By Benjamin Yeager '09
One great sign of a strong community is the presence of those who reach out to others in need. In Cattaraugus County, one person who does this is St. Bonaventure University graduate Tina Zerbian, ’79, CEO of Cattaraugus Community Action (CCA).
Ms. Zerbian has been a large part of the team responsible for most of Community Action’s growth the past two decades. Founded in June 1965 as a response to the War on Poverty, Community Action is a non-profit corporation that has grown from humble beginnings to provide housing, nutrition and energy assistance, victim services, and emergency assistance services for families across the area.
Ms. Zerbian was raised in a family of teachers — a family devoted to helping others by recognizing their "intrinsic goodness." She was taught that all people have dignity and worth as human beings. Her family believed in giving the disadvantaged opportunities they would not normally have.
As she worked on completing her bachelor’s degree in elementary education at St. Bonaventure, Ms. Zerbian realized that education was not just academics, but about teaching people skill sets that would allow them to succeed in life. These tenets were first put to the test as a teacher of delinquent boys at a camp near Great Valley just after college, and were further developed as she earned a master’s degree in community counseling from St. Bonaventure.
After joining Community Action in 1980 to start a program for victims of domestic violence that continues to this day, her ideas about education were allowed to bloom in full.
When helping a person, Ms. Zerbian says, "We keep in mind that education is key, whether it is learning a new skill set or helping someone go back for their GED. We put a great deal of value into helping others, rather than just making money."
Ms. Zerbian is involved in the development and funding of new programs, as well as maintaining the success of those programs at Community Action. She and her staff oversee roughly 40-50 contracts between CCA and its partners, such as governments at the county, state and federal levels, and various private foundations. When asked what a typical day is for her, Mrs. Zerbian responded, "Well, I guess there isn't a typical day — that's what I enjoy about the job!"
Ms. Zerbian has been the CEO of Community Action since 1984, and her leadership during that time has produced tangible results for the organization. During her tenure, the agency’s budget has tripled and numerous programs have been established. Also, she oversaw the 1987 move of the organization’s headquarters to the former Salamanca High School building, where it resides to the present day.
Her leadership has inspired many others in the community.
Sharon Mathe, executive director of Healthy Community Alliance of Gowanda, says that Ms. Zerbian "brings an air of integrity to whatever she touches."
"Her ability to embrace change and proactively address the issues related to the community and its people has her recognized as a community leader," she said. "Clear and direct communication patterns, a true respect for individuality and a talent for finding common ground on which diverse community organizations and individuals can work in collaboration are some of her many gifts."
Ms. Zerbian also serves as vice president of Leadership Cattaraugus, a program that seeks to identify leaders and give them the tools needed to succeed with others.
She works alongside Leadership Cattaraugus president John Stevens, who says that she is "creative, a good problem solver, and highly motivated. Tina likes being with people and helping others. She makes good decisions and is dedicated to improving the quality of life for people living in the Cattaraugus County region."
Ms. Zerbian has also been recognized for her excellent work at CCA. In 2000, she was named Administrator of the Year by the New York State Community Action Association. She was also named Woman of the Year by the Enchanted Mountain Business and Professional Women’s Club in 1991. She has served with distinction on the boards of numerous community service organizations.
Ms. Zerbian lives in Ellicottville with her husband, Tom, and two sons, Alec and Camron. She describes herself as a "devoted foodie," and loves to cook as well as help her husband manage his restaurant in Ellicottville. A native of Salamanca, she also enjoys biking and cross-country skiing in Allegany State Park.
Perhaps the best summary of Tina Zerbian’s leadership and impact on the local communities can be described by Ms. Mathe, who says, "Over the years, Tina has developed a variety of programs to empower people so that they may build their own quality of life and move out of poverty."
By following her beliefs as instilled by her family and as reinforced by St. Bonaventure, Ms. Zerbian has tirelessly worked to ensure that everyone in Cattaraugus County has an opportunity to prosper.