UB Social Work alum’s charitable campaigns serve those in need, with a focus on homeless veterans

Bob James

Published September 18, 2018

By: Jana Eisenberg

For the past 30 years, Bob James, MSW ’77, has been combining his passions into an effective and fulfilling mission—pulling together his love of music, and making a positive difference through social causes, all while referencing his graduate training as a social worker.

Through his current non-profit, Buffalo Blues Benefit for Veterans, James, now 65, organizes live music events, and records and sells CDs. Any and all profits go to the cause. That cause is veterans’ homelessness, and it’s striking a chord both with him and supporters. Since mid-2016, they’ve donated over $21,000 to the Western New York Veterans Housing Coalition (wnyvhc.org).

James emphasizes that Buffalo Blues has a universal and non-political appeal. Using social media early on, he quickly gained a Facebook community several thousand strong.

With a wide range of attendees at the live music fundraisers, which are hosted at bars and other venues, James said that the events are inclusive. “The power of the music, and the personal connections brought out dissolve any partisan differences,” said James. “There’s a great vibe at our events; when they are over, people don’t want to leave.”

“Buffalo Blues resonates with musicians wanting their talents to serve a ‘higher cause,’” said James. The musicians who participate also benefit—while using their art to inspire others, they may also gain exposure to new audiences. “Raising money this way, for proven programs is more tangible than raising awareness; I like to ground things in measurable outcomes. After our sponsors donate, we thank them—and give them data about where and how their donations were used.”

The Buffalo Sabres have thrown their weight behind Buffalo Blues, donating game tickets, merchandise and funds. That connection and others, said Gigi Grizanti, president and CEO of the WNY Veterans Housing Coalition, have elevated the organization and its cause.

“In addition to a place to live, we provide services,” she said. “With the money that Buffalo Blues has donated, we bought a van, so it’s easier to take clients on fishing trips and picnics. We also purchased beds, and can provide them with a more robust ‘starter package,’ including household items. Homeless veterans support and understand each other. Once they come here and get on their feet, many of them don’t want to go anywhere else.”

James own life path wasn’t always so clear. After a rocky start in college, he earned his social work graduate degree (a Buffalo State psychology professor suggested it). He then took a job at the VA Hospital, moving on to Crisis Services in 1982. He started as an emergency outreach worker, and soon became its director of professional services.

“Through my Crisis Services experience, I developed a new world view,” he said. “Most people have no idea of what kind of ‘insanity’ could be going on in any house, on any street. I learned that I can handle anything, and that nothing can shock me.”

Over the years, other causes for which James has used this music model include a campaign against violence in schools, and a three-CD effort to benefit the Food Bank of WNY—it ultimately raised 100,000 meals.

In all of the projects, musicians donate their time to both perform live and record CDs for sales to raise money. As awareness of each project’s success grew, a wider range of artists wanted to participate—that list now includes Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco, Melissa Etheridge, the Goo Goo Dolls, Heart, the Indigo Girls, Yoko Ono, and Patti Smith.

The current project’s focus on the blues came about as James suspected that the genre’s emotional tone could resonate with the notion of support for organizations helping homeless people.

“As Buffalo Blues took shape, we decided to focus more on homeless veterans,” said James. “Homelessness is complex for anyone—issues with family, possibly addiction, or mental health issues. It’s even more complex if someone is a veteran with military or even pre-military challenges also factoring in.”

Through this effort, James has come to appreciate even more the sacrifices that men and women who serve in the military make. “I’m convinced that this is the right thing at the right time,” he summed up. “If we can give back to veterans, while using this cool music and having a little fun at the same time…it’s silly to even compare the investment we make, versus what vets do for us. They write a blank check and give their lives to the military.”

To learn more about Buffalo Blues, visit buffaloblues.org, www.Twitter.com/Blues4vets, or http://www.instagram.com/Blues4vets

In June of 2016, James (back row, second from le ) along with a group of participating musicians presented thenWestern New York Veterans Housing Coalition CEO Celia O’Brien (pink jacket) and sta with a check representing a portion of the proceeds to date. Also in the photo: Mary Collins and Rick Suto (Bu alo Blues); musicians Josh English, Greg Leech, Grace Lougen, David Miller, and Chelsea O’Donnell, plus Daniel Ratka (Erie County Veterans Services), Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, and Gigi Grizanti of the WNYVHC.