Educator-created foundation filling the gap in WNY community

Clarisse Butler Banks



or a relatively new organization, the Sweet Home Education Foundation is making a significant impact on the Amherst and Tonawanda communities — including some of the area’s newest residents.

SHEF started in 2019 with a mission to assist families and students in the Western New York community. The founding individuals were all educators, including several in-service and retired teachers and an adminstrator, said Lisa LaBrake, president of the SHEF Board of Directors.

Hunger was one of the many concerns board members shared. Shortly before the pandemic shut school buildings down, SHEF started a weekend backpack food program supporting 20 families. The SHEF backpack program is now a yearround initiative that serves more than 100 students with the support of LaBrake and teacher Bri VanHarrison.

“We provide breakfast, lunch and dinner on the weekends. Students come up with the menus based on what food we have available,” said LaBrake, a veteran English teacher and member of the Sweet Home Education Association.

The Sweet Home school district provides a room for use as a food pantry, and students and staff pack boxes throughout the day. To secure much of the nonperishables they distribute, SHEF partners with FeedMore WNY, a program working to alleviate hunger throughout Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie and Niagara counties. While the backpack program has expanded and seen some changes since it began, one pandemic-era aspect of the program remains — food boxes are hand delivered to families.

“It’s really important to the SHEF board that we can see the family. It provides invaluable information, including if the families may need more assistance,” LaBrake said.

The district recently received an influx of newcomers to the area. More than 40 students have enrolled from families seeking asylum, including some students who have never been in formal school settings, said Paul Szymendera, Sweet Home EA president.

The Sweet Home Education-Foundation taking a picture in a gym
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The educator-created Sweet Home Education Foundation, a 501(c)(3), relies heavily on donations to support its extensive programming. A major fundraiser each year is the faculty basketball game (pictured above). The 2023 event raised more than $8,000 for the foundation.
SHEF was tapped to provide support at registration for the families.

“We’re monitoring the food situation because some of the processed foods provided by the motel did not agree with their bodies,” LaBrake explained. “Families asked specifically for vegetables, rice and small things they could cook in their microwave.” LaBrake said space constraints and restricted access to cooking appliances limits the options.

Food is only one of the many areas where SHEF makes an impact in the community. One of the unique features of the foundation is its reach. The 15-member SHEF board includes representation from the student body, board of education and the community. In fact, students initiated two upcoming collection efforts.

“Students suggested a small toy drive for those in the motels and in the food backpack program. Outside play will be limited soon due to the weather,” LaBrake said. SHEF is also doing a hoodie drive. “Kids just want to blend in and be part of the community,” LaBrake said.

SHEF’s programming includes healthy snacks for student-athletes, a mini-grant program for district staff and teachers, support for students in music education, formal wear and much more.

“Kids do not want to showcase their needs and are very quiet about accepting what has been given,” Szymendera said, noting that SHEF is doing amazing work to highlight areas of need and find solutions. “Once you are more aware of just how tough some of these challenges are, it’s tremendously humbling.”

“SHEF could not exist without volunteers … students, staff, teachers, parents, community members and alumni,” LaBrake said. “We are blessed in this community to have people who are always willing to help.”