ROXBURY, NJ – If you want to make Steve Alford feel bad, just tell him he’s great.
Alford, the affable, energetic president of the Roxbury Rotary Club, just won the Caring Neighbors Network’s prestigious Presidents Volunteer Service Award. Asked how he felt about it, Alford didn’t use words like “proud” and “honored.” Instead, he sounded a little embarrassed.
“I feel stupid,” were his actual words. It’s not that he isn’t thankful. It’s just that Alford tends to look around Roxbury and see others that, in his eyes, are the real heroes.
He pointed to Succasunna 12-year-old Jacob Kohner, a kid who, despite being confined to a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, went door-to-door in July – accompanied by his 13-year-old brother, Zachary, and 12-year-old friend Julia Kovacs – raising money to help Emerline Tabares, a Roxbury resident who recently underwent brain tumor removal surgery.
And he pointed to Kaila Mathis, a member of the Roxbury High School Interact Club (the Rotary’s offshoot in the high school), who Alford called – in an good way – a “monster” of altruistic energy.
“I got the plaque. I got the pin. It was nice,” he said. “But I always think there’s someone doing more than me.”
Alford, 52, said he didn’t do much of anything for the community until about 14 years ago. He remembers the day it all began, and it wasn’t in response to some tragedy or finding God or anything particularly dramatic.
It was on a stroll through the Ledgewood Mall, of all places.
“All these civic groups had tables set-up,” said Alford. He said he’d been feeling urges to “be involved in the community” and decided to walk over to the Rotary Club display. There he met Don Schuld, a Rotarian and a life insurance agent.
“I’d just sold my limo company and I was looking for a job,” recalled Alford, who now is a financial professional with Northeast Planning Corp. Schuld not only urged Alford to come to a Rotary meeting, he also gave him a job.
“A year later, he gets honored by the Roxbury Chamber of Commerce as its man of the year,” said Alford. “He was my mentor. I remember at the end of his speech he said, ‘I just want to leave you with this one thought: If not us, then who?’ Those are pretty interesting words.”
It didn’t take long for Alford to find out that, by helping others, he was helping himself. “I like to make people happy,” he said. “I like to see them be happy and better off … You see their situation change. It’s contagious and it’s easy to help people. To me, it’s harder to not help.”
Alford said his work with the young people in the Interact Club has been profoundly rewarding. He said he is repeatedly amazed at the way the club changes, for the better, teens that join.
“It gives them a chance to help someone and, if it’s successful, the kids grow by leaps and bounds,” said Alford. “I’ve been doing the Interact Club for 11 years. I’ve seen thousands come through and I’ve seen many kids completely change. Kids who were shy and quiet became leaders. They found out things about themselves they didn’t know they could do.”
Alford’s father died when Alford was 12. Perhaps that helps drive his desire to work with Roxbury’s teens. He said he didn’t, at first, adhere to a piece of advice his father offered before dying, but now he full-heartedly follows it: “He said, ‘Do as many favors as you can. Never say no. If the guy next-door needs you to dig a hole, say yes.’ I never, ever, say no for fear that someday something is going to happen to me and my family and I’m going to need somebody to help me out.”