This is the fifth article in a series profiling the often unrecognized personalities of Cornell and Ithaca.
William Alberta M.S. ’77 drives a 1966 Chevy truck, maintains an organic vegetable garden with his wife, collects antiques from the 50’s and, in his spare time, calls himself an elf.
Alberta is the “Elf Organizer” for the Cornell Elves Program, a charity established in 1989 that gives impoverished children in Tompkins County school supplies, clothes and toys.
The program started when Alberta — who retired from week — had the idea to put money raised in his office for a holiday gifts exchange to another use.
“We partnered with Enfield Elementary School, and the school nurse and some other people were wonderful,” Alberta said. “They were doing so much that their job didn’t require them to do for these poor kids.”
He said that Cornellians are largely not aware of the poverty that exists in neighboring areas.
“Some of [the children] would come [to school] with a summer jacket on harsh freezing winter days,” he said of the children at Enfield Elementary School, which is in Ithaca.
The Cornell Elves Program connected school nurses and social workers from Enfield with an Elf Leader, a volunteer who lives in the area, according to Alberta. The program has grown over the years, with the number of schools it partners with increasing from one in 1989 to 31 this year, Alberta said.
“We added schools, basically, as someone would say that ‘I live in Moravia and drive in each day and we need to help there. Can we start a program there?’” he said. “I would say, ‘Would you like to be the leader for Moravia?’ … and that’s how I got my leaders.”
This year, the program helped a record of 966 children.
“We have fundraisers going on in the community or different organizations coming together to wrap presents,” Alberta said. “I think most of the elves are Cornell-related, but we are getting more and more [of the] community involved.”
Alberta, whose daughter is teaching children who have special needs at a school in New Orleans, said he feels that many parents want their children to get involved with Cornell Elves “to teach them that the holidays are about not just thinking about oneself, but other people.”
Cornell Elves has also branched out to start a “Summer Backpack program” that provides “needy kids with new backpacks filled with school supplies,” Alberta said.
“Before, we had reports that [students] were coming to school with a plastic bag and a few pens,” Alberta said. “Imagine how tough it is on a kid when they are told that they need to bring these things in and they can’t.”
Alberta recalled the moment he first delivered wrapped presents in huge transparent bags as a “Delivery Elf” to the children at Enfield Elementary School.
“Their eyes were so wide and they were smiling so much,” Alberta said. “It just made me realize that, gosh, it was magic here. It kind of choked me up to see how happy they were.”
Alberta said he calls the program’s volunteers “elves” because they work “behind-the-scenes” and “don’t need to meet the people that they help.” Though the Elves do not get to meet the children they help in order to maintain the program’s confidentiality, they do get feedback from parents and children, according to Alberta.
“‘You don’t know what it meant to have your help and dedication this year at Christmas time!,’” one parent wrote to Cornell Elves, according to Alberta. “‘This year was tough, and without the help of caring people like you, it would have been even worse. Thank you so much for helping me to put a smile on my son’s face this year!’”
“My favorite letter said, ‘Dear Santa, I know I have been bad, but can I still get presents?’” Alberta said. “It is [written in] the scratchy handwriting of a kid [who] knows he has been bad and hopes that he still gets presents.”
Alberta, who grew up working at a stone quarry and was the first member of his family to attend college, said that he “fell in love with Ithaca the first time” he came to Cornell. Since then, he said has found a “wonderful place to work” as the associate director of Cornell Career Services.
“My experience has been colored mostly by [Cornell] students that I deal with,” Alberta said. “That is always my greatest love — the different dimensions they have, not just being smart with the books but [what they] accomplish outside the classroom.”