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Joe O’Hara, 71

Executive director of Peace Inc. in Syracuse offers a view of the agency he oversees and what a career in public service has meant to him

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Q.: What is the mission of Peace Inc.?

A.: The literal, absolute mission is to help people in the community realize their potential for becoming self-sufficient, and we do that in a variety of ways. We have nine programs. Our largest is Head Start. We serve 1,077 youngsters aged 3-5. There’s also an Early Head Start program, which involved toddlers. Big Brothers Big Sisters of America is a mentoring program. We have Foster Grandparents, a mentoring program where people over 55 can assist kids in the classroom in the city school district and some of suburban districts. We serve over 85,000 meals a year to seniors throughout the city and county. We have the Eastwood DeFrancisco Community Center; we have six family resource centers throughout the city and county; and we have some senior support programs where we help people stay in their homes and age in their own residence. Our Energy and Housing unit does energy audits that enable us to put in new windows, a new furnace, install insulation and put in energy-efficient appliances.

Q.:  How are you dealing with the pandemic?

A.: With the pandemic here at Peace, it’s actually brought us a lot closer together in terms of cross programming. One example would be Energy and Housing. We weren’t able to go into homes for a period of time, so instead of just being idle, volunteers helped deliver food to seniors who weren’t able to come to senior sites because they were shut down during the initial stages of the pandemic. There were a lot of good, solid collaborative efforts by everybody helping each other’s programs. I believe this is the reason we’ve been able to stay open for business.

Q.: Your career has been all about community service work. You were director of the New York State Fair during the late 1980s, you were on the Syracuse Common Council, and you were involved in Catholic Charities. Why did you gravitate to this field?

A.: I grew up in a family of 10 brothers and sisters. I think the whole notion when you grow up in a big family is you realize we’re all in this together. You really need to build a team. I always had a sense that I wanted to be a part of something that was improving the quality of life, whether it was in the family or community.

I went to college and was a political science major. I enjoyed politics and government. I started out as a caseworker with the Onondaga County Department of Social Services, and that gave me a sense that we do a lot of positive things to fulfill a lot of need in the community.

I felt very good about it. It gave me a sense of achievement and accomplishment. You’re really working for something that’s bigger than yourself. I was a probation officer after I was a caseworker and realized there’s a lot of need in the community. However, you can help people if you’re able to assist them in finding employment or getting their general equivalency degree.

Once I had those two experiences as a caseworker and probation officer, it made me realize that human service is something I wanted to be involved with.

Q:  Are there one or two things of which you are proudest?

A:  One of the things I’m proudest of — and it’s a team approach — is I’ve been here over 19 years, and the last 13 years, during the annual audit we’ve been designated a low-risk auditee, which is the gold standard. You’re found to be totally in compliance.  That’s very helpful with our funders because the first thing, when you write a grant, we need a copy of your audit.  When they receive a copy of the audit and they see you’re a low-risk designee, they know that the monies are going to be spent appropriately. That’s really a major team effort.  You need to get the program people realize that they have to adhere to the policies and procedures and you need the fiscal people to recognize the program people who are providing the services need assistance to make sure they can follow the guidance.

Q,: When you take time off, what are some of your pastimes?

A: I enjoy reading. I read a lot of biographies. I enjoy going to the gym. Pre-pandemic, I would go to the gym every day. At the end of the day, what I enjoy the most is sitting out on the deck in the summertime.

Q.: What’s ahead for you?

A.: I’m going to be retiring this summer.

Q.: What are your retirement plans?

A.: I don’t have any plans right now, but I’m sure I’ll keep busy.