There are people in every community willing to make the extra effort to impact those around them. They're the type that throw their hat into the ring when they want to make a difference, the type that never say no to another involvement and the type of people who always volunteer when their assistance is needed.
Jill Valente is one of those people.
After spending 10 years in New York City, Valente, who grew up in Harrison, moved back into town in February with her husband, Jeff and young daughter Addison. She has settled back into town as a stay-at-home mother and has also reached out to help with community issues. Recently, Valente agreed to take a leadership role in the town's Holiday Project, which brings toys, clothes and other gifts to hundreds of residents in need during the holiday season.
Not a self-proclaimed volunteer or community activist, Valente said she is just someone who cares about the community around her. At 34 years old, she and her husband are the type most Westchester communities are looking to draw—young families who are invested in the community.
For the Valente family, Harrison brings the type of atmosphere they missed in the city. The move back home has worked well for both sides.
"It's been a nicer welcome than I even anticipated," Valente said. "It's been really nice."
Valente said she first thought of the Holiday Project as a way to make connections with people in town while also improving the community she and her family now call home.
"It seemed like every time I heard something on the news it was always bad press," Valente said, noting that she followed local news in Harrison and surrounding areas while living in New York. "This just seemed like a good way to just help a good cause and to get involved with the community."
Part of that bad press stemmed from an issue at the local food pantry last February, when six former town employees were charged with stealing food and clothes that had been donated to many of the same families that receive gifts as part of the holiday project.
The food pantry controversy for a short time even scarred the pantry and led to a reduction in donations, hurting the families who rely on it on a week-to-week basis more than the thefts themselves.
Little did Valente know at the time, months later she would be working to spread holiday joy to those very same families.
Soon after moving into town, Valente reached out to Katherine Frankel, who helped get the Holiday Project off the ground last year. The more Valente heard about the project, the more she fell in love with it. Before long, Valente volunteered to take control of the project for this holiday season.
"It does make sense to take on something that makes everyone feel good and that people support wholeheartedly," said Valente. "It's a feel-good project."
The project itself is no easy task. There are more than 100 families in Harrison who receive gifts as part of the project, with a wide age-range among recipients. The families in need range from struggling single parents to families who once owned million dollar homes but are now unable to pay electric bills. Donations and gifts must be organized for all.
For Valente, who said she doesn't even remember Harrison having a food pantry while growing up here, it's a sign that the tough economy has hit hard even in more affluent parts of Westchester’s communities.
"There's babies, there's the elderly, there's teenagers," she said. "As a parent looking at your child and not being able to give them not just gifts and fun things, but just the necessities in life, it must be heartbreaking."
It’s also a lesson Valente hopes her daughter, who will soon turn three years old, will remember.
“I want her to understand what we’re all doing here, and not everyone gets what they ask for,” Valente said. “People forget, you’re raised and you just don’t realize. There should be much more awareness your whole life.”
The Valente family has certainly gotten an up-close look at the project so far. There are currently about 40 boxes of clothing that must be stored in their home until they are wrapped in December, with more donations on the way. A year ago the project raised enough donations to provide gifts for every family in need, plus a $5,000 donation to the food pantry, which means there will be plenty of donated goods making their way into the Valente house over the next few months.
"It's a huge commitment," said Nina Marraccini, Harrison's director of community services, who also helps with the project. "It's really made a lot of people feel good."
The fundraising effort, which has already begun, is a task in itself. Volunteers are asked to sponsor a family with a $150 donation, which is used to buy gifts. Then gifts must be organized, wrapped and delivered. Volunteers from the police department handle the deliveries so that those receiving holiday gifts remain anonymous. Labor unions and town employees also help out along the way.
If there ever was a project that involved the entire community, this one is it.
“I’ve met some really good people,” Valente said. “You’re meeting people of every level, every age group.”
Once the holiday season passes, Valente said she still wants to stay involved with causes throughout town. She has visions for the future of Harrison and a clear passion for the future of the community she now calls home.
Specifically, she said she has in interest in the effort to add to the downtown library, the development plan for the downtown business district and some school fundraisers. But when asked why she has such an interest in volunteering, she was left almost wondering herself.
“I didn’t know, I really didn’t,” she said with a laugh. “I apparently like it.”