A woman and man speak to each other from opposite sides of a chain-link fence. The man is standing next to a bicycle, and the woman is holding a clipboard.

Crystal Zastrocky, a volunteer for Hope Dealers BTC, gathers information from a Rochester resident May 9. (EMC photo by Jeff Witherow)

Rochester organization’s volunteers deal out hope to those in need

ROCHESTER — As a kind gesture for a childhood friend, Win Herne offered to volunteer her photography and web design services to Rochester’s Hope Dealers Be The Change Inc.

What she assumed would simply be a good way of showing support for her friend four years ago turned into something much more.

“I came up with my camera to take pictures for a website, and I ended up … coming every Sunday, and it just became a part of who I am now,” said Herne, who now is a member of Hope Dealers’ board of directors.

The community service organization and Opioid Overdose Prevention Program addresses the needs of those living in Monroe County by providing such services as the distribution of food items, toiletries, clothing and Narcan kits.

Herne has known Hope Dealers’ founder, president and CEO Stephanie Forrester since she was 14 years old. Forrester began the work that led to the development of the organization after her husband, Justin, who also was a good friend of Herne’s, died of a fentanyl overdose in 2017 while Forrester herself was in recovery.

Soon after her husband’s death, Forrester began to organize needle cleanups in the North Clinton Avenue area. Forrester had been organizing the cleanups for just a month when Herne offered to create a website in order to promote the service and attract more volunteers. It was while brainstorming URL ideas that the two friends decided on the organization’s name.

In November 2017, just eight months after the passing of her husband, Forrester established Hope Dealers.

Since then the nonprofit organization has picked up 141,943 needles, distributed 3,331 Narcan kits, created various community partnerships and received 501(c)3 status as a public charity in June 2019, according to the Hope Dealers website.

“We’re a big support group, a big family, and we’re helping people, which feels great,” stated Herne, noting that a lot of people who volunteer with Hope Dealers are in recovery for substance abuse.

In order to keep helping people, the organization applied for and was awarded its first official grant from Spectrum, Charter Communications in January of last year, just days before the three-year anniversary of the passing of Forrester’s husband.

Such funding is appreciated, as the organization is staffed by more than 20 volunteers and seven active board members who are unpaid. In addition, since the organization relies primarily on donations from the community to then distribute, funding such as the grant and other donations allows Hope Dealers to purchase additional items that may be needed, such as winter coats, which board member Natalie Cihan said happened this past winter.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization has maintained a presence within the community by distributing needed items as well as lunch and providing Narcan training every Sunday since June of last year after having to suspend operations at the height of the epidemic on March 22, 2020.

Although current Sunday Operations — which are run in the lot located at 831 N. Clinton Ave. — have continued throughout the pandemic, the organization’s needle pickup initiative remains suspended. The group’s emergency food delivery program also is still limited, permitting each individual to receive one food package that includes a packet of resources, such as a list of nearby food pantries and the contact information for Foodlink, Cihan said.

In addition to the in-person services Hope Dealers provides weekly at the North Clinton lot, individuals looking for help and resources can visit the organization’s website at hopedealersbtc.com or call its Hope Line at 585-633-8690.

According to Cihan, there have even been Sundays during which people looking for help have been transported to treatment centers by Hope Dealers volunteers right from the lot after visiting the location in search of food or other goods the organization distributes.

“So, you know those days really put a smile on your face,” she said.

Cihan noted that individuals who are in need of services or need help to navigate services but don’t know how can receive help from the organization.

“Hope Dealers acts as a lifeline,” she said, adding that those looking to get into treatment will get connected with and even transported to those services.

“We’re kind of an in-between,” Herne said. “We will help people with mental-health issues, substance-use disorder and even those who are poverty-stricken navigate any kind of resources.”

According to Herne, the need for support throughout a recovery period is important, since treatment resources can prove to be difficult to navigate. And, should a lack of transportation or inability to arrive on time for an appointment occur, the opportunity to enter treatment may be missed.

“If you can’t get to your appointments or be there exactly when they tell you to, you might lose your opportunity,” explained Herne, adding that she and others “try to hold their (addicts’) hand and then help them through this thing that is hard and just try to welcome them into the Hope Dealers family.”

Regardless of the challenges brought on by the pandemic, the organization has maintained strong relationships with other community service groups, such as Open Access (211), Helio Health and the North Clinton Business Association. Before moving outreach efforts to the lot on North Clinton, Hope Dealers had been distributing items down the street close to the Dollar General after relocating from other locations along North Clinton, which had undergone construction, such as the International Plaza.

When Albert Algarin, head of the North Clinton Business Association, saw the volunteers providing services on the grass as he walked by in October 2020, he recalled thinking to himself, “You don’t belong here, you belong where the need is.”

Inspired by the group’s outreach services and efforts, Algarin approached the volunteers with a proposition of a better location — an empty lot on North Clinton that he would rent on their behalf and which would provide a more secure site for residents in the community to receive the assistance they need.

Now, with a stable location and despite changes brought about by the pandemic, Hope Dealers has continued to serve the community and has partnered with other local groups to provide for local residents’ needs.

“That’s kind of where we’re at, anything that helps you, we support you in helping you do that, so that’s pretty much our overall goal, is to just help people where they’re at with whatever they have going on,” said Herne said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Now that the International Plaza is open for the summer, Hope Dealers volunteers have organized a May 29 community resources fair, which will include more than 13 agencies that will distribute resources alongside Hope Dealers that day. For more information, click here.

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