Two-year-old Taliah rummaged through mountains of presents last Wednesday night as Tijuana Fulford made sure each bag’s label was secure.
Since the gifts came from employees at Teachers Federal Credit Union and not Santa himself, Ms. Fulford wanted to make sure the name of the person who donated each bag was included.
That’s because she’s having all of the nearly 85 preteens who make up The Butterfly Effect Project write thank-you notes to the individuals who donated the gifts they received at the Henry Pfeifer Community Center in Calverton.
Ms. Fulford, a Riverside native and mother of three children, said she’s grateful for the number of items that were dropped off and was surprised to find that most girls received several gifts each.
“It almost took the wind out of me,” Ms. Fulford said. “It was amazing to see how the [bank staff] really wanted to make sure each girl had a nice Christmas.”
The Butterfly Effect Project started in March 2014 with eight girls from Riverhead Town and swelled to 85 after it established a second chapter in Bellport this past January. Ms. Fulford, a former Girl Scout, launched the program to help preteens build confidence and live life to its fullest while staying out of trouble.
During a Riverhead Chamber of Commerce networking event last month, Chris Kempner, the town’s community development director, and TFCU marketing manager Jennifer Gunn began discussing opportunities to help people in need and talked about partnering with The Butterfly Effect Project. The idea was to create a program through which employees of the bank, which has a location on Route 58 in Riverhead, would “adopt a butterfly” this holiday season.
Ms. Kempner said there’s a strong need for a program in the area to mentor girls, especially one that’s open to all children regardless of financial background.
“Some kids don’t have the same opportunities as others,” she said. “It’s not just about getting presents. It’s about life skills and etiquette.”
Ms. Kempner said she’s inspired by Ms. Fulford’s actions and admires how she’s dedicated a lot of time — and her own money — to make sure the program succeeds.
Want to help? The Butterfly Effect Project is currently seeking donated winter clothing, including sizes 2T and 3T. For more information about donating or volunteering, visit bepgirls.com.
Before the girls received their presents last Wednesday, volunteer Karen McDonald of Aquebogue asked the group to write Christmas cards to Hospital Corpsman Second Class Andrew Nadeau, Ms. McDonald’s future son-in-law who’s currently stationed in Kuwait with the U.S. Navy.
Amaryana James of Riverhead, 11, used an orange marker to neatly write her note, in which she thanked him for his bravery.
“I have fun here,” she said of the program. “We learn a lot and get to meet a lot of nice people.”
The girls later divided into groups and took turns singing Christmas carols on a Hello Kitty karaoke machine, also donated by TFCU.
As the program has grown, Councilman Jim Wooten has assisted Ms. Fulford’s group with securing space at the community center, where meetings are held every other Wednesday, as well as transportation. In order to motivate the girls to do well in school, each student receives prizes for completing homework.
Ms. Kempner said she likes that Ms. Fulford also invites various professionals from the community to talk to children about their jobs. Following the discussion, the girls take part in a workshop to go over what they’ve learned.
Felicia Scocozza, Riverhead Community Awareness Program executive director, said in an interview this week that she believes programs like The Butterfly Effect Project are needed to help young people in the area, particularly with social skills.
“You can never have too many role models in a child’s life,” she said. “Learning to interact with one another in person instead of through a screen helps build self-esteem.”
The group, which became a nonprofit organization in August, offers the program free of charge.
Feeling left out because of your family’s financial situation is a scenario all too familiar to Ms. Fulford, who currently works as an office manager at East End Rheumatology in Riverhead.
She attributes her success to former Riverhead town historian Justine Wells, who died June 23 at the age of 91.
Ms. Wells’ teachings about choosing hard work over self-pity helped Ms. Fulford growing up to gain confidence growing up, enabling her to better herself and make friends.
“Now I’m not working for myself — I’m going to do exactly what she taught me to do to help other girls,” Ms. Fulford said. “I live to make sure that everything she taught me is passed on.”
Ms. Fulford said her group is preparing to establish stronger roots in Riverhead and will have the girls get involved with more community service projects in order to raise awareness of the program and let others know it’s available.
“They know we’re here, but don’t know who we are and what we are,” Ms. Fulford said. “I hope to help as many girls as I can on this journey and hopefully they can touch somebody else’s life.”
Top photo: The Butterfly Effect Project founder Tijuana Fulford and Taliah, 2, organize Christmas gifts donated by Teachers Federal Credit Union. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo photos)
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