatever you do, do it well. Among the list of many things Bill has done well is his work to assist the children of our community.
As I said earlier, Bill is the founder of the Cornell Elves Program, which helps more than 1,000 children in 40 local schools, and provides approximately $160,000 in new clothing, toys, backpacks, and warm blankets every year. He comes to us today to share his story of kindness and extending a hand whenever you have the opportunity, something I have witnessed and benefited from over and over and over again in my more than 30-plus years of having a friend in the "Old Dog." Please join me in welcoming my dear friend and Cornell's Head Elf, Bill Alberta.
BILL ALBERTA: Thank you, [? Chris. ?] That was way too generous, but I liked it. Someone once said, "Most of us will never do great things. But we can all do small things in a great way." I found that a nice quote to live by. And with that in mind, I'm going to tell you a few brief stories about some things I've experienced, some lessons I've learned, and some small things I've tried to do that relate to kindness and to hope.
When I was in first grade and the holidays were approaching, the teacher gave us each a slip of paper and asked us to write one of two words on that paper-- "give" or "receive." We had a minute to think about it before we had to make our choice. I thought about it in terms of toys.
I came from a poor family. I didn't have many toys. I did have this great Roy Rogers cap pistol. And I thought, do I want to give away my cap pistol, or would I like to get some more toys? It was a rather easy choice. I wanted more toys.
So she then called for a show of hands. And she said, how many people wrote "receive"? Two hands raised-- me and some other poor fool. How many people wrote "give?" 20-some hands shot in the air. And I got icy stares from my classmates-- and from the teacher.
So I decided right then I always want to be on the giving side. It was a good lesson. It really did make me think. But I did keep my cap pistol. I still have it.
I grew up in a small town in Delaware County that was really an Appalachian setting. Very few people had very much, and very many people had very little. My mom was a waitress and a factory worker. My dad was a laborer, a truck driver, a quarryman. But we were better off than many of the other folks in that area, because we had this nice old farmhouse that my grandfather had built, and we had a lot of land.
And we had all these people who stopped in all the while. I thought at the time it was normal. I realized afterwards it was not normal at all. So people would stop by the house, unannounced in almost every case. And they came in the door into the kitchen and sat there at the table. Many of them were relatives, because we had a lot of-- both my mom and dad had siblings, and so there's relatives and cousins always stopping. Often eating, or at least drinking coffee or my dad's hard cider.
Many others were characters from the area, and there were a lot of characters that my father knew. And they were rough. They worked in the woods in the stone quarries. They were the main occupations. They'd come in the house with stone dust on their clothes, or sometimes mud on their boots, and sit at the kitchen table and talk. Some of them brought instruments. My dad was a musician.
But every one was treated with respect and kindness. And I knew from working with some of these people on construction, from shooting pool with them in the bars, some of these guys were really rough characters, and some were a little scary. And some were very crass or vulgar. But around my mom, they were perfect gentleman. Her kindness came through to them.
Never knew who was going to show up and stay. My mom had a couple of brothers that I loved dearly, but they would be down and out every once in a while. Every few years, they'd stop by and stay for a week, a month, several months-- there was never any question about money. They would work with my dad in the quarry when he could. And just another way of my folks showing me how important it was to reach out to people who didn't have so much. And they'd get back on their feet and leave, and everybody was happy.
My dad's only real recreation was playing his music, and stopping for a beer in the bar and a game of pool. He was either working very, very hard, or he was fixing up the old farmhouse, which he did forever-- didn't even have running water when I was a little boy. But he would often bring a friend home, so he'd be shooting pool, having a beer-- he'd bring a friend home for supper unannounced. My mother didn't-- she took it just naturally. Set another place at the table, shared the meal.
One time, he brought a stranger home, which wasn't all that unusual. But this guy was very unusual. He'd met him just that night in the bar, and it turned out he was on the run from the mafia. No exaggeration. You could write a whole book about this guy. And he needed a place to hide.
So Dad simply said to Mom, this guy's name-- this is Hap. He's going to have supper and stay with us for a while. Mom said, OK. He stayed for five years.
And what was so cool about it was, here's a guy that-- he was a big man. He was huge, and if the circumstance required, he could be very scary. One time I'd painted a house for a man, and he liked the work, but he decided not to pay me. I needed that money very badly. So I showed up with Hap.
Knocked on the door and I said, would you like to pay me now for the work I did? Hap stood there with his arms folded. He had an eagle on this one bicep, and it looked about this big. He didn't say a word, but his eyes were kind of opaque. And the guy said, let me get my checkbook. He ran and got his checkbook, and I finally got paid.
My mom would-- her factory job was an hour away from home, and she worked a shift that got her home at 1:00 in the morning. And Hap would often be at the kitchen range, cooking Italian food for her when she got home at 1:00. There's such a nice lesson there about kindness, and about the good heart that can be in a person, but it's not really very visible. But it sure was with him.
Then my experiences in school continued to influence me, especially seeing how poor many of my classmates were. Many came to school with the same clothes every day. Many didn't smell very good. Generally, they weren't treated very well, sometimes even by the teachers.
For example, our third grade teacher organized an anonymous gift exchange in December. When we opened our presents there in the classroom, some kid had received only a roll of lined paper. The teacher was livid, and she shouted at us. And she demanded to know who had given such a terrible present.
I was just a kid, and I wasn't all that smart, but I saw the injustice in that situation. I knew that among several extremely poor kids in that classroom, somebody was sitting there hoping that he or she would not be discovered. And I thought, why isn't that teacher kinder? Can't she see what's so very clear, even to me? That probably the parents had so little, that's all they could come up with.
It was a good lesson. It made me try to be kinder, and I think it was already pretty kind kid, thanks to my parents. And I think it probably influenced me when I did my five years of school teaching. I think I was a kind teacher. You don't forget little lessons like that.
And then there was the community where I saw more examples of kindness and the lack thereof. I was shooting pool one night-- and this is how I made spending money. My dad was excellent. When we shot together for a quarter a game, I could make $5 or $6 in a night. That was huge when you paid $0.33 a gallon for gasoline, right? That was big money.
So I'm shooting pool in this little bar-- very, very cold winter night. It was a day almost like this. And I want to see my dad. He was in the building next door, playing for a square dance. So I bundled up and I go out the door, and I pass by a beat-up old car. And so I looked-- glanced in the car.
In the backseat are several children. They are not dressed in warm clothing. They have dirty faces. They're huddled together in the backseat of this car. I had seen their father drinking beer and shots in the bar for the past two hours. I'd shot pool against him. And yet, he never came out of that car. He just left those kids there till he was ready to go home.
That experience and others made me more committed to finding ways to help. I still think about that, and it still makes me feel bad. So based on my parents' teaching and what they showed me, based on other experiences, I've always looked for ways to show kindness, especially to the underdogs. And I'll bet I'm speaking to a room full of kind people, or you wouldn't be here at Soup & Hope. So many of you have done much more than me, I'm sure.
I'll give you a few examples, though, of what I've tried to do. The Elves Program is probably the best thing I've thought of, that [? Chris ?] mentioned before. I'm not a very deep thinker. We have some deep thinkers in the world. I'm looking at some right now that I know. Janet [INAUDIBLE] now there's a deep thinker.
I do my thinking more at the shallow end of the pool. But I count on luck. So we got kind of lucky with the Elves. It wasn't so much that I was smart about it, or that my wife, who co-founded it with me, was so smart about it. We got kind of lucky.
It started back in 1989, when we were helping a couple of local women put together some gifts for kids at one of our schools-- kids that needed them very badly-- mainly clothing. And then that felt like a good thing to do. And you could see you were really doing some good. And I've always thought so much about poor kids.
So in their office, we were doing an anonymous gift exchange, which made me think a little bit about third grade and that teacher. But we had 30 people, and I asked them if they'd be willing to, instead of buying an anonymous gift at $5, pool our money together and buy something for these kids. So we did. And people liked that. It felt good. Made the holidays a little more meaningful.
And then it grew, and this was the thing that just amazed me. More people heard about it and wanted to help. First thing you know, instead of helping four or five kids like we started with, we're helping 20, then 30, and then 50.
And then people would say, wait a minute. You're helping kids at Anfield, but there's kids in the community where I work that need help too. Can we help them? So we took on some more schools. And the first thing you know, it was too big. I couldn't do it. I was trying to manage like four schools and 150 kids. And it was like, ah!
Finally, the light bulb lit. What if we had a person for each school? And thus, the whole idea of Elf Leaders was born. Now, the people with the cool hats back there are all Elf Leaders. Except for my daughter, but she's our liaison at Lansing Elementary School. So it just grew by itself, really. And it was wonderful to see that.
From the start, we had some basic principles that we still stick to. We Elves help the kids that were in the absolute greatest need, as identified by somebody at the school. No exceptions to that. So it's the school nurse or social worker who see kids coming to school with thin little coats in the wintertime, or sneakers when they should be wearing snow boots, or no underwear, some nurses have told me. So we have them identify the very, very neediest.
We buy all new clothing and toys-- everything from our list, which you can see on our website-- elves.cornell.edu. We do our very best to keep it anonymous, for the kids' sake and the parents' sake. And I'm very proud of this. We have not one penny of overhead costs-- nothing. If a stamp has to be bought, I buy it.
So this year-- every year, we've set a new record, which is just wonderful. So every kid, and [? Chris ?] gave you a couple numbers-- we had $125, $150 worth of new clothing and toys from our checklist. And this year, we helped 1,134 kids in almost 40 schools in their Backpack Program.
And the person who started the Backpack Program is here, by the way. Maureen Brull is one of the servers. We provided 1,224 new backpacks and school supplies to these kids. One thing about the Backpack Program-- it started-- how many years, Maureen? 11?
Because her granddaughter came home from school as a little kid and said, Grandma, we've got kids coming to school in the fall here with no backpacks. They've just got a little plastic bag with some pencils and paper in it, and they're supposed to have all this stuff. So a little kid started the program, in a way, with her grandma's help.
And then a few years ago, a little girl indicated she wanted a warm blanket for Christmas. Kids shouldn't be asking for warm blankets. They should be asking for toys, I suppose, at that age, or nice clothes. And so we started to make blankets.
And this is a fun project. If you ever want to do it for just one day, it's always the first Saturday in November. And we go to DeWitt Middle School, and we have a little blanket factory. Some great big rolls of polar fleece material, which is very warm-- made in the United States. Great stuff.
And we get it at a huge discount, and we make blankets. So this year, a new record for blankets-- 371. And it gives me a good feeling to think of kids, nights like this, having warm blankets to sleep with. Imagine they're sleeping cold.
I think for every kid we help through the winter program, for example, there's probably an average of about three people that are Elves, so we must have now 3,000 or more Elves, which just amazes me. And anybody can be an Elf. Most Elves are Cornell workers, but we have lots of other folks who aren't.
And you're an Elf if you do anything to help-- doesn't necessarily mean money. A lot of people donate money, which is wonderful. Some people hate to shop. I'm one of them. I hate to shop. But the people who hate to shop will give money, and then we have people who love to shop. I can't believe it.
Some people will shop for three or four kids and enjoy the whole thing very much, thank goodness. And some people-- parents want their child-- their son or daughter-- to understand the idea of giving during the holiday season. So it's great when an eight-year-old can shop for an eight-year-old, because they know what they want.
It's also one of the spin-offs of the program that I love, and I never anticipated, is the way offices get involved. And we've had so many people in offices say, this makes the holiday season so much more enjoyable for us. They use different approaches to do it, but some offices will sponsor one kid. Some offices will sponsor several. There's a law firm downtown that I think sponsored six this year, and they enjoyed doing it.
But the Elf Leaders-- I want to give them all a pat on the back. All those people with the nice Elf hats are Elf Leaders, like I said, except my daughter. And she does a huge amount of work, like all our liaisons do. But they're what makes it go. It's a lot of work. And they're some of the kindest people I've ever met. I'm very proud of them. I brought some copies of Elves business card, if you're interested in learning more or getting involved.
In addition to the children, I've tried to find other ways to help people. And I've been retired from Cornell for seven years now, so I have more time, which is good. I learned a lesson about 20 years ago that I'm using as I try to help individuals.
A kid stole my wife's bicycle-- nice bicycle. And he pretty much trashed it-- did $150 worth of damage. I knew who it was. I had him dead to rights. I had an eye witness and everything. He denied it. This kid had one parent in his life. And I knew he was on the verge of some trouble. But he wasn't going to own up to it.
So I said, OK, here's your choice. I don't want to do this, but I'll go to the cops if I have to. But instead, why don't you come and work for me, and you can pay off the $150 that it cost to get that bike fixed. He didn't like the idea of the cops any more than I did. I never would have done it, but he came and worked for me.
And I discovered something. I didn't just give him tasks. I worked with him, and talked to him, and taught him some things. I have a lot of tools and machines. I enjoy that stuff. And I got to know that kid. And it took a while for him to earn his money.
And it worked out so well. He needed somebody to just care about him. And his mom did-- don't get me wrong. But he needed a male figure. And I did care about him. I came to really like the kid, and I'd look for ways to say good things to him about what he was doing-- what he was learning. We're still friends to this day.
And I've used that approach with other people. Currently, Sherry and I have three guys in our lives that we mentor. Interesting, each of them, in their own ways. The first, we met seven years ago through the Learning Web Youth Outreach Program, which is a great program, by the way. And this guy was trying to fix up this little house that he was able to buy through a couple of wonderful community organizations here.
Smart guy-- smart guy. But he'd been in jail. He had been a drug dealer. His mom, the light of his life, died while he's in jail, unexpectedly. Which really was an awful thing for him, of course. And I started working with him.
He knew nothing about tools or materials, but he learned quickly. And he gave me chances to teach him things, and then to say good things to him about what he was doing and what he was learning. And there's so much power to that, I found. He felt better about himself, and he desperately needed to feel good about himself. We got very close to him, and he's become part of our family now.
We hear from him frequently. He's doing well. He's got that little house half paid for. Got his license back, so he can drive a car after having it taken away for seven years. In three months, he'll have his license back. He's doing well with his job. And he often says, I love you guys. Very sweet.
There's another young man that's been in our lives for four years now that we continue to see-- one of Sherry's former students she taught at the high school. And she was especially good with the kids that were tough and many, many times, hard for people to relate to and get along with. He grew up in an awful environment, and we have some of them around Ithaca, believe me.
He pretty much, he told me, raised himself since age 13. I don't know that anybody ever said "I love you" to this guy. And he is-- he's rough. He's hurting, and he's got a lot of anger. But over four years, I've seen it slowly diminish.
And now-- I can never give him a hug, like I can that first guy I told you about, but I can pat him on the shoulder, and he likes it. It's cool. I also-- we need help working around the place. I'm older and older now, and we have a big house and quite a lot of land. And there's always stuff to do, so I can hire this guy and pay him well. And it's good for him, and it's good for us.
We also make him a lot of meals, and I think that's-- he never got home-cooked meals. Boy, does he love that. And recently he told me he's going to take me to his favorite secret fishing spot, which was a big compliment.
A third person we work with is older-- spent nearly half his life in prison. He did something awful. I met with him shortly after he got out, summer before last. One of our good neighbors had met him when he was doing volunteer work in the prison, and introduced me to him. And wanted to know if Sherry and I had any work that this guy could do.
Well, we were clearing land on our property for Amber's new house. And we had work, all right. It was like attacking a jungle. It was just terrible-- miserable work in the hot sun-- chainsaw and so forth. So we hired this guy. He had tried to get a dishwashing job, by the way, which he'd done in prison, and was told he wasn't qualified.
It's just awful when people come out with a felony and try to make a life for themselves. It's just awful. He was living in the most miserable environment you could imagine downtown. He had no money. He had nothing going for him.
So we hired him. We paid him well, and he really worked hard. And again, I used that same approach, finding ways to give somebody a sincere compliment. And there were definitely opportunities with this guy. He did such good work.
I remember one day we were working very hard and sweating, and I pulled up a chair. I said, come over here and sit down. I said, we're just working too hard here. Let's have a drink.
Oh, no, he says. I'm doing well right now. I want to get this done. He needed compliments. He needed some reason to feel better about himself. And we also found that bringing people into your home, cooking for them and with them, showing trust, can be so healing. And so many people need that.
Now he's doing well. He's got a job where he's learning a trade. He will be a union electrician if he keeps on this route, and I think he will. He's living out of that-- he's out of that miserable place he was in, and living in this nice little cottage. It's supported by a nonprofit.
He's got a car. And he's really quite happy. He's got things to work on still, but we continue to see him, as does our neighbor. He's coming well. He calls me Uncle Bill, which is interesting.
So my approach to mentoring hasn't always worked. I can think of several failures. You can't always get to people. What I found is, there's so many people in our society-- and I saw this particularly through some of Sherry's students that we've had at the house-- they're on a knife edge. They can go either way. They can go toward that life of crime, or they can make it.
So many good people don't make it. I can think of particular students of Sherry's, just didn't make it. And people would look at them and how they lived their lives and say, that's a bad person. They weren't bad people. They were good people. They did some bad things, but they were good people. Nobody was able to help them turn the right way.
So in closing, because I'm trying to keep this to 50 minutes-- I think I'm doing pretty good so far. A few things I've learned about kindness-- I just close with that. Kindness is both powerful and empowering. It can enable you to see a whole different side to a person.
The roughest exteriors can hide goodness in a person. I found that time and time again from the characters that visited my parents' kitchen. With names, by the way, like Cool Heel Johnny and Bean, and The Crow. Really interesting guys. Rough exteriors, but when you got to know them, they were cool people. They were fun.
Kind words, if sincerely spoken, can have so much value. Even a comment like, "hey, that's a great latte you made me, you're really good at that," has to be sincere. I'm fussy about my lattes. I wouldn't say it weren't true. But it means a lot to that person. So many times, people in service capacities get complaints. They don't get compliments.
Or something as very simple as, "nice job packing those groceries. You got it all in one bag." Try that sometime with somebody. You'll see. Watch the expression on their face. I find that kind acts can take many forms. They can be as simple as holding a door open for somebody, or they can be as time consuming and complex as mentoring somebody over months or years.
Tipping people is a kind act, too. 20% of the families in our county live below the poverty line-- 20%. Same is true for the surrounding counties. So many of those people are making a minimum wage, and they're working hard, and they can't make it even then. So-- and so many are in the capacities that serve us all. A good tip makes a big difference-- some of them count on that.
Taking the time to learn the names of people is an act of kindness. There's a custodian that works in your building. Knowing that person's name-- being able to talk to them. I try to know the names of all the baristas at Gimme! And it's challenging. I have to write them down, because they're always changing or changing stores, you know.
[CHUCKLES] Real challenging, but it makes such a nice difference when you can. And then, humor helps a lot. When you can laugh with people, you can get closer to them. So we Elves have a special salute, by the way. And it always makes the other Elf laugh.
This is-- how many Elves, by the way, before I show you the salute? How many Elves in here? Aha. Room for more Elves. Well, when you're an Elf, you can use the salute. This is it.
All right. My time is up, so I'm going to close with a quote. "Those who bring sunshine to the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves." I find this to be very true. I think you will, too. Any questions?
Thank you. OK.
SPEAKER: Thank you for your presence. Thank you, Bill, for all your kind words and the wonderful sign of hope you are to us. You're welcome to come and greet him if you'd like, before-- I know some of you are just wanting to go right back into that cold, and get right back to the office. But we look forward to seeing you again two weeks from now, February 14, Valentine's Day, when Cal Walker will be our guest speaker that day. Have a wonderful afternoon.
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Bill Alberta has a Cornell degree and worked in Cornell Career Services, mainly as a director and counselor, for thirty years. Bill is the founder of The Cornell Elves Program, which helps more than 1,000 children in 40 local schools and provides approximately $160,000 in new clothing, toys, backpacks and warm blankets each year. Using stories and examples, Bill will talk about the power of kindness and how it has influenced his life.
For more than a decade, dozens of Soup & Hope speakers have touched, inspired, motivated, and stirred the hearts of those who gather during the winter months at Sage Chapel. Stories come from a wide range of Cornell staff, faculty, students, alumni and community members. These stories of hope reflect diverse personal, cultural, religious, political, and philosophical beliefs and experiences. They are shared among friends and colleagues, over bowls of hot soup and bread.