At McCabe and Mack LLP, charitable giving represents so much more than sponsorships and monetary donations. For decades, we’ve also volunteered for nonprofit organizations throughout the region. Among them, Astor Services for Children & Families.
It was retired partner J. Joseph McGowan who first introduced Astor to our firm. Joe is now Trustee Emeritus, after serving on the Board of Trustees in various capacities for over 30 years, including Board Chair. Joe passed the torch to Scott D. Bergin, Partner at McCabe and Mack LLP. Scott, whose areas of legal expertise include litigation/insurance defense, personal injury-plaintiff and arbitration/mediation recently shared what it’s been like to spend time helping to support Astor. Here’s more from our interview:
Scott, tell us about Astor Services for Children & Families:
It’s a wonderful organization with an incredible group of staff who are deeply dedicated to making life better for the children and families we serve. I leave board meetings and volunteer experiences inspired, and always wishing I could do more.
Their website, of course, captures the essence of their work best: “Astor Services for Children & Families is a community-based non-profit organization that provides children’s mental health services, child welfare services, and early childhood development services. Astor serves children and families in New York State’s Mid-Hudson Valley region and the Bronx. Astor Services is committed to supporting families to ensure each child has a healthy and happy childhood.”
You’ve been Vice Chair of Astor’s Board and member of the governance and executive committees. How has it grown during that time?
I’ve been volunteering with Astor for approximately 15 years, and it’s grown exponentially. When I first started, it was a $15-20 million agency; now it’s closer to $65 million – which gives you a sense of how we’ve expanded our services and service area. While many Hudson Valley locals assume that Astor’s Rhinebeck site is the only location, it’s important for people to understand that what happens in Northern Dutchess County represents only a small part of a bigger picture. We have close to 50 young people living and/or attending school on the Rhinebeck campus, but we also have a tremendous footprint in the Bronx, and our services are also carried out in Ulster, Orange, and other parts of Dutchess County. For example, the Head Start Program, with over five locations in the Hudson Valley, the largest on Delafield Street in Poughkeepsie, is run by Astor. What started off as a home for children in Rhinebeck in the early 1950s has developed into a nationally recognized organization that provides comprehensive behavioral and mental health services for thousands of children. There aren’t many organizations who have programs so robust and diverse; it’s a very underserved segment of human services. The team at Astor are recognized as experts in the field – and have been recognized as such by the Joint Commission and other entities.
What have you learned along the way about the programs?
As a volunteer, I’m always learning about different approaches and the ways that Astor’s programs treat children, teenagers, young adults and families. During the time I have volunteered at Astor, I have seen how dedicated the staff is and the many success stories from Astor’s programs. There’s so much to learn and I am continually discovering new things about Astor’s programs – we serve a multitude of programs In over 80 locations in the Hudson Valley and the Bronx, and are expanding into Sullivan county and expansion is on the horizon for other counties! We’re in the schools throughout the Hudson Valley and the Bronx with a wide array of services, our Rhinebeck campus offers both residential and day programs, we go into households to support families – and offer a wide range of services to children, but we also work with adult caregivers who need support learning how to best parent and care for the kids. I’ve discovered that there is an endless need, and that the breadth and depth of Astor’s work is truly extraordinary.
How about life lessons? What have you gained?
I have now really seen first-hand that many people get dealt a really tough lot in life; life can be just plain unfair. We have kids here in the mid-Hudson Valley and in the Bronx who have been the victims of horrific abuse, have come from dysfunctional families, or were born with mental illness or other developmental challenges. Unless someone steps in to help them, they won’t have the opportunity to meet their potential and enjoy successful and satisfying lives. As we say in Astor’s tagline, “every child deserves a childhood” – and that’s what we are all working together to do – give these kids a chance at childhood – and further, at a good chance at life.
I credit Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, Executive Director at Catholic Charities, for re-engaging me with Astor after I briefly cut back on my involvement. Who can say no to a Monsignor? I’ve seen and been amazed about how much Catholic Charities does including providing food and shelter and help to thousands of individuals and families in crisis. They operate with great results under the radar – never seeking recognition. I am always astounded by their passion and commitment.
What has been your most fulfilling experience as an Astor volunteer?
Any time I’ve gotten to talk with or watch staff in action – and see their level of commitment – I have been amazed. At times they will attend board meetings to report on what’s happening in their specific program areas. Unfortunately, human services is not able to compensate these selfless heroes for the value of their work, so having the staff at Astor working hard and showing up for these kids and parents/caregivers day after day – you can see that they’re in it for the right reasons. And to even be a small part of it as a volunteer and board member is a great privilege for me; it’s very rewarding to know that we are all trying to make the lives of these children and families better.
What is the most important lesson you can share with the community?
Trying to diminish the stigma around mental health and behavioral issues. I think it’s getting better overall in our society – thanks to people like Simone Biles who has helped normalize mental health struggles. We need for people to understand that depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges should be treated like any other health issue – without placing blame on anyone. It’s part of the human condition to experience tough times, and for some, treatment is needed. In addition, there are many children who do not have the same opportunities and chances for success that many of us take for granted. Astor addresses these problems and tries to level the playing field for these children and their families.
In what ways has your experience with Astor shaped you?
It’s given me more compassion. When you see what these kids go through, and you think about the fact that most of us don’t know true suffering or the consequences of issues like neglect or addiction, you realize how fortunate you are and it makes you want to do more. I realize how important it is to pay attention to the inequities that exist and do what I can to help in whatever small way I can.
What advice do you have for young professionals who want to get involved in the community?
My advice would be the same advice that was shared with me in 1985 when I started at McCabe & Mack: Pick a passion – just one to start off with, and never more than 1 or 2 total because you want to be able to really focus and give it as much as you can. Having grown up in Hyde Park and always loving animals, the Dutchess County SPCA was the perfect place to get started with community volunteerism. I was on that board for eight years and served as Vice President. But I also knew when it was time to move into something else, and that’s important too. We all want to volunteer for causes that we are passionate about – but we need to understand that we will get stale if we stay in the same place for too long. So be mindful of that and most importantly, stay involved by always volunteering. After the SPCA, I became a board member, officer and President of The Rhinebeck Zoning Board of Appeals for almost 20 years and am currently Chairperson. Community service can take many forms and the opportunities are endless. Always give back because it is the right thing to do, and because it can bring immense personal satisfaction.