Carrie Meyer, executive director of the Independent Health Foundation, credits Jennifer Mitri, the rest of her staff and more than 50 volunteers for helping bring off First Night Buffalo. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)
By Scott Scanlon – Refresh Editor
The Independent Health Foundation has become a force under the leadership of Carrie Meyer, its executive director, who started working with the foundation in January 1995 as an intern.
First Night Buffalo, which takes place Tuesday night, launched the foundation in 1992. You can read more about Meyer and the alcohol-free, family-friendly festival in the “In the field” feature in WNY Refresh.
The foundation – a nonprofit supported by Independent Health and a number of other community-minded organizations – now is involved in more than 100 events annually across the region, including seven “signature” programs and events: First Night Buffalo, Kids Run, Fitness for Kids Challenge, Serving Up Success, Soccer for Success, Good for the Neighborhood and Healthy Options.
Meyer, a Hamburg native and current town resident, talked about some of those other programs and events during our recent interview, which also involved more about First Night than I could put into the Refresh story.
The foundation’s mission is to improve the health of the Western New York community, Meyer said.
“We’re encouraging parents and grandparents to be good role models for their children and bring them to these types of events that provide safe and healthy alternatives, and to show why it’s so important to live a healthy lifestyle,” she said.
“We encourage healthy New Year’s resolutions, as well,” she added. “To have goals for the year that are all about eating right, exercise and living a healthy lifestyle.”
Most of the foundation’s signature events are free, and involve dozens of volunteers.
“First Night is one of the only events that we charge admission,” Meyer said, “but we’ve kept it affordable; 25 years ago, it was $5 a ticket. It’s only $8 a ticket 25 years later.” The cost includes rides and all entertainment.
Kids Run is the first Saturday in June and about 3,000 people attend.
As part of the Fitness for Kids Challenge, “We adopt elementary schools and set them up with a variety of different challenges and we reward them if they meet some of those challenges,” Meyer said.
That program is built around the “5-2-1-0 challenge,” Independent Health spokesman Frank Sava said. The challenge recommends children base their daily habits around five fruits and vegetables, no more than two hours of TV or computer screen time, one hour of physical fitness and zero sugary drinks. A family fitness challenge at First Night also is based around the concept.
The Healthy Options program works with more than 100 restaurants across Western New York to improve their menu options. “We take all the work out of it for them,” Meyer said. “There’s no charge to any of the restaurants. We will analyze their recipes and we provide them with all the nutritional data and information and give them an analysis, and we’ll give recommendations on how they can tweak them to create a healthier option. We have great restaurants that are partnering with us and we’ll showcase them in a variety of different venues,” including on the healthyoptionsbuffalo.com website.
Foundation programs are not limited to Independent Health members.
Below are excerpts from more of our interview:
How does the foundation raise money and how are the proceeds used?
If it’s a family friendly event, we’ll look to organizations that align with that type of project. For example, Fisher-Price has been a sponsor for First Night Buffalo for 25 years. Rich Products has been a sponsor, Wegmans. ... Here’s something that’s an alternative for the Western New York community. It’s a safe place. It’s a drug- and alcohol-free event. It aligns nicely with a lot of those (sponsoring) organizations, as well.
Do you break even on First Night?
Sometimes we lose money, but it’s anticipated. Our parent organization supports us as well, so Independent Health will provide dollars to support the events and activities. … If we have money left over, it goes right into next year’s event.
What about overall?
All of our events are break-even. For example, the Kids Run costs us about $25,000 to put on. If we raise $30,000, we will take that $5,000 extra and put it back into the next year’s event or we’ll donate it to a good cause. We’ve donated to Children’s Hospital with the proceeds we’ve made through sponsorships, so everything goes back to the community. We’ve donated to Buffalo Prenatal. For First Night, when we’ve had additional dollars, we’ve supported Western New York United Against Drug and Alcohol Abuse.
What sort of background does your staff have?
We have business majors and we also have community health majors. And we also have dietitians.
What do staff members do?
Along with the signature events, we do over 100 other events throughout Western New York each year and we have project leaders for the different programs. So there is one person who focuses on First Night Buffalo, so they’re the project lead for that, but all year long, they will also support another project lead on other projects and events. We have another project manager oversee all the advertising and the promotion. And we have Independent Health as our parent organization, so we have this great PR team.
Do you compare First Night notes with other cities that hold similar events? What have you borrowed?
Yes. We’ll ask other cities, ‘What was your best entertainer?’ And now we’ll fly some of those entertainers into Buffalo. We’ll talk to other First Night cities to see what they’ve had in their community, to kind of change it up. They’ll ask us too, ‘Who are your top performers? And, ‘What was the most liked activity or event?’ And they’ll bring us to their cities. This year, we have the Red Trouser Show. They’ve done First Night Boston and some other First Nights. We’re flying them into Buffalo. They’re really high energy. We had them last year and it was a huge hit. They have fire juggling and they climb a 50-foot ladder. It’s that Cirque de Soleil kind of thing.
Who picks the activities and performing acts?
We survey the participants, and ask what their top performers are, and we listen. People always say Nickel City Reptiles and Exotics. He is a huge hit and he’s local. His name if Jeff Musial, and he brings a variety of different animals and he really has a show that goes with it. It’s comical and kids can go up on stage and touch the animals. We also work closely with our own children. Jennifer (Mitri, who coordinates all the entertainment and promotion and advertising for First Night) has a daughter, Casey, who’s 9 and she comes every year and is obviously someone very close to the event who we can ask, ‘What would you like to see?’ So we’re always asking children what they would like to see. We also work really closely with our volunteers. They’re at each one of these sites and we ask, ‘What worked well?’
... We have had some challenges. Seven feet of snow came in right before one of our events, driving bans, so we’re always (potentially) challenged by the weather. … Every year, we assess where we’re at with First Night and we realize that we hit over 5,000 families coming out, that it’s something people love and appreciate. We’ve seen a changeover. My children have grown up with it and I hope their children grow up with it. Right now, it’s something the community is interested in supporting it’s something we want to continue to support.