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Helping out

Schenectady nonprofit steps in when no one else can

Saturday, November 9, 2013
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Rayn Boncie, CEO/founder of Things of My Very Own, Inc., a Schenectady-based nonprofit that provides emergency services to children who are coming from abuse/neglect.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Rayn Boncie, CEO/founder of Things of My Very Own, Inc., a Schenectady-based nonprofit that provides emergency services to children who are coming from abuse/neglect.

— Rayn Boncie deals in depravity every day.

She meets children at the moment they are ripped from a world where socks are a luxury, car seats make do as cribs and sex with an older relative means another day with a roof over their head.

Their lives have been so filled with pain that within five minutes of walking through the door of Things of My Very Own Inc., they are taken aback with gratitude.

“They’re the ones that come in here and say ‘Oops, I didn’t know this was someone’s apartment,’ and we tell them, ‘No, this is for you. Sit down, have a cup of coffee or a bottle of water,’ ” explained Boncie, who founded the organization in 2008. “And they sit, and minutes later, they are sobbing and saying ‘We’ve never been treated this well. We’ve never been treated this well.’ ”

Things of My Very Own provides crisis intervention services across a 12-county area to children who have experienced extensive abuse or neglect or are in at-risk situations. The abuse runs the spectrum, from black-and-white cases like rape to gray cases like the single mother who can’t afford to buy infant formula one week or school supplies each year. Regardless, the nonprofit’s main task is to intervene once it gets a referral and tide that child over until it reaches a safer, more stable situation.

About the organization

Things of My Very Own, Inc. accepts clients on a non-referral, appointment-only basis every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at its crisis intervention center at 202 Front St., Suite 3 in Schenectady. Anyone who wishes to donate can do so at www.tomvo.org or by calling 518-630-6137.

These interventions have proved to be so life changing, so meaningful in the moment to the 4,000 to 6,000 children the organization serves each year that it is hard to believe more people haven’t heard of it. But then, its real success is in filling in the cracks left by other social service agencies. Where county-run programs operate by red tape and bureaucracy and other nonprofits maintain strict criteria, Things of My Very Own prides itself on providing help within four hours of a crisis.

“We’re the hidden ones, but we’re fast and we’re effective,” is how Boncie put it on a recent rainy weekday from inside its crisis center on Front Street in Schenectady.

She had slipped off a pair of tattered Sketchers and curled her legs up onto the couch in the waiting room, laying a jacket over her bare legs. Inside the crisis intervention center is a waiting room, kitchenette, office and rooms filled to the brim with brand new bedding, mattress pads, clothing, coats, shoes, toiletries, dishes and food.

When Boncie says “hidden,” she’s referring to the organization’s role as the go-between, the middle man, the bridge between crisis and long-term solution.

When a child seeks help for abuse or abuse is reported, the transition out of that situation can be abrupt. For children who aren’t placed into foster care, but are instead sent to other well-meaning but impoverished guardians, Things of My Very Own will supply them with as many as seven days of emergency supplies — clothing, toiletries, school supplies or bedding.

Most crises start with Child Protective Services and end with the Department of Social Services, which can arrange for long-term help. These agencies and others, like local shelters, food pantries and nonprofits, will refer people to Boncie’s organization for a short-term fix.

Kim Sheppard, executive director of Bethesda House of Schenectady, said she makes about 20 to 30 referrals to Things of My Very Own each month.

“Our focus is on individuals who are homeless, disabled or poor,” she said. “So to avoid duplication of services, when a family comes in in an emergency or crisis, we send them to Things of My Very Own. Sadly, more and more families are in need, and we’ve seen those referrals increase.”

The problem with being a “hidden” nonprofit — one that’s not muttered in the same breath as Catholic Charities, the American Red Cross or the local food pantry — is that donors are harder to come by and long-term sustainability is a constant worry. Boncie works with holes in her shoes and rips in her clothing. Her corporate laptop is held together with plastic wrap. In December, she gave up her salary so she wouldn’t have to cut programs like the organization’s life-skill, development and prevention programs, which are offered to children free and depending on their need.

One of these programs is a ropes course, which helps children explore themes like trust, cooperation, self-confidence and self-esteem. The kids Boncie takes up on the high metal wires are ones who, through years of abuse, were taught they weren’t worth anything beyond sex.

“Little kids, these little 7-year-old kids, will tell me, ‘They have to poke me here so that they’ll love me,’ ” recalled Boncie. “And there are kids who have been taught growing up that if they don’t dress sexy in front of dad or stepdad they’re not worth anything. If they don’t continue to have sex with Uncle So-and-So, they have no worth. So rather than growing up and ending up in bad situations, we try to teach them that they are people and they are valued and they have worth. And a lot of times, that comes out on those ropes.”

Every day is not an emotional breakthrough, though — these come by way of the nonprofit’s longer-term programs. Instead, most days at Things of My Very Own are about getting someone out of physical harm or discomfort with the very basic material things that they need to live in modern society. This can be something as simple as a bag of tampons or sanitary pads.

“We have girls who can’t go to school for a week out of each month because they can’t afford feminine hygiene products,” said Boncie, “so we started stocking them.”

Sometimes it starts with a phone call from the Bellevue Woman’s Center. Nurses there ask each new mother if they have a crib for their new baby; those who don’t end up at Things of My Very Own. Sometimes it’s a mom who is waiting to see if she qualifies for the Women, Infants and Children program, but needs food for her kids in the meantime.

A lot of times it’s clothing and bedding for unexpected new parents — the boyfriend whose girlfriend got hooked on drugs and abandoned her three children by an absent father at his apartment one day, or the grandmother whose daughter went to jail and, with one phone call from CPS, inherited her eight grandchildren.

“The grandmother,” sighed Boncie, remembering the long-ago case, “she was a great woman, but she was broke and surviving off Social Security herself.”

Tonya Kenific learned how much power “just a few bags of stuff” can have when she started volunteering with Things of My Very Own.

“I would just be handing them over to someone, thinking nothing of it,” she said, “and these people start crying out of gratitude. I have to get my composure and say, ‘OK, I can’t break down here.’ To us, this stuff isn’t much, but to somebody else, it’s everything.”

The 33-year-old Niskayuna woman is one of as many as 500 volunteers a year who help the organization. She started assisting about eight months ago after hearing through other nonprofits she volunteers with that this was a special place.

On any given day, Kenific will help gather and sort aid, sit in on interviews with clients in need of help, collect and distribute donations and help out with emails.

“I have seen clients who come in and have lost pretty much everything from a fire and been turned away by other people,” she said. “Other cases are a little more extreme, with the abuse they’ve endured, and I go home at the end of the day and look at my kids and thank God that we’re all healthy and happy and somewhat normal. We don’t like to think this evil is out there, but it really is.”

Boncie’s own history is behind Things of My Very Own. She grew up in Saratoga County and was thrust into foster care at age 14 after being abused. When she met her foster sister, she was struck that the overweight 14-year-old was wearing clothing fit for a small 9-year-old.

“DSS at the time did nothing to help her, so I made a silent promise to her that when I grew up, I would do something to help kids like her and I in the world,” said Boncie.

It also explains the organization’s name.

“Several of the children that we work with have nothing,” she said. “When they transition to safety, they are often forced to wear and use items that belong to others. Sadly, when they transition again, the items are expected to be returned. Our goal is to provide children with things of their very own from the first moment on.”

There is no sign outside the crisis center, which is on the upper floor of what looks like an apartment building. Boncie moved the organization there earlier this summer after a larceny at the center’s old space. She hopes to eventually open a larger center, and when she really starts to dream, she hopes to open multiple centers across New York and other states.

But like many other nonprofits in a post-recession world, finances are tight and donations don’t pour in. The need has only grown, but the funding has not. Things of My Very Own grossed about $770,000 in 2012, most of which — about $720,000 — was in-kind donations. The rest was from cash donations and grants from local businesses and organizations. Only 4 percent of the budget last year went toward administrative costs.

“We are referral-based,” explained Boncie. “That means that our clients come to us through other agencies that for some reason or another cannot help. But the problem is, outside of the clients and agencies, no one’s heard of us. Financially, it’s tough. I went to a presentation the other day, and someone said, ‘Why aren’t you guys asking for money for salaries?’ I said, ‘Well, we need money for programs.’ If there are no programs, what’s the point in having employees?”

To that end, Things of My Very Own is fortunate to rely on its civic-minded volunteers, people who, like Boncie, sacrifice their own time to give to others.

Frank Graniero lives in Staten Island, but was so moved when he heard of the organization’s mission and Boncie’s stories that he drives up several times a month to attend board meetings and make deliveries.

“I feel like I’m doing something to help,” said Graniero, regional vice president for the New York State Fraternal Order of Police. “When I first saw what she was doing, I said, ‘This is unbelievable, I can’t believe it.’ And then after speaking with her, you get a sense that there is a lot more to this than meets the eye. I had to help.”

It’s simple enough to Boncie: People are people are people. They’re not case files. They each deserve dignity and a sense of self-worth.

When donations have been low, it’s not unusual for her to dive into her own closet and pull out clothes for a child in need.

“I am fine walking around with holes in my clothing or shoes if it will allow one child the chance to believe that they are worth everything,” she said. “This isn’t a job. This is showing children that what they have endured does not define who they grow up to be.

“People often ask me what effect running this nonprofit has on my children. My children don’t wear the latest fashions, they don’t have the latest video games, but they do know that no one, other than you, defines who you are, and no one but you defines who you grow up to be.”

 
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