National Volunteer Week is April 10-16, and John Conversa, director of operations at Ferrara Candy Company on Harrison Street in Forest Park, has experience volunteering at both the individual and corporate levels.
A year ago he attended an event at the Community Center sponsored by the Progress Center for Independent Living (PCIL), designed to create and strengthen relationships between PCIL, which serves people with disabilities, and Forest Park’s business community. It did just that for Conversa.
His first response was to have Ferrara construct an accessible ramp into its outlet candy store on Harrison Street. He also signed up to attend the monthly meetings of PCIL’s Community Outreach Committee, which is composed of PCIL staff, business people and residents from the village.
As his awareness of PCIL’s work increased, so did his appreciation of the challenges that people with handicaps face, the courage and good humor with which they face them, and how the agency enables many persons with handicaps to live meaningful, independent lives.
His appreciation of PCIL was growing at the same time that the budget impasse in Springfield was threatening the agency with layoffs and closure of PCIL’s office at 7521 Madison St. on Fridays.
“I wasn’t sure what could be done,” Conversa recalled, “but I had to try.”
He started by calling Gov. Rauner. “They weren’t going to let me talk to him,” he said. “They told me to send him an email, so I did. What I said in the email was that I had been a big supporter of his before the election. I liked what he had to say, but I told him, ‘You’ve been in office a year now, and I’ve not seen any progress.'”
Conversa explained that the sign of a good leader is the ability to work through different opinions and agendas — in this case between the governor, Madigan and Cullerton — and get something done. “I understand his hard line,” said Conversa, “but he has to understand the effect this is having on people.”
He got a canned response from Rauner’s staff saying they would pass his communication to “their people.” Not trusting that response, he followed up and was told to send another letter. In that attempt at getting through, he even invited the governor to come to Forest Park, take a tour of PCIL and see the effect the impasse is having on people.
Frustrated with the lack of response from the executive branch, Conversa contacted senators Durbin and Kirk, County Board Commissioner Boykin, and Congressman Tammy Duckworth. No response.
Conversa has had better luck with volunteering at the corporate level. He said that Sal Ferrara, who owned the candy company for many years, was a model of generosity, and that his spirit of giving is imbedded in the company’s culture.
This year, in fact the Ferrara Candy Co. will send 10 workers at a time to work at Ronald McDonald House to prepare and serve meals. There will be at least 15 of these sessions, as the company calls them, and Ferrara’s employees will be paid for the four hours they work. That adds up to 600 hours the corporation will be investing in the community.
“It’s not all about taking,” Conversa explained. “In our company, it’s not only the bottom line that we’re concerned about. In fact our ‘volunteering’ at Ronald McDonald House will cost the company money. It’s part of our social responsibility.”
He acknowledged that it’s partly about image. “I think every business is concerned about public image,” he admitted. “When people in the community see our employees doing volunteer work, we want them to perceive Ferrara Candy Co. as a good neighbor, as giving back to the community.”
In fact, he uses the phrase “paying forward,” which he learned from his children’s youth group, instead of “paying back,” to describe what his company is trying to do. In addition to the sessions at Ronald McDonald House, he and a co-worker have been charged with the task of improving the company’s contribution to sustainability, of reducing the factory’s carbon footprint and doing more recycling.
Conversa added that the company is concerned about what the community sees, but it is also committed to building an internal culture that encourages volunteering. What he would like to see added to every employee’s annual review is a question about that employee’s volunteering outside of the factory. The employee would get a better review by reporting participation in church ministries, service clubs and other charitable activities. He said Ferrara Candy Co. could incentivize volunteering by giving, say, one dollar to the employees’ favorite charities for every three dollars they raise.
He said it’s not only about volunteering. Because he is a member of PCIL’s Community Outreach Committee, he is aware that the agency will be holding a job fair on May 19, at which businesses can match their need for skills with a data base that includes the skills set of their “consumers,” i.e. persons with disabilities who often have college degrees and who, with the proper accommodations, are not charity cases at all but contribute to the company’s bottom line.
“I’m anxious to get this data base together and share it with corporate HR,” he said adding, “It would be nice to somehow market that to the rest of the community.”