Three "butterflies" at the Butterfly Ball in April 2017. File photo: Courtney Blasl

An organization founded in 2014 to give disadvantaged local girls a boost is being recognized for its work by the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission.

The Butterfly Effect Project will receive the 2017 Human Rights Community-Based Organization Award at a dinner next month in Holbrook.

The group was nominated for the award by County Legislator Al Krupski.

“Giving young women the tools they need to succeed in life is critically important and I was very pleased to nominate the Butterfly Effect Project… and even more pleased when the organization was chosen to receive the recognition; it is certainly well deserved,” Krupski said.

Since its founding by Tijuana Fulford with a group of eight girls, the Butterfly Effect Project has grown to 108 girls and expanded geographically from the Riverhead area to Shirley, Mastic and Bellport.

Fulford, who says she had “a rough background” growing up, started the group to provide kids in similar circumstances with opportunities they might not otherwise have.

She recalls a childhood with little chance for the “normal things kids do,” having adult responsibilities at an early age, including working three jobs to bring in money for basic necessities.

Then a woman stepped into Fulford’s life who changed everything.

Former Riverhead Town historian Justine Wells of Aquebogue was paired with Fulford at a Pulaski Street Elementary School program.

“I was 10, and Justine was in her 50s or 60s,” Fulford said in a 2014 interview. “I was thinking, ‘Great, I got the old white lady.’ Well, that old white lady literally saved my life.”

Fulford founded the Butterfly Effect Project out of her desire to give back by doing the same for little girls now that she is in a position, as an adult, to help.

The organization sponsors field trips, parties and other activities for the kids and Fulford acts as their mentor and role model, emulating Wells.

“I try to teach them everything she taught me,” Fulford said. “She definitely put me on a different path in life.”

Fulford said she was surprised to learn of the award. She met with Krupski as part of her ongoing effort to let elected officials and community leaders know about the group and what it does. She was unaware the legislator had nominated the Butterfly Effect Project for the human rights award.

She said she is pleased that the organization is getting recognition, rather than personal recognition for herself. Earlier this year she received a “person of the year” award from the Riverhead News-Review for her work with the Butterfly Effect Project. She appreciated that greatly, she said, but the organization has grown to something bigger than herself and recognition of it is rewarding. The Butterfly Effect Project was incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation and obtained 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service.

Fulford is researching grant opportunities and says the group’s mission has evolved to work with the families of the girls.

“In order to help the children you have to help the parents,” Fulford said. She meets with parents to learn about their needs and will provide services like gathering paperwork for them, delivering it and helping them fill it out. People have to spend large blocks of time they don’t have — often having to take off from work and lose wages — to take care of such things, she said.

Among other things, Fulford’s group is working with Suffolk Federal Credit Union to provide credit repair services, for example.

She says she looks at her role as “a resource center on wheels.”

Fulford recently left her full-time job to devote herself to the Butterfly Effect Project and the Peconic River Community Development Alliance — a new organization dedicated to improving the lives of people in Riverside and downtown Riverhead — which hired Fulford as a community outreach coordinator this spring.

The Human Rights Commission award will be presented at a dinner at Villa Lombardi’s on Oct. 18.

Fulford said she was excited to learn the date of the dinner, because Oct. 18 has special meaning to her. It was the birthday of her mentor, Justine Wells, who passed away in 2015 at age 91. That’s like Wells sending her congratulations, Fulford said.

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