EAST AURORA, N.Y. — The Rural Outreach Center in East Aurora identified a need in the community that was completely unmet, and that was the rural poor, according to founder Dr. Frank Cerny.
"The majority of poverty in Western New York is in rural areas," said Cerny. "It's dispersed so no one sees it."
So to address that problem, Cerny opened the the Rural Outreach Center - or the ROC - in 2012.
His goal? To stabilize families, and then work with adults and especially children how to break the cycle of poverty.
"Seeing children come to us with no hope, no sense of a future, that just breaks my heart," said Cerny. "Our objective is to work with the kids so they can see a future that's different and give them opportunities and resources, so they can thrive. Not just survive but thrive."
Cerny's method of helping though is different. The ROC provides support with housing, food, employment, transportation, parenting, financially literacy, and of course counseling, but adults and children are asked to "pay" for services in whatever way they can.
"If they can't pay cash, we ask them to donate something or to volunteer," said Cerny. "People respond to that. They respond to accountability to being asked to take responsibility. There's care and love on one hand and then there's accountability on the other hand. And they thrive. They appreciate it."
Participants can earn "ROC Bucks" for taking part in activities and they start to bank accounts grow.
"We provide incentives. So if you're progressing on your goals, you become eligible for Christmas help," Cerny explained. And that progress is tracked. Once participants can afford it, the ROC will also co-sign loans, or help them find affordable vehicles or housing. Community sponsors also help to make this possible.
The ROC grew out of Pathways Christian Fellowship church which Cerny founded in 2006. Before that Dr. Cerny, who holds a PhD is physiology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, was the director of the Lung Center at Women and Children's hospital and conducted research on cystic fibrosis. He started the school of public health at UB. He went to seminary school before retiring from UB, and then founded Pathways Christian Fellowship. He and wife Nancy raised three boys in East Aurora, and now at the age of 76, he's still running triathlons and not slowing down at the ROC either.
"There's a need and here we are, so it's all been a calling," he said.
Susan Brazill has been a full-time volunteer with the ROC since its founding.
"I see a man with a mission and a passion," she said of Cerny. "He's just a special person. He really is."
Mike DuFrane says he got help with his addiction, found work, and became a better father, all because of Cerny and the ROC.
"This place was a big help, huge help for me and my daughter," DuFrane said. "The energy that he puts forth in this facility to help others is not just something that anyone off the street is gifted with."
DuFrane and his daughter are just some of the 5,000 people helped by the ROC each year. Along with food and school supply giveaways, 110 children and 180 adults are in the ROC programming at any given time, according to Cerny. Forty-six thousand people live in poverty in the zip codes the ROC serves in southern Erie County, western Wyoming County, northwest Allegany County, northern Cattaraugus County, and some of Chautauqua County. That's why the ROC is expanding. In June 2021, they broke ground on a new facility being built on highway 16 just south of East Aurora and they hope to open by Christmas 2022.
"We transform lives here," said Cerny. "This thing is far bigger than we had imagined, could've imagined, so I guess that's what's changed me. It's strengthened my faith."
The ROC has recently been funded by the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation to develop a manual about the model they use at the ROC that could be replicated at other places. Cerny said he is grateful for his 11 staff members, 150 volunteers, and the countless donations from community members, businesses and sponsors.
Cerny's "selflessness" goes well beyond the ROC, too. Below is a list of his community involvement:
- Founded (1978) and was president (1978-1980) and treasurer (1978-1981) of the East Aurora Farmer's Market in effort to assist local small farmers.
- Helped establish farmer's markets in Hamburg, Buffalo and several in New York State.
- Initiated annual community CROP walk for hunger (1977) and serve on coordinating board (1977-1985).
- Member, Presbytery of Western New York Hunger Task Force and coordinate several workshops per year (1978-1985).
- Advisor to Sr. High School group (1977-1980, 1984-1988) at Presbyterian Church, E. Aurora, New York. Led work group for building rehabilitation (Habitat for Humanity) project in New York City (1985).
- Elder, First Presbyterian Church, East Aurora, NY. Chair of education and long range planning committee and member personnel committee. Teacher of adult education (1978-1988).
- Boy Scouts of America Troop 513 Committee (1981-1988); Scoutmaster (1989-1999).
- Consultant, Williamsville Schools on issue of water activity (1982).
- Chair YMCA of Erie County and Western New York Health Enhancement Council (1983-1984).
- Health Fair Planning. American Red Cross (1983).
- Reviewed grants from YWCA of Western New York to establish programs for special populations.
- Consultant to Blue Cross/Blue Shield, WNY activity program for young children.
- Adult education coordinator, Baker Methodist Church, East Aurora (l990-1999); Lay leader (1998-1999).
- Board of Directors, Beechwood Continuing Care/Nursing Home (1998-2006).
- Advisory Board, United Theological Seminary/Buffalo (2000-2004).
- Board of Directors, Corporation for Theological Education in WNY (2002-2005).
- Board of Directors, FISH (Local Food Pantry) (2005-2020)
- Erie County Poverty Advisory Committee (2015-present)
To see past Western New Yorkers featured in the "Selfless Among Us" series, click the videos below. To nominate someone to be featured, email Melissa.Holmes@wgrz.com.