4 Local Heroes Of Philanthropy: Heather Straughter, Neil Golub, Linda Toohey And Tas Steiner

When I set out to profile the four other Capital Region philanthropists besides saratoga living‘s 2018 Person Of The Year, Ed Mitzen, I knew I had my work cut out for me. I’ve been an occasional volunteer and donator throughout the years, one that’s never been so taken up by a cause to feel that what I was doing that day (or giving to) was altogether important or life-changing. I felt like I’d been lazy about my generosity, and I wasn’t sure how I would go about interviewing superstars in the “field.” I sort of felt ashamed; my mother had instilled in her two sons the importance of volunteering, and we’d only begrudgingly accepted. (She still volunteers weekly, by the way.)

But after interviewing Heather Straughter, Neil Golub, Linda Toohey and Tas Steiner, it occurred to me that I had been selling myself short: just doing something helps. As Toohey told me: “Everyone can become a philanthropist.” What I think she meant was, even if you give a little bit of your time to a cause or just a few bucks out of your wallet, you’re making a difference. Philanthropists aren’t just folks that sign over million-dollar checks and smile for the press. Now I can’t wait to get my philanthropy on whenever needed.

Heather Straughter

Cofounder and Treasurer, Jake’s Help From Heaven

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a lot more emotional. Put me in front of the right situation (the movie Up) and before you know it, I’m having a good, ugly cry. But when I read up on local nonprofit foundation Jake’s Help From Heaven, things went a little bit differently: Yes, I immediately got choked up, but it was soon followed by an intense feeling of hope. 

Jake’s Help From Heaven was cofounded by Heather and Brian Straughter, whose son, Jake, unexpectedly passed away in December 2010 (a massive seizure Jake had when he was eight months old led to innumerable complications). “I was 24/7, round-the-clock with Jake,” says Heather. “And then there was this void.” To fill it, just days after Jake’s passing, the Straughters turned their grief into action. “Jake taught us about what was important in life, about resiliency and strength, and we wanted to honor him and use what we’d learned from him,” she says. The following March, they launched the foundation, with the mission of supporting families like their own, who were dealing with the life-altering effects of having a child with a debilitating illness. 

Nowadays, if you’re a family in need and reach out to the foundation, the first person you’ll likely talk to is Heather. “We come from a place of ‘yes’. If we can make a difference for a family and impact its quality of life, chances are we’re going to say yes,” she says. This past December, the foundation crossed a major milestone, having awarded more than half a million dollars to families in need. 

Since talking to Heather Straughter, another emotion has entered my being: pride. She and her family are making Saratoga an even better place to call home. And it’s all thanks to Jake.

Neil Golub

Chairman Of The Board, Price Chopper Supermarkets

I grew up helping check items off my mother’s grocery list at Price Chopper—and now I do the same, but at Market 32. When I’m there, my mind isn’t ever on my next altruistic act, it’s on my growling stomach. Not so for Neil Golub. The self-described family-in-business grocer (“family business,” for him, implies that people get special treatment, and at his company, they don’t) is undeniably one of the most generous residents in the Capital Region.

Neil’s father and uncle founded what would become the Golub Corporation in 1932 and had “community involvement in their DNA,” he tells me. The company now operates Price Chopper, Market 32 and Market Bistro supermarkets in six states, including New York, and he serves as Chairman of the Board. Nowadays, Neil and his wife, Jane, support numerous causes, including the Special Olympics, the Double H Ranch and the Muscular Dystrophy Association (Neil coanchored the local MDA Jerry Lewis telethon for more than three decades). Another cause the couple has championed for years is women’s health. Jane is a breast cancer survivor and has atrial fibrillation, and the Golubs have underwritten the Neil and Jane Golub Breast & Heart Health Center at Ellis Medicine’s Bellevue Woman’s Center. Additionally, they’ve contributed significantly to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF). “I’d say, openly, that I’m a shill for BCRF, because most of the major advancements that have been made in breast cancer have come as a result of their fundraising,” says Neil. 

Neil says he’s never been a big fan of the term philanthropist, because it really doesn’t get to the essence of what he does. “The idea of giving and doing deserves another definition,” he says. The next time I’m at Market 32, I’ll think of Neil the grocer—and how I, too, can become a “philactionist.” 

Linda Toohey

Founder, Leadership Saratoga

I’d like to think that I’ve done a lot of good in my life. I’m pushing 40, and, well, I probably have a half-century in me before, well, you know. But when I look at Linda Toohey’s résumé, I can’t help wondering: Am I doing enough? In 1977, two years before my big arrival at Saratoga Hospital, Toohey left Iowa for Saratoga Springs, and our city has never been the same. 

That year, Toohey was appointed President and Publisher of The Saratogian, making her the youngest woman in the country to hold a similar position at the time. Three years later, she became the Executive Vice President of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, where, in ’85, she founded the Leadership Saratoga program—basically, a Ford-style production line of future members of local nonprofit boards, city councils and political committees. “I think you learn how to be a leader,” she says. “I don’t think you’re born one.” The Chamber was lucky to have her leadership skills for more than three decades. 

Over the arc of her career, Toohey has seemingly had a hand in everything that makes Saratoga…yes, Saratoga. She currently serves on the boards of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Charles R. Wood Foundation and Wellspring. She’s also served on the boards of The Emma Willard School (her alma mater), Skidmore College, Saratoga Hospital and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

Near the end of our conversation, Toohey drops something equal parts modest and powerful when I ask her about what we can all do to give back. “Everyone can become a philanthropist,” she says. “The amount of money you give isn’t important. It’s that you give something.” I guess I have my work cut out for me.

Tas Steiner

Founder & President, Whispering Angels of Saratoga Springs 

As my colleagues can attest, every day—no matter how many open spots there are in front of the saratoga living offices—I park my car in the garage behind Putnam Market. And day after day, I walk by Saratoga Springs’ growing homeless population, sleeping in the garage’s stairwell or near the elevator bank. Now, let this statistic sink in for a moment: 40 percent of homeless youth under the age of 25 identify as LGBTQ. I can’t help but think that some of the people I’ve passed needed more than just a blanket, hot meal or roof over their heads. They needed acceptance.

That’s where Saratogian Tas Steiner—a former celebrity publicist/event planner turned Albany-based psychotherapist—and the nonprofit foundation he launched in 2017, Whispering Angels Of Saratoga Springs (WASS), come into play. “When a 16-year-old gets kicked out of her home because of her sexual orientation or gender identity, she doesn’t have anywhere to go,” says Steiner. She might couch-surf at a friend’s house—or worse yet, squat in the Saratoga Spa State Park. And the saddest part? “In the eight counties of the Capital District/Saratoga County, there are only eight beds specifically set aside for LGBTQ homeless youth,” Steiner says. Yikes. 

Currently, the foundation supports LGBTQ issues in Saratoga, the Southern Adirondack area and the greater Capital Region, with a focus on at-risk and homeless LGBTQ youth. It drums up dollars, annually, via its popular Garden Party in June and Sleep Out event, where members of the community actually camp outside in the winter to raise awareness for homeless LGBTQ youth. Next year’s Sleep Out takes place in March. Now that’s dedication.  

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