By Mary Beth Roach
When most Central New Yorkers travel to Florida, it’s for a vacation. But not so for some volunteers connected with Operation Northern Comfort.
A group of 10 from this organization traveled to Fort Myers in mid-March to work on three homes and the group’s host church that had been damaged by Hurricane Ian, which ripped through that area last fall.
An advance team from ONC had gone to the area in January to meet with representatives from Faith Church, a United Methodist congregation, the host church that was serving as project coordinators.
“Their whole lives are out on the curb,” Laurel Flanagan said of the families whose homes and lives have been destroyed. Flanagan is the CEO of Operation Northern Comfort.
While the work may be hard and sweaty, she said, she believes that the volunteers may get more out of the experience than those they’re helping.
A volunteer coming from as far away as New York gives those they assist a “glimmer of hope,” she said. “Giving them that hope is so rewarding as a human being. You’ve accomplished something — that feeling of accomplishment; that feeling of helping someone. It’s the most hopeful thing you can do for other human beings.”
This is the 64th trip that ONC has made since it began in 2005 when organization founder Norm Andrzejewski took a group of friends to New Orleans, a town he fell in love with while attending Tulane University, to help the residents there after Hurricane Katrina.
Since then, the organization has grown substantially and volunteers have traveled to such locations as Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and North Carolina to help people reconstruct after natural disasters have ripped through their communities.
Starting out as Operation Southern Comfort, the group rebranded itself in 2012 when they began focusing a lot of their energies and working on projects in the Central New York area.
The mission trips are personal investments of time, money, and a lot of sweat for these volunteers. They pay for their own transportation to and from the locales they work in, and some need to take personal or vacation time from their jobs to go. ONC funds some equipment; materials; the rental of a van, when needed; food; and a stipend to the host organization for providing accommodations.
These trips are just one of three facets that Flanagan sees as the work of the ONC. Their other initiatives are closer to home.
Volunteers construct and install equipment to help those in Central New York with physical challenges. The organization also provides equipment and funding for other local grassroots non profits. Starting during the pandemic, teams from ONC built desks for students in need. To date, more than 1,300 have been built. Shelving units have been constructed for food banks and a local animal shelter.
Operation Northern Comfort Sponsors Syracuse Crawfish Festival
The majority of funding for projects that Operation Northern Comfort undertakes comes from the Syracuse Crawfish Festival. This year the festival will take place from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., May 6, at Clinton Square.There will be entertainment on two stages, food trucks, beverages, and of course, Cajun food booths, with crawfish, shrimp, salt potatoes, beignets, pulled pork, and mac and cheese. That flavor of the event harkens back to ONC’s roots in New Orleans, where it all began.
Top image: From left, Steve and Mary Schug, Tom Ogden, Mike Flanagan and Laurel Flanagan, foreground, take a break.