The assignment from the business-school professor was simple: find ways to practice leadership by giving back to the community.
For Dan Mezzoprete, that assignment didn’t end with graduation from the Ronald L. Bittner School of Business at Pittsford’s St. John Fisher College.
During the past eight years, Mezzoprete, a parishioner of St. Lawrence Parish in Greece, has organized a toy-donation and wrapping project for students at Hope Hall in Gates. He said the event has grown from eight volunteers the first year to more than 50 who donated and wrapped hundreds of gifts Dec. 11.
"If you want to do good, this is an easy way to do good," Mezzoprete said.
Many of the volunteers are Bittner graduates, but some are Mezzoprete’s friends and coworkers at Wegmans Food Markets, which donated pizza, wings and beverages for the event.
In 2008, Mezzoprete turned over organizational duties for the event to his brother-in-law Don Eldridge, a parishioner of St. Jude Parish in Gates.
"We still feel how important it is to give back to the community," Eldridge said of why the grassroots project has continued long after college graduation.
Mezzoprete said he first learned about Hope Hall when he was driving through Gates on the way to a basketball tournament. He passed the former Thomas Edison School, which he used to attend. He decided to stop in and look around the building, which had subsequently become the Rochester Christian Academy in 1980 and, in 1994, Hope Hall.
There he met Sister of St. Joseph Diana Dolce, the school’s principal and executive director. She gave him a tour of the private, nondenominational school that she founded for students in grades 2 to 9 who haven’t succeeded with traditional schooling.
Students at the school have auditory-processing delays or other learning difficulties that leave them functioning at least two years below grade level, but functioning at too high a level for traditional special-education programs. At the school, students learn the state curriculum, organizational skills and social skills in a multisensory learning environment.
A majority of the families whose children attend Hope Hall earn between $12,000 and $23,000 a year, which means they don’t qualify for social services, but they struggle to stay afloat, Sister Dolce said. Most of the students at the school receive scholarships to attend, she said.
Sister Dolce said the toy-donation project began when she told Mezzoprete of a student’s idea to allow parents to pick out donated Christmas gifts to give their children. Mezzoprete liked the idea and decided to make it happen. He put out a call for others in his Bittner class to help out. In subsequent years, he has invited other Bittner classes to take part as well.
"The first year we had eight people," Mezzoprete said. "Some years we have upwards of 60 people."
One of those volunteers is Chris Tucker of Chili, a vendor of Haddon House Food Products. He met Mezzoprete by selling products to Wegmans, and he said this is the first year he has been involved in the toy donation. He said the economic downturn has made it more important for people to give.
"It just gives you more of a reason to give, because the people who are really affected are the people who have lost their jobs in the community and who need all the help they can get," Tucker said.
In addition to the business-school group, Hope Hall also receives gifts from individual families, from Church of the Resurrection in Fairport and from ESL board members. The school also received a grant of $450 to buy toys to supplement the donations, Sister Dolce said.
"A lot of different people are very generous with time and donations," Mezzoprete noted.
About two-thirds of school families received gifts through the donation, Sister Dolce said, noting that the economic downturn has affected many parents of students at the school.
"I think the greatest fear of parents who are working is that they are going to lose their jobs," she said. "You can see the fear and worry just etched on their faces."
Just as the school’s parents have survived by the grace of God, the school also has survived in this manner, Sister Dolce noted. The school does not have an endowment fund and has been sustained by between 15 and 20 foundations and small donations from about 2,200 people. Sister Dolce said the school is dependent on the generosity of others.
"We have given out $197,000 in scholarships this year that we haven’t raised yet," she said. "A lot of foundations we go to for grants have said there is less grant money available to help us."
Yet when it solicits donations, the school is able to point to its track record of success, said Sister Dolce, noting that not one Hope Hall graduate has subsequently dropped out of high school.
"They can learn just as well as everyone else once we teach them to do it differently," she said.
And like Mezzoprete’s professor at Bittner, Sister Dolce teaches Hope Hall students to give back. During the holidays, students collected 20 boxes of food for St. Martin’s Place, a soup kitchen and educational-resource center in Rochester.
That was one reason why Sister Dolce paused during the first gift-wrapping event to thank the Bittner professor who challenged his students to serve others.
"Sometimes professors don’t have any idea of how lasting their influence is," the educator said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To take part in next year’s gift-wrapping event, call Hope Hall at 585-426-0210 in late November and ask to be added to the list to be notified of when it will be taking place.