United Way Winter Fest serves up fun, music, generosity

Dressed in red suede shoes and a snappy polyester suit made to look like an ugly holiday sweater, Brandon Fortenberry exuded good cheer as master of ceremonies for the second annual Cornell United Way Winter Fest.

Below the surface of his mirth, however, was a serious message of community benevolence: Fortenberry, director of Cornell Catering, reminded festival attendees to support and donate to the United Way.

“For me as an adult, the United Way holds a special place in my heart,” Fortenberry said, explaining that asa kid growing up in Lubbock, Texas, his single mother reached out to a mentoring community group that “gave me a role model, a person to look up to and strive to be like. This is why I do this.”


UW festival

Lindsay France/Cornell University

Members of the Cornell community enjoy the festival with entertainment, music, dancing, stand-up comedy and compelling storytelling.

Cornell’s United Way Winter Fest, held Dec. 13, served as the end-marker for a campaign that began Sept. 26, with a goal to raise $750,000 from the university community. Overall, the Cornell United Way Campaign has raised more than $428,000, about 57% of its goal, as of Dec. 11. The formal campaign ends Dec. 31, but gifts of any amount are welcome anytime.

At Winter Fest, the Tompkins County United Way announced a challenge grant: All new and increased-giving donations received between Nov. 20, 2019, and Jan. 31, 2020, will be matched up to a total of $65,000.

Holiday spirit adorned the Memorial Room at Willard Straight Hall, with music and, of course, reindeer games. In this case, it was ring-toss onto plastic antlers.

Nic Mathisen, an Ithaca College graduate student working at the Cornell Store, entertained the celebrants by playing a Giovanni Bottesini concerto on his bass. The talented Mathisen singlehandedly raised more than $1,200 for the campaign.

Pat Wynn, assistant vice president for student and campus life and a Cornell United Way campaign co-chair, became Elsa from Disney’s “Frozen,” while Rick Burgess, vice president for facilities and campus services, turned into Ricky the Red-Nosed Co-Chair. They sang a duet – to the famous Rudolph holiday tune – extolling the benefits of giving.

DJ Apia Awa, a Cornell Dairy Bar cashier, entertained the festival with holiday music; Leila Ellis, a cook at North Star dining hall, and Walt Bardrof of Goldie’s Café demonstrated hula-hoop expertise; and Rob Ervin, senior manager at Cornell retail services, rocked the house with Bruce Springsteen-style version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”

Pianist Meng-Wei Hsu, senior operations manager at Cornell Dining, played songs that were appropriately titled for the idea of asking people to give – first “All I Ask of You,” from the musical “Phantom of the Opera,” then “Say Yes,” a Japanese hit song from the early 1990s.

Cal Walker, campaign chair for the United Way of Tompkins County and former outreach liaison for Cornell’s Office of Community Relations, spoke about the United Way’s impact on lives. He gave an example of how generous United Way donations keeps Foodnet Meals on Wheels secure, so they never have a waiting list.

Winter Fest volunteers read aloud Tompkins County first-person success stories from The Learning Web, Challenge Workforce Solutions and Foodnet Meals on Wheels, all organizations that benefit from the United Way.

James Brown, president of the United Way of Tompkins County, smiled throughout the event.

“Cornell University is the foundation for the campaign, which provides stability for fundraising and allows [the United Way] to invest in programs to change people’s lives,” he said. “Cornell serves as an example to others to show they can make a difference.”

It’s not too late to give. Tax-deductible gifts to the campaign can be made online, through payroll deduction or by writing a check. Visit the Cornell United Way website

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