BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — “If not me, then who?” That’s the motto of Evette Phillips-Garcia — a woman who devotes her time to helping people of all walks of life.
Phillips-Garcia is the third remarkable woman News 4 is featuring this year as part of Nexstar Media Group’s nationwide initiative to honor the influence women have had on public policy, social progress and quality of life. News 4’s Jordan Norkus sat down with Phillips-Garcia to learn more about her journey.
“I was born in Buffalo, N.Y. and when I was about 3-years-old, my mom moved to a little town called Medina, N.Y. Very country. Was raised on a farm,” Phillips-Garcia said. “Then my mother passed away when I was 12 so me and my sister came back to Buffalo ’cause all our family’s here.”
Life wasn’t easy for Phillips-Garcia. As a single mother of four on welfare, she wanted more for her children, so she went to nursing school and got a job in the field. But they fell on hard times after a serious work accident left Phillips-Garcia permanently disabled and lead to the miscarriage of her unborn daughter, Alisha.
“In 2003, I got hurt. A patient fell on me, I broke my back and had to have surgery, and my daughter passed away from that accident. Then we wound up back on welfare,” Phillips-Garcia said. “I was depressed.”
Although their circumstance was bleak, Phillips-Garcia felt as though there had to be more out of life. After seeing families sleeping under the Michigan Avenue bridge in Buffalo, she wanted to take her pain and depression and turn it into something positive. So she saved up 30 food stamps and her mission was born.
“I just kept telling people, ‘We should feed the homeless. We should feed the homeless,'” Phillips-Garcia said. “Something’s burning inside me that I had to do this. So I bought 30 cold cuts and made 30 bologna sandwiches, 30 apples and 30 bottles of water and we went downtown to the library under the viaduct and that was how We R Buffalo Strong was birthed nine years ago.”
Since 2013, with the help of donors and volunteers, We R Buffalo Strong has fed and clothed over 14,000 people in need. They cook family-style meals, put together groceries for veterans, and give haircuts and makeovers — all to help people like Patsy Adams.
“She just has her way with working into people’s lives,” Adams said. “She did mine and I call her my angel.”
Adams met Phillips-Garcia six years ago when she came to Buffalo from Washington, D.C. She’s had her fair share of struggles, including a battle with stomach cancer. With nowhere to go and no one to turn to, Adams said her friendship with Phillips-Garcia saved her life.
“I could have a really bad day, you know, just come down from having treatment that week and just wanting to end my life,” Adams said. “There was times that I just didn’t want to continue with life. I just felt like despair, the deep depression that you cannot get out of. And [Phillips-Garcia] just knew that you weren’t feeling well. She’d come and she’d hug me, you know, say, ‘I got you.'”
“If I’m going through something and someone comes along and just says, ‘Hey, Evette. How you doing?’ and ask about how I’m doing, that makes you feel like, ‘You know what? I can go another day.’ It gives you hope when you see someone else cares,” Phillips-Garcia said. “Hope is everything.”
Whether it’s through a home-cooked meal or a lending hand, Phillips-Garcia’s mission is to not only instill hope but to serve the homeless community with dignity and respect.
It gives them what they’ve been missing. It does. When they feel like they’re outcasts and no one cares, I feel like they know that We R Buffalo Strong will be there to give them that uplifting and let them know that tomorrow’s a better day.Evette Phillips-Garcia
“She shows love and that’s what we want. We want to be treated like we are somebody. We’re not just people that just don’t exist,” Adams said. “A lot of people look at the homeless and they look down on us. But Evette… No. She just took us as if we were one of her kids. And that, there, is really good.”
One of Phillips-Garcia’s biggest inspirations was Lisa Costello, a dedicated volunteer of her’s who passed away in 2020.
“She told me one day that she’s been on both sides of the table. She has a loving family, a well-off family, but she has mental health issues. And she said, ‘I’ve been on the receiving end and now I’m on the giving end, and that’s why I love We R Buffalo Strong. You take everybody,'” Phillips-Garcia said. “You never know what someone else is going through. So you always put your best foot forward and you treat people how you want to be treated. No matter their race, religion, their sexual preference, you treat the person in front of you how you want them to treat you. And that’s what We R Buffalo Strong does.”
As Phillips-Garcia looks back at her life — the little girl from the country who refused to be defined by adversity — her hope for the future is to one day purchase a food truck so she can take We R Buffalo Strong across all of Western New York — serving as a beacon of hope and resilience for anyone who needs it.
“I was a dropout in school, I had to go get my GED, I had my first child at 17. Everything that I feel like was hindering me, has opened up to a blessing to let people know I’m just as human. I’ve made mistakes,” Phillips-Garcia said. “It makes me feel good, like, ‘Okay, Evette. You’ve made something of yourself. You’re gonna get to Heaven and see your daughter and your mom.'”
On top of all Phillips-Garcia does through We R Buffalo Strong, she’s finally living out her 25-year dream of owning a restaurant in Cheektowaga called KP Smokehouse, which is set to open in a few weeks.
“I’ve been cooking since I was 16 and I’ve gotten pretty good, pretty good,” Phillips-Garcia said. “It chokes me up because no matter how much faith you have, there’s always doubt. I’m still on disability. I’m disabled for life. You may not know it the way I run around here and do this and that, but I still have screws and bolts and cages holding my spine up. So one side would be like, ‘You can’t do this, Evette. You can’t do that,’ and then you got this side like, ‘You know what, go for it. If not you, then who?'”
The winner of News 4’s Remarkable Women competition will be announced Friday, April 1 during News 4 at 4.
Jordan Norkus is an anchor who has been part of the News 4 team since 2021. See more of her work here.