Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the Warwick Valley, and of Orange County as a whole, is how a population that represents such a diverse range of views and backgrounds is able to successfully join and work toward common community goals. Yet, as any community activist can attest, without the proper platform and organization, even the most committed efforts can fall short of achieving measurable results. Now entering its fifth decade, the Orange County Citizens Foundation offers the kind of proving ground necessary to shape those ideals into actual, beneficial change. Part think tank, part research foundation, and part universal community center, the OCCF continually seeks to transcend divisiveness in pursuit of a higher quality of life throughout the region. What began as a coalition focused upon open space preservation and development—still a primary objective—now comprises over 450 members on 16 different committees, addressing everything from healthcare to the arts.
Since 2006, OCCF President Nancy Proyect has been at the helm of this groundbreaking organization—and, though the mission may seem as wide-ranging as it is challenging, Proyect is anything but daunted. The necessary fuel, Proyect says, comes from the unparalleled inspiration of the residents themselves. "I've never experienced the intensity of community spirit that I've found in Orange County," she says. Proyect proudly describes an environment in which, regardless of intrinsic differences—be they religious, political, cultural, or financial—common goals and the common good bring invested residents together. "People all over the county want to improve the community, just because they love where they live and believe it's special," Proyect explains.
Proyect's ardor matches the community she represents. After transitioning back to a more rustic way of life from the bustle of the New York City metro area, the Sullivan County native soon found herself inspired to lend her background in writing and finance to a full-time commitment to the OCCF. Housed in Sugarloaf's Seligmann Center—Arlette Seligmann, widow of Surrealist pioneer Kurt, bequeathed the estate to the Foundation in 1991—Proyect explains that, with so many projects in development, it is difficult for her to pinpoint any one part of the organization's efforts for distinction. One noted achievement, however, helps describe the OCCF's comprehensive approach: the Orange County Quality of Life Report Card, compiled every five years, is a particular point of pride for Proyect. The data-gathering mission that she helped make a reality serves to shape the rest of the organization's approach. "It provides focus and unbiased information that can help policymakers, planners, advocates, nonprofits, and governments move forward in an intelligent, informed way," Proyect says.
The most satisfying accomplishment of all, says Proyect, is her ongoing work to broaden the base of what the OCCF encompasses, expanding upon who is heard, and who is affected. "We really encourage all sorts of people with diverse interests to come to the table, asserts Proyect. "It's so important in our mission to speak for the residents of the county in advocating for the greater public good. My role is to do everything I can to keep the forum open to all, and to keep it growing to bring more diversity and new voices to the conversation."