Christmas shined a little brighter this year for families living in some of Long Island’s poorest neighborhoods thanks to the efforts of one Riverside native.
Tijuana Fulford, 33, a former Girl Scout and mother of three young children, surprised nearly 90 young girls with mountains of presents Dec. 21 at the Riverhead Town Senior Center in Aquebogue.
It marked the second year in a row Ms. Fulford, known to the children as “Miss Tia,” organized the charitable event through The Butterfly Effect Project, a nonprofit she founded in March 2014.
Before opening their gifts — many of which were donated or purchased by Ms. Fulford — each girl wrote a thank-you note to Judy Doll, the town’s senior citizen programs director, expressing gratitude for allowing them to use the building.
“It was very awesome to see everyone in the community come together,” Ms. Fulford said. “I live by example and I’m very honest with the girls. With this program, we have a lot of ups and we have a lot of downs, but at the end of the day, I won’t trade one volunteer. Not one child.”
For creating a free program to help preteens build confidence and live life to its fullest while staying out of trouble, Ms. Fulford is the Riverhead News-Review’s 2016 Person of the Year.
The group, which achieved nonprofit status in August 2015, started with eight girls and meetings were held in the basement at Riverhead Free Library. Currently, there are 90 girls in the program, which meets Wednesday nights at the town senior center in Aquebogue, where local professionals are often invited to teach a fun skill and discuss their careers and life experiences. A second chapter operates in Bellport.
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Ms. Fulford, who now lives in Mastic Beach and works as an office manager at Middle Country Endocrinology in Smithtown, said she created the program to share what she’s learned with local children who are less fortunate, hoping to ensure that the girls won’t miss out on opportunities to better their lives.
Twelve-year-old Riverhead Middle School student Amaryana James said she had fun at the recent Christmas gathering, where she listened to a reading of “The Polar Express” and then received a copy of the book. She said she mostly enjoys the opportunity the Butterfly Effect Project affords her to show compassion for others.
“It’s really fun to see people smile when they don’t have something,” Amaryana said, recalling times the group members provided Easter baskets for local shelters and made sandwiches for the homeless.
Her friend Azharia Allen said she enjoys participating in group activities, such as parades. She’s also grateful for the friendships she’s made through The Butterfly Effect Project, as well as Ms. Fulford’s teachings.
“Miss Tia is very important to me,” Azharia said. “She’s my role model.”
Riverhead parent Ebony Street and her 6-year-old daughter, Hanna, said they also appreciate opportunities to get involved with community projects.
“My daughter is experiencing new things, meeting new people,” Ms. Street said. “She’s able to give back to people she doesn’t know.”
Ms. Street said she believes Ms. Fulford’s thoughtfulness has reached families who may not have the means to have a nice Christmas.
“I think it’s great what Tia is doing and what the program stands for — helping others in need,” she said. “It’s a hard time of year. It definitely helps aid other families to have a good Christmas.”
Feeling left out because of your family’s financial situation is a scenario all too familiar to Ms. Fulford, who grew up with four siblings and a father addicted to crack cocaine.
“Even though he suffered from drug addiction, he made it a priority to make sure I got up and went to school,” she explained. “By doing that, it led me to meeting Justine Wells.”
Ms. Fulford attributes her success to the late Ms. Wells, a longtime Riverhead town historian who died June 23, 2015, at the age of 91.
Ms. Wells’ message of choosing hard work over self-pity helped Ms. Fulford gain confidence, enabling her to better herself and make friends.
Lately, Ms. Fulford said she finds herself saying “W.W.J.D.”— “What would Justine do?” — out loud when she’s trying to figure out her next move with The Butterfly Effect Project.
“She saved my life,” Ms. Fulford said. “Every idea she taught me, I teach every girl. She didn’t see Tia, a little black girl. She saw a girl who had potential. She didn’t give up on me.”
Chris Kempner, the town’s community development director, 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.
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 making sure the program succeeds.
“She brings the whole world to these young girls so they can enlarge their goals,” Ms. Kempner said. “Tia has a lot of opportunities for people to get involved with the program. From volunteering or one donation, no matter how small. It’s just a great program for kids who deserve to have opportunities outside what they might just see at their home or school.”
Ms. Fulford’s husband, Troy, is the group’s lone male volunteer. While he tends to clown around with the girls, he said he enjoys acting as a father figure.
He grew up in a single-parent home and his mother worked two jobs to support her family. The lessons he learned about the importance of hard work are what he tries to teach the group.
“You want to work for it because it’s more rewarding that way,” he said.
When asked about his wife’s accomplishments, Mr. Fulford said he’s in awe of how much The Butterfly Effect Project has grown in just a few years and that he sometimes finds himself having to remind her to pause and carve out some time for herself.
“My wife is an awesome person,” he said. “She doesn’t know it, because she’s always doing everything for everybody. She never gives up on something she wants to do. She conquers everything.”
Top photo: Tijuana Fulford, founder of The Butterfly Effect Project, and her husband, Troy, at the nonprofit’s annual Christmas event at the Riverhead Town Senior Center. Mr. Fulford plays an active role in the group. (Credit: Krysten Massa)
2015: Steve Beal, Kevin Burgess, Anthony Chiaramonte and J.R. Renten
2014: The Shoreham-Wading River football team
2013: Michael Hubbard
2012: Denise Lucas
2011: Laurie Nigro, Amy Davidson
2010: Linda Hobson
2009: Chris Kempner
2008: Riverhead Blue Waves
2007: Maureen’s Haven
2006: Sister Margaret Smyth
2005: Alan Shields
2004: Phil Cardinale
2003: Vince Tria
2002: Bryan Tressler
2001: Annie Jackson
2000: Judy Young
1999: Members of the First Congregational Church
1998: Eileen Miller
1997: Vinny Villella
1996: Vic Prusinowski
1995: Pat Stark
1994: Sonny Okula, Jim Kane
1993: Jack Van de Wetering
1992: Bobby Goodale
1991: Joe Janoski
1990: Robert Tooker
1989: Jim & Connie Lull
1988: Jesse Goodale