Bill Alberta, M.S. ’77, retired associate director of Cornell Career Services, highlighted acts of kindness in his life – those he had observed growing up and those he has extended throughout his adult life – at the second Soup & Hope talk of 2019.
Sharing his reflections Jan. 31 in Sage Chapel with an audience of more than 100, Alberta said he learned his first lesson about kindness when he was in first grade. He grew up in a small town in Delaware County, New York; his father was a laborer and truck driver, his mother a waitress and factory worker. Alberta’s teacher gave each student a blank sheet of paper and asked them to write either “give” or “receive” on it.
Alberta thought of all the toys he wished he had, and wrote “receive.” When his teacher asked for a show of hands, Alberta and one other student raised their hands – all the rest had written “give.” He got icy stares from his classmates and teacher, and never forgot that lesson.
At home, Alberta witnessed how welcoming his parents were, opening their home to visitors, treating them with kindness and respect, and sharing meals with them. “People would always stop by unannounced,” he said. Many were relatives, but others were rough-looking “characters” who worked in the nearby stone quarry. They would sit around the kitchen table, eat and talk – and as rough-looking as some of those visitors were, they always were respectful to Alberta’s mother.
Once, Alberta’s father brought home a stranger – a huge, imposing man on the run from the Mafia: “He stayed for five years.”
Seeing how poor some of his classmates were and observing the lives of others in town, Alberta became determined to make a difference in people’s lives. Eventually, he said, that led to the birth of the Cornell Elves Program in 1989. Alberta’s department at Cornell had been set to exchange gifts for the winter holidays; instead they decided to use those monies to buy gifts for five children in the Enfield area.
Over the next few years, their giving extended to 50 children, then to 150 kids, spanning several schools. After that, “lead Elves” were designated to help organize the program for each participating school. This past year, 1,134 children from almost 40 schools received gifts through the Cornell Elves.
In 2007, one of the lead Elves, Maureen Brull, started a Summer Backpack Program that has become an important part of the Elves Program. This past year, 1,224 new backpacks filled with school supplies were donated to children in need.
A final program was begun when program organizers realized that children needed blankets. Last year, the Elves made and distributed 71 blankets.
Now, all three programs – the Winter Holiday, Summer Backpack and KozyKids Blanket Bee – are supported not just by individuals, but through efforts of entire offices and organizations, with no overhead costs.
Since retiring from Cornell seven years ago, Alberta has extended his trust and hospitality to young men in trouble or recently released from prison, often mentoring them, teaching them marketable skills and giving them work on his land. “Sometimes,” he said, “a sincere compliment or a pat on the shoulder for a job well done gives them a reason to feel good about themselves.”
Alberta knows that even with support, many troubled young men will not turn their lives around. But he also knows that without the help of others, “even good people can end up doing bad things.” He is convinced that little things – kind words, learning someone’s name, holding a door open, using humor, mentoring – can make a big difference.
“Kindness,” he said, “is both powerful and empowering.”
The next Soup & Hope speaker will be Village at Ithaca co-founder Cal Walker, former Learning Strategies Center associate director and former Office of Community Relations outreach liaison. He will offer his reflections at noon Feb. 14 in Sage Chapel.