Geneseeans worked behind the scenes

Longtime community volunteers Steve and Lisa Grice of Batavia were surprised to find they will share the Geneeseeans of the Year honor at the Genesee County Chamber of Commerce Awards in March. Both prefer to work behind the scenes.

BATAVIA — Watching as Susie Boyce Ott accepted a Geneseean of the Year honor at the Chamber of Commerce’s 2015 awards, Steve Grice leaned over to his wife Lisa.

“I feel bad for the person who follows her next year,” he recalled telling her.

The Grices wouldn’t have considered they’d be the ones who’d be profiled by a biographical video, cheered as they step on the stage and asked to speak at the 2016 awards, coming on March 4.

They were too busy in the various stages of planning, executing and finishing up projects for Genesee Cancer Assistance and a myriad of other local endeavours the Grices dive into each year.

They don’t pair their volunteerism with a desire for recognition, something that Chris Suozzi noted in nominating them for the honor. A GCA board member, Suozzi said he started thinking about the effort they put into the organization’s fundraisers, which support financial assistance and programs for individuals diagnosed with cancer who live in Genesee County. Extrapolating it out to all the things he knew they have also done, and assuming all the things he didn’t, he was astounded.

“They’ve incorporated their livelihoods into volunteering and they give back in ways that people can’t measure,” said Suozzi, who grew up playing sports with “Stump” Grice. “It’s time to recognize them for 30-plus years. And they wouldn’t do that themselves.”

Lisa, a principal clerk for the county’s highway department and 28-year county employee, grew up in Cheektowaga before moving to Batavia with her family in 1985. Steve, who became the deputy county clerk in 2016 after 29 years in the abstract profession a lifelong Batavia resident, returned from college that year. When they meet four years later, he was already coaching youth sports and she quickly became the team mom. They have carried the same roles — Steve a hard-working kid at heart and Lisa a tireless, organized leader — through 25 years of marriage.

“It’s been a partnership,” Steve said, “and we laugh about it, because people have asked if we could do a business together. No, we’d kill each other! But we’ve done it all together. Anything I’ve done, I couldn’t have done it without her behind me. And it’s the same with her involvement with things, I’m supporting her.”

Lisa has been a behind-the-scenes booster, bookkeeper and administrator for many of the same youth sporting programs. She ran chicken barbecues, the annual pasta dinner at John Kennedy and organized the fundraisers for the Batavia High School baseball team’s Florida trips.

She also volunteered at the county nursing home, served on the city’s youth board and for more than two decades has managed the county’s volunteer service tuition program, which gives employees with significant time volunteered the ability to send their spouse or child to GCC for free.

“Living in a community, you should give back, and support things,” Lisa said. “It started with the kids, chaperoning trips, chairing the spaghetti dinner. That was a lot of fun, they’d get new play equipment, or help the library, and I could see the community grow. I miss that.”

“I feel like I’m bragging,” Steve says with embarrassment as he runs through his volunteer resume. It’s heavy on working with kids as a coach, board member and administrator of football, basketball and baseball leagues; and as a sports booster and sports parent.

Steve is also a Rotarian, earning the organization’s Paul Harris fellow honor; and honors from the Genesee County Youth Board and City of Batavia in back-to-back years — the first when his son won a youth award at the same event.

“We have somehow probably helped in some way (nearly all) of the community groups, volunteering or assisting ... I have a problem saying no,” Steve said. “But there are so many people in the community that are right beside us, doing it, and when I do an event, I can send an e-mail to them and they are there in a heartbeat.”

“Having good groups to work with, like the people at Genesee Cancer Assistance,” Lisa said. “Because there’s so many people helping, it makes it easier.”

That small army of people ready at a call doesn’t diminish what the Grices represent. Suozzi said their work qualifies for the Geneseeans of the Year honor because it has real-life impacts — hundreds of kids who enjoy fun events and strong leadership, cancer patients relieved of economic pressure in a time of need.

“People take it for granted, like with youth football, to have the helmets and pads for every kid,” Suozzi said. “That’s all on a voluntary basis. There’s so many things that happen because of volunteers like Steve and Lisa, and that giving time to a special cause takes a lot (of them).”

For Genesee Cancer Assistance, the Grices credit a friendly neighbor for showing the way. Joe Gerace, who died in November after manning GCA meetings from the New York State Veteran’s Home in his final months, would call them early in the morning with ideas.

“His enthusiasm was contagious, you grabbed onto it and it would just take you,” Steve said.

But they were also self-starters. The Chase Park home they bought 20 years ago as a temporary step turned permanent has functioned like an operations tent, supplies and volunteers moving through to pack raffle baskets, invitation envelopes, T-shirts and post-event paperwork.

“We’d have the grandparents over for Sunday dinner, and we’d clear the table and it would be right to stuffing envelopes,” Lisa recalled. Their sons were pulled in with pizza at first before their volunteer genes went into overdrive.

Their son Alex now teaches special education at Oakfield, and his brother Casey is a junior at SUNY Brockport studying therapeutic recreation with the idea of serving people with special needs. We hit the kid lottery, Lisa said.

The honor hadn’t quite set in earlier this month, when the Grices both came from a day of work. Both have received some good-natured ribbing from co-workers. Do we have to bow? Where do we appeal for canonization?

“Absolutely no sainthood,” they laughed. We can’t pretend, Lisa added, we’re normal people with a normal marriage. The kayak they bought last summer gets them out after spending many years bouncing around baseball games and practices.

“It’s nice in a way,” Steve said. “Looking back at 25 years married, and this recognition ... to us, we’re a pretty good team. Sometimes we want to kill each other, but look at what we’ve accomplished together with the community, and with our kids. It’s been a neat ride.”

“It really is an honor to be picked,” Lisa said. “It was funny, because I was happy for him, and he’s happy for me. But he’s out there in the public, and I’m more behind the scenes. That’s why he can give the speech!”