Empathy, imagination and tenacity are the three characteristics that are the most instrumental to my success as a leader that is fortunate to work beside many leaders who also have these traits.

For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Toni Tomarazzo.

Toni Tomarazzo has served as associate general counsel and executive director at UBS, Swiss multinational investment bank and financial services company, since 2003. Prior to joining UBS, she was counsel at Prudential Financial and, before that, a director of enforcement and investment for the American Stock Exchange.

In addition to her achievements in the business world, Tomarazzo is a board member of the Hoboken Community Center, Susquehanna University and a longtime member and former chair of the Hoboken Municipal Hospital Authority. As chairwoman of the authority, she is credited with helping to save the city’s hospital, Hoboken University Medical Center, which was on the verge of closure. After Hurricane Sandy, she was a board member of the Rebuild Hoboken Relief Fund. She graduated from Susquehanna University in 1984 with a degree in finance and subsequently completed her law degree at Seton Hall University in 2002.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?

My dad was a strong supportive presence in my life, especially after my mother passed away when I was in college after a long illness. He was a WWII disabled veteran who supported his family by setting hot type at the NY Daily News on the graveyard shift for more than thirty years.

Old age and ill health eventually caught up with him. He suffered from a series of mini strokes and eventually a sudden and rapid deterioration of his cognitive ability.

I was the primary caregiver for my father. At first he needed basic help around the house: cooking, cleaning and transportation to doctor’s appointments. But quickly he required more care — personal care, soft and blended foods, and help ambulating. In-home health aides supplemented the care I provided but his decline was fast and he needed full time nursing care. He was admitted to a local nursing home two days before Thanksgiving. My grief was palatable. I mourned for the loss of the father I knew and I felt guilt for having to admit him to a long term care facility in order to keep him safe. I visited every day after work and continued to take his clothes home to wash (even though the facility would do so for him).

On December 23 — about 30 days after my father was admitted to the private nursing home — I received a call from the Director of Admissions. I needed to remove my father immediately. They said his illness made him aggressive and he was a danger to the staff. Two days before Christmas — a man who could not get out of bed on his own, could not walk — was such a threat that he had to be removed? I was young, scared and didn’t understand that there certainly was more to this story that had to do with insurance coverage and funding.

I was very fortunate that the State of New Jersey just opened a wing at the New Jersey Veterans Home at Paramus that was able to provide the care he needed. It was my first introduction to needing government assistance for the most vulnerable members of our society. The Paramus facility had five wings and served over 300 residents. Twenty five years old and desperate to get the help my father needed — I saw first-hand how important it is to have a safety net to serve our family, friends and community.

Many years later I was reminded how important safety net services are, but this time it was me that needed the help. I worked for many years in lower Manhattan on the American Stock Exchange and was there on 9/11 when more than 3,000 people lost their lives on what should have been a non descript Tuesday morning. Along with thousands of people in lower Manhattan that day I ran for my life and made it to Hoboken before the first Tower fell thanks to the fearless captain and crew of a NY Waterway Ferry. I returned to Lower Manhattan eight weeks later to work in the “hot” zone in order to help keep our American financial markets open.

Fast forward 16 years later and I was diagnosed with Stage IV Ovarian Cancer. Ovarian Cancer is the number one cancer detected in women who were exposed to the Trade Center disaster. 41 chemo treatments, three surgeries, one recurrence and continual maintenance treatments to stall the next recurrence is the legacy of my exposure. Medical expenses are extraordinary and my insurance covered most but not all of the routine treatments. The US Government funded a WTC Victim health program. I was admitted to this program and the drugs that are lengthening my life are paid for by this program. These drugs cost 17,000 dollars a month for a treatment plan that is new, innovative and highly successful. Without the WTC Health program I would not be able to stay on this drug and without this drug I would likely have had one or more recurrences of Cancer and a very unknown outcome. Once again — a safety net provided the help and programs needed by me — who was now vulnerable and in need of help.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.

Empathy, imagination and tenacity are the three characteristics that are the most instrumental to my success as a leader that is fortunate to work beside many leaders who also have these traits.

Our organization, the Hoboken Community Center, has a three-pronged mission consisting of affordable housing for 96 low-income men, a 40,000+ square foot community and recreation center under rehabilitation, and a food and hygiene supply pantry.

When working on these programs, it becomes necessary to get to know your clients in order to understand how to drive the organization to meet current and future needs. I’m not a trained social worker or therapist. When I started to hear the stories of the men who live in the affordable housing program I was overwhelmed. The need was great: food, shelter, clothing– all of the basics that I casually took for granted.

One resident had a reputation for destroying property and was verbally aggressive with other tenants. The building management even tried to evict him at one point. The man was at risk for homelessness. He was unemployed and depressed because of his circumstances. I’m no therapist or social worker but I listened to this resident’s story. His prior brushes with the law, his loss of his family, his emptiness because he had no friends in the area. I listened. I offered no options for actions to improve his circumstances but simply listened and assured him that there were many willing to help him.

That afternoon I contacted social service agencies to arrange for assistance, ordered clothing that he needed, arranged for items he needed for his room and left him a note telling him that we’d get him as much help as we could.

His response was amazing. He calmed down, started befriending other residents and going on job interviews. In addition, when he is home, he comes next door to the pantry and offers to help unload food and do routine work. The simple act of being empathic, of listening and hearing this man made all the difference. Today he is employed, joined a gym to fill his time and he still volunteers at the pantry!

It also requires imagination to identify avenues to accomplish goals for the organization. Knowing what is needed is the easy part. Finding the resources or imagining ways to get what’s needed is much harder. Being able to color outside the lines is necessary. Round pegs sometimes have to go in square holes. At the pantry, the demand is strong and having fresh fruits and vegetables is very helpful for clients who do not have access to healthy foods — especially since they tend to be expensive and hard to locate in the all too frequent food deserts that exist in some neighborhoods. But fresh produce requires cold storage — something that our pantry does not have. Initially I researched and applied for a permit from the City of Hoboken to put a temporary cold storage unit on the street in front of the pantry. But a permit to utilize the street for this container was not available. However, I knew the city had two cold storage units stored on a little used street about half of a mile from the pantry. These units were mobile morgues and had been thoroughly cleaned and sanitized and were lying unused. Now most might think, using a former morgue to store food? That’s crazy! But I viewed them as simply cold storage boxes — run by generators and completely unused. We asked for permission to use them, got the yes and were able to put the equipment to good use.

Lastly, tenacity is required to run any organization. Failure to provide the food needed by so many members of our community or to ensure the ongoing operations of an affordable housing program for low income men at risk of homelessness is not an option. Success is not a straight line and tenacity is needed to keep up the good fight to get the desired result.

What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?

For me, the discovery I learned leading the pantry program that boggles my mind is how a large number of talented, dedicated and hard-working volunteers who seemed to appear out of nowhere at the start of the most harrowing pandemic to hit our city, our state, our country and the world, came together to help their neighbors. While so many where shuttered at home — locked away to avoid exposure to the pandemic — an amazing group of disparate individuals volunteered to come to a pantry building — a building called in to emergency service with no air conditioning or heat, no running water and very limited electricity — to unload trucks, stock shelves, bag food and distribute food. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, Moms and Dads with kids at home juggled time to volunteer. Firemen who were on duty unloaded trucks of food while they waited for any emergency calls, City Council members washed floors and helped prepare for food distribution. School children opened lemonade stands or baked cookies to raise money for the pantry. The only common denominator the volunteers have is service to others. It is striking to think that at some of the darkest hours many people rise to the occasion and help — by volunteering, donating and supporting the efforts.

Our pantry program started at a time slightly before the pandemic when the government was decreasing access to food including reducing SNAP benefits. Demand exploded exponentially as the pandemic took flight, but this group of community members allowed us to scale quickly enough to help everyone who needed it. I am moved as I witness this amazing outpouring of help from so many. I lived the Mararet Mead quote “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?

In our pantry’s first year of operation, over 1,250 families registered for assistance and received bimonthly supplemental groceries. In less than two years of operation, it has not only started and sustained food access, but expanded to address other vital needs for families. More than 200 families receive diapers and other hygiene and cleaning products from us every month.

The ability as an organization to be flexible and identify increased or changing needs to our community is vital and is a strength of our organization. In addition to sustaining the pantry and housing program — the Hoboken Community Center will soon begin a capital campaign to fund the renovation and revitalization of the building.

What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?

I have been involved with the affordable housing program for over ten years. In 2020, many of the residents lost part or all of their SNAP benefits because of changes in the federal government program that reduced the help available to people in need. I learned from the affordable housing tenants that they were fearful that they would not have funds to pay for food once they lost their benefits. I couldn’t believe that a swath of residents in need were going to lose the lifeline that provided them with food.

I knew these men and understood that these members of my community would suffer from food insecurity as a result of the program changes. I also learned that Hoboken did not have a large city-wide pantry with the resources available to provide goods and services to the residents of the HCC affordable housing program.

In a community blessed with resources I couldn’t bear the thought that the most basic of human needs would be unavailable to some. Access to food is a basic need — it’s a “must have”, not a nice to have benefit.

Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.