In impromptu role, Schuyler shines

OBSERVER Photo: Non-panelist Christine Schuyler contributed to the Community Forum on Poverty in Dunkirk on Wednesday.

Christine Schuyler took a front-row seat in Wednesday’s Community Forum on Poverty in Dunkirk. The county’s commissioner of Social Services and public health director seemed to be in attendance more to listen to concerns and the views of seven panelists who were speaking on the assistance they provide to some of the region’s individuals facing the greatest need.

But during the question-and-answer session with the audience, Schuyler stole the show at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center. She gave great insight into state health policies as well as the struggles being faced by the 23,000 living here in impoverished conditions.

Her voice joined an impressive group who were on the panel that included:

¯ Jeff Smith, executive director of the St. Susan’s Center in Jamestown, who has seen the number of meals served by his agency increase by 51 percent over the last seven years with 122,406 served in 2016.

¯ Diane Hewitt-Johnson, director of health services at Chautauqua Opportunities Inc., who is helping people cope with the politics and potential changing scene of health insurance. She stated only 8 percent of county residents right now are not part of a health insurance plan.

¯ Rebecca Ruiz, chief operations officer of The Chautauqua Center, who noted her organization has assisted some 4,200 patients in the county, 60 percent of those on Medicaid.

¯ Charles Leichner, Cassadaga Valley Central Schools superintendent, who spoke of declining enrollments but increasing needs of Individualized Educational Programs for special education students.

¯ Josiah Lamp, director of housing and community development for COI, who told of the county’s housing stock and its deteriorating conditions.

¯ Andrew O’Brien, director of behavioral health with UPMC Chautauqua WCA, who talked about addictions that affect all of society, not just the poor.

¯ Kia Briggs, executive director of the Mental Health Association, who talked about building relationships with those facing troubled times.

Later on, U.S. Rep. Tom Reed and state Assemblyman Andrew Goodell addressed a number of issues.

But Schuyler was the sharpest — and called on many times by Roberta Keller, COI executive director and event moderator, to elaborate on some of the greatest challenges in the fight on poverty. One of those deals with the proposed funding cuts on a federal level to Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organization that provides reproductive health care across the nation including breast cancer screening and birth control services. The agency also faces criticism for its abortion services.

“In my opinion … (the cuts are) not going to impact abortion,” Schuyler said. “It just really is kind of a political statement against Planned Parenthood when in reality the services Planned Parenthood provides as an organization are so much more than a tiny part of their business that are abortions.”

Single-parent households, especially those where fathers have abandoned responsibility, also drive a poverty level of 30 percent among the county’s children. “We have to educate the men that you need to be responsible … for that child,” Schuyler noted. “That isn’t always the case. When you are a single woman and you have small children to raise and you’re trying to … sustain your family, put food on the table and you’ve got all the other pressures coming … that’s when we need the schools and community agencies (to step in). We have to help these women to become self-sustaining and to have that pride to take care of themselves and to want better for their own children.”

Schuyler later questioned Reed in regard to the federal government’s flawed funding of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program that allows food stamps to be used to purchase sugar products and other items that later lead to obesity, diabetes and other health issues. She also criticized a policy of funding by reaction instead of prevention, especially when it comes to needed infrastructure upgrades for water systems. Reed was on her side.

“The issue of crisis legislating. I hate it,” the congressman said. “It, to me, is the worst way to legislate.”

While all of the issues discussed really hit close to home, the turnout for Wednesday’s event was disappointing. The only elected officials in attendance were Dunkirk Mayor Wilfred Rosas and County Legislator Paul “PJ” Wendel. Many other seats went unfilled.

Poverty is a reality for 19 percent of the county’s population. With that being the case, we need more than 70 people in a room if we really care about finding solutions in the future.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to or call 366-3000, ext. 401.