It’s been less than a year since Rev. Amaury Tañón-Santos took the reins as executive director of Schenectady Community Ministries, but he can already feel a deep connection to the local community.
“It’s seven months [on Oct. 15],” Tañón-Santos said, “and I feel like I’ve been in Schenectady for five years now.”
Tañón-Santos started his job at SiCM in mid-March with the interfaith community organization in a state of transition. Not only was SiCM in the planning period for its summer meals program — one of the organization’s largest annual undertakings — but the group’s base at 837 Albany St. was also undergoing a major makeover, with a two-story addition to its offices to include conference facilities and a community “teaching kitchen.”
Hitting the ground running, Tañón-Santos said SiCM’s expanded operations out of its new community hub, as well as a staff that doubled in size thanks to an influx of college students and recent graduates, allowed the organization to hand out 57,000 meals during its summer program, with 30 people working to distribute at more than 30 sites throughout the city of Schenectady and in Rotterdam, Scotia and Niskayuna.
All that happened as Tañón-Santos was also working to add to SiCM’s collection of interfaith partnerships, which in his time as executive director has grown to include both Schenectady’s Congregation Agudat Achim — a conservative Jewish synagogue — and the Nemeton of the Mother Grove community of pagan worshipers.
But of all of SiCM’s efforts, it’s the organization’s commitment to providing food access through work such as its food pantry and summer meals program, as well as the incorporation of Schenectady Urban Farms under the group’s umbrella, that remains its hallmark.
“The main thing is to understand the work that we do not as work we can simply do for the community, but an engagement with the community for the sake of food access, health and community building,” Tañón-Santos said. “That aspect of community building is something we’ve been committed to for 50 years.”
Earlier this month, SiCM announced it had received a $100,600 grant from the Schenectady Foundation through its “Food Access for All” initiative.
That grant comes at a time when Tañón-Santos has seen the need for SiCM’s food pantry continue to rise.
“One of the things we’re realizing,” he said, “is we’re slowly but steadily increasing the participation of guests at the pantry, which is not so good news. But we’re slowly but surely meeting that gap and connecting with people.”
One of the major initiatives for SiCM moving forward, Tañón-Santos said, is to utilize all of the organization’s partnerships and facilities to answer a simple question: “How do we not simply grow food, but teach people how to engage with food?”
Much of that starts in the community hub kitchen, where numerous canning and preservation projects are underway using produce supplied by Schenectady Urban Farms.
There’s also the use of outreach between SiCM’s interfaith partners. Tañón-Santos cited a desire to work with both Congregation Agudat Achim in educating SiCM guests about kosher cooking traditions, while a chef at Schenectady’s First Reformed Church brings expertise in vegetarian and vegan cooking.
“Food is culture, and food might be one of the best ways of bringing different people — and even disagreeing people — together for conversation,” he said. “Learning how food is made, how food is grown, the cultural ways around food and even how food is used for working.
“People can teach each other how to prepare those [ingredients] in ways which are culturally appropriate and religiously appropriate. … It’s not this mysterious thing, but something we can share in the community.”
Schenectady Community Ministries (SiCM)
Founded: 1967 (as Schenectady Inner City Ministry)
Mission: An interfaith partnership for ministries of social service and social justice, focusing on the areas of food insecurity; family and youth; diversity and acceptance; and collaborations, partners and advocacies.
Area served: City of Schenectady and adjacent suburbs
From Executive Director Rev. Amaury Tañón-Santos:
“The main thing is to understand the work that we do not as work we can simply do for the community, but an engagement with the community for the sake of food access, health and community building. That aspect of community building is something we’ve been committed to for 50 years.”